‘It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.’ (Henry David Thoreau)
Psychologist Albert Ellis, widely regarded as the founding father of what has today evolved into Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, noticed that different people responded differently to what were, on the face of it, very similar situations. Previously, you might have heard, ‘Person X feels Y because Z happened’. It assumed a direct causal relationship between emotions and events. Ellis’ observations challenged this, proposing that something significant was missing in the equation. After all, if this assumption were true, we could expect that everyone should feel the same way in circumstance Z.
Curious about this, Ellis concluded that the critical differentiating and influencing factor that lays between emotions and events is belief. It’s what we believe about the significance of an event that affects most how we feel in response to it. Here we have person A who hears news of a forthcoming redundancy with fear and trepidation. He believes it will have catastrophic financial consequences for himself and his family. Person B receives the news with positive excitement. She believes it will provide her with the opportunity she needs to pursue a new direction in her career.
Drawing on this insight, organisational researchers Lee Bolman & Terrence Deal proposed that, in the workplace, what is most important may not be so much what happens per se, as what it means. The same change, for instance, could mean very different things to different people and groups, depending on the subconscious interpretive filters through which each perceives it. Such filters are created by a wide range of psychological, relational and cultural factors including: beliefs, values, experiences, hopes, fears and expectations. This begs an important question: how can we know?
Hidden beliefs are often revealed implicitly in the language, metaphors and narratives that people use. To observe the latter in practice, notice who or what a person or group focuses their attention on and, conversely, who or what appears invisible to them. Listen carefully to how they construe a situation, themselves and others in relation to it. Inquire in a spirit of open exploration, ‘If we were to do X, what would it mean for you?’; ‘If we were to do X, what would you need?’ This is about listening, engagement and invitation. Attention to the human dimension can make all the difference.
I'm not you
‘I’m not in your situation. And neither am I you in your situation.’ (David Cooper)
A stretching skill in coaching, action learning and facilitation is often to step back and to stay back. I may imagine vividly what I might think, how I might feel and what I might do if I were in the situation a client has described. Nevertheless, as David Cooper has summarised so well (above), the truth is I’m not there and I’m not you. A risk is that I may inadvertently and subconsciously project myself onto the world of the client. Why is this important and how can we use it?
Firstly, the client portrays a challenge, dilemma or opportunity from their own perspective. It’s a personally and-or socially-constructed view with associated feelings that may reveal all kinds of hidden assumptions, beliefs, values, hopes and expectations. These may be quite different to what the same situation could hold for the coach. Exploring how the client construes the situation and what lays behind and beneath it for them can unlock fresh insight and potential.
Secondly, factors that stand out to the client as significant in a situation can be very different to those that stand out for the coach because of differences in what people notice, what value they attach to it and what meaning they make of it. What a person notices is influenced psychologically by what’s important to them. What, therefore, surfaces into awareness (or not) for the client can shed useful light on underlying personal-cultural assumptions, beliefs and values.
Thirdly, how the coach could act in the client’s situation - and the consequences of their actions - would be influenced by their own lived experiences, their personal preferences and cultural norms, their own networks of relationships and the knowledge and skills they can draw upon. Unless the client’s issue has a definitive right or correct solution, the optimal way through for the client may be quite different to that for the coach. I’m not in your situation – and I’m not you.
Off the hook
'To err is human. To blame it on someone else shows great management potential.'
That made me laugh! It’s a fun variation of Hubert H. Humprey’s, ‘To err is human. To blame someone else is politics.’ But wow – how easy it is to deflect and project our own faults and failures outwards onto others. We see it happen all over the place, from interpersonal relationships to international relations. It’s a way of defending ourselves; of trying to avoid or escape the costs of responsibility; of promoting ourselves; of appearing innocent or superior. It’s about helping us to feel good about ourselves and-or wanting someone else to feel good about us.
It's quite tricky if we don’t know we’re doing it – and it can lead to potential high-risk consequences. ‘Self-deception is like this. It blinds us to the true causes of problems, and once we’re blind, all the solutions we can think of will actually make matters worse.’ (Arbinger Institute: Leadership and Self-Deception, 2000). This poses a difficult question: how to deal with our blindness if we don’t know we’re blind? And what if, if we’re honest – for whatever reason – we don’t want to know? An old adage goes: ‘There are none so blind as those that won’t see.’ Ignorance is bliss?
I’ll start with the last question first. If I’m working with a person in coaching or a group in action learning and I sense resistance in this area, I won’t push too hard. It could, for instance, trigger repressed trauma or suppressed anxiety. Instead, I may pose an invitation, e.g. ‘Is this something you would find useful to explore further? What, for you, would be the potential benefits of exploring this, or the potential costs of not exploring it? If you were to explore this, what support or challenge would you need from yourself, me and-or others?’ It’s their call, their choice.
