The boy looks about 13, maybe 14, and is guiding cars into parking spaces. The sun is beating down and its steaming hot. Exhausted, he sits down against a wall for a break. This is in the Philippines last week. A poor woman from Samar, Jasmin, notices him out of the corner of her eye as she steps down off a jeepney – a mini-bus used for public transport. The boy looks weak and unwell. She walks across to him, speaks gently then reaches out and touches his face with her hand. His skin is burning with a fever.
Jasmin urges him to stay there and wait for her as she rushes quickly to find a shop where she can buy medicine, food and drink. Then she returns and says she will take him home, to the slum area where he lives. She reassures him that things will be OK, that she will give his family the equivalent of what he could earn in 2 weeks, along with the food, so that he could take a rest to recover. The boy looks up at this stranger, can’t speak…and just cries. She helps him into a jeepney and honours her promise.
I ask Jasmin why she has taken such a risk, to touch a person with clear signs of a fever when the Philippines is in the midst of a Covid-19 lockdown. She looks emotional now and says, quite simply, ‘I imagined how I would have felt if I was that teenager.’ She couldn’t bear to leave him alone, so very sick. She gave what little she had so that his family would not become destitute. I flash back to the parable of the good Samaritan. Jasmin loves Jesus and is willing to engage. I might well have just walked by.
No, not platypus – that’s a duck-billed, beaver-tailed, otter-footed, egg-laying aquatic creature native to Australia. ‘Don’t worry – be happy.’ Now, that’s a platitude. It’s a superficial cliché that rolls too easily off the tongue, without thinking, and presents itself as truth. It’s the kind of thing you may well hear from well-meaning, secure, content-with-life people; yet lacks empathy, depth or genuine appreciation of a person, situation or struggle.
Now you may already be thinking, ‘I wouldn’t worry about that if I were you.’ Oops. Ding! Platitude. Here’s the thing: I’m not you; I might not worry about it if I were you; you might worry about it too if you were me. Furthermore, I’m a human being, not a robot. I don’t have an on-off switch for worry, or for happiness, although I sometimes wish I did. A platitude creates the sense of saying something useful…without actually saying something useful.
So, what’s the antidote? How can I avoid inadvertently slipping into platitude-speak? 1: Listen. Don’t speak. Zip it. Resist the temptation to fill the space, to apply a fix without having heard. 2: Empathise. Feel the feeling, the emotional tone, the tremor, the resonance that lays behind the words. 3: Understand. ‘How are you feeling?’ ‘What do you need?’ Great questions, powerful reach. 4: Offer. Share your wisdom – if called for. Make it real.
‘The only exercise some people get is jumping to conclusions.’ (Hal Elrod)
A recurring theme in psychological coaching/OD is that of enabling a person or a team to grow in awareness of what they are believing, assuming, hypothesising or concluding. This could be about, for instance, themselves, another person, a relationship or a situation. In Yannick Jacob’s words, ‘Human beings are meaning-making machines’ (An Introduction to Existential Coaching, 2019). We are wired to see things as complete wholes and, where there are gaps, to fill them subconsciously – and therefore, by definition, without noticing we are doing it.
This reflects a core concept in Gestalt psychology; where you may be familiar with, say, an image of black shapes on a white background that viewers typically see as a ‘panda’. This assumes, of course, that the person seeing the image already has an idea of panda in mind – i.e. what a panda looks like. We join the dots or, in this case the shapes, to create something that we already know. In doing so, we superimpose meaning onto the image and, at the same time, exclude alternative interpretations. It’s as if, to us, if the image is self-evidently that of a panda. Full stop.
This panda-perceiving phenomenon can help us to understand how we, as individuals and as cultural groups, construe our ideas of reality at work. Drawing on limited data, we fill-in any gaps (e.g. with our own hopes, anxieties or expectations) to create what looks and feels, to us, like a complete understanding of a situation. Yet, in Geoff Pelham’s words, ‘The facts never speak for themselves’ (The Coaching Relationship in Practice, 2015). If we enable a person or a team to revisit the gaps and to hold their hypotheses lightly, fresh insights and opportunities can arise.
First, pay attention to how a person is feeling, or the mood in a team. Acknowledge the emotion without necessarily seeking to change or to resolve it. Instead, invite a spirit of curiosity, a desire for discovery. Next, facilitate a process of critically-reflexive exploration: e.g. of what meaning they are making of their experience; of what needs it reveals; of what strategies they are using to address them. Now, offer support and challenge to test assumptions, stretch boundaries, shift a stance. Be prayerful and playful. Release the panda to emerge as something new.
Feedback – a topic that often keeps people awake at night. There’s something I want to say, perhaps need to say, but I can’t think of the right way to put it. ‘What if it provokes a negative response?’ ‘What if I can’t handle the person’s reaction?’ ‘What if it makes things even worse?’ Such questions can understandably create an anxious psychological, emotional and physical state. If I’m feeling anxious, no matter what carefully-crafted words I may use, the other person is likely to pick it up intuitively and it could, to them, look and feel like attack or defence: and evoke the same in them.
The truth is, we are continually giving and receiving feedback, yet often out of conscious awareness. Our tone of voice, body language, use of words and behaviour all convey implicit messages and we only have limited rational control over them. What is more, we filter and interpret signals we receive from others based on our own personal experience; including our hopes, expectations and fears. Feedback always takes place in a dynamically-complex and fluid relational (e.g. affinity; trust; hierarchy) and cultural (e.g. language; values; norms) context – and that influences everything.
Take, for instance, feedback that lands positively on one day, yet could feel negative on another, depending on how I’m feeling. If I like and trust the person, I’m more likely to hear and respond to it positively. Conversely, if trust is low, of if we’ve just had a bruising argument, it could evoke a negative reaction; even if the feedback itself is valid and fair. In light of this, we are most likely to give and receive feedback successfully if we pay attention to our psychological, emotional, physical and relational state first, and then give equal attention to that of the other person too.
We can do the former in a number of ways. Take a moment to relax, breathe (pray) and imagine the person and conversation. How am I feeling? Is now the best time to hold this conversation? What will I need to handle it well? What beliefs am I carrying? What am I saying to myself? If: ‘What if it goes wrong?’, what happens if I reframe it to, ‘What if this goes well?’ If I’m saying, ‘I want this person to stop what they’re doing’, what happens if I change it to, ‘I want this person to succeed’? Now rehearse the opening of the conversation – in a positive, relaxed state.
We can do the latter part in a number of ways too. Invite the person into a constructive review conversation together, not simply impose something onto them. Be clear about your (positive) intention, purpose and desired outcome. Ask them where and when would suit them best. Frame the conversation in an appreciative, solutions-focused way, reminding them of the vision and goals and inviting their reflections first: e.g. ‘What is going well?’ and ‘What will make it even better?’ – before offering your own feedback and ideas. Close with, ‘How shall we move this forward?’
Do you lose sleep over giving or receiving feedback and how to do it well? If so, get in touch!
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