‘If you want to know what your true values are, have a look at your diary and your bank statement.’ (Selwyn Hughes)
Take any example of an important-to-you decision that you have taken during this past week. Consciously or subconsciously, directly or indirectly, it will have reflected something of your underlying beliefs and values. At one level, every decision we take with awareness represents the outcome of a choice point, analogous to a choice of a direction at an intersection in a road. Guiding principles are a way of choosing to align our decisions and behaviour with our beliefs, ethics and values.
I worked with a group recently where, during feedback, participants commented on how they felt impacted by what they saw and experienced as my ‘distinctive’ style and approach. They were curious and asked me what, if anything, lay behind this – that which they had experienced – for me. What is it that makes the difference?
I held up a small, yellow, post-it note to the screen. On it are written 3 words in my own scrawled handwriting: Prayer, Presence, Participation. These are, if you like, the guiding principles that underpin me personally and all of my work professionally. I carry them with me and have them stuck on my desk, beside the monitor. I pause and focus on them consciously and deliberately before, say, writing a message, joining a conversation or running a workshop. They really do matter to me.
Prayer is inviting and opening myself to God’s insight, wisdom and power. He is able to reveal, do and achieve things that are truly impossible for me alone. Presence is ensuring quality of attention and contact with each person or group that I will meet. It’s viewing and approaching each person, each moment, as a sacred encounter. Participation is an invitational spirit that calls for humility and courage. It means engaging with people, not simply technology or any materials that we may use.
At the end of the conversation, I invited each person in the group to reflect for a moment – for as long as they needed – and to write down 3 words that, perhaps, they would choose to underpin their own practice. They did this thoughtfully, alone, then each shared with others in the group what they had written. This felt so much deeper and more meaningful than simple words on paper could capture or convey. It was about integrity, authenticity and congruence: choosing to take a stance.
What core principles guide the focus and parameters of your decisions and behaviour? What stance are you willing to take?
‘I like to deal with things in the order in which they are going to kill me.' (Rita Cooper)
In response to Rita’s satirical note (above), we could imagine prioritising in simple form by posing a question such as: ‘Is it going to kill me? a. Yes. b. No. c. Maybe.’ Sorted. :) A different question, orientated around vision and values, could be, ‘In 5 years' time, what will make me feel proud of the decision I take now?’ It brings existential-spiritual ethics and wisdom sharply into view.
A recurring theme in leadership, coaching and organisation development (OD) is how to prioritise, especially when faced with an array of options and each with its own implications. The challenge is compounded if a context keeps shifting, or if different stakeholders value and demand different things. It can feel like being caught in a bewildering, exhausting, push-pull, tug of war.
Common prioritisation tools include a map of urgency against importance; or value against cost (or risk); or probability (or difficulty, or effort) against impact. The Pareto Principle suggests that 80% of the most significant outcomes arise from 20% of actions or resource investments. A critical path analysis can help to determine what should take precedence at different phases of a timeline.
Useful as they are, a limitation of these methods is that they are, essentially, tactical management techniques that aim to enable us to navigate from point A to point B. A transformational approach calls us to reflect broadly and deeply. A question of what B may represent and how I may choose to get there from point A draws vision, values, identity, meaning and purpose into the frame.
What criteria do you use when choosing priorities? How do you decide who or what takes first place?
‘Should I stay or should I go?’ (The Clash)
Buridan’s Ass: a paradox in which a hungry donkey finds itself standing precisely midway between two identical stacks of hay. Vacillating with indecision because there are no grounds for choosing a preferred option, the poor donkey starves to death. Whilst often used in philosophy to debate issues of free will vs determinism, this allegory also serves as a graphic illustration of ambivalence.
‘Ambivalence is simultaneously wanting and not wanting something, or wanting both of two incompatible things…Take a step in one direction and the other starts looking better. The closer you get to one alternative, the more its disadvantages become apparent while nostalgia for the other beckons.’ (Miller, W. & Rollnick, S., Motivational Interviewing: Helping People to Change, 2013).
