‘You ask way too many questions, pal.’ (Homeless person – to me, 1982)
I was excited, intrigued and a little nervous to visit my first homeless project in London. As a young Christian activist, I wanted to learn from the lived experience of people in need so that I could use my own life to make a positive and tangible difference in their world. In my enthusiasm and a genuine spirit of curiosity, I asked this homeless man question after question about his life. After a while, he cautioned me politely but sternly – to stop. It was a stark, timely and important lesson.
Questions lay at the heart of coaching and facilitation; questions that aim to enable a person or group to think through an issue more deeply or broadly and to reach their own solutions. We may talk about powerful questions, or impactful questions – questions targeted at a person: what he or she is thinking, feeling and doing, rather than at the broader issue itself – to enable the greatest shift. It’s a language that, in a safe space, speaks of constructive challenge with a positive intent.
Yet what happens if we are working with people or groups where the very experience of receiving questions, however well intended or framed, evokes considerable anxiety or stress? We can think of various examples: e.g. a refugee who has been subjected to violent interrogation in their country of origin; an asylum-seeker who associates questions with having to defend an appeal for help; a person who has endured abuse from a controlling partner who challenged her/his every action.
The language of power-ful questions can itself raise issues of power dynamics implicit in the coach or facilitator relationship with a person or group. After all, the coach is the person posing the questions – not feeling a need, pressure or expectation to answer them – and may at some level reflect or represent the type of person, group or authority the client regards as oppressive. Similarly, impact-ful can sound like hitting, violence, done-to, to a person or group living in a state of anxiety.
The homeless man I alluded to above explained, with pain in his eyes, that my questions were taking him to places in his past that he was trying hard not think about or deal with because they felt too traumatic. I was, in effect, inadvertently re-triggering the emotional effects of experiences he had lived through. I remember feeling horrified, apologising, and falling silent in shame. Yet I learned the vital need to pay attention to sensitive relationship and mutual contracting in these fields of work.
Given these risks and dynamics, it could feel tempting to shrink back altogether from coaching or, say, action learning with vulnerable people or groups. What if we make a mistake or make things worse? Is there a risk that we will inappropriately stray or be drawn into the realms of counselling or therapy where we are and feel out of our depth? Is there any guidance that could help us navigate such potentially difficult terrain? I will offer some practical insights here that I’ve found helpful:
Some vulnerable clients may feel concerned about why they are being asked questions, how they are expected to respond (the ‘right’ or ‘acceptable’ answer, in that context), who will have access to their responses and what they might do with them. This may be especially the case if they have been sent for coaching or action learning, perhaps as a remedial measure, or if they come from a personal-cultural background where posing questions as a developmental approach is unfamiliar.
In my experience, vulnerable clients rarely raise these concerns explicitly. They are more likely to surface during contracting as something like, ‘How can I be sure that what I may share here will not be shared elsewhere?’ This points to a need for trust-building. I may ask a client, ‘What would give you the reassurance you need?’, ask other participants (if in a group), ‘What are you willing to commit to?’ and explore and agree explicitly what we will do if, say, a conflict of interest should emerge.
Claire Pedrick offers a simple and useful frame that helps ensure healthy and constructive focus and boundaries: ‘What are we here to do?’ and ‘How shall we do this?’ The language of ‘we’ points towards a coactive conversation in which both parties discuss, negotiate and agree their terms of engagement. Claire also regards the client positively, whether an individual or group, as resilient enough to engage in the process – unless it transpires that they aren’t – and contracts accordingly.
Geoff Pelham, drawing on Gestalt psychology, focuses on creating an authentic human relationship (‘contact’) with the client rather than a purely transactional one. This can help to create a safe-enough space for coaching to be effective. He may inquire with empathy, ‘What do you need?’ – and listen carefully to the response – before discussing and agreeing how to address respective needs and to move forward. (Attention to need is framed as a healthy foundation for growth, vs ‘needy’.)
I may ask a client, ‘Where would you like us to focus our attention?’, ‘What questions is this raising for you?’ or ‘What questions would you find most useful to explore?’ I will also discuss and agree explicitly with the client what he or she may do if I (or others, in a group) pose a question that, for whatever reason, he or she would prefer not to answer; e.g. simply to respond with, ‘Thank you.’ This enables the client to exercise choice and control throughout and, by doing so, to enhance their own agency.