Next to the first question. This touches on a field known as critical reflexivity. It’s like holding up a mirror to ourselves rather than fixing our gaze elsewhere or onto others. We can think of it as something like this: ‘What within me – e.g. in my own past, culture or world – is influencing what I’m thinking, feeling and doing now?’ This could include, for instance, our beliefs, values, hopes, fears and expectations. It could also include hidden vested interests; that is, things we want to protect or preserve and-or to acquire or achieve. Such influences act as subconscious filters.
In coaching and action learning, I work with people and groups to help them learn to pose searching questions to themselves in a spirit of open curiosity and discovery, e.g. ‘Who or what is holding my attention in this relationship or situation? How am I feeling? Who or what am I not-noticing? What assumptions am I making? How is my past influencing my present? Who or what matters most to me now? How might I be evoking this response in the other party? What am I willing to take responsibility for? What do I want or need? What am I willing to stop, start, change or compromise?’
The outcomes and benefits of this approach can be truly transformational. It calls for humility, courage, authenticity and a willingness to exercise personal leadership and agency, yet can open up all kinds of fresh possibilities – and hope. Imagine, for instance, to approach an adversary, prayerfully, in the midst of conflict: 'We are in such a mess. I'm sorry...and, as I look at how we got here, I could have handled my part in this better...' It’s a stark contrast to avoidance, accusation and finger-pointing. What a possibility to co-create a different relationship – and a different future.
(See also: Spots; Art of Deception; Stealth)
Turn on the TV and you will see heart-breaking scenes of streams of desperate people, frightened, shell-shocked and displaced by war, fleeing within Ukraine or escaping across crowded borders into neighbouring countries. It’s a tragic and all-too-familiar scene. Not that long ago, we witnessed similar images of dispossessed and traumatised people, at that time clinging together in crowded boats or walking on long roads, trying to reach safety away from the ravages of a brutal war in Syria.
It's tempting, in such circumstances, to compare and contrast. Why, for instance, is Poland throwing its doors wide open to Ukrainian refugees whereas it was decidedly reluctant to do so for Syrian refugees? Is this evidence of endemic racism? It is because Ukrainians are white, because they ‘look like us?’ – as more than one TV reporter asked this week. These are important questions... and they also risk pitching one set of refugees against another, as if competing for empathy and support.
I’ve had the personal privilege of working in the UK alongside asylum-seekers and refugees from countries as diverse as Afghanistan, China, Congo, Egypt, El Salvador, Eritrea, Honduras, Iran, Iraq, Kurdistan, Mali, Mexico, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Turkey, Vietnam and Yemen. Up-close, every person is unique, has a name, and carries his or her own lived experience, his or her own individual story. Step back, and we can discern patterns shaped by e.g. culture, history, language, narrative and geopolitics.
In some significant respects, I believe European public discourse concerning the Ukrainian refugee situation is different to that in 2015. Geopolitical factors include: Ukraine borders directly with Europe, vs Syria lays at a geographical distance; Ukraine is perceived primarily as an invasion by a foreign power, vs Syria was viewed primarily as a civil war; Ukraine is perceived in simple terms as a ‘hero’ against a ‘villain’, vs Syria was perceived as a complex conflict between multiple ‘villains’.
Cultural factors include: Ukrainian refugees are perceived as culturally- and pro-European, vs asylum-seekers in 2015 who came from a diverse range of countries and cultures – often perceived as hostile to European liberal values and cultures; Ukrainian refugees are primarily women and children and, therefore, considered most-vulnerable and least-threatening, vs asylum-seekers in 2015 were perceived as primarily men and, therefore, considered least-vulnerable and most-threatening.
If we are willing to pause and reflect openly, honestly and critically, we can see that the stance we take reveals all kinds of underlying personal and cultural beliefs, values, assumptions and biases – including whom we consider worthy, or not, and why. The media plays a very powerful role since most of what we believe and think we know about asylum-seekers and refugees is mediated via media. The ‘news’ is a blend of info and drama, with an agenda. Let’s not fan the flames of a refugee war.
(For further reading in this area, see: Alexander Betts & Paul Collier, Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System (2018))
At a time when geopolitical tensions between NATO-EU and Russia are on the increase and depicted starkly as such in the media, I showed a video of a Russian 'hell march' to an international group and asked them: a. What do you notice; b. How do you feel; c. What does it mean? It opened a deep conversation that emphasised the need for critical reflexivity in interpreting experiences and events.
