'Not all those who wander are lost.' (J.R.R. Tolkien)
I felt ridiculously excited last week to get first class train tickets for the same price as second. It was a brand-new experience for me. Not used to this level of luxury, every time a steward passed by and offered me food or drink I asked, hesitantly, ‘Is it free?’ They looked back at me and smiled, perhaps with a hint of pity in their eyes, and said, ‘Yes sir, it’s included in the price of your ticket.’ Wow. I’ve never eaten so many bags of crisps, ham-salad sandwiches and chocolate brownies. Amazing.
Yet a far more adventurous journey for me was 4 years ago, from the UK to the Philippines. 30 mins drive + 2 hours on train + 2 hours wait in airport + 12 hours flight to Hong Kong + 2 hours transition in airport + 2 hours to Cebu (West Ph) + 30 mins motorbike to port + 2 hours wait + 12 hours ship to Samar (East Ph) + 30 mins drive in car + 30 mins on motorbike + 30 mins up-river on boat + 30 mins trek through jungle – to arrival. The warm welcome of Waray children made it all worthwhile!
That was, however, nothing compared to the journey of a Christian biker friend, ‘Iron Butt Rob’, who met and prayed with me at the start of that journey then set off at exactly the same time as I did on a gruelling non-stop 1800-mile motorbike ride to all 4 extreme corners of the UK. The whole time I was on route, he was riding…and riding…through torrential rain to finish at the same time as I did. His remarkable feat raised sponsorship money to support the Filipina activist who was hosting me.
Yet perhaps a deeper journey still was into that amazing encounter with those 120 children. They had never met a foreigner and, as we walked between their simple wooden huts, they smiled, laughed, held our hands and skipped along in front of us. They joined in everything we did with infectious energy and, astonishingly, appreciated absolutely everything. When we left a few days later, the children picked wildflowers as gifts as we meandered back to the boat. We all cried as we said goodbye.
When have you taken a life-giving or life-changing journey – literally or metaphorically? What impact has it had on you?
‘You don’t hire for skills, you hire for attitude. You can always teach skills.' (Simon Sinek)
Richard looked for spirit, talent and potential. Perhaps surprisingly, this wasn’t first and foremost about knowledge, skills and experience. It was about attitude, character and engagement. Get the right people on board, the right team in place, and almost anything becomes possible. This made interviews intriguing. One person would try hard to impress based on what they had done and achieved. Another would convey humility and courage: ‘I’ll do whatever it takes to succeed.’ If the spirit was genuine, the sentiment was real, the latter person could leave with a good job offer.
It made performance conversations interesting too. Rather than ‘I’ve done this, or that’, it focused on spirit and contribution. ‘This is what I’ve made possible, including for others. This is what I’ve learned, including from others. This is how I aim to develop, and to enable others. These are the steps I’ll take, alongside others.’ People took ownership of their own performance, recognised their interdependence with and impact on others and proactively sought authentic feedback: ‘What do I do well? What would most improve my contribution in future? How can I do this better next time?’
This Richard took a chance on me too and invited me into his leadership team at a global Christian non-governmental organisation (NGO). He gave me a gift – Stephen Covey’s ‘The Speed of Trust’ – to signal his trust in me. That small gesture inspired me deeply and challenged me to reflect critically on my own spirit and practice. I created a simple grid with ‘can do/can’t do’ on one axis and ‘willing to do/not willing to do’ on the other, as a tool for honest conversations with myself, God and others. It reminds me to fan the flame of the Spirit within and not to become jaded, fearful or complacent.
What part does ‘spirit’ play in your life and work? How to you spot, nurture and help sustain it in others?
‘If one door closes…kick it down.’ (Adrian Hawkes)
Patience isn’t my greatest virtue. Some of the most pain-inducing words for me are ‘wait’ or ‘let go’. I have learned patience at work, yet in my personal life, now often feels nowhere near fast enough. Instinctively, I’m with Pastor Adrian Hawkes who had a graphic way of challenging apathy, passivity and fatalism. His focus was on agency and dramatic leaps of faith. Do it. Do it now. Action man.
Yet, years have passed by and I’m older now. I’ve faced closed doors that have stubbornly refused to re-open no matter how hard I have pleaded, pounded or kicked hard at them. It could have been a person, a relationship or a cause. For some, it could be a bereavement, an illness or a redundancy. It’s someone or something over which we have no power or control to change. An ending that really is the end.
Against this backdrop, I read a very insightful and inspiring piece by Helen Sanderson-White this morning: Celebrating Closed Doors. In it, she describes the transition between letting go of one door and waiting for a new door to open: ‘The hardest part of this journey is the corridor of in-between. Sometimes we can stand in the corridor waiting for a long time before another door opens.’
