‘Language is power, life and the instrument of culture, the instrument of domination and liberation.’ (Angela Carter)
In her challenging and ground-reclaiming polemic, Drop the Disorder, psychotherapist Jo Watson comments that, “The counselling profession (and in that I include psychotherapy) is helping to endorse a medical understanding of emotional distress that is based on ‘What is wrong with you?’ and not ‘What has happened to you?’” I heard a similar-but-different reframing of the issue from Paul Kelly at a Leading & Influencing Trauma-Informed Change workshop today, advocating a shift from “What’s the matter with you?” to “What matters to you?”
The striking feature of both these examples is the profound impact of language on reflecting and reinforcing the ways in which people and situations are construed and responded to. In Jo Watson’s case, the first framing regards an issue as some form of dysfunction in an individual. The alternative looks beyond the individual to explore wider potential influencing factors. As radical social reformer Martin Luther King noticed, what appears at first glance as dysfunctional behaviour is sometimes a normal response to dysfunctional circumstances.
In Paul Kelly’s case, similarly, the first framing locates a problem within an individual. It’s a form of pathologizing, implying that a person’s behaviour is a consequence of some internal defect. The alternative invites an exploration of the person’s underlying values and motivations. Behaviour that appears dysfunctional could be a natural response to healthy, unmet hopes and needs in a dysfunctional environment. Kenneth Gergen offers a stark warning here, pointing to risks of a medical model applied uncritically: ‘a diseasing of the population.’
‘The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.’ (John Maynard Keynes)
Once upon a time…I would often get tens if not, on occasion, hundreds of responses to blog posts on LinkedIn. It was a thrilling experience to receive insights, ideas and experiences from people all over the world. Over time, however, the huge flood of responses gradually diminished to a tiny trickle. I felt surprised, disappointed and bemused. What had changed?
I began to ask myself some searching questions: Were people bored with my content? Were fewer people using LinkedIn than before? Were fewer people engaging with posts on LinkedIn generally? I looked at which posts seemed to be getting lots of responses and noticed that they often looked more like Facebook posts: e.g. walking a dog, taking a child to school.
This set me off down a different track. Had there been a shift in societies so that people were no longer interested in thinking through issues and more interested in sharing personal experiences? Had Covid lockdown and isolation shifted our focus from insights and ideas towards the social and relational, to feel less alone? Had we all slipped into a TikTok world?
The problem was, I was asking the wrong questions. My starting assumption was that the critical issue was with my blog content. It led me, like Alice in Wonderland, down perplexing rabbit holes. It took a revelatory conversation with a marketing consultant, James Rowe, to discover the core issue was with my media, impacted by changes to LinkedIn algorithms.
What assumptions are you making? How do you avoid getting stuck?
‘Action Learning aims to shake you out of the cage of your current thinking.’ (Pedler & Boutall)
Action Learning: a method by which someone receives stretching, coaching-type questions from a small group of peers. The aim is to resolve a pressing challenge, a real-life/work issue that has left the person perplexed or stuck. The idea is to leave with actions, practical steps that will help to move things forward. Yet what gets a person stuck in the first place?
If it’s a complex challenge, such as that of navigating the intricacies of diverse human relationships, we may become inadvertently caged by our own assumptions. Gareth Morgan commented that ‘people have a knack for getting trapped in webs of their own creation.’ If we don’t know what assumptions we’re making, everything may seem self-evident to us.
This is where Action Learning and coaching really can help. If we can engender a spirit of curiosity within ourselves and invite challenging questions from different others, we may discover a door emerging in our previously-unseen cage, experience the agency to push it wide open and step outside to embrace fresh possibilities. It could just change...everything.
