Last week felt like a perfect storm, an unexpected convergence of pressures from all directions that left me reeling. Betsy Kolkea describes it as like having the tail shot off a plane in mid-flight; a sudden loss of control that sets us spinning downward at terrifying speed. I’m reminded me of the dramatic plane-falling-from-the-sky scene in the film Knight & Day, where Cameron Diaz asks Tom Cruise anxiously, ‘Are we going down?’, to which he replies with a grin, ‘It’s just a rapid descent.’
In that satirical moment, the character played by Cruise actually models an important principle in a sudden crisis: create a pause, no matter how brief, to breathe, reflect, weigh up options (and, for me, pray) – then decide and act. I heard a similar idea in a video this week, about how to survive a parachute jump if the parachute doesn’t open. The most important thing is not to panic (yeah right!) and to use the moments available, no matter how brief, to breathe, focus, scan options and choose.
This skill may indeed, of course, come a lot easier and more instinctively if we’ve had opportunity to practise and gain experience beforehand. There’s something about having already been through a challenge and survived, having been tested repeatedly under fire, that can develop a resilience and psychological adaptivity akin to muscle memory. It makes an auto-response possible in the midst of unexpected and extraordinary circumstances and, thereby, creates a vital moment-space to think.
When have you gone into a tailspin? What have you done to recover from a surprise nosedive, a crisis that came from nowhere and hit you out of left field? What can you do to help others caught in free fall?
My daughter is a guinea pig. This afternoon in the bright sunshine, I invited her to take part in an experiment. First, we stepped out into the street and, gesturing to a line of cars parked at the roadside, I asked, “If you were to buy a car, what colour would you choose, or definitely not choose?” She answered, “I’d love a white car.” “OK,” I replied, “let’s go for a walk into town and back. Your task is to count every white car that we pass. If you have the same number as me when we get back here, I will give you £10. How does that sound?” She grinned and willingly agreed.
An hour later, we stopped back where we had started and I asked her, “So, how many red cars did you see?” She looked at me blankly. “I didn’t see any red cars. I counted 206 white cars.” In fact, we had passed 93 red cars, yet she had been so focused on the white cars that she hadn’t seen a single one. This simple experiment illustrates an important psychological phenomenon known as selective attention: “The ability to pay attention to a limited array of all available sensory information…a filter that helps us prioritize information according to its importance.” (Bertram Ploog, 2013).
Gestalt psychotherapist Geoff Pelham comments that, in any given relationship or situation, we notice who or what matters most to us (The Coaching Relationship in Practice, 2015). This idea of who or what matters most reflects beliefs, values and emotions. In this exercise, my daughter was influenced and motivated by her beliefs (that this experiment would serve some useful purpose), values (the prospect of a £10 reward) and emotion (her choice of a colour she likes). These factors combined to ensure concentration on a task (counting white cars) that required selective attention.
Why is this insight significant in our work with people? The principle extends beyond literal-visual perception to deeper psychological processes too. Our beliefs, values and emotions subconsciously influence our focus and act as filters. We construe personal-shared narratives based on what we perceive. Such narratives appear to us as-if reality, as-if totality, and often without any awareness of who or what we have excluded. As such, narratives always point to and reveal, implicitly, who and what matters most to a person, group or culture, rather than to a definitive account of reality per se.
A key question is, therefore: who or what are we, and others, not-noticing? If we can enable a shift in perception, a re-shaping of a narrative, what then becomes possible?
Interested to do further reading in this area? See: The Art of Looking: Eleven Ways of Viewing the Multiple Realities of our Everyday Wonderland.
Running for the school bus every morning felt like hard work. I don’t know why I didn’t just get up a bit earlier but, hey, I was a teenager. I remember vividly having my attention caught by a programme on TV featuring Timothy Gallwey and his revolutionary idea of The Inner Game. I think it served as an introduction for me to the world of psychological insight. I practised his idea, focusing away from the activity itself onto something else as a distraction, and the running became smoother, easier.