We may experience this tug-of-war viscerally when faced with important and equally-compelling choices between X and Y in, say, relationships, careers or other significant life decisions. We may, likewise, experience a paralysis of analysis, a type of over-thinking if multiple options are available to us yet with no unequivocally-convincing reason to choose one course of action over another.
Ambivalence can leave a person procrastinating, ineffective, drained and frustrated. It’s as if relative pros and cons balance out and leave us stuck. So how to break the deadlock and enable a change? Here are some ideas. 1. Enable a person to step back from the immediate decision to see a bigger picture. ‘What’s more important here: to make a choice, or to choose one option over another?’
2. Ask the person: ‘What’s your intuition or gut instinct telling you, irrespective of whether or not you can see a rationale for it?’ 3. Help the person to explore different and broader perspectives: ‘Which option would e.g. God, your CEO, your team, your family or yourself 5 years from now, prefer you to take?’ 4. Support and challenge the person to take a decision and to stick with it.
How do you deal with ambivalence? Do you feel stuck? Get in touch!
When things get stuck
When teams are under pressure, e.g. dealing with critical issues, sensitive topics or working to tight deadlines, tensions can emerge that lead to conversations getting stuck. Stuck-ness between two or more people most commonly occurs when at least one party’s underlying needs are not being met, or a goal that is important to them feels blocked.
The most obvious signs or stuck-ness are conversations that feel deadlocked, ping-pong back and forth without making progress or go round and round in circles. Both parties may state and restate their views or positions, wishing the other would really hear. If unresolved, responses may include anger/frustration (fight) or disengagement/withdrawal (flight).
If such situations occur, a simple four step process can make a positive difference, releasing the stuck-ness to move things forward. It can feel hard to do in practice, however, if caught up in the drama and the tense feelings that ensue! I’ve found that jotting down questions as an aide memoire can help, especially if stuck-ness is a repeating pattern.
1. Observation. (‘What’s going on?’). This stage involves metaphorically (or literally) stepping back from the interaction to notice and comment non-judgementally on what’s happening. E.g. ‘We’re both stating our positions but seem a bit stuck’. ‘We seem to be talking at cross purposes.’
2. Awareness. (‘What’s going on for me?’). This stage involves tuning into my own experience, owning and articulating it, without projecting onto the other person. E.g. ‘I feel frustrated’. ‘I’m starting to feel defensive.’ ‘I’m struggling to understand where you are coming from.’ ‘I’m feeling unheard.’
3. Inquiry. (‘What’s going on for you?’). This stage involves inquiring of the other person in an open spirit, with a genuine, empathetic, desire to hear. E.g. ‘How are you feeling?’ ‘What are you wanting that you are not receiving?’ ‘What’s important to you in this?’ ‘What do you want me to hear?’
4. Action. ('What will move us forward?’) This stage involves making requests or suggestions that will help move the conversation forward together. E.g. ‘This is where I would like to get to…’ ‘It would help me if you would be willing to…’. ‘What do you need from me?’ ‘How about if we try…’
Shifting the focus of a conversation from content to dynamics in this way can create opportunity to surface different felt priorities, perspectives or experiences that otherwise remain hidden. It can allow a breathing space, an opportunity to re-establish contact with each other. It can build understanding, develop trust and accelerate the process of achieving results.
What does it mean?
‘What is most important about any event is not what happened, but what it means. Events and meanings are loosely coupled: the same events can have very different meanings for different people because of differences in the schema that they use to interpret their experience.’ These illuminating words from Bolman & Deal in Reframing Organisations (1991) have stayed with me throughout my coaching and OD practice.
They have strong resonances with similar insights in rational emotive therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy. According to Ellis, what we feel in any specific situation or experience is governed (or at least influenced) by what significance we attribute to that situation or experience. One person could lose their job and feel a sense of release to do something new, another could face the same circumstances and feel distraught because of its financial implications.
