‘To the victims of violence and betrayal, in the hope of an enduring peace.’ (Willy Brandt)
Angelika gave me a gift this year of a shiny German 2 Euro coin. It was minted in 2020 to commemorate 50 years since West German Chancellor Willy Brand’s legendary ‘Kniefall’. I had heard of Willy Brandt but, I must confess, not the act that has, since, gripped my imagination. The German word Kniefall means, quite literally, to fall to one’s knees. I’m especially indebted to Valentin Rauer’s exceptional social-psychological study, Symbols in Action (2009), of what took place in that extraordinary moment in world history. I’m curious about what it meant and what made it so powerful.
Brandt visited Warsaw in Poland, 25 years since the end of World War 2, on a mission to seek post-war reconciliation. Poland, including its Jewish population, had suffered horrific genocidal brutality at the hands of the Nazis. At the Monument to the Heroes of the Jewish Ghetto Uprising (against their Nazi oppressors in 1943), with a crowd of media reporters watching, Brandt suddenly and unexpectedly fell to his knees. He stayed there, in silence, as those around him looked on in amazement. It was an astonishing example of an action speaking far louder than words.
At a political level Brandt, as Chancellor, represented West Germany. At a personal level, during the war, Brandt had been an anti-Nazi activist. The imagery of Brandt’s Kniefall, as an act of penitent humility that acknowledges guilt and seeks ‘forgiveness for an unforgivable past’ (Rauch), resonated deeply in a prevailing Christian culture. The symbolism of ‘the innocent (who) takes up the burden of the collective’s sin, thus redeeming the nation’ (Rauer) reflected Jesus Christ’s death on the cross. Brandt was in the square from which Jews were deported to concentration camps.
For me, the most striking and moving dimension of this event was Brandt’s own reflection on the spontaneity and authenticity of his act: ‘Faced with the abyss of German history and the burden of the millions who had been murdered, I did what people do when words fail us.’ It paints the picture of a human being, beyond the public trappings of a politician, who allowed himself to feel empathy and brokenness, to take undefended responsibility and to reach out in peace. It transformed the trajectory of Cold War politics then. How desperately we need leaders like that now.
'There is a universal human tendency to conceive of all things as like ourselves.' (David Hume)
In the ground-breaking, futuristic film ‘Her’ (2014), actor Joaquin Phoenix played the part of a man who falls in love with an artificially intelligent (AI) virtual assistant. The AI, whose voice was played by actress Scarlett Johansson, was capable of deep learning. It, or we could say ‘she’, spoke, responded and interacted with the protagonist in ways that we could imagine of a real woman in an increasingly loving relationship – and all via a voice. The movie played with the social-psychological possibilities and limits of the potential inter-relationship between humans and technology.
In the next year another movie, ‘Ex Machina’ (2015), saw Domhnall Gleeson playing the role of a computer programmer who encounters an AI robot, this time in the physical form of a beautiful woman played by Alicia Vikander. Gleeson is invited by a tech entrepreneur to test (a) whether she’s capable of genuine consciousness and (b) whether he can relate to her as ‘human’, even though he knows she is artificial. As the plot plays out, the AI skilfully seduces and manipulates the programmer, with apocalyptic implications as the AI plays out the relational game and wins.
One of the striking features of both dramas is the human ability to project our human qualities onto other people or things, in this case the AIs, in ways similar to those in which we may, say, attribute human qualities to a dog – and then relate to it as if it were in some way human. It’s a subconscious phenomenon, a blurring of the boundaries between reality and fantasy. We can know something to be true at a rational-cognitive level and, yet, still feel and behave as if a different reality were true. It’s like believing what we want to believe, when it fulfils a human need to do so.
‘Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.’ (Mother Teresa)
Small things are big things in the hands of the poor. Imagine this: you live in dire poverty, in a cemetery. You and your neighbours each have only a handful of possessions – mostly a few clothes – and have nowhere to keep them clean or dry. In fact, you live life day-by-day, moment-by-moment, and have no discretionary income whatsoever. No-one sees you, and no-one helps.
Then, today, a woman appears, as if out of nowhere, carrying sturdy plastic boxes and offers them to you freely, as ‘a gift from Jesus’. At first, you can’t believe it. Your face lights up as you realise: they really are for you and for your friends. A woman in your group, who hasn’t been able to hear or speak since birth, rushes to this woman, throws her arms around her neck…and cries.
A box full of love. A beautiful hug. Small things are big things. We can be hope.
'There is no act too small, no act too bold. The history of social change is the history of millions of actions, small and large, coming together at critical points to create a power that governments cannot suppress.' (Howard Zinn)
At the heart of coaching generally lays a desire and opportunity for impact and change, a goal that may seem obvious, but one that raises important questions. As coaches aspiring to make a difference in the world, we can find ourselves navigating complex dilemmas. When we work with agents of change in, say, NGOs, charities, churches or public sector organizations, we often seek to empower individuals, teams, and organizations to be resourceful and effective in achieving transformation.
