‘I know you believe you understand what you think I said but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.’ (Alan Greenspan)
Clarity. Simple in principle, not always easy in practice. Paradoxically, a significant challenge to communication is human language. Words intended to build a bridge can so easily create a barrier. We may use the same words but mean something different things by them or use different words to mean the same thing – and very often without realising it. Linguists explain that words are connotative as well as denotive. This implies that their meaning, the associations they hold and the feelings they may evoke can shift markedly depending on context, culture, tone and relationship.
We may say something in irony. We may tell a joke with a straight face. We may make a harsh-sounding comment with a glint in our eye. We may make subtle gestures that fill in the gaps in verbal conversation. According to Transactional Analysis, we may make a statement at one level with an intention and implied meaning that’s completely different to the literal. These nuances challenge the limits of neuroscience and artificial intelligence. As social construction expert Kenneth Gergen asserts, ‘Neurobiology can tell us a lot about a blink, but nothing about a wink.’
I facilitated an astute cross-cultural group of women last week who practised skills of curiosity and inquiry. Instead of responding immediately to what they thought another person had said or meant – for example, by a statement, phrase or word – they would test their own assumptions by actively exploring that person’s intended message and meaning. It created a dynamic of interpretation based on dialogue, in contrast to an instinctive reaction to words at face value. It took time, patience, and a commitment to hear and understand. Conversations became richer and relationships grew deeper.
It's trickier in online conversations. We can find ourselves subconsciously searching hard for non-verbal cues we would ordinarily pick up when together in the same physical room – yet all we can see is head and shoulders in a 2-dimensional screen frame. This is one of the probable contributors to Zoom fatigue. If you have seen the film ‘Thirteen Days’ (2000) based on the Cuban missile crisis, it’s an extreme opposite example of trying to decode hidden messages and intentions based purely only observation of another party’s actions. It’s Chris Argyris’ Ladder of Inference on steroids.
What approaches, tools and techniques do you use to ensure clear communication?
(See also: Crossed Wires)
The best of intentions. How often we do things with good motives and yet, in spite of that, our actions have unintended consequences. It’s often because we haven’t known or understood the wider implications of what, where, when, how or with-for whom we do something. We may, for instance, offer support to a specific person, team or group…only to discover that a different person, team or group perceives that intervention as partisan, favourit-ist or creating unfair advantage.
Here’s an extreme. A friend was delivering aid to a poverty-stricken village in Sudan when he was stopped at gunpoint by militia from a neighbouring village. He was forced to the ground with rifle barrel pressed hard against the back of his head whilst the group relieved him of the vehicle and relief supplies. It turns out the group and its community were envious and resentful that they were being effectively ignored whilst supplies were being provided to a different village.
Or here’s a less extreme example. I spoke with an emotional intelligence (EI) specialist this week about using psychological mentoring, coaching and tools to raise awareness and insight, with a risk that some clients may use it in weaponised form to manipulate colleagues or customers. It points to a real need to pay attention to wider systemic, cultural, ethical, political and longer-term considerations when seeking to do the right thing – a principle known as ‘primum non nocere’.
If you’re a leader, coach, OD or trainer, here are some questions for critical reflection: When have you acted in good faith to resolve one issue, only to discover that your interventions have inadvertently incentivised, precipitated or exacerbated another? How do you manage the tension of never fully knowing or understanding the potential implications of everything – and yet still taking meaningful stances, decisions and actions? What is your best advice on ‘do no harm’?
Jackie LeFevre of Magma Effect is an inspiring and thoughtful guru in the values-related field. One of the things Jackie talks about is the importance of exploring the values and beliefs that lay behind people’s actions and behaviours. Two people could behave the same way but with very different reasons for doing it. Dave believes that people should arrive at meetings on time. For him, it’s about ensuring that time spent at meetings is efficient and effective. Sandra also believes it’s important to arrive on time. For her, it is about showing personal respect for colleagues in the room.