What significance we attribute to a situation or experience and how we may feel and act in response to it depends partly on our own personal preferences, beliefs, perspective and conscious or subconscious conclusions drawn from our previous experiences. It also depends on our cultural context and background, i.e. how we have learned to interpret and respond to situations as part of a wider cultural group with its own history, values, norms and expectations.
A challenge and opportunity in coaching and OD is sometimes to help a client (whether individual or group) step back from an immediate experience and reflect on what the client (or others) are noticing and not noticing, what significance the client (or others) are attributing to it and how this is affecting emotional state, engagement, choices and behaviour. Exploring in this way can open the client to reframing, feeling differently and making positive choices.
In his book, Into the Silent Land (2006), Laird makes similar observations. Although speaking about distractions in prayer and the challenges of learning stillness and silence, his illustrations provide great examples of how the conversations we hold in our heads and the significance we attribute to events often impact on us more than events themselves. He articulates this phenomenon so vividly that I will quote him directly below:
‘We are trying to sit in silence…and the people next door start blasting their music. Our mind is so heavy with its own noise that we actually hear very little of the music. We are mainly caught up on a reactive commentary: ‘Why do they have to have it so loud!’ ‘I’m going to phone the police!’ ‘I’m going to sue them!’ And along with this comes a whole string of emotional commentary, crackling irritation, and spasms of resolve to give them a piece of your mind when you next see them. The music was simply blasting, but we added a string of commentary to it. And we are completely caught up in this, unaware that we are doing much more than just hearing music.
‘Or we are sitting in prayer and someone whom we don’t especially like or perhaps fear enters the room. Immediately, we become embroiled with the object of fear, avoiding the fear itself, and we begin to strategise: perhaps an inconspicuous departure or protective act of aggression or perhaps a charm offensive, whereby we can control the situation by ingratiating ourselves with the enemy. The varieties of posturing are endless, but the point is that we are so wrapped up in our reaction, with all its commentary, that we hardly notice what is happening, although we feel the bondage.’
This type of emotional response can cloud a client’s thinking (cf ‘kicking up the dust’) and result in cognitive distortions, that is ways of perceiving a situation that are very different (e.g. more blinkered or extreme) than those of a more detached observer. In such situations, I may seek to help reduce the client’s emotional arousal (e.g. through catharsis, distraction or relaxation) so that he or she is able to think and see more clearly again.
I may also help the client reflect on the narrative he or she is using to describe the situation (e.g. key words, loaded phrases, implied assumptions, underlying values). This can enable the client to be and act with greater awareness or to experiment with alternative interpretations and behaviours that could be more open and constructive. Finally, there are wider implications that stretch beyond work with individual clients.
Those leading groups and organisations must pay special attention to the symbolic or representational significance that actions, events and experiences may hold, especially for those from different cultural backgrounds (whether social or professional) or who may have been through similar perceived experiences in the past. If in doubt, it’s wise ask others how they feel about a change, what it would signify for them and what they believe would be the best way forward.
Diving deep in the coaching pool
What is real, what is true, how can we know? These are questions that have vexed philosophers for centuries. In more recent times, we have seen an increasing convergence between philosophy and psychology in fields such as social constructionism and existential therapy. How we experience and make sense of being, meaning and purpose is inextricably linked to how we behave, what we choose and what stance we take in the world.
As a Christian and psychological coach, I’m intrigued by how these fundamental issues, perspectives and actions intertwine with my beliefs, spirituality and practice. Descartes once wrote, ‘If you would be a real seeker after truth, you must at least once in your life doubt, as far as possible, all things.’ It’s as if we must be prepared to suspend all assumptions about ‘what is’, to explore all possibilities and dare to think the unthinkable in order to grow and make our best contribution.
Things are not always as they at first appear. There are sometimes multiple explanations for the same phenomenon, depending on the frame of reference we or others use to interpret it (see, for instance, Gareth Morgan’s seminal work, Images of Organisation, 1986). We are sometimes blinded to what’s in front of us by our prejudices, preconceptions, cultural constraints or rigid views of the world. It can be hard to maintain healthy scepticism without cynicism.