Some years later, the UK’s Guardian Newspaper ran an advertisement on TV, Point of View, that challenged perspective and interpretation. It invited viewers to re-think their own ways of making meaning of events, including the implicit risks of assumptions and prejudice. I found the ad’s message simple yet profound. It was at a time when the need to question everything was already pulsating through my own mind, within a prevailing culture that seemed to question far too little.
Later still, I saw a psychology experiment on TV, The Invisible Gorilla, by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, designed to test selective attention. The narrator invited viewers to try the test for themselves by watching a short video clip with specific instructions to follow. She also suggested that viewers record it so that they could play it back afterwards. I dutifully followed the instructions and was so completely astonished by the results that I did play it back to check if I’d been tricked.
Such influences, among others which now included my Christian faith, drew me into the professional fields of psychological coaching, training and organisation development (OD). I continue to be curious, intrigued and amazed by the dazzling weirdness, complexity and potential of people, teams, groups and organisations, and by different cultures. I hope and pray I will never lose that sense of wonder. Who or what have been the earliest or greatest influences on your life and career?
‘They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.’ (Maya Angelou)
It was a dire and inspiring experience, a hospital for children with severe disabilities in a desperately poor country under military occupation. Conditions were severe, the children were abandoned by their families and the staff were often afraid, suspecting the children were demon-possessed and, therefore, holding them disdainfully at arms’ length. A fellow volunteer, Ottmar Frank, took a starkly different stance. He was a humble follower of Jesus and I have rarely witnessed such compassion at work. I asked him what lay behind his quiet persistence and intense devotion. He said, ‘I want to love these children so much that, if one of them dies, they will know that at least one person will cry.’
Ottmar’s words and his astonishing way of being in the world still affect me deeply today; the profound impact of his presence, and how my own ‘professional’ support and care felt so cold by comparison. I remember the influence he had on others too – how, over time, some others started to emulate his prayer, patience, gentle touch and kindness – without Ottmar having said a word. It invites some important questions for leaders and people, culture and change professionals. If we are to be truly transformational in our work, how far do we role model authentic presence and humanity, seeing the value in every person and conveying through our every action and behaviour: ‘You matter’?
As a young child, a Filipina living in the jungle threw a bucket down a deep well to collect water, but forgot to let go of it. She fell down the well, almost drowned and was rescued at the last minute by her father. He had happened to pass by and was surprised to see that both she and the bucket had vanished. A short while later, this same girl was climbing a guava tree to collect its fruit. Hanging upside-down with her feet around a branch, she parted the leaves and, to her horror, came face to face with a deadly cobra. This time, she did let go, fell and hit the ground hard. It saved her life.
The principle here is to know when to let go. In English, we use to ‘let go’ metaphorically to mean to make a break with the past. It’s as if by letting go, we release ourselves psychologically to move on. (It’s sometimes used euphemistically to mean to make someone redundant – but that isn’t the way in which I’m using it here). It can also mean to relax our metaphorical grip in the present moment. In this sense, it’s the opposite of to grab, hold on tightly or seek to control. It’s about learning to relax, trust, flow and breathe – and, for me, to pray – then to see who or what emerges, new, into view.
Are you holding onto, e.g. a person, home, job, role, income, plan, structure or way of doing things, that's stifling what’s truly possible? How easy do you find it to let go? How do you enable others to do so too?
‘I was so focused on what I had lost, that I lost sight of what I had found.’ (Jerry Orbos)
Orbos, a priest, recounted a story of when, as a small child living in a very poor village, he attended a fiesta. It was a special, exciting party and he was thrilled to be given a balloon. Some moments later, he was given an ice cream too. He could hardly believe it. On taking the ice cream, however, he accidentally let go of the balloon which floated away out of reach. Looking up helplessly, Jerry felt completely distraught. His mother, noticing his distress, whispered, ‘Jerry – look at your ice cream’.