Why is this important? Covey in The Speed of Trust observed that, ‘We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions.’ The risk here is that I assume your intention from your behaviour then respond and relate to you as if my assumption (that is, my own belief about you in that situation) is true. What is more, we tend to notice things that confirm and reinforce the belief we already hold and don’t notice things that would challenge or contradict it. All kinds of misunderstandings can occur and these can prove limiting or damaging to relationships.
This tendency is exacerbated if we are feeling tired, pressured or stressed. Somebody walks past my desk who normally stops and speaks to me. This time, they don’t speak. In fact, they don’t even look at me. I begin to hypothesise. If I’m already feeling anxious about the relationship, I may start to dream up an elaborate fantasy: ‘I’m sure they’re angry with me.’ ‘It’s because they didn’t like that email I sent.’ It’s a classic example of cognitive distortion. If we notice we are doing it, e.g. if we think we are reading the other person’s mind, it can really help if we simply stop and…breathe.
I discovered a useful ‘3 Hypotheses Technique’ in Latting & Ramsey’s Reframing Change that can be used to surface such assumptions and open up alternatives. The first step is to take note of what we assume the person’s action or behaviour means. The second is to assume the person has a positive intention. The third is to assume the person is being driven by external circumstances. If we are able to entertain the possibility that more than one of these could be true, it can create sufficient psychological and emotional shift to enable us to respond with far greater reality and freedom.
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.
I took my mountain bike for repairs last week after pretty much wrecking it off road. In the same week, I was invited to lead a session on ‘use of self’ in coaching. I was struck by the contrast in what makes a cycle mechanic effective and what makes the difference in coaching. The bike technician brings knowledge and skill and mechanical tools. When I act as coach I bring knowledge and skills too - but the principal tool is my self.
Who and how I am can have a profound impact on the client. This is because the relationship between the coach and client is a dynamically complex system. My values, mood, intuition, how I behave in the moment…can all influence the relationship and the other person. It works the other way too. I meet the client as a fellow human being and we affect each other. Noticing and working with with these effects and dynamics can be revealing and developmental.
One way of thinking about a coaching relationship is as a process with four phases: encounter, awareness, hypothesis and intervention. These phases aren’t completely separate in practice and don’t necessarily take place in linear order. However, it can provide a simple and useful conceptual model to work from. I’ll explain each of the four phases below, along with key questions they aim to address, and offer some sample phrases.
At the encounter phase, the coach and client meet and the key question is, ‘What is the quality of contact between us?’
The coach will focus on being mentally and emotionally present to the client…really being there. He or she will pay particular attention to empathy and rapport, listening and hearing the client and, possibly, mirroring the client’s posture, gestures and language. The coach will also engage in contracting, e.g. ‘What would you like us to focus on?’, ‘What would a great outcome look and feel like for you?’, ‘How would you like us to do this?’
(If you saw the BBC Horizon documentary on placebos last week, the notion of how a coach’s behaviour can impact on the client’s development or well-being will feel familiar. In the TV programme, a doctor prescribed the same ‘medication’ to two groups of patients experiencing the same physical condition. The group he behaved towards with warmth and kindness had a higher recovery rate than the group he treated with clinical detachment).
At the awareness phase, the coach pays attention to observing what he or she is experiencing whilst encountering the client. The key question is, ‘What am I noticing?’
The coach will pay special attention to e.g. what he or she sees or hears, what he or she is thinking, what pictures come to mind, what he or she is feeling. The coach may then reflect it back as a simple observation, e.g. ‘I noticed the smile on your face and how animated you looked as you described it.’ ‘As you were speaking, I had an image of carrying a heavy weight…is that how it feels for you?’ ‘I can’t feel anything...do you (or others) know how you are feeling?’
