'The optimism of the action is better than the pessimism of the thought.' (Greenpeace)
Resilience is a common buzz word today, partly in response to the complex mental health challenges that individuals and communities face in a brittle, anxious, non-linear and incomprehensible (BANI) world. Who would have imagined 3 years ago, for instance, that Covid19 would strike or that Russia would invade Ukraine, with all the ramifications this has precipitated in our personal and collective lives? It can feel like too much time spent on the back foot, reacting to pressures that may appear from anywhere, without warning, from left field – rather than creating the positive future we hope for.
A psychological, social and political risk is that people and societies develop a ‘Whatever’ attitude, an apathetic ‘What’s the point?’ mentality. After all, what is the point of investing our time, effort and other resources into something that could all get blown away again in a brief moment? A good friend worked in Liberia with a community that was trying to recover from the effects of a bloody civil war. They started to build schools, hospitals and other infrastructure and, just as things were beginning to look hopeful, a violent, armed militia swept through the area and burned everything to the ground.
This can feel like an apocalyptic game of snakes and ladders. Take one step forward and, all of a sudden, back to square one again. A close friend in the Philippines befriended people in a very poor makeshift community, surviving at the side of a busy road in boxes and under tarpaulins. She worked hard to improve the quality of their lives, to ensure that they felt and experienced authentic love, care and support, and it started to have a dramatic human impact. Faces brightened and hopes were lifted. Then, out of nowhere, government trucks appeared and bulldozed that whole place to the ground.
It could be tempting to give up. One coping mechanism is to focus on living just one moment, one day, at a time because, after all, 'Who can know what tomorrow will bring?' This may engender an element of peaceful acceptance, akin to that through mindfulness. It can also morph into a form of passive, deterministic fatalism: ‘We can’t change anything, so why try?’ Martin Luther King's response stands in stark contrast who, in the face of setbacks, advocated, ‘We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would more tragic than to stop at this point. We’ve got to see it through.’
Psychologically, both approaches could be regarded as survival strategies, as personal and social defences against anxiety. In a way, they are adaptive responses: ways of thinking, being and behaving that seek to create a greater sense of agency and control in the face of painful powerlessness. In the former case, a level of control is gained, paradoxically, through choosing to relinquish control. It's a letting-go rather than a clinging-on. In the latter, a fight-response (albeit a faith-fuelled, non-violent fight in the case of MLK), control is sought by changing the conditions that deprive of control.
Each constitutes it's own way of responding to an external reality – and it’s out there as well as in here that the real and tangible challenges of resilience and transformation persist. The social, political and economic needs of the poorest, most vulnerable and oppressed people in the world don’t exist or disappear, depending simply on how we or they may perceive or feel about them. MLK’s call to action was radical: ‘We need to develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness. It’s no longer a question of what will happen to us if we get involved. It’s what will happen to them (and us) if we don’t?’
[See also: Resilient; When disaster strikes; Clash of realities]
‘I turned my head and saw yet another wisp of smoke, on its way to nothingness…’ (King Solomon)
On three separate occasions, a female grass roots activist in the Philippines was followed at night by strangers: men on motorbikes. As she walked alone, they would ride slowly and menacingly behind her, aiming to threaten and intimidate her into silence. She had taken a very public stance against corruption in high places – a stance that, for other activists in her country, had resulted in a deadly blade or a bullet in the back from a passing motorcyclist.
Undeterred, this young woman turned around and confronted the bikers, fearlessly: ‘Even if you kill me, you can’t take my life.’ She’s a radical follower of Jesus who has chosen a determined, startling and courageous life stance at the cutting edge of faith. It stands in stark contrast to the greyness of nothingness that the writer of Ecclesiastes speaks to at the start of this blog. It’s a spiritual-existential stance that holds the potential to transform…everything.
Zoom out now, back to our own lives. Strip back the trappings and tear away the superficial facades. What lays behind and beneath for us? This is the deep stuff of spiritual and existential coaching. It touches on fundamental questions: identity, meaning, purpose and stance. ‘Human life must be risked if it is to be won.’ (Jürgen Moltmann). ‘If you risk nothing, then you risk everything.’ (Geena Davis). I don’t want my life to be a wisp of smoke. You?
(See also: Deep; Spirituality in coaching; Existential coaching)
Few images have more powerful emotional resonance for me than that moment at which the WW2 Allies detonated explosives under a huge marble swastika at the Zeppelinfeld stadium in Nürnberg, Germany. It was the place where, just before the war, Hitler and his followers had held their infamous Nazi rallies. The rallies had proved a potent propaganda weapon, convincing Nazi supporters of their own ‘supremacy’ and intimidating their enemies into fearful submission.