Finally, Karen Treisman encourages us to beware of 'pathologising' the client; of focusing on his or her vulnerability as if it’s their sole defining characteristic and, instead, ‘To see the whole person, their story, their world – to magnify, celebrate and learn from people’s survivorships, strengths, resources and what they truly bring to the table.’ I’m keen to learn: what has been your experience of working with vulnerable people or groups? What trauma-informed principles help to guide your practice?
(For further research and resources in this area, see: Dr Karen Treisman, A Treasure Box for Creating Trauma-Informed Organizations: A Ready-to-Use Resource for Trauma, Adversity, and Culturally Informed, Infused and Responsive Systems, 2021).
‘For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.’ (H.L. Mencken)
In a world that’s so often characterised by continual change, it appears that one thing that doesn’t change is our continual thirst for new acronyms. VUCA, RUPT or BANI – which best describes your view of reality? Which most helps you, or your clients, move forward to fulfil vision, values and goals, whilst navigating whom or whatever could fly in unexpectedly from left field on route?
BANI, a more recent model than its predecessors, has some attractive and useful features for the current context. It acknowledges profound phenomenological dimensions of human experience, not simply the dynamics of the environmental realities we face. BANI draws attention to Brittleness, Anxiety, Non-linearity and Incomprehensibility and may provide a platform for addressing them.
Brittleness recognises that those things we regard as secure can fall apart overnight. Anxiety points to associated social health risks of anxiety and depression. Non-linear means it’s hard to predict consequences of actions with certainty because influencing factors can spring up from anywhere. Incomprehensible proposes that sense-making is impossible and we can find ourselves bewildered.
If that all sounds a bit abstract, think back to what you (and others) have witnessed and experienced in the past 2 years; how much of what has happened could have been known definitively in advance; what the impacts and implications have been for different people, groups and nations; how it has looked and felt; the deep questions it has raised; how clear and agreed a way forward is from here.
Macro examples have included the ongoing climate emergency, the Covid19 pandemic, the plastic-in-the-oceans disaster and the migrant crisis. We’ve seen shifts in the world’s political and economic landscapes that have been, at times, so sudden and so dramatic that they’ve caused whiplash and backlash. We have felt the ripple effects in our organisations, communities and personal lives.
What wisdom can BANI offer? Here are glimpses: Brittleness calls for resilience and collaboration; Anxiety: for empathy and human-spiritual relationship; Non-linearity: for adaptivity and agility; Incomprehensibility: for intuition and risk-taking. These are pointers to the kinds of qualities and capabilities we can develop for the future, with courage and humility as an underpinning stance.
Do you feel dazed and confused in a BANI world? Curious to discover how I can help? Get in touch!
On the edge of a New Year, social media accounts have been bombarded with messages about how terrible 2020 has been and how we can’t get out of it fast enough. Of course, 2020 has posed some significant challenges; most notably, on the global stage, the Covid-19 pandemic. The challenges in the wealthier countries, where we have tended to make the most emotional drama out of it, pale into insignificance when compared to the those faced by the poorest. We’re not used to this level of vulnerability, uncertainty and threat. It has freaked us out and, perhaps in some ways, that’s a good thing.
My hope for 2021 is that this glimpse of vulnerability, of real fear and helplessness, will engender far greater empathy for those poorest people in the world who live with that anxiety every day. And not just empathy, but a greater resolve to do something tangible to bring about positive and sustainable change. I hope it will drive us re-evaluate our crazy consumerism that is pushing the world further into irreversible environmental disaster. I hope it will reveal, too, our fundamental interdependence; although reports of rich countries racing to buy-up Covid vaccines first fills me with near-despair.
Yet there have been, for me, silver linings in the midst of all this. I’ve been grateful to God for the opportunity to live with my parents all year, to support each other during the lockdown and to spend valuable, irreplaceable time with them. I’ve been grateful for free technology that has allowed me, and others, to do so much online that would otherwise have been impossible. I’ve been grateful for the chance, with others, to support the poor in the Philippines; an experience that has often brought at least as much richness and joy to my life as to theirs. What have been your silver linings in 2020?
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!