I see it with clients, sometimes in myself too. A sense of being trapped by a fixed Gestalt, a cognitive distortion, an inherited or learned belief system. An inability to see, to recognise the box that we’re in, never mind to see or think outside of it. An avoidance of deep, difficult questions because of the discomfort, confusion or anxiety they may evoke. If we’re not careful, if we can’t find the right help when we need it, it may limit our lives and our learning.
I think this is where coaching can play a very important role, helping pose and address some deep questions. Nick Bolton commented insightfully in Coaching Today that, ‘To explore a coaching issue existentially is to understand the relationship that the presenting problem has to the human condition to which it is a response, and to remain focused on enabling a change of perspective that allows the client to move past their current challenge.’
He also provided some helpful examples: ‘For instance, how is a client’s procrastination around something that seems to matter to her a failure to remember that life comes to an end? How is a client’s need to be unconditionally loved by his partner an attempt to deal with existential rather than interpersonal isolation? (And the solutions are very different things). How is someone’s lethargy simply a part of their fear of taking responsibility for their life?’ (July 2013, p17)
A metaphysical, existential or theological dimension can shift the entire paradigm of the coaching conversation. The question of whether a client should apply for this or that job is influenced by her sense of purpose. If she is willing to consider that God may exist and have a plan for her life, the whole situational context will change. It can be a dizzying and exciting experience, yet it’s really a question of how courageous and radical we and the client are prepared to be.
I had precautionary tests this week for a potentially life-threatening condition. Thankfully, the results turned out to be OK but it’s experiences like this that often bring existential issues into sharp relief. Existential coaching focuses on helping a person explore his or her own sense of ‘being in the world’, that strange psychic awareness that we are in the world before what we are in the world. At times, such awareness can feel mysterious, unfathomable, disorientating and anxiety-provoking. It’s like one of those moments when, as a child, I gazed up into the night sky, saw the stars and the enormity of space, imagined space and time going on forever and felt dizzy and perplexed by it. It can also raise deep questions to the surface such as, ‘Who am I?’ and 'Why am I here?’
According to existentialist thought, our essence as a person isn’t fixed but we become who we are through the choices we make. Our choices are influenced by factors such as the assumptions, beliefs, judgements, hopes and fears etc. we hold about ourselves, the same we hold about others and how we experience and act in our relationships with others, in our everyday circumstances and in the decisions we face and make. Existentialist writers sometimes refer to this as our ‘stance in the world’, that is, how we perceive, position ourselves and act in our everyday lives. Our stance both reflects something of our sense of and our way of being in the world and shapes who we are and become in the world. I can share a personal example to illustrate this phenomenon.
When my youngest daughter was 7 years old, I took her to a theme park that had a very high and steep ‘death slide’. I was surprised and impressed to see her quietly but resolutely psyche herself up to leap down its harrowing slope. When she finally did do it, I asked her how she managed to bring herself to push herself off its terrifying edge. She responded in a way that humbled and amazed me: ‘Firstly, when you told me it would be OK, I trusted you that it would be OK, even though it looked so scary. Secondly, when I write about what we did today in my diary tonight, I want to be able to write that I went on the slide even though I was afraid of it, not that I didn’t go on the slide because I was afraid of it. That’s the kind of person I want to be.’ I felt awe-struck and speechless.
Curiously, we are often unaware of making choices, or deny to ourselves that we are making choices in order to avoid the responsibility that choice implies, and unaware of the underlying metaphysical world view we hold that both influences and is influenced by our choices. It’s as if we can live at a superficial level, sometimes choose to live at that level as a form of self defence or life-coping mechanism. The problem is that if we only live at that level, we may fail to be who we can become in the world; deny ourselves and others a deeper and more fulfilling life experience; struggle with contact in intimate relationships; expend our time, energy and resources on distractions that aim to suppress or avoid facing the discomfort and anxiety that existential issues can evoke.