The public destruction of this infamous symbol marked the impending final demise of the deranged Nazi myth and its psychopathic regime, and the end of by far one of the worst eras in human history. I can only imagine how it must have felt for those who had suffered so terribly to witness, at last, this emerging glimmer of hope. Similar evocative and symbolic moments were soon to follow with a Soviet flag over the German Reichstag and an American flag raised on Iwo Jima.
There’s something about these images-as-symbols that capture and express a wider human story and experience. They carry and convey powerful psychological, cultural and emotional meaning for those who understand and identify with what they represent. Other well-known examples of symbols include the Christian cross as a sign of God’s love and salvation through Jesus Christ or, conversely, ominous ‘Z’ insignia on Russian military vehicles during the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
What symbols have a particular resonance for you – and why?
‘To the existentialist, life is like a small child, lost and alone in a deep, dark forest. And the child means nothing to the forest.’ (Peter Hicks)
Hicks’ bleak depiction of the human condition, of an unresolvable existential angst that we face and experience as we find ourselves thrown into this world, is a despairing vision of life without hope. It reflects vividly Jürgen Moltmann’s view that ‘hell is hopelessness’. Yannick Jacob comments that, ‘there is a way to live without this anxiety, at least temporarily, by deceiving ourselves, by closing our eyes to some of the realities of our existence.’ It’s as if we can numb the pain, make ourselves feel better for a time, by distracting ourselves, or drugging ourselves, to feel safer and more alive.
This is, perhaps, a deep root cause of addictive behaviours, of aligning ourselves with extreme positions, of engaging in some forms of extreme sports or of taking medication that seeks to dampen our too-painful-to-handle thoughts and feelings. Instead of being willing to pause, pray and peel back the curtains to reveal what may lay behind our personal and cultural actions and routines, we grip and hold them tightly shut. Over a lifetime, we glue them, stitch them and tape them together. We build barricades to support them, reinforce them and hide them, even to ourselves. Out of sight, out of mind.
At least for a while. Sooner or later, we may inadvertently catch a glimpse, experience an unnerving feeling, find ourselves fighting, falling or failing as the walls creak, crack and start to crumble down. It could be sparked by an accident, a break-up, a failed promotion, an illness, a mid-life crisis, a war. Our defences are weakened, no longer able to withstand the swirling, turbulent pressures that have built up behind them. It’s as if suddenly, as if by a flash of lightning, everything is revealed. Our self-assured confidence collapses and, perhaps for the first time, we experience terrifying vulnerability.
This is the existential backdrop to the Christmas story: an intensely dark crisis that can’t be resolved with a quick-fix solution. For followers of Jesus, it’s a piercing and dazzling hope-filled account of a profoundly transformational encounter between God and humanity, where God takes the first step and enters our reality. When the Bible says ‘Light shines in darkness’, we catch a glimpse of radiant light, life and love now made possible. Whatever your experience as a coach, whatever the experience of your clients in 2021 – let’s face truth gently, with courage and humility – and make hope real.
The brutal murder of Samuel Paty, a teacher in France on Friday, spun freedom of expression back into the media spotlight. Freedom of speech is, after all, a bedrock of Western democracy – not only the safeguarding of the expression of thoughts, feelings, and opinions but also, critically, the right and opportunity to be exposed to those of other people and groups too. The same principle applies in liberal education: learning, development, creativity and innovation emerge from the interaction of diverse insights, experiences and ideas; sometimes awkwardly or angrily if they clash, yet vital for healthy growth.
Emmanuel Macron has described the current Kairos moment as an existential crisis: a fundamental conflict between secular, liberal European values and those of radical Islam. A broader cultural backdrop is, however, a struggle between freedom of speech and freedom from harm, where the latter includes freedom from offence. Brendan O’Neill commented last weekend that, in France, “cancel culture turned murderous…the (teacher’s) beheading was a militarised expression of (it).” The silencing of a voice, the no-platforming of a dissenting view, can lead to dire unintended consequences.
Coming from a very different place politically to O’Neill, Douglas Murray struck a strikingly similar chord in, ‘The Madness of Crowds’ (2019/20): “We are going through a great…derangement”. Cultural and technological upheavals are driving humanity at breakneck speed into uncharted territories where many hitherto beliefs, values and assumptions are being stress-tested to their limits. Grasping at simplistic and polarising stances – no matter how irrational – is one way to feel safer and more purposeful in the world. So, question: What do these feverish times call for from us, as leaders, coaches, trainers and OD?