(Some schools, e.g. Gestalt or person-centred, view this type of reflecting or mirroring as one of the most important coaching interventions. It can raise awareness in the client and precipitate action or change without the coach or client needing to engage in analysis or sense-making. There are resonances in solutions-focused coaching too where practitioners comment that a person doesn’t need to understand the cause of a problem to resolve it).
At the hypothesis stage, the coach seeks to understand or make sense of what is happening. The key question is, ‘What could it mean?’
The coach will reflect on his or her own experience, the client’s experience and the dynamic between them. The coach will try to discern and distinguish between his or her own ‘stuff’ and that of the client, or what may be emerging as insight into the client’s wider system (e.g. family, team or organisation). The coach may pose tentative reflections, e.g. ‘I wonder if…’, ‘This pattern could indicate…’, ‘I am feeling confused because the situation itself is confusing.’
(Some schools, e.g. psychodynamic or transactional analysis, view this type of analysis or sense-making as one of the most important coaching interventions. According to these approaches, the coach brings expert value to the relationship by offering an explanation or interpretation of what’s going on in such a way that enables the client to better understand his or he own self or situation and, thereby, ways to deal with it).
At the intervention phase, the coach will decide how to act in order to help the client move forward. Although the other three phases represent interventions in their own right, this phase is about taking deliberate actions that aim to make a significant shift in e.g. the client’s insight, perspective, motivation, decisions or behaviour. The interventions could take a number of forms, e.g. silence, reflecting back, summarising, role playing or experimentation.
Throughout this four-phase process, the coach may use ‘self’ in a number of different ways. In the first phase, the coach tunes empathetically into the client’s hopes and concerns, establishing relationship. In the second, the coach observes the client and notices how interacting with the client impacts on him or herself. The coach may reflect this back to the client as an intervention, or hold it as a basis for his or her own hypothesising and sense-making.
In the third, the client uses learned knowledge and expertise to create understanding. In the fourth, the coach presents silence, questions or comments that precipitate movement. In schools such as Gestalt, the coach may use him or herself physically, e.g. by mirroring the client’s physical posture or movement or acting out scenarios with the client to see what emerges. In all areas of coaching practice, the self is a gift to be used well and developed continually.
‘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.
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.
I sometimes meet Christians in my coaching practice who feel concerned about whether or not they are missing God's call on their lives. They want to know they are following God's path for them. The question is sometimes framed along the lines of, 'How can I know what God wants me to do with my life?'
There are instances in the Bible where God has specific plans for specific people in specific situations at specific times. On those occasions, he tends to make his will abundantly clear. My sense is we need to be open to those moments, to be ready to receive specific guidance if God should choose to reveal it. I've had some examples of this in my own life. For instance, I once felt God prompting me to take a can opener to a youth meeting I was due to lead that evening and to give it to a particular girl. I didn't hear a voice, it was a kind of sense impression, a strange kind of knowing, hard to describe.
I felt surprised and confused but decided to do it anyway. I mean, why not? What's the worst thing that could happen? I handed it to the girl on arrival and simply said, holding my breath, 'I believe God wants me to give this to you.' I felt a bit awkward and embarrassed but gave it to her anyway. I continued with leading the meeting and, after a few minutes, noticed the girl was in tears. It turns out she had had a major row with her mum that week and, as a result, had left home that day, moving into a bedsit. Her mum, also feeling distraught, gave her a box of food to take with her.
The girl wasn't going to come to the meeting that evening. She sat in her bedsit alone, weeping. After a while, she opened the box to get something to eat, only to discover it was all in cans. The shops were closed and so she came to the group because at least she would get some refreshments there. That was the moment at which I had handed her the can opener. You can imagine the exposive impact. I was completely blown away by it, as was she. I've never forgotten that experience. I can't explain it, but it did teach me an important lesson about listening to God and acting in faith.