One of the goals of existential coaching is therefore to raise world view and choice into awareness in order enable clients to live more authentic lives. It’s about enabling clients to acknowledge and deal with underlying anxiety, tensions and conflicts that could be experienced symptomatically in psychological, emotional, physical or relational difficulties or in problematic patterns of behaviour. Duerzen summarises this approach in Skills in Existential Counselling and Psychotherapy (2011) as, ‘to help people to get better at facing up to difficulties with courage instead of running away from them’. It necessarily involves a willingness to explore issues beneath the surface, a willingness to face anxiety and a willingness to explore alternative ways of being and acting in the world.
This reminds me of a volunteer assignment I did with a Christian social worker and psychologist in Germany not long after the Berlin wall came down and East and West were reunified. We were working in a social work project with young people, often from fairly poor and dysfunctional family backgrounds, who were being seduced by the far right to join new neo-Nazi groups. The groups provided these young people with a much-needed sense of identity, belonging and purpose in the world. As part of his practice, the social worker would touch sensitively on spiritual issues and questions where it seemed appropriate. A secular humanistic colleague challenged him vehemently on this, insisting that social workers should never stray into the spirituality arena.
The social worker empathised with his colleague’s concerns about professional ethics and the risks of pressurising and indoctrinating vulnerable young people. At the same time, he believed that true spirituality speaks to life’s deepest questions, experiences and actions. The social worker responded, ‘These young people often talk in therapy about their deepest fears, about life and death, issues that are very real for them. It’s often such fears that lead them to seek a sense of identity, security and purpose in these sinister groups. We cannot afford to separate our thinking or our practice into neat, distinct, spheres of influence. The matters we and they are dealing with bring profound psychosocial, existential and spiritual issues face to face in the room.’ I agree.
So what could existential coaching look like in practice? Firstly, the coach will invite the client to share their story, particularly focusing on issues that led them to work with a coach in the first place. The coach’s role at this stage is primarily to listen and, over time, to reflect back any beliefs and values that surface implicitly or explicitly in the client’s account, particularly in terms of how the client perceives themselves, others, issues and their situation. In this sense, the coach is acting as a sounding board and a mirror, enabling the client to grow in awareness of his or own world view. The coach will go on to focus on specific tensions that may emerge, e.g. between the client’s underlying beliefs and values and the stances or actions they are choosing in practice.
The intention here is to surface the client’s underlying personal and cultural metaphysic rather than simply his or her way of perceiving and responding to an immediate issue. This approach is based on a belief that the client’s general world view or stance-in-the-world will influence e.g. what issues the client perceives as significant; how they perceive, experience and evaluate them; what their subjective needs and aspirations are; what approaches and actions they will consider valid or appropriate; what actions they will be prepared to commit to and sustain etc. This approach also enables the client to explore any tensions within their world view, between that world view and those of others in their situation and between their world view and their actions.
The problem with the language of ‘world view’ in describing such an approach is that that it sounds too conscious, too cognitive, too coherent. The focus of existential coaching is profoundly subjective and phenomenological, that is, how the client actually experiences and responds to his or her being-in-the-world at the deepest psychological levels. In that sense, it’s as much about how a person feels, the questions they struggle with and what they sense intuitively as what they may think or believe rationally. Again, there are important links for me with a spiritual dimension. As I faced my own health-related tests this week, for instance, I experienced my faith in God as something more like a subconscious, mysterious, inner ‘knowing’ than a rational assent to a set of beliefs.
As the coaching conversation progresses, the coach may help the client identify choices he or she is making (including by default), potential choices he or she could take in the future and how to integrate the client’s choices with his or her chosen being and stance in the world in order to live a more authentic and thereby less conflicted life. At one level, this enables the client to become more aware of and honest about their decisions and actions and to act with a greater sense of freedom and responsibility. At another level, it opens up more opportunities for the future than the client may have perceived previously. It can feel very liberating and energising to discover fresh ways of perceiving and acting in situations that have previously felt stuck or entrapping.