‘Kairos moments’. Pivotal experiences. What have been the turning points in your career? What happened and what impacts did they have? How have you learned to ride the waves?
I wasn’t trying to be difficult. It felt like an issue of justice. I was in my late teens and this was a trade union meeting in a local town hall. The room was packed full and I sat upstairs in a balcony. The union leaders were in powerful positions, sitting in a row at the front table. Nobody dared to speak or to raise a challenge. To lose membership meant to lose one’s job. ‘We have mortgages to pay and mouths to feed.’ I valued the trade union ideal but, somewhere along the way, this body had lost its visionary, democratic principles. I disliked the way its leaders abused power and traded on fear.
After making long, tedious speeches, reminiscent of a bygone communist era, the main leader stood up and asked if anyone had anything to say. A tense and tangible silence filled the room. I could feel my heart pounding and nerves straining throughout my body. I had to say something, I had to speak. So, much to my colleagues’ amazement, I stood up, took a deep breath and advocated a proposal for democratic reform. The whole room gasped…then fell back to stunned silence. The leader, now red with rage, shot me down for daring to challenge his authority – and inadvertently proved my point.
I was treated like a hero as I left that day, work mates crowding around, punching my shoulders and patting my back with looks of surprise and admiration. It was a defining moment for me. I had stood up to authority, taken a public stance on my beliefs and values and, by God’s grace, managed to stay diplomatic and assertive. There could be no going back now. I organised a union-wide petition and, as a result, came under threat from union reps who warned me that I was ‘playing with fire’. I resigned, left my job and entered human rights and community development work.
I can see a trajectory in my life that had led up to that point, e.g. from when, as a young school boy, I had hated bulling and cruelty to animals and had created an animal rights activist group at school. I can also trace a clear trajectory through my life and career in subsequent years, e.g. in leadership, coaching and OD roles in charities and INGOs, based on my spiritual-existential-humanistic beliefs and values. I still hold that same passion to support people who are poor, vulnerable or oppressed in the world. What have been the defining moments in your life and career? How did you get here?
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I woke on the floor by the front door with blood on my head. I had no idea how I had got there or how long I had been laying in that position. I tried to lift myself up, weakly, and saw pieces of wood all around me. I was puzzled and confused, disorientated. It turns out I had fallen unconscious and fallen through a wooden table. I half-crawled, half-staggered, to a different room and collapsed.
This experience taught me vividly how suddenly and dramatically our circumstances can change. In this case, I had a contracted a severe infection and was rushed into hospital in an ambulance. In other situations, it could be e.g. a sudden loss of a relationship or a job, a loss of someone or something important to us. It can come out of nowhere, leaving us lost, shocked and reeling.
There’s something about loss that can fundamentally challenge our sense of security and certainty, especially in wealthy nations where we cushion and insure ourselves against all kinds of pain and hardship. It can force us to face deep spiritual and existential questions that lay out of reach of simple ‘positive thinking’, e.g. who are we, why are we here, who and what really matters?
So a reflection and challenge for leaders, OD, coaches and trainers. How far do we face and address profound life questions in our work? How far do we allow ourselves to stay on the surface, the superficial, without going deeper? How far are we willing to travel with people, if they want to, into spiritual and existential places? How well do we handle it if people pose such questions to us?
Ouch! Sooner or later, something hits us in life. It could be a broken relationship, an accident, loss of employment, sudden ill health. It could be anything. But we know it when it hits us. The impact can feel physical like a thud to the chest, a sharp pain that leaves us gasping for breath. It hurts, it aches…and, for a time, it disorientates everything we know, believe, expected or hoped for. It can leave us spinning, angry, scared, numb. We feel vulnerable. We may feel anxiety, despair.
You do know it if you’ve had this experience. You may be having it now. The usual optimism and positive thinking that have served you so well in the past suddenly feel empty, shallow somehow, lacking substance. You reach out for help but if feels like grasping at thin, intangible mist. All you know is a persistent, uneasy, gnawing feeling, deep inside and the light of hope looks hopelessly dim. Family and friends offer support but, in the midst of it you feel – alone. Painfully…alone.
It’s moments like these where existential and spiritual questions may come sharply into view. I’ve know that feeling of falling, sinking, so deep that I thought I would drown. It felt like slipping into deep darkness, overwhelmed by a pain-filled fear. I couldn’t see a way to stay alive. Sitting on a fence in a cold field one night, all I could discern was a feint pin prick of light in the farthest distance. I tried hard to cling on, however weakly. That night, I discovered the light was - Jesus.
