An unexpected conflict
It’s funny how these things come out of nowhere. One week ago, we received an unexpected bill that threw us into regressive stages of conflict with a major telecommunications company. The cold, belligerent manner we experienced left us dazed, upset and angry. We felt unheard, misrepresented and unfairly treated. It triggered subconscious memories of similar experiences in the past, from bullies in the school playground to poor customer service elsewhere. It’s what psychotherapists call transference and human givens therapists, pattern matching.
The thing that left us most confused was that the people we spoke with were more concerned with bureaucracy and rules than with customer relationship or retention. In taking this stance, they were inadvertently working against their own company’s as well as our interests. We will cancel the contract and the company will lose more in on-going revenue than it would have gained from pressing a debatable charge. We tried to explain this but they would not, could not hear. They were entrenched in their views, their predetermined systems and procedures.
After countless phone calls, we spoke with one person, an African man who treated us warmly, listened hard to our story, communicated empathy, took personal responsibility to work for a solution on our behalf. He mediated a resolution, the company dropped the charge and the dispute was ended. It was a tiring and frustrating experience and I’m trying hard now to listen for the voice of God. What was really going on here? At a human level, it was an encounter with an organisation, an institution, that has lost sight of the customer, that appears more interested in processes than people.
But there are spiritual parallels too. I have this flash back to Jesus’ encounters with the religious authorities. They had become so locked in rules, in regulations intended to safeguard God’s interests as they saw it, that they had inadvertently lost contact with God and with people. There’s this same risk in any organisation, in any situation, that we construct a fixed gestalt, a fixed expectation of what is and should be that blinds us to alternative perspectives and realities. In the Jesus case, paradoxically, it prevented the religious recognising ‘God with us’.
By contrast, this African man moved towards us, stepped into our shoes, took up our case on our behalf and mediated a positive result. In effect, he mirrored Jesus by his actions, working to restore relationship where it had been damaged. This is the heart of the Christian gospel. And so as I look back over the week, I feel irritated by the bureaucracy, sad that I sometimes lost sight of the ‘opposition’ as people, relieved that fairness finally prevailed, grateful for friends who helped us laugh in the midst and thankful for the mediator who inspired us to be more like Jesus.
Am I too normal?
There’s something comforting about being part of a group, fitting in, belonging. It enables me to relax, feel rooted, feel part of something bigger than myself, feel accepted by others. It helps me to feel safe, secure, loved. I sometimes choose which groups to identify with, e.g. those who share similar passions, interests or values to my own. At other times, I find myself part of groups by default, e.g. those who share my nationality or culture.
There’s a fascinating principle in social psychology that describes how we learn scripts and roles throughout life. Scripts are how people behave in different situations, roles are the parts we learn to play in those situations. How I ‘should’ behave at work, in a restaurant, whist driving on public roads etc. are all governed by social conventions or schemata, that is, implicit or explicit rules or codes of conduct that determine what is acceptable in each context.
It’s easy to see how such norms arise and why they are perpetuated. At one level, playing out scripts enables social predictability, harmony and cohesion. It’s one of the reasons why encountering or moving between cultures with different norms and rules can feel so uncomfortable. At another level, groups often have a self-reinforcing influence. We develop patterns of thinking and behaviour that are repeated and become subconscious and normative.
These are some of the reasons why challenging group thinking and behaviour can be so problematic. On the one hand, we and others may have a vested interest in sustaining group culture because of a psychological need to belong. On the other hand, group norms can become so entrenched that questioning them can feel bemusing, annoying, disruptive or subversive. Established groups have inherent potential for self-preservation and self-defence.
Against this backdrop, I’m intrigued by Paul’s comment in the New Testament which says (my paraphrase): ‘(a) Don’t be shaped from without by how things work (literally, schemata) in the world around you but, instead, (b) be radically changed literally, metamorph) from within by a renewing of your mind.’ I’m struck by parallels with contemporary insights from (a) social psychology and (b) cognitive behavioural psychology.
It acknowledges how people are shaped by culture. It’s an unavoidable social psychological principle. From our earliest experiences of social interaction, e.g. within a family, friendship, school, club, community or organisation, our thinking and behaviour are shaped by shared language, experiences, values and norms. At the same time, it challenges us to ‘wake up’, to become aware, to break out of hypnotic prevailing influences.