In everyday life, I believe God's general call is to live a life that his consistent with his overall mission and values. This is what it means to follow him: to discern his goals, his direction, his attitude, his way of doing things and to walk behind him, imitate him, get in on his act, so to speak. I've sometimes offered people at a crossroads in life with advice drawing on three principles: mission, values and identity. It seems to me that it's important to think through these things prayerfully, allowing space for God to encourage, guide, reveal, challenge our preconceptions etc.
For example. Mission: which course of action is most consistent with what God has already been doing in and through my life? Values: which course of action is most consistent with biblical ethical values? Identity: how would this decision affect my sense of identity and relationship as a child of God? It can also be important to consider intention. What's my intention in taking this course of action? Am I being entirely honest about my motivation? Who will be affected by it and in what ways? Is this how God would want me to deal with the issue? Once again, a need for prayer.
Many of these things are hard to do alone. We can get muddled, frustrated and confused. This is the value of talking things through with others, people we can trust to be encouraging and honest with us. People we can pray and discern with together, supporting each others' lives of faith with integrity. The Bible itself reveals a God who is trustworthy, who doesn't play games with us. It's sometimes hard to work out what he is calling us to do, to discern his voice from so many other voices, but he does promise to live in and guide us by his Spirit. The bottom line on guidance? God is God, therefore relax.
My daughter is studying media and we had a chat today about communication principles, particularly about working with large groups, e.g. presenting at meetings or conferences. On the face of it, I explained, it’s as simple as ABC: (a) having clear intention, (b) knowing your audience and (c) using effective media.
Having clear intention
What do you want your audience to leave thinking? Do you want them to have fresh information, knowledge, questions, understanding? If so, what is the focus? If you were to meet with each person present one week later, what are the three key things you hope they would remember from this meeting?
What do you want your audience to leave feeling? Do you want them to feel encouraged, inspired, confident, challenged? What do you want your audience to do as a result of this encounter? Do you have specific actions in mind? If so, is the audience clear what you want them to do – what, how and when?
Knowing your audience
This is tricky in large meetings, especially if open meetings. It’s about finding out as much as you can beforehand. Why are these people here? What are their core interests? What kind of language, metaphors and concepts do they tend to use? What would make this meeting worthwhile from their point of view?
It’s worth assuming a mix of theorists (who will want to know that what you’re saying is well founded), reflectors (who will want space and time to think it through), pragmatists (who will want to know there is some practical purpose to it) and activists (who will want to get on and do something).
Also a mix of thinkers (like to know the rationale), feelers (want to feel an emotional connection), big picture people (like to know overall vision and concepts), data people (want to know the key details), organised people (like structure) and emergent people (enjoy fluidity).
Using effective media
The choice of media falls out of intention and audience and what kind of facilities and equipment are available. Some people have a visual preference (engage with what they see) some auditory (engage with what they hear) and some kinaesthetic (engage by doing something practical).
Using a range of media, therefore, that involve seeing, hearing and doing can be most engaging for a large mixed group. This often demands creative thought and planning beforehand. ‘What could be the most creative and engaging way to do this?’ ‘How can we best use a diverse mix of media in the same meeting?’
It’s worth thinking about who to involve too. It would be one thing for a team to present on its own work, what it does. It would be another thing for a different team to present on what that team’s efforts have enabled them to do. It can help to involve a range of people, to hear different, unexpected voices.
Intention, audience and media are important. I’ve learned over time, however, that authenticity and trust are equally, if not more, important. Covey comments, ‘When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective’. When trust is low, even the most simple communications can feel strained.
I often encourage speakers to consider beforehand, ‘As you look out on this sea of faces, what do you really believe? Do you genuinely love these people? Do you believe they are worthy of trust and respect? Is what you want to communicate real and true? Are you really open to listen and invite challenge?’
These are the more subtle aspects of communication, the character and values dimensions that can easily be missed, lost or ignored whilst focusing on technical messages, methods and techniques. It's passionate conviction, quiet humility and determined integrity that often make the difference.
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
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