Why think outside of the box when you could dispense with the box altogether? Rosabeth Moss-Kanter commented recently on Twitter that ‘To lead real change, it’s not enough to think outside of the box. We need to think outside of the building.’ It reminded me of Chris Argyris who, some years ago, coined the phrase ‘learning loops’ to describe different levels of learning and application:
Single loop learning asks the question, ‘Are we doing this right?’, e.g. ‘Do we have a clear agenda for today’s meeting?’ Double loop learning steps back to ask, ‘Are we doing the right things?’, e.g. ‘Is a meeting really the best way to do this?’ Triple loop learning steps back further still to ask, ‘How do we decide what is right?’, e.g. ‘Are we focusing our attention on the most important things?’
Each step back brings new dimensions into the frame, surfacing and thereby opening assumptions to challenge. I think of it like concentric circles, ripples on a pond, ever moving outwards from the initial point of impact or concern. It exposes wider systems. It shifts the focus onto broader cultural or contextual issues in order to make sense of and take decisions within a narrower domain.
There are some parallels with strategic, tactical and operational lenses, aimed at ensuring effectiveness. Peter Drucker commented: ‘Nothing is less productive than to make more efficient what should not be done at all.’ How much resource do we waste in organisations inadvertently paying one person or team to burn the proverbial toast and another to scrape off the burnt bits?
So we are really looking at how to ask fundamental questions. ‘What is the purpose of our organisation in the world?’ I mean existentially or spiritually, not just pragmatically. 'Why are we here?', ‘What is shaping our values?’, ‘What are we aware of?’, ‘What are we blind to, filtering out?’, ‘What matters most to us, and why?’, ‘Why are we doing things this way?’, ‘Who or what is really driving this?’
This type of critique is where things get tricky and, potentially, revolutionary. Organisations, as people, shape their own perception of reality, what is real and what is true, by the way they construe situations, the narratives they create to explain their experiences, the rationalisations they use to justify their actions etc. And most of this is subconscious, hidden behind cultural filters and defences.
Deconstructing the box entails a willingness to acknowledge it first – to explore and reveal the unspoken, the unspeakable, the not-yet imagined. As leaders and coaches, it calls for vulnerability and courage. It demands a preparedness to challenge and be challenged, to open our eyes, perhaps pray, to expose our limits, our assumptions, our implicit collusion with what is and what appears to be.
How would you describe your coaching style? What questions would you bring to a client situation?
In my experience, it depends on a whole range of factors including the client, the relationship, the situation and what beliefs and expertise I, as coach, may hold. It also depends on what frame of reference or approach I and the client believe could be most beneficial. Some coaches are committed to a specific theory, philosophy or approach. Others are more fluid or eclectic.
Take, for instance, a leader in a Christian organisation struggling with issues in her team. The coach could help the leader explore and address the situation drawing on any number of perspectives or methods. Although not mutually exclusive, each has its own focus and emphasis. The content and boundaries will reflect what the client and coach believe may be significant:
Appreciative/solutions-focused: e.g. ‘What would an ideal team look and feel like for you?’, ‘When has this team been at its best?’, ‘What made the greatest positive difference at the time?’, ‘What opportunity does this situation represent?’, ‘On a scale of 1-10, how well is this team meeting your and other team members’ expectations?’, ‘What would it take to move it up a notch?’
Psychodynamic/cognitive-behavioural: e.g. ‘What picture comes to mind when you imagine the team?’, ‘What might a detached observer notice about the team?’, ‘How does this struggle feel for you?’, ‘When have you felt like that in the past?’, ‘What do you do when you feel that way?’, ‘What could your own behaviour be evoking in the team?’, ‘What could you do differently?’
Gestalt/systemic: e.g. ‘What is holding your attention in this situation?’ ‘What are you not noticing?’, ‘What are you inferring from people’s behaviour in the team?’, ‘What underlying needs are team members trying to fulfil by behaving this way?’, ‘What is this team situation telling you about wider issues in the organization?’, ‘What resources could you draw on to support you?’
Spiritual/existential: e.g. ‘How is this situation affecting your sense of calling as a leader?’, ‘What has God taught you in the past that could help you deal with this situation?’, ‘What resonances do you see between your leadership struggle and that experienced by people in the Bible?’, ‘What ways of dealing with this would feel most congruent with your beliefs and values?’
An important principle I’ve learned is to explore options and to contract with the client. ‘These are some of the ways in which we could approach this issue. What might work best for you?’ This enables the client to retain appropriate choice and control whilst, at the same time, introduces possibilities, opportunities and potential new experiences that could prove transformational.
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