Sample coaching methods could involve helping the client reframe experiences as choices or to change their language from passive to active voice. For example, ‘I have to write this report for my boss by Friday’ or ‘This report needs to be written by Friday’ sound and feel less empowering than, ‘I will choose to write this report for my boss by Friday’. It enables the client to take ownership of their choices and to weigh up alternative courses of action. After all, if it’s a choice, I can choose differently, although I will need to weigh up the relative pros and cons of different choices. My best choices are congruent with my underlying beliefs and values, e.g. in this case, respect for authority, the sense of a job well done or a desire to keep my job so I can pay my bills.
The coach is likely to help the client connect their choices with their underlying world view. One way to approach this is to use the ‘7 whys’ technique whereby each time the client explains why they are choosing a certain course of action, the coach responds with, ‘…and why is that important to you?’ until the client’s deepest values, aspirations and anxieties surface. I will end this piece by posing some brief existential questions for personal reflection: Who am I? What personal stance do I want to take in the world? How do I handle contradiction, ambiguity, uncertainty and paradox? What is most important to me? What is God or this situation calling for from me? How consistent are my choices with my values? How well do my actions reflect the person I aspire to be?
Theory of change
What’s your theory of change? What issues are you trying to address? What creates and sustains those issues? What kind of interventions and when are most likely to prove successful? What would success look and feel like, and for whom? What is your overall goal? These are some of the questions we looked at on a Theory of Change workshop I took part in yesterday. Theories of change are becoming increasingly commonplace in the third sector, paralleling e.g. strategy maps in other sectors. There are a number of reasons for this. Charities and NGOs are under increasing scrutiny from supporters and funders to demonstrate how their resources are being used to achieve optimal impact. This has created a whole industry in impact evaluation.
The third sector is maturing too. No longer driven into action by empathy or altruistic instinct alone, organisations in this sector have more experience, more evidence of what works and what doesn’t and more analysis and understanding of why. The issues have turned out to be more complex than some had originally imagined, making significant and sustained progress challenging. Against this backdrop, a theory of change can prove valuable. It aims to clarify goals and outcomes and to work back to activities and other factors that will enable the outcomes to be achieved. In articulating these things clearly and succinctly (often in simple graphic flowchart form), underlying assumptions and causal links can be surfaced, explained and tested.
At heart, a theory of change answers questions such as ‘What are we trying to achieve?’, ‘What is necessary for the goal to be achieved?’ and ‘What’s the rationale behind our intervention strategy?’ In doing so, it makes the organisation’s focus, operations and use of resources transparent, accountable and more open to challenge and improvement as new research and evidence emerges. I find myself particularly drawn to the critical-reflective aspects. For instance, one NGO I worked with conducted a fundamental strategy review starting with these same principles, asking questions such as, ‘Why are people poor?, ‘What causes and sustains poverty?’, ‘What interventions make the greatest difference?’, ‘What is our optimal contribution?’
One of the interesting challenges for a third sector organisation is whose voice is represented in framing and answering such questions, e.g. donors, beneficiaries, trustees, staff, volunteers. A charitable organisation I work with currently conducted a strategy review recently, inviting feedback from beneficiaries using surveys, focus groups etc. to find out what they struggle with and aspire to and what role they would want to see the organisation playing in helping them address or achieve these issues. The needs and aspirations that surfaced have been summarised as ‘I’ rather than ‘we’ or ‘they’ statements in clear and colloquial language, keeping the focus on what each individual as beneficiary wants to experience as a result of the organisation’s actions.
This is a sharp contrast with some experiences I’ve had in the past. In one instance, a third sector organisation I worked with set up a drop-in project providing advice and support for long-term unemployed people. The Local Authority provided funding using ‘number of people using the service’ as its key success criterion. Paradoxically, the more successful the service was in enabling local people to find employment, thereby reducing the number of people who needed to access the service, the more the service was deemed statistically by the Local Authority to be failing. A theory of change can help surface such outcomes and assumptions at an early stage, enabling more constructive dialogue and agreement between agencies and stakeholders.