At just 5 feet (152 cm) tall, this Filipina presents an imposing stature. She went out this week to provide emergency food and modest cash gifts to some of the poorest people in the Philippines, those who live at the roadside on zero income owing to the Covid-19 lockdown. She herself is very poor yet determined to share what she has for the benefit of strangers in need. She prays to Jesus, dons a face mask and heads out fearlessly. One family revealed they had barely survived until she arrived. They had been living on just boiled water with a little sugar stirred into it. No rice, and little hope.
One group surrounded her when she at first appeared. Some men grabbed the bags of rice that she carried with her, skulking away in an attempt to avoid being caught. At that, she lifted her mask and yelled assertively: ‘Bring that back now, or I leave here with everything I came with.’ Slowly…the stealthy thieves reappeared, with guilty expressions on their faces now, and handed them back. She explained, ‘We are poor, but this is no way to conduct ourselves. We need to learn to share what we have, like Jesus.’ She then held out the sacks and cash, and every family went home with something real.
I asked her if she had felt nervous, to be confronted and robbed like that in broad daylight. She was, after all, alone among strangers and anything could have happened. She said no, she wasn’t afraid, because she had prayed hard before setting out. ‘I know what it is to be poor, and I have lived my entire life among the poor.’ I reflected on how I might have acted defensively in response, annoyed by their attitude and fearful for my own safety. By contrast, she showed courage, empathy, faith and love. Question: When have you been at your most fearless? What made the difference for you?
‘A clash between two people doesn’t mean either one is bad. Show some understanding and tolerance, unless they are a serial killer…in which case, run.’ (Stephanie Davies)
A close friend in the Philippines heard a sharp disturbance outside today. Two neighbours were engaged in a knife fight. It started over one person showing rations she had received, during lockdown, to another. The other, worried for her own family facing starvation, took it as an insult, as bragging, and flew at her. This Filipina stepped into the affray, held a safer space between them, and calmed them down. I asked what on earth possessed her to do it. She said, ‘They were acting out of desperation, out of fear.’ She gave the aggrieved party what little cash she herself had left. The woman burst into tears. She could now buy food for her baby. Enough to survive. Life is hard-edged for the poor.
Here’s a Malaysian friend, this time in Cambodia and well before the lockdown started. He’s the manager of a hotel chain and locked in a dispute with staff. This friend knows he has to hold his ground but things are tense and risk getting out of control. He invites the trade union leader to meet him in his office, to see if they can negotiate a way forward. The leader arrives, sits down, places a loaded pistol and two hand grenades on the desk, and says, ‘OK, let’s talk.’ Now I’ve faced some tough negotiations in my time but none that come close to that. I asked what he did. My friend replied, ‘I stood fast. I figured that, if he had intended to kill me, he would have done it already.’
Such accounts and experiences certainly put my own work and life into perspective. I’m rarely placed in situations where tensions are anywhere near that high, or where I’m called upon to show such stark courage in the face of real danger. In the first instance, the Filipina responded with empathy for both pro- and antagonist. She saw beyond their actions to the real people, to the deep anxieties that lay behind their drama. In the second, the manager interpreted the encoded meaning behind his counterpart’s actions, reading the cultural messages and signals it pointed towards. When have you found yourself having to respond urgently to a crisis? How did you do it? What happened?
‘You can’t always control who walks into your life but you can control which window you throw them out of!’ (Anon)
It can be one of the worst feelings. To lose control. To be out of control. It’s also one of the main root causes of anxiety, depression and stress. To have control suggests to have choice, to have power to decide, to have agency, to be free. To lose those things, to have them taken away from us or to discover they lay out of reach for us can feel scary, disorientating and debilitating. It’s a critical consideration in change leadership, coaching, OD and training: how to handle issues of control.
I met with a change team recently that discussed how best to support people through transition. They had a very positive intention and created some great ideas. The critical and missing ingredient was to invite and involve the actual people they aimed to support in choosing what they would find most useful. The simple felt-experience of choosing can create a psychological sense of control in the midst of bewildering and anxiety-provoking change – and that can make all the difference.
I worked with a leadership team that felt overwhelmed by challenges they were facing. Their environment was so turbulent, complex and unpredictable that they struggled to understand it and to know what to do in response. Their felt sense of out-of-control-ness evoked anxiety and that made it difficult to think straight. Their solution lay not in exercising greater control but in letting go of their psychological need for control. They learned adaptive-responsive, emergent leadership instead.
How do you work with issues of control?