A Chinese participant looked quite disdainful and said it reminded her of similar 'propaganda parades' in her home country, designed to make people feel compliant and positive about the Communist party state. A German participant said it filled her with fear, evoking stories she had heard from elderly family members about horrors under Soviet occupation at the end of the Second World War.
A UK participant, perhaps with the spirit of Brexit still reverberating fresh in the background, said she found the enforced uniformity and conformity disturbing. A Filipina participant from an Hispanic cultural background, who had lived under a repressive military dictatorship, said she liked how the soldiers were as-if dancing to a rhythm and doing something constructive that displayed positive talent.
I noticed banners in the background depicting 1941, the year in which the Nazis had unleashed a war in the East that resulted in unspeakable terror and devastation. As a passionate anti-Nazi, I saw the march as an assertive symbol: a 'never-again'. We reflected on our different selective perceptions, feelings and interpretations and the profound influence of ourselves-as-filters as we look out onto the world.
In a similar vein, at a Gestalt coaching training workshop last week, I posted an image on screen of a tree in wheat field with dark clouds looming overhead. I asked the group what they would notice in 3 imagined scenarios: 1. As a child, you loved to climb trees; 2. You are walking the countryside and have forgotten to bring a raincoat; 3. You and your family have had no food to eat for a week.
We noticed that we notice what matters to us in the moment. Different people-groups may notice different things in the same situation, or the same person-group may notice different things in the same situation at different times. We attribute meaning based on our beliefs, values, hopes, fears and expectations. This includes personal and shared-cultural memories, emotions and imaginations.
As we move ahead this year, I pray that I-we will do so with eyes wide open. What may appear to us as self-evident, real and true may reveal as much about us as who or what we observe: if we are willing to see it. What can we do to create greater critical reflexivity? How can we address blind spots and hot spots to open up fresh possibilities, address risks – and take a stance that is sound?
Beware of the Panda
‘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.
How progressive are you?
‘This is a new and progressive policy.’ There’s something about the word progressive that sounds like it’s an intrinsically good thing. After all, who would want to lay claim to an old and regressive policy? Progressive = good; regressive = bad, right? In principle, to be progressive is to be an advocate of social change; particularly when it comes to representing the best interests of ordinary people through politics. Would you vote for a politician or party that chose to stand against such things?
This is, however, where waters start to get muddy. Who are the so-called ordinary people and who knows and decides what’s in their best interests? Are the ‘ordinary people’ uniform in their experiences, hopes, needs and aspirations? What if making progress in one area or demographic has detrimental impacts in another? If everyone insists their policy is progressive, and if policies disagree sharply on fundamental issues and goals, does ‘progressive’ have any meaning at all?
At this point, we may shake our heads in wonder, bewilderment and dismay. Yet I can offer us a solution; a new and progressive code-breaker, if you like. Progressive means, ‘Going in the direction I want things to go in’; regressive means, ‘Moving away from the destination I want to reach’. Simple. So, next time you hear someone stake a claim to the word – pause and inquire deeply into what lies hidden beneath it: beliefs, assumptions and values; whose goals and interests it serves.
Critical reflective practice
It’s hard to think outside our own thinking to do the as-yet unthinkable, yet that’s often where real transformation takes place. How do you do it? How do you enable others to do it?
What does a kilogram weigh on the moon? Is grass still green when it’s dark?
I had this fascinating conversation with a chemistry student last night about what can be known to be true and how. We touched on philosophy, theology and science and I left feeling like my brain had been bent and twisted in different directions. One of the key principles that came through is that we base our understanding of the world on what we believe or know to be true already. It’s a form of projection that creates a psychological sense of certainty and enables us to predict, test and move on. It’s also a phenomenon that can leave us profoundly mistaken – without realising it.
I listened to a radio interview with the controversial film director Quentin Tarantino. When asked to comment on the quirky, sudden and often dramatic mood swings in his films, Tarantino responded, ‘Who do you imagine I am directing in my movies – the actors or the audience?’ He went on to paint an image of himself standing invisibly behind the cinema screen like the conductor of an orchestra. The audience watches the film. He conducts the audience. The audience is the orchestra. It was a stunning example of challenging the assumed, reframing an experience, revealing the unexpected.
The moral of this story? Not everything is as it appears to be or what we may want or expect it to be. We are easily unaware or deceived. It’s why ‘critical reflective practice’ is so valuable and important as professionals, leaders, managers, teams and organisations. It’s about taking conscious, proactive steps to challenge, test and transform our awareness, assumptions, thinking, stance and practice – enabling greater inspiration, resourcefulness, resilience and effectiveness. (See: Thompson & Thompson, The Critically Reflective Practitioner, 2008; Bassot, The Reflective Practice Guide, 2016).
