‘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)
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?
‘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.
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
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