(Cf: ‘Everything looks like a failure in the middle. Everyone loves inspiring beginnings and happy endings; it is just the middles that involve hard work.’ (Rosabeth Moss-Kanter). ‘It’s not (necessarily) so much that we’re afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but it’s that place in between that we fear. It’s like being between trapezes. There’s nothing to hold on to.’ (Marilyn Ferguson).)
Sanderson-White, with echoes of William Bridges’ Managing Transitions, draws on biblical material to inject a sense of hope, and a hope of sense-making too, in the midst of such corridor experiences. Sometimes it’s about learning patience, acceptance and trust. At other times, it’s about a deep leap of faith, taking a risk and looking up openly and expectantly to see what fresh opportunities emerge.
Have you ever felt like Tom Hanks in 'The Terminal' (2004) – trapped in transition? Who or what got you through it?
‘You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it think.’ (Mark Lawson, Twisted Idioms)
My mind, heart and soul have been turned upside down, inside out. I’ve had the privilege and, at times, intense discomfort of being mentored by a Chinese coach and Christian pastor. I half-jokingly call her Why, rather than her real name Wei, because of her courage and tenacity in pressing deeper, innocently, with the next question. My usual subconscious ways of getting myself off the hook have failed miserably. My beliefs, values and behaviour have all been thrown into question.
Wei’s natural orientation towards critical reflexivity means she examines her own attitudes and behaviour transparently – and reflects on them honestly first. She displays child-like curiosity with adult wisdom. She’s far more interested in following God authentically in her life and work than in preserving a superficial relationship or presenting a perfect front. To show real love is more important to her than to win an argument. Her spiritual maturity humbles and inspires me.
A person like this presents more than a skill. They demonstrate leadership-by-example. I became aware, over time, of situations in my own life and work that I could have handled very differently; of some of my own defensive routines that I didn’t even know I had. I discovered that I sometimes dig my heels in (something that will, no doubt, come as no surprise to people who know me) and that I can be, at times, more concerned with establishing ‘truth’ than building true relationship.
What I experienced here is, I believe, one of the great gifts of leadership, mentoring and coaching. It’s an encounter with a real person that can evoke and provoke fresh awareness and insight. A role model represents an invitation, not an expectation. She or he can inspire curiosity and a desire to think, learn and grow. When have you encountered transformational presence? How do you demonstrate it in your own leading, mentoring or coaching practice? I’d love to hear from you!
‘To demand perfection from someone is to crush them.’ (Joyce Huggett)
I’m a recovering perfectionist. Perhaps I’ll never fully get over it, but the first step is at least to admit it. In the olden days when we used to write things like letters, essays and reports on paper with a typewriter or pen (some of you won’t remember that far back), I can recall clearly a sense of dismay if I made a mistake at the end of a sheet, and ripping it up to start all over again. The thought of a crossed-out word, or Tippex, was far too painful to contemplate. Everything had to be…perfect.
This kind of perfectionist streak can be a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it can drive us to achieve dizzying heights that would otherwise seem impossible. On the other hand, it can leave us permanently frustrated, disappointed or exhausted. We may spend inordinate amounts of time and energy on tasks and relationships, where ‘good enough’ really would have been good and enough. There’s an opportunity cost too: I’m wasting resources that would be better used elsewhere.
Yet perhaps the most dangerous dynamic is if and when we begin to impose those same standards, expectations and demands on other people; irrespective of what the situation or relationship itself calls for. This is a risk of ‘red pen leadership’ – where a leader or manager (or, perhaps, parent or partner) takes issue with every slightest detail in another person’s e.g. appearance, performance or behaviour, to the point where the other person is left feeling damaged, diminished or despairing.
If you have perfectionist tendencies or are leading-coaching others who do, there are some useful insights from psychology that can help, e.g. psychodynamic: ‘What has happened to you that makes perfection feel so critical?’; Gestalt: ‘What are you not-noticing here and now?’; cognitive: ‘What assumptions are you making about who or what’s most important?’; systemic: ‘What cultural factors are driving your behaviour?’ I’m learning to breathe, pray, relax, be more pragmatic – and forgive.
‘We are interested in the past only insofar as it impacts on the present.’ (Geoff Pelham)
I worked with a training group recently that was learning the skills of action learning, a form of group coaching in which one person presents an issue and others help her or him to think it through to find or create a solution. As one person at a time talked about a challenge that he or she was facing at work, I noticed others often instinctively posed questions or prompts that aimed to uncover the person’s history or the backstory to the situation. The person presenting would then typically respond with something like, ‘OK, let me take you back to the beginning, where it all started.’