I believe the potential for theory of change extends beyond third sector organisations aiming to articulate their vision, strategy, plans and reasons behind them. I’ve used similar methodologies to explore and articulate an organisation development strategy within a third sector organisation. We started by exploring a number of questions with diverse stakeholders and groups such as, ‘What kind of organisation are we trying to develop?’, ‘Where are we now?’, ‘Why are things as they are?’, ‘What drives or sustains how things are?’, ‘What matters most to people here?’, ‘Who or what influences change?’, ‘What would it take to achieve the changes?’ This enabled us to create a map showing goals, activities, assumptions and causal relationships.
The same principles can be applied at team and individual levels too, e.g. for leadership, coaching, mentoring, training and counselling purposes. It enables dialogue between different parties and keeps rationale and assumptions explicit. If assumptions are clear to all parties, they can be challenged and revised in light of different preferences, perspectives, realities and evidence. I’ve used adaptations of this approach with people and organisations where Christian beliefs have been held as important and integral, developing the model as a theology of change. A theology of change may surface and articulate e.g. God’s purpose, values, presence and activity in the world, the role of the Spirit and Christians, discerning a sense of ‘calling’.
In my experience, the language and methods of applying theory or change need to be adapted for different purposes and audiences. It represents a logical-rational paradigm that is likely to work well for some people and cultures but not so well for others. Using Honey & Mumford’s learning styles as one possible frame of reference, theory of change (as the name implies) may appeal most to people, teams or cultures with a theorist orientation. Reflectors may be attracted most by its emphasis on surfacing underlying assumptions, activists by the evidential dimensions and pragmatists by its focus on outcomes. Perhaps the key lies in using the principles it embodies flexibly and sensitively in the context of real human dialogue and relationship.
Art of influence
What makes a great influencer? What influences you? What have been your best and worst experiences of influencing other people? What have you found makes the difference?
Influence is sometimes described as the art or psychology of persuasion. It’s about creating a shift in a person or group’s beliefs, thinking, feelings, attitudes, actions or behaviour. We’re influencing all the time through our everyday social interactions but not always in the ways we would hope for. For example, as you read what I’m writing here, your own views about influencing will be affected at some level. It could strengthen your existing beliefs or create a shift, no matter how small. The art of influencing is at heart about enabling a shift in the direction that the influencer hopes for.
This implies at the outset that influence demands intentionality. It implies a deliberate act, a strategy or sorts, with a particular goal in mind. This intention is not always clear, however, even to the influencer. We’re not always sure what influences our own behaviour, even if we rationalise or post-rationalise it at a conscious level. So, for instance, I could tell and convince myself that I’m behaving or acting in a certain way because that explanation feels more personally or socially acceptable, even if deeper factors or motivations are at work at subconscious or unconscious levels.
Assuming for argument’s sake that I have a clear and conscious intention or goal in mind, what can I do to create a shift in another towards my desired direction? As a leader or manager, I could use my positional power to demand a change in action or behaviour. It could result in compliance to achieve reward or avoid punishment, or resistance as an effort to avoid the change. It’s unlikely, however, to change the other party’s underlying beliefs, values, attitudes etc. in the way that I may hope for, especially if I want to achieve transformational and sustainable change.
This is of course one of the critical challenges of change leadership: how to move a person or group to a psychological place where they choose freely to change without coercion or external pressure. It’s the same kind of challenge faced by trainers and marketeers: how to influence people’s attitudes, choices and behaviours without access to formal power or authority to ensure those changes happen. It begs interesting and important ethical questions, e.g. how to achieve a shift without unethically manipulating people or groups, especially those who are vulnerable.
In my experience, a key factor in influencing is understanding what matters most to other people. This is often the starting point for market research, surveying targeted populations to find out what they choose and why. If I understand what matters to you, what you value most, I can frame my product, service, idea, argument, language etc. in terms that will make it feel familiar, acceptable or attractive to you. In advertising, I may use people or images you consider iconic, admirable, inspiring or trustworthy to build a psychological bridge towards you – and to entice you to cross it.