‘Behind every problem, there is a question trying to ask itself. Behind every question, there is an answer trying to reveal itself.’ (Michael Beckwith)
Second-guessing. It creates all sorts of risks. ‘What time does Paul’s meeting finish?’ Is that a simple request for information, or is there a question behind the question? ‘I’d like to meet with Paul this afternoon. What time will he be free?’ That’s better. ‘I need you to present an urgent strategy update to the Board.’ Again, is that a simple instruction, or is there an issue that lays behind it? ‘I’d like to demonstrate to the Board next week that our investments are achieving the desired results.’ Better.
A problem with a question that fails to reveal the question, the issue, that lays behind the question is that it leaves the other party to fill in the gaps. In doing so, they are likely to draw on their own assumptions – which could be very different to your own – or sometimes their anxieties. ‘Is he complaining that Paul’s meeting is over-running?’ ‘Is she inferring there’s a problem with my work on strategy delivery that I hadn’t been aware of?’ Simply stating our intention can make all the difference.
‘You can never really know someone completely. That’s why it’s the most terrifying thing in the world, really – taking someone on faith, hoping they’ll take you on faith too. It’s such a precarious balance. It’s a wonder we do it at all.’ (Libba Bray)
There’s an idea in Gestalt psychology that we’re predisposed, hard-wired, to ‘fill in the gaps’. Here’s a real and practical example. I was once invited to facilitate a conference of around 50 people from diverse professional backgrounds in the housing sector. I had never met anyone in the group and they had never met me. I stood up on the podium, introduced myself simply as ‘Nick Wright, an organisation development consultant from England’, then invited everyone to take a pen and paper. I explained that I would ask them a series of questions about myself, to which they were to guess the answers.
‘Which newspaper do I read?’ ‘What political party will I vote for at the next General Election?’ ‘Am I married, or single?’ ‘What is my professional background?’ ‘What’s my favourite hobby outside of work?’ I then asked who had been able to answer every question. Everyone raised their hands. I now invited them to draw a simple face against each of their answers – which they wouldn’t be expected to share in the group. A happy face meant their answer drew them towards me; an unhappy face that it pushed me away. A neutral face meant, well, neutral. Again, everyone managed to do it.
I paused and invited them to reflect at their tables on what had just happened. Person after person said how astonished they felt at how quickly and easily they had created a profile of me in their minds, and how that had influenced how they felt about – and were now likely to respond and relate to – me. They had filled in the gaps of not-knowing by drawing on hopes and fears, past experiences, personal projections, cultural assumptions etc. Filling in the gaps enables us to relate quickly to others rather than starting every relationship as if from scratch. It also risks unhelpful stereotyping and bias.
This raised important questions for participants at the conference so I offered 3 principles: compassion, curiosity and challenge. Compassion: ‘What do I need to feel safe to contribute in this group? ‘How can I demonstrate a compassionate stance towards others?’ Curiosity: ‘What assumptions am I making about those around me, e.g. based on their looks, accent or job title?’ ‘Who or what is influencing the ways in which I’m thinking about, feeling about and responding to others?’ Challenge: ‘What am I not-noticing about those around me?’ ‘How open am I to have my beliefs about others tested?’
‘The map of the world is always changing; sometimes it happens overnight. All it takes is the blink of an eye, the squeeze of a trigger, a sudden gust of wind.’ (Anderson Cooper)
I ordered a large and colourful map of South East Asia for my bedroom wall recently. When it arrived, it was subtly different to the one that had been advertised and clearly depicts a Chinese geopolitical view of the region. Taiwan is colour-coded the same as China and the internationally-disputed 9-dash line is boldly marked around the whole of the South China Sea. It struck me how simple representations on a map can both reveal and aim to create a very specific cultural and political view of the world.
I have another large and colourful map of the Earth mounted on the wall above my desk. This one shows the world as ‘upside down’, although the names on the ‘countries’ are still written the ‘right way up’. It feels strange and disorientating to look at and reveals, experientially, how fixed we can become in the representations we hold of of the world we have been taught and learned since childhood. A world map is also a mental map. Every portrayal is an implicit human construct. Nothing is simply ‘how it is’.
'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.
‘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 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.
'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)
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
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