In doing so, the presenter used up precious action-learning time reciting a story that he or she already knew. It was as if, by sharing wider background information in this way, the peer coaches would have greater understanding and, therefore, be better equipped to pose useful questions. Yet, as Claire Pedrick (Simplifying Coaching, 2021) puts it: ‘…our role is not to see the situation thoroughly, or to diagnose. It is for the thinker to see the situation thoroughly.’ The purpose of action learning, like coaching, is to enable the person to think more deeply and broadly for themselves.
Claire goes on to reframe past-facing questions by bringing them into the present, e.g. from, ‘Tell me your backstory?’ to ‘Tell yourself your back story and let’s see what we notice?’; or from ‘What have you already tried?’ to ‘If you look at what you have tried already, what do you notice?’ If a person repeatedly recounts the same story from his or her past, Claire will shift the focus to the present, the here-and-now, by posing a gentle challenge, e.g. ‘Assume I know everything. What do we need to think about today?’; or ‘What is your most important question about that today?’
I worked with a psychodynamic consultant, Kamil Kellner, in an action learning group. Once, when a person presented a topic by framing its origins in the past, Kamil noticed her emotional state as she spoke and reflected back simply with, ‘The past feels very present.’ I had a similar experience when once, as a student in a group, I became quite emotional. The psychotherapist tutor, Mark Sutherland, responded, ‘It’s not the first time you’ve been here is it, Nick?’ The past can resonate so powerfully in the present. The gift is to notice its presence and create a shift in the now.
'Look before you leap.' (John Heywood, 1546)
The wind grew cold as the sun set yesterday evening. Pete and I sat on a bench beside the river warming ourselves with bags of hot chips. Pete noticed a man nearby stepping onto railings and behaving oddly. I didn’t see him as he was behind me and then, apparently, the man walked away. Some minutes later, we heard a strange splash in the water. Now feeling concerned, we went quickly to investigate. Leaning over the railings and peering into the murky water below, we couldn’t see anything. We called out. No response. Called out again. Silence. Had it just been a swan?
Straining over the railings now, I saw what looked like a pair of training shoes just below the surface. ‘There’s someone in there’. Pete called the Police while I climbed over the railings to get a better view. There was a man below floating in the water. ‘Are you OK?’ No response. I could see he was breathing. Confused at what he was doing, I grabbed a life buoy ring and lowered it, by rope, down the vertical pier into the water beside him. ‘You’re OK, mate. Help is on its way. You can grab hold of the float if you need it.’ Still no response. He lay there, eyes closed and completely motionless.
Within moments, a Police officer ran up to us and immediately started shouting at the person in the water to get hold of the ring. His voice seemed to jolt a response and, for a moment, the man instinctively took a loose hold of it. ‘I can’t swim’, said the Police officer to us, quietly. I felt an instant dilemma. Do I jump in and risk 2 of us becoming trapped (or worse) in the cold water, or do I wait until further help arrives? I decided that, if the man turned over or started to sink, I would brace myself and leap in. I was surprised at my own hesitation. Was it fear, indifference…or a learned response?
Within minutes, more emergency service professionals arrived and the man’s life was saved. As I drove home, I reflected on what had happened. As a younger man, I would have dived straight into the water in rescue mode. Moreover, it would have felt like the right and courageous thing to do. What has changed? Through years of work in coaching and OD in humanitarian organisations, I have learned to pause, weigh up options and choose a response. To jump in is a judgement call with wider implications. When do you 'jump in' and when do you hold back? What drives your response?
It was very hot that day. I sat on a bench at the roadside to drink a cool Pepsi. Girls walked back and forth along the roadside hoping to attract the attention of a wealthy foreigner. Some Indian business men sat down beside me and opened a conversation. ‘Are you here with work or for a holiday?’, and ‘Aren’t these Thai girls beautiful?’ They went on to explain that this was one of their main reasons for coming to Thailand, a recreational dimension – as they saw it – to their otherwise busy work life.
Curious, I asked, ‘What do you know about these girls – their lives, I mean?’ The man beside me looked puzzled: ‘What do you mean?’ I explained I was working in Thailand with a Christian NGO and that, from what I had heard, many of these girls were desperately poor and trying to eek out a living by street walking. ‘Yes, they are very beautiful’, I said, ‘Yet to pay them for sex would feel, to me, like taking advantage of their vulnerability.’ He looked stunned, thoughtful, and went very quiet.
‘I’d never thought about that before,’ he confessed. ‘I’d never really thought about the girls as real people with real lives.’ And then, with a half-grin, ‘…and now you have ruined my holiday!’ At that moment, one of the girls sat down beside me, linked her arm through mine and gazed up at me with deep, dark eyes. ‘Is this your first time in Thailand?’, she asked. ‘Are you here for work or on holiday?’, ‘Which hotel are you staying at?’, ‘Would you like to take me to your hotel room?’