The same principles apply to influencing in the workplace. Recognising that employee engagement influences talent retention and organisational performance, many organisations conduct staff surveys, pulse checks, focus groups etc. to understand how the organisation feels to those who work for it. Such surveys provide opportunity for leaders and staff to influence the organisational culture and climate and for staff to influence what leaders pay attention to. Some of the more sophisticated surveys check ‘what matters most to you’ alongside general satisfaction scores.
Many organisations also use a whole variety or initiatives including competency frameworks, performance management systems, reward and recognition strategies to identify, publicise, affirm and reinforce behaviours that leaders consider most valuable for the organisation. All of these processes aim at some level to influence perspectives, attitudes and actions. The leadership agenda involves not only understanding what matters most to staff but influencing what people will choose in order to align personal choices and decisions with what the organisation wants or needs.
So, what are the key factors that enable us to be effective influencers? Firstly, have a clear and explicit intention. If we have mixed or hidden motives, we lack integrity, others will pick it up intuitively and it will undermine trust. If you’re unsure what your true motives are, reflect on this honestly with a critical colleague or friend beforehand. Secondly, research and understand what matters most to other people. If we can tap into others’ language, culture, values and goals and address them well in what we propose, we are more likely to build bridges and achieve win-win solutions.
Thirdly, have a clear sense of what we want others to think, feel or do differently. This enables us to design and communicate messages clearly. I often ask myself before presentations or meetings, for instance: ‘What do I want people to think, feel and do as a result of what I do today?’ Fourthly, reward changes in ways that others value and appreciate. If we ask those we seek to influence, for instance: ‘How do you want to do this?’, ‘What would make this worthwhile for you?’ or ‘What would make a great outcome for you?’, it demonstrates humanity, relationship, humility and respect.
New year resolutions
Did you make New Year resolutions this year? The new year marks a symbolic new beginning, an opportunity to leave the past behind and to create a fresh and hope-filled future. Our resolutions focus our attention and efforts on things we want to do or to change for the better. We could think of them as goals or aspirations, a chance to break a habit or to do something new.
There are principles we can draw from coaching that improve our chances of success. For example, if I focus on something that really matters to me, I’m more likely to be motivated to achieve it than if I focus on something more trivial. So I can test my goals with something like, ‘On a scale of 1-10, how important is this to me?’ or ‘What would make this really worthwhile?’
The clearer my goal is, the more likely I am to achieve it. Say, for example, if I decide to get fitter (one of my actual goals for this year), I’m more likely to do something about it if I’m more specific, e.g. I will cycle 10 miles every weekend, or 500 miles by the end of the year. I can make myself accountable by making it public and creating a visual, colourful wall chart to mark progress.
I’m also more likely to achieve it if I consider what could prevent me doing it. This is a personal reality check. What will get in the way? What will stop me achieving it? I can ask myself questions such as ‘What got in the way when I’ve tried to do similar things in the past?’, ‘What has helped me persevere in the past?’, ‘What will I do practically to overcome obstacles this time?’
So for instance, since one of my resolutions is to get fitter by cycling, what will I do if it rains or if I’m too tired? I need to make contingency plans. ‘If it rains on the day I plan to cycle, I will swim 25 lengths at the pool instead’, or ‘If I’m too tired, I will cycle on the following day instead.’ It builds in flexibility that helps me to stay on track and avoid losing momentum.
Enlisting others to support us can make a great difference. This is one of the benefits of doing things with a peer group, people sharing similar interests or goals. Alternatively, we may find someone who is prepared to cheer us on as we make progress, challenge us if we go astray or encourage us if we start to lose heart. Seek out e.g. family, colleagues or friends – or God.
Finally, make a point of choosing motivational rewards for yourself as you achieve key milestones on route and the final goal itself. These rewards enable us to celebrate progress, are a way of pausing to notice how far we have moved on and incentivise us for the next steps. It’s about maintaining focus, energy and determination, often over a period of time. Keep on keeping on!
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