For Paul, this is more than a purely cognitive exercise. It’s a spiritual transformation that will result in a profound shift of insight, perspective, values and behaviour. It’s something that God desires to do in, through and between us. It's a transformation that will set us free to see the world through fresh eyes, to reevaluate social norms and to act with autonomy. It will provoke resistance but it's also the way to authentic life.
Learning to live
It’s funny how a tasty bag of fish and chips can feel so desperately appealing when you’re trying to lose weight. There’s something about deprivation, about delayed gratification, that can intensify awareness and desire. Everyday things that were hardly noticed before, that were taken for granted in the midst of other distractions can become a focus of attention, of need, of longing.
It’s about breaking away from the ordinary, about disrupting routine experiences or patterns of behaviour in order to see, feel and experience them in a fresh light. It’s about learning to experience and appreciate familiar things anew, to encounter them again as if for the first time. It’s like learning to see and experience the world through the curious, excited eyes of a child.
I’m aware of how much of my life I spend on auto-pilot. It’s a normal and necessary psychological state that enables me to focus and to avoid sensory overload. At the same time, I risk becoming dulled to the world around me, to other people, to myself and to God. Perhaps this is why some resort to fasting-as-deprivation or extreme sports to feel the rush, to feel really alive again.
Sometimes it’s a surprise, a crisis, that jolts and awakes us. Sometimes it’s a startling insight that catches us unawares. It’s something or someone that shakes our cage, shifts our perspective, sometimes gradually and sometimes dramatically. It could be an unexpected opportunity or challenge, a change in circumstances that shifts the gestalt background into sharp foreground.
I was once sitting in a church service, bored to tears. I sat by a window and, as I gazed through it, I noticed a daddy long legs insect on the glass. I day dreamed of being kidnapped and held captive on an alien planet with no other earthly contact. I imagined how I would feel if I then found that insect, that fellow earth creature in my cell with me – how amazing and precious it would be.
It sounds random and bizarre but it felt like a moment of insight, a revelation from God, that really sparked my imagination. It reminded me of a friend whose young sister became terminally ill. In the midst of such tragic circumstances, the friend commented how, paradoxically, she had never seen her sister so alive. In facing imminent death, her sister was able to deeply value life.
Is this something that Jesus meant when he commented, ‘unless a seed falls to the ground and dies...’ or ‘unless you change and become like little children...’ and Paul, ‘what you sow does not come to life unless it dies’? They were talking about a mysterious way to know and experience eternal spiritual life, a vibrant quality of life that casts ordinary human experience into dark shadow.
I feel inspired to seek God more, to open myself more to his profound revelation, to walk more closely on the path he calls me to. I feel challenged to open my eyes, in Jesus’ words to ‘keep awake’, to notice the unnoticed, to value the unvalued and to be more thankful. And next time I eat a bag of tasty fish and chips, I will pause to savour, enjoy and appreciate every mouthful.
Do you ever find yourself talking at cross purposes with a client, resulting in bemusement, confusion or frustration? I met with a team recently to explore their work with others. I noticed how they would sometimes describe themselves as a ‘service function’, a title that implied and created a specific type of role and relationship in their own minds as well as in the minds of others.
As we explored the nature of their work in more depth, it became clear that they aspired to relate to clients as business partners, not simply as service providers. In fact, they already relate to clients in a number of different modes but they hadn’t yet stopped to reflect on and articulate this clearly. As they moved between modes implicitly rather than explicitly, it risked confusion.
We separated the modes into a conceptual map, drawing this on a flipchart with ‘quality and accountability’ as an overall goal. Sometimes they operated as consultants, helping others to think through, understand and do things well for themselves. Sometimes they operated as co-leaders, running joint initiatives, events, projects or processes in collaboration with others.
Sometimes they operated as service providers, providing information, advice or services or doing specific tasks on behalf of others. Sometimes they operated in governance mode, ensuring that clients are aware of and adhere to legal, policy and agreed good practice. The trick as a business partner is to navigate between modes according contextual opportunities and demands.
It’s one thing to feel clear about your own role and chosen mode in a particular situation yet important, too, to ensure the client is also clear. One way to do this is to pose a simple question: ‘This is how I see my role and your role in this situation. Is that how you see it?’ Posing the question in this way opens the possibility for discussion, clarification and negotiation.
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
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