I thanked her for her offer and explained that, although I would be happy to sit and chat with her, I would not take her to my hotel room. ‘Why not?’, she asked with the cheekiest smile, ‘I could make you very happy!’ She persisted with a now pretending-to-be-hurt look on her face, ‘Aren’t I attractive enough for you?’ I responded that I’m a follower of Jesus, I was married and I was there with an NGO. ‘I want to honour God, my wife, the organisation I represent…and you’, I replied.
She looked genuinely surprised. ‘Most men come here and sleep with us with no care for their wives. They don’t appreciate what they have got.’ She went on to tell me that she was a single parent. Her 2 sons lived with her mother in a shack in the countryside while she worked in the city to support them. Her husband had been an alcoholic and had left them destitute. ‘Would you like to see a picture of my sons?’, she asked proudly. ‘Yes indeed’, I said as she revealed them on her phone.
She went on to tell me about her life and work in unabashedly graphic detail. Curious, I asked, ‘Aren’t you afraid to go to a hotel with a stranger? After all, he could be a violent man.’ She replied that if she felt scared, she would take a friend with her to wait outside of the room in case she needed help. ‘And do you ever worry about contracting serious diseases?’ Yes, she replied, ‘so I only have sex with men who look respectable.’ I winced inside at her naivety and risks she was taking.
I didn’t want to ask too many questions in case that too felt like an abuse, so now she asked me a question: ‘What are you thinking?’ I replied I was wondering what it might feel to sleep with so many strangers, and how I might handle that within myself. She explained starkly that it’s not love, it’s only physical, and that the girls never reveal their real names. They always use a pseudonym to protect their real identity and, psychologically, to separate their true selves off from what they are doing.
I was astonished and humbled by her willingness to share so openly like this with me, just another stranger. I asked if it would be OK to ask her one more question, without her feeling any pressure to answer. ‘Yes, of course’, she replied. Taking a deep breath, ‘What’s your deepest hope for your life?’, I asked. She responded thoughtfully: ‘Simply to meet a man who would love me and my children so that we could be a family together. I don’t care how poor we are, just that we love one-another.’
I stood up, took her hands gently and said, ‘Thank you so much for spending this time with me and for sharing so honestly. I need to leave now because it’s getting late, but I will pray for you that God will give you what you dream of.’ She looked tearful. ‘Thank you for listening to me’, she said, and then quietly, ‘My real name is…X’ I almost cried. I felt so privileged to have spent this time with her. Please - never call a girl a prostitute, as if that’s all she is. Every girl is a person, and she has a name.
'Education is not the filling of a pail, but the kindling of a fire.' (Socrates)
Questions that make you think hard. Socrates, a Greek philosopher who specialised in ethics, created a revolutionary method of education based on posing questions rather than prescribing answers. His rigorous and structured approach is still commonly used today to: ‘explore complex ideas; get to the truth of things; open up issues and problems; uncover assumptions; analyse concepts; distinguish what we know from what we do not know; or follow out logical consequences of thought.’ (Paul & Elder).
As such, the Socratic method can be an immensely powerful tool in leadership, coaching, mentoring, training and facilitation (e.g. in action learning). It can elicit profound discoveries and learning and, by doing so, create significant shifts in thinking, feeling and behaviour. It is widely used in psychology-based fields including cognitive behavioural therapy. We see parallels too in domains including Jesus’ teaching approach in the New Testament (see: Conrad Gempf, Jesus Asked, 2003).
Richard Paul and Linda Elder (see: Thinkers’ Guide to Socratic Questioning, 2016) identified 6 different types of Socratic questions that can be posed in sequence to help an individual or a group think through an issue. The 6 types focus on: clarifications; assumptions; rationales; perspectives; implications; meta questions. (James Bowman offers a very useful sample template with examples of related questions here: The Six Types of Socratic Questions).
If you’re interested to read more about cognitive-behavioural approaches to coaching, learning and leadership that draw on Socratic questioning methods, have a glance at: Cognitive Behavioural Coaching; Fresh Thinking; Gestalt Meets Cognitive Behavioural Coaching. If you would like to learn more about eliciting and posing questions more broadly as a learning approach, see: Art of Discovery; In the Question; Good Question; Behind the Question; The Silent Way.
When have you used Socratic questioning at work? How did you do it? What impacts did it have?
Two monks were travelling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As they were preparing to cross, they saw a very beautiful woman also attempting to cross. The woman asked if they could help her cross to the other side. Without a word, the older monk picked her up, carried her across the river, placed her gently on the other side and carried on his journey.
The younger monk was speechless and, after some hours of walking together in complete silence, he couldn’t contain himself any longer. ‘As monks, we are not permitted to touch a woman. How could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?’ The older monk looked at him and replied, ‘Brother, I set her down on the other side of the river. Why are you still carrying her?’ (Zen Koan)
Who, or what, are you carrying that you need to put down? What do you need to find release?
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!