A loss that impacts deeply can leave us feeling hurt, mesmerised, transfixed and paralysed. We may struggle to breathe, as if caught in a trance state and unable – or unwilling – to break free. We may notice this when a person loses, say, a relationship, job or home that really matters to them. ‘What do you need?’ offers valuable empathy and support. ‘What are you not-noticing?’ can help break the gaze; enabling someone to see people, relationships and resources that lay hidden in plain sight.
How do you help people to let go of what is lost? How do you help them to see what they can’t see?
‘Will not conform.’ (Christian Biker)
Misfit. Outsider. Square peg in a round hole. Rocks the boat. Shakes the tree. Breaks the mould. You may have worked with one. You may be one. There are different types of deviance; configured around, 'acceptance or rejection of cultural values and goals' on the one hand and, 'acceptance or rejection of conventional ways to achieve them' on the other (Robert Merton). This means that, if you consider me disruptive, it’s likely to be because I challenge what you want and/or do, and/or how you do it.
A deviant person can feel very uncomfortable to be around, unsettling as a colleague and difficult to manage. The answer to the question, ‘Is he or she a good fit?’ will be a resounding, ‘No’. A deviant person is a testing stone that reveals a contrasting norm; and he/she may galvanise a sense of shared identity and purpose among those who do fit: ‘We are X, not Y’. An oft-unquestioned assumption is that the defiant-dissident should change to fit in, and not that prevailing goals or culture should change.
Yet constructive divergence can be a critical catalyst for transformation: ‘I’m proud to be maladjusted’ (Martin Luther King); ‘Well-behaved women rarely make history’ (Eleanor Roosevelt). Performance enhancers look for positive deviants that display exceptional qualities, then seek to replicate them. Psychological coaches help people to learn from their positive deviant experiences: ‘when the problem isn’t a problem’ (Mark Tyrrell). Radical leaders invite positive deviance to innovate, to break through.
How deviant is your thinking and practice? How do you enable positive deviance in others?
‘My life has been filled with terrible misfortunes; most of which never happened.’ (Michel de Montaigne)
Imagination can be a rich blessing and a painful curse. On the one hand, it can enable the most amazing creativity and innovation; on the other, it can cause the most terrible suffering and pain. Learning to handle and harness the power of the imagination can be a very valuable skill. Yet it can feel like trying to tame a wild horse. We sense and feel its power and potential but can never quite control it. Sometimes it can inspire or entertain us; at other times, it can terrify or overwhelm us.
I remember an advert for an organisation that supports people with a frightening, degenerative, physical disease. It said quite simply, yet so poignantly, ‘It’s what goes through your mind that’s the worst’. I remember, too, a colleague who comments that, ‘The past exists only in memory; the future exists only in imagination.’ Imagination creates the possibility to experience as-if reality, now. So, if that means experiencing our happiest dreams – good; if our worst nightmares – not good.
An opportunity and a challenge is that the brain doesn’t distinguish sharply between actual reality and as-if reality. This means that, if we imagine something vividly enough, it can be as if, mentally, emotionally and physically, we go through that experience for real. That's great for fields like, say, Appreciative Inquiry that capitalise on positive imagination to create a better and brighter future; not great for professionals who experience, say, vicarious trauma or secondary traumatic stress.
How do you draw on the immense power of imagination to achieve positive change? How do you avoid or address its potentially damaging effects?
Cliché: ‘There’s no I in Team’. Linguistically correct; yet conceptually so wrong! Inspiring and effective teamwork is always a dynamic interplay between I, you, we and they. It’s the magic that occurs where personal leadership and team leadership intersect and collide; releasing fresh insight, energy and potential. Here (below) is a short case example. What do you think?
I remember their faces vividly. I was invited to work as team coach with a leadership team that was experiencing significant conflict. Our introductory meeting was filled with deafening silences, with team members looking around or down at their notes to avoid painful eye contact. The next step was to meet with each team member individually. A resounding, recurring theme emerged: the conflict was between 2 team members, with each of the 2 attributing the blame to the other, and the rest of the team were innocent bystanders. It was the 2 protagonists who needed to change.