‘Come out from behind ourselves into the conversation and make it real.’ (Susan Scott)
Hiding for fear of discovery is an archetypal characteristic of human beings. Think back to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Think too to an ex-colleague of mine who, employed as a police officer, donned his uniform every day and – strange as it may sound – spent his time impersonating a police officer. John Powell reflected this phenomenon well in his classic book, ‘Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am?’ It’s very often about fear of exposure, risk of rejection…imposter syndrome.
There are, of course, at times good reasons to hide. I think, for instance, of criminals on the other side of the law who attempted last night to evade the blinding glare of a police helicopter searchlight outside a friend’s house. It was a dramatic scene, accompanied by the throbbing and deep reverberation of chopper blades overhead. We could think of such hiding as a rational and practical act – at least in the sense that it relates to a realistic prospect of arrest and imprisonment if caught.
Yet we may find ourselves hiding for all kinds of other reasons too. Hiding often manifests itself in relationships and at work in subtle avoidance strategies. We may rationalise our hiding by telling ourselves that we can’t tackle a tricky person, a difficult issue, a daunting conversation, because we’re too busy, it’s not our job, they wouldn’t listen or it could make things even worse. In doing so, we may deprive ourselves and others of invaluable talent, trust, possibility – and hope.
Stepping out takes courage with humility, challenge with support. When have you stepped out from behind yourself and made it real? When have you enabled others to step out too?
‘You get what you tolerate.’ (Susan Scott, Fierce Conversations)
We were sitting by a window on an icy winter day. I was working with Bryan Emden, my coach at the time and a skilled psychotherapist. Part-way through the conversation, I felt a cold shiver and asked Bryan if he would mind if we moved to a different table. He looked back at me with cool, penetrating gaze then spoke. ‘It has been cold here for some time. I wonder how uncomfortable things need to get for you before you take action…and whether that reflects a wider pattern in your life and work?’
I was a bit taken aback because I had always prided myself on a decisive-activist mantra, ‘(almost) any decision is better than no decision’. Nevertheless, on reflection I could remember certain hard situations in which I had not acted early enough. I had feared that to do so could have made things even worse. We could call this an avoidance strategy, a defence against anxiety based on a fear of negative consequences. In CBT terms, I had catastrophised, predicted the worst possible outcomes.
At those times, the anxiety had sometimes increased to such a degree that it had triggered a fight-flight-freeze response within me. The fight option meant I risked becoming aggressive, the flight option becoming passive and, as a result, I simply – froze. One way I have learned to tackle this is to acknowledge the emotion and to challenge how sound the prediction is. It sometimes means doing the thing we fear most, to see what new opportunities it creates. To notice how we survive it.
It’s about resilience and, at work, it’s often about relationships. Claire Pedrick offers a stark challenge on this front: ‘What’s the conversation you need to have that you’re not having?’ Guy Rothwell advocates a willingness to listen openly and also to have the courage, the authenticity, to speak up. Rick James proposes exercising courage with humility, to grasp the proverbial nettle, to have the difficult conversation and yet to address the person with open hand, not clenched fist.
How do you handle challenging conversations?
Ouch! Sooner or later, something hits us in life. It could be a broken relationship, an accident, loss of employment, sudden ill health. It could be anything. But we know it when it hits us. The impact can feel physical like a thud to the chest, a sharp pain that leaves us gasping for breath. It hurts, it aches…and, for a time, it disorientates everything we know, believe, expected or hoped for. It can leave us spinning, angry, scared, numb. We feel vulnerable. We may feel anxiety, despair.
You do know it if you’ve had this experience. You may be having it now. The usual optimism and positive thinking that have served you so well in the past suddenly feel empty, shallow somehow, lacking substance. You reach out for help but if feels like grasping at thin, intangible mist. All you know is a persistent, uneasy, gnawing feeling, deep inside and the light of hope looks hopelessly dim. Family and friends offer support but, in the midst of it you feel – alone. Painfully…alone.
It’s moments like these where existential and spiritual questions may come sharply into view. I’ve know that feeling of falling, sinking, so deep that I thought I would drown. It felt like slipping into deep darkness, overwhelmed by a pain-filled fear. I couldn’t see a way to stay alive. Sitting on a fence in a cold field one night, all I could discern was a feint pin prick of light in the farthest distance. I tried hard to cling on, however weakly. That night, I discovered the light was - Jesus.
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!