One challenge we may encounter is determining the coaching agenda. A Western coaching ethic advocates for giving the client complete control over the agenda, focusing on their chosen goals and boundaries. While this approach seems straightforward, our intention of promoting social change may lead us to contemplate how much influence we should exert on the client’s journey. What if the client's solutions seem unethical, ineffective, or could pose risks to broader social development?
Furthermore, when working in diverse cultural contexts, we need to be mindful of differing perspectives on individual autonomy. In some Eastern and Southern cultures, the concept of setting individual goals might not resonate the same way it does in the West. People in these cultures often prioritize the wishes and expectations of a wider group, whether family, team or community, before their own hopes and ambitions. We could risk inadvertently imposing our own cultural values onto the client.
The solution often lays in recognizing the significance of context and building a strong and trusting relationship with the client. By understanding the dynamics of power, language and agendas that may emerge between us, we can gain insight into the issues at hand and potential solutions. We become allies, working together to achieve meaningful impact. A critically-reflective process allows us to adapt our coaching practice on route and to challenge our assumptions as we learn and grow.
'Listen with curiosity. Speak with honesty. Act with integrity.' (Roy T. Bennett)
Action Learning facilitators sometimes feel concerned about what might happen in a set (a small group of peer-coaches) and how they might handle it if it does. When we discuss these kind of troubleshooting scenarios in training, I often notice that facilitators feel a sense of personal responsibility to manage anything and everything that might happen. Apart from placing a lot of pressure on the facilitator which could, in the moment, inhibit psychologically their ability to handle any challenges that may arise anyway, it also misses the self-resourcing potential of a group.
The key often lays in shifting the facilitator’s stance from control to curiosity. This doesn’t mean abandoning the governance role of the facilitator altogether, for example to ensure that agreed ground rules and process are followed appropriately. It does, however, mean approaching any challenges that emerge in an invitational tone. For instance, if the group is very quiet, or conversely very talkative, and this leaves the presenter perhaps with little stimulus or space for reflection, the facilitator can offer this as a judgement-free observation, like holding up a mirror to the set.
‘I’m noticing the group seems very quiet. I’m wondering what that might mean?’ Or, ‘I’m wondering what we might need?’ It could be that participants don’t know and trust each other well enough yet. It could be that they don’t believe they have understood the presenter’s challenge and feel nervous to admit it. It could be that they feel insecure about posing a ‘wrong’ question in front of peers. It could be they have an introverted preference and simply need time to reflect before framing a question. A spirit of curiosity can open things up, release stuck-ness and move things forward.
‘Human existence is always directed to something, or someone, other than itself – be it a meaning to fulfil, or another human being to encounter lovingly.’ (Viktor Frankl)
Existential coaching is a powerful and introspective approach that can empower individuals and groups to confront life's fundamental questions, find meaning and embrace personal and social responsibility. Rooted in existential philosophy, this coaching method guides clients through self-exploration, enabling them to confront their fears and uncertainties and make authentic choices aligned with their values. Here are some examples of existential coaching questions:
Existential coaching recognizes that we all face inherent dilemmas, and embracing these challenges can lead to personal and social growth. Using this approach, the coach serves as a supportive ally, helping clients to confront their concerns, explore their inner personal-cultural truths and develop a deeper understanding of themselves. The client can learn to navigate life's complexities with greater clarity and intention, leading to a more meaningful and purposeful life.
[Further reading: Monica Hanaway, The Handbook of Existential Coaching Practice (2020); Yannick Jacob, An Introduction to Existential Coaching (2019); Emmy van Deurzen & Monica Hanaway, Existential Perspectives on Coaching (2012)]
‘Wait time is making space for authentic learning.’ (Takayoshi & Van Ittersum)
A key skill in Action Learning is an ability to wait. It calls for patience and a positive tolerance of periods of silence. Imagine the presenter who receives questions from peers yet answers them too quickly or too easily, without allowing the questions enough time to sink deep. Such responses can sound and feel like surface-level learning, where a presenter knows, or is reasonably easily able to work out, a solution without much need for consideration.
A metaphor that comes to mind is that of the UK innovator, Barnes Wallis who, during World War 2, designed a revolutionary bomb to break through dams. ‘The bomb would spin backwards across the surface of the water before reaching the dam. The spin would then drive the bomb down the wall of the dam before exploding at its base.’ It took time and patience from the moment it was released until the cracks began to show, but then… breakthrough.
This principle of allowing time for questions to sink deep often proves critical to a presenter faced with complex problems in achieving their own breakthroughs: those profound moments of insight and agency that transform everything. It calls for discipline from peers, to wait and hold silence for the presenter before posing a next question. For people who find silence difficult, this entails learning to sit comfortably with discomfort. It’s well worth the wait.
‘Carpe diem: seize the day. Make your life extraordinary.’ (Dead Poets Society)
I was once invited by Lilin, my inspiring Malaysian sister-in-law, to speak at a University of the 3rd Age (U3A) event, for people who are retired from formal employment and interested to explore new ideas, experiences and themes. She invited me, simply, to share something of my own life story. I wasn’t sure where to start or to end or what to include in-between. How to distil a lifetime of experiences into a 45-minutes window? And, more importantly, what would people in this particular group find interesting, stimulating or worthwhile?