I invited each of the bystanders, separately, to look back to the last time conflict erupted in a team meeting. ‘What happened?’ They each described the behaviour of the 2. ‘And what did you do?’ They each described sitting back, saying nothing. ‘And why was that?’ Their responses ranged from, ‘I didn’t want to get caught up in the conflict’ to, ‘I didn’t want to be seen as taking sides’ to, ‘I didn’t want to make things worse.’ I pressed on with the challenge, ‘So, as a leader, what could-will you do differently next time?’ They looked bemused, or alarmed, and shuffled uncomfortably in their seats.
What we are seeing here is an intersection between personal leadership and team leadership. The conflict between the 2 was influenced, or supported, or sustained, by the behaviour, the passivity, of the wider group. I teased out different scenarios with the bystanders, the kinds of interventions they could make instead: e.g. ‘I feel really uncomfortable when this kind of conflict breaks out in a meeting.’; ‘When you 2 fight, I find myself withdrawing.’; ‘Let’s find another way to tackle this that doesn’t get so heated.’; ‘Let’s look at how to hold robust conversations that feel more constructive.’
At the next team meeting, I invited team members to share their reflections from our conversations, along with what they would take responsibility for and what they were willing to do. I was amazed by the courage and humility that surfaced: ‘I sometimes sit quietly and don’t say anything when I should. I’m going to try to speak up in future. I want you to help me to do it.’; ‘I play it safe when I should take more risks. From now on, I’m going to say what I’m thinking and feeling, even if I feel scared.’ It was the start of a transformational leadership-team process…where everyone changed.
How can I help you build a more inspiring and effective team? Get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org
‘Don’t try to fly near God. You might not come down.’ (Barclay James Harvest)
‘Hold your nerve.’ It was good advice from a friend and consultant as I started out on a new business venture. It felt exciting and scary in equal measure. I had started out full of hope but my faith was now beginning to waver. Things don’t always work through or work out in the ways that we imagine. Was I missing something? Had I made a mistake somewhere on route? After all, there’s a fine line between persevering courageously in the face of all odds and simply being stubborn or resistant to change where needed. As I pondered this, I recalled a previous and strange experience in my life.
Flashback: at 21, I had decided to follow Jesus and I had left my job and studies in industry to work alongside the poor. I felt called to give away all my possessions, except those that I could fit into my rucksack, and I did so willingly – apart from my motorcycle. I moved from the North to England to a community development project in London. On arrival at the hostel where I would stay, a van hit the bike and knocked it to the ground before I’d even had chance to ring the doorbell. That same night, someone vandalised it at the roadside, stole the suppressor caps and poured sand into the tank.
Just five days later, I was riding the bike to work when a dog leapt out from between parked cars and ran straight under my front wheel. The bike jack-knifed and I flew over the handlebars, somersaulted three times (whacking my helmet hard on the ground each time) and the bike was wrecked. I limped it back to the North to get it fixed and got a front puncture on route. One month later, I rode it back to London and, within 15 minutes, was hit from behind by a hire van travelling at high speed. The driver gave false details, the bike was written off and I sustained serious internal injuries to my back.
One year later, just as my volunteer placement came to an end, astonishingly I received a letter from the van’s insurance company, inviting me to claim against it for the accident. I did so and, with the money, bought a sleeping bag and tent and hitch-hiked around Europe and into the Middle East. It was truly a life-changing experience for me. At the end of this time, I became very sick and went to a local travel agent to find a cheap flight home. ‘That will be £157.83’, they said. I looked at my cheque book stub to see how much was left in my bank account: £157.83. Hold your nerve, hold onto God.
When have you held your nerve – or not – in the face of adversity? What happened and what did you learn from it? How has it influenced your life and your work with clients?
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!