As leader, OD, coach or trainer, what have been your experiences of critical reflective practice? Where have you seen or experienced real transformation, radical re-framings or paradigm shifts?
Can I help you develop critical reflective practice? Get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org
This short article addresses the question, how to spot and deal with untrue truisms that appear to be true. The tricky bit is that common truisms often guide and reinforce everyday beliefs, behaviour, decisions and actions – including at work. Untrue truisms can prove limiting, unhelpful or damaging. What do you think?
‘Ring a bell and Pavlov’s dog salivates.’ True? Not necessarily. It depends on the context in which the dog hears the bell (Anne Rooney, Psychology – How the World Works, 2019). ‘Brainstorming in a group generates more ideas than individuals generate alone.’ Not necessarily true either. It depends on whether individuals in the group have had opportunity to write down their own ideas separately first (Michael West, Developing Creativity in Organisations, 1997).
We could list many more frequently-proclaimed and widely-accepted truisms here that turn out to be not entirely true. ‘People don’t like change’. Oh, really? Perhaps closer to the truth could be a more qualified statement, ‘Some people don’t like change’ or, as a variation, ‘Most people don’t like having change forced on them’ where the emphasis is definitely more on forced – an implied denial of choice, freedom, influence or control – than on change per se.
The problem here lays in simplistic generalisations, superficial conclusions, trite clichés that may well sound plausible and convincing on the face of it yet lack validity and soundness. They present an idea of reality with an air of marked confidence, yet which doesn’t correspond with research evidence or lived experience. (Some contemporary politicians came to mind as I wrote that…but I won’t go there). Worse still, we and others may act on untrue-truisms as if they were true.
What can we do as leaders, coaches, OD and trainers to notice, reveal and test hidden, personal-cultural assumptions that are so often masked and disguised as statements of fact? Firstly, listen for words or phrases that signpost a claim is about to follow, e.g. ‘of course, ‘obviously’, ‘clearly’, ‘self-evidently’, ‘everyone knows that’. Secondly, acknowledge that the explicit truth claim represents an implicit belief. Thirdly, open it up for critical exploration and evaluation.
Can I help you develop critical reflective practice?
Get in touch! email@example.com
'In ‘Leadership and Self-Deception’ (2006), the Arbinger Institute highlighted the subtle, subconscious and serious art of deceiving ourselves and others in organisations...without realising it. This short article says a bit more about this strange risk phenomenon and invites your insights and ideas on how to address it!
Is everything we know wrong?'
In 2010, the BBC released a ground-breaking Horizon documentary entitled, ‘Is Everything We Know About the Universe Wrong?’ It set out to question and challenge current, fundamental and widely-held scientific beliefs about the universe, particularly in relation to ‘dark matter’, ‘dark energy’ and ‘dark flow’. Perhaps the most radical dimension to the investigation was its willingness to wonder. Are our hypotheses, our cosmological theories, so convincing to us, so self-evidently true for us, that they blind us, close down uncomfortable questions, act as powerful psychological-cultural filters?
It coincided with the release of a plethora of popular books (e.g. Chabris & Simons’, The Invisible Gorilla, 2011; McRaney’s, You are Not so Smart, 2012) that set out to reveal and challenge our cognitive and cultural limitations and distortions. An underlying, recurring theme is that self- and group deception act in stealth mode. We are most deceived when we don’t know we’re deceived. We face the same challenges as leaders, coaches, OD or trainers: how to practise reflexivity/praxis ('critical reflective practice') whilst enabling other people, groups and organisations to do so too.
Thomas Aquinas offers useful psychodynamic insight here. If we face an unresolved question that captures our interest and imagination, it sets us off on a quest, a journey, of discovery. If, however, we find an explanation or solution that we find convincing, the mind comes to a standstill, our thinking comes to a halt. This is a reason why transformational teachers such as Jesus, Buddha and Socrates are famous for posing high order, high quality, questions, puzzles or paradoxes – searching, evocative, provocative stimuli that leave us deeply restless until, if possible, we find resolution.
So, some food for thought: As leader, coach, OD or trainer, what are you, or your clients, assuming or taking at face value? When have you, or they, leapt to a conclusion too soon, treating an open question as if it were a closed one? What rules, principles or received wisdom (e.g. ‘good practice’) do you, or they, consider obvious or sacred? When do you, or they, shut down questions or avenues of inquiry because they feel too difficult or sensitive to raise? Which tricky issues, experiences or conversations are you, or they, avoiding? How can you get self-deception out of stealth mode?
Can I help you develop critical reflective practice?
Get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org
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