So I prayed, jotted down notes of what came to mind, and then shared what I found most meaningful. I hoped it wouldn’t sound too alien and that they would feel at least some sense of connection. At the end, I was astonished to see a queue of people forming to speak with me. Apart from polite thank-yous, person after person looked at me, some with tears in their eyes, and said something along the lines of, ‘I too felt that prompt, that calling, that you described here today. But I was too scared to follow it so I didn’t. And now I so wish I had.’
Some expanded their accounts of how they had chosen to live too safely, too comfortably, and how this had, over time, stifled their sense of curiosity, courage and faith. I tried to reassure them with Richard Bach's words: ‘A test to find whether your mission on earth is finished: if you’re alive, it isn’t.’ For many, however, I could still see that haunting look of spiritual and existential angst on their faces: ‘I was too scared then, and I’m still too scared. And now it’s all too late.’ The greatest risk is never to take a risk. The time to act is now.
‘The international arms trade is in direct opposition to efforts to protect and pursue the health of our world and its inhabitants.’ (MedAct)
When Jesus Christ was born, if he had been given the projected world armaments spend for this year alone – I have to sit down as I write this: he could have spent US$ 2,708,578 every… single… day... from then until now. And, whilst on the topic of Jesus, a good friend has a satirical sticker across the rear windscreen of her campervan that reads, ‘Who would Jesus bomb?’ The simple answer is, ‘Nobody’. He was far too concerned with bringing good news to the poor, vulnerable and oppressed. Bottom line: weapons didn’t feature on his bottom line.
Yet here today we see world leaders striding confidently onto stages, adorned with flags and symbols, making elegant speeches and pointing accusing fingers at one another across starkly-divided world maps. Everyone is firmly committed to the, ‘I’m OK, You’re Not OK’ creed and absolutely convinced by the rightness of their own cause. The platform rhetoric is powerful, existential, and ramps up the ante. It’s a dangerous zero-sum, do-or-die game in which we could all – quite literally – obliterate the world in a quest to, allegedly, save the world.
Meanwhile, I see children in the Philippines this week who live in dire poverty, sleeping in rags on hard ground. There are countless millions across the world living like this, with barely enough to survive let alone thrive. Scraps of food and no access to safe water, sanitation, healthcare or education. US$ 2,708,578. So, Jesus again – ‘Reach out to your enemies.’ We could try this: ‘We’ve all made a real mess of this. We’re partly to blame and we’re sorry for the part we played in how we got here. We want to work with you to co-create a very different future.'
Everything is at stake.
‘A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.’ (William James)
New thinking: ‘The process of becoming, the creation of what is not yet, is achieved through thinking in new, perhaps previously unimagined, ways of thinking. The concept of difference – thinking differently, becoming different, and the creation of difference – is key to maximising the potential of life. It provokes us and dislodges us. It creates whole new possibilities.’ (Claire Colebrook)
Paradigm shift: ‘It shatters all the familiar landmarks of my thought — our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography — breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things.’ (Michael Foucault) I discovered this experience, existentially and transformationally, via a personal encounter:
˙ǝǝs plnoɔ I ʎluǝppns puɐ - ʇᴉ ƃuᴉsᴉlɐǝɹ uǝʌǝ ʇnoɥʇᴉʍ puᴉlq uǝǝq pɐɥ I ɟᴉ sɐ sɐʍ ʇI ˙pǝuᴉƃɐɯᴉ ǝʌɐɥ ɹǝʌǝu plnoɔ I ʇɐɥʇ sʎɐʍ uᴉ 'ǝɟᴉl ǝloɥʍ ʎɯ pǝƃuɐɥɔ ʇɐɥʇ ǝɔuǝᴉɹǝdxǝ lɐnʇᴉɹᴉds ƃuᴉʇɔɐdɯᴉ-ʎlpunoɟoɹd ɐ sɐʍ ʇI ˙uʍop-ǝpᴉsdn uǝǝq pɐɥ uǝɥʇ lᴉʇun plɹoʍ ǝɥʇ ƃuᴉǝǝs ɟo ʎɐʍ ǝloɥʍ ʎɯ ʇɐɥʇ ʎʇᴉɹɐlɔ ƃuᴉlʇɹɐʇs ɥʇᴉʍ ǝǝs ʎluǝppns plnoɔ I 'ɯᴉɥ ʍolloɟ oʇ pǝpᴉɔǝp puɐ Ɩᄅ ǝƃɐ ʇɐ snsǝſ oʇuᴉ ʎlpǝʇɔǝdxǝun uɐɹ I uǝɥM
Foucault speaks of ‘making the familiar strange and the strange familiar.’ I have danced my life with different languages and cultures: ‘When you study cultures that are different from your own, you necessarily end up seeing your own worldview in a new light.’ (Aimee Placas) I also do it via abstract photography or by playing with words, challenging my learned perceptions of what is real.
How do you stimulate, stretch and step out of your own thinking? How do you help others do it too?
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
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