‘To understand is to perceive patterns.’ (Isaiah Berlin)
According to Gestalt psychology, human beings are hard-wired to see things in patterns. Take, for instance, a tree. If I were to invite you to imagine a tree, it’s likely you would imagine the whole tree (well, at least that part of the tree that is visible above ground). I wouldn’t imagine that you’d picture all its constituent elements separately – cells, leaves, twigs, branches etc. Unless you’re dissecting a tree in a botanical lab.
It’s essentially the same idea in music. When we listen to a melody, we hear the tune as a whole, not each individual note separately from the others. In fact, if we were to examine each note in turn in isolation, it’s unlikely we’d be able to discern what melody they form part of when clustered together in a specific configuration. Except, perhaps, if we’re learning to play an instrument and focusing intently on one note at a time.
Now this intuitive ability can be a real gift when working with teams, groups, organisations – or even making sense of geopolitics. It means learning to step back from the immediate issue or event and, metaphorically, to narrow our eyes into a near-squint to allow a bigger picture, a wider system, a deeper meaning, the wood for the trees, to emerge. Khalil Gibran observed, ‘the mountain is clearer to the climber from the plain.’
I recognised this phenomenon at work this last week when, in the Netherlands for the first time, the more I relaxed and allowed the language to flow over me, the more of it I could understand. When I paid too much attention to individual words, the more I got stuck. There are parallels in Timothy Gallwey’s Inner Game. Beware paralysis of analysis. Take a breath, relax your grip and notice what surfaces into awareness.
'Language is a process of free creation.' (Noam Chomsky)
A talented linguist and disciple of Noam Chomsky invited Jacob, a young German student, to reflect on which of two sample sentences in English was correct. Jacob was unsure about the exact meaning and structure of the phrases yet, gesturing with his hand to his chest, he then pointed thoughtfully at one and said, ‘I don’t know, but it feels like it’s this one.’ I was stunned. He was correct, and he didn’t know how or why. The teacher explained. Jacob has been exposed over time to English via e.g. social media, computer games etc. He somehow knows the answer; less analytically and more intuitively.
I flashed back in my own memory to a time when, as a teenager, I was learning French at school. I had a hunch, an idea, that if I played French radio in the background in my room, I too would become tuned into the language even if I didn’t understand anything that was being said. Over time, I did start to distinguish one word from another, then to notice recurring words, then to become aware of the contexts in which certain words or phrases were used. I started to hear the accent, word stress and intonation. It wasn’t a conscious process so much as, like an infant child, a learning of language by immersion.
This linguist then invited a wider group of students to play a fast-paced game that involves using lots of different words in English. They didn’t necessarily know or understand the words and the teacher, a speaker of five languages, didn’t translate them. I was puzzled by this and asked why. Pointing to Chomsky, she took me back to the same core principle I had discovered for myself as a teenager. The students don’t know the meaning of the words now, but when in future they hear them used in context, the words and meanings will connect. Immersion enables deep language-learning by intuition.
‘Where words fail, music speaks.’ (Hans Christian Andersen)
Music, like all forms of art, can bypass the rational filters of our minds and express or transport a message, a mood, deep into our bodies and souls. Many of the earliest musical influences on my own life had a profoundly existential feel, including Pink Floyd’s Time and Supertramp’s Logical Song. These songs have continued to carry that same resonance throughout my life, reflecting and reinforcing a deep sense of restlessness, resistance and reaching.
Others have had a more overtly spiritual influence, including Tim Rice’s and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar and U2’s Under a Blood Red Sky. They lifted me out of myself, helped make sense of what I knew and felt intuitively and galvanised my stance of faith. Some gave voice to the deep angst and discordant dissonance I felt in my life and in the world, including David Bowie’s Scream Like a Baby and The Saints’ This Perfect Day.
What music or songs have had the deepest resonance or impact in your life?
In its now-classic album, Hemispheres, Canadian rock band, Rush, sing a dramatic story of a cosmic struggle between competing gods of love and reason; each determined to rule humanity on its own terms. It’s a creative mythological account of the very real dilemmas and tensions we face and experience in human decision-making of head vs heart. (If interested in a faith dimension, we can see this polarity resolved in Jesus, described in the Bible as ‘full of grace and truth’, and in his call to be ‘wise as serpents and tame as doves’). Yet, how hard it is to do this in practice.
It becomes more complex if we get caught up in emotional reasoning: ‘…the condition of being so strongly influenced by our emotions that we assume that they indicate objective truth. Whatever we feel is true, without any conditions and without any need for supporting facts or evidence’ (Therapy Now, 2021). It’s a blurring of heart and head so that the former appears to us, as if self-evidently, the latter. Betts and Collier, in their thoughtful review of refugee policy (Refuge, 2017) liken this to a ‘headless heart’; a decision driven by emotional response without due regard for consequences.
A person may hold the opposite extreme, the ‘heartless head’, where he or she believes every decision must be informed or supported by rational thinking or objective evidence - and emotion or intuition are disregarded as irrelevant or unsound. We see this in cultural environments where, as Eugene Sadler-Smith observes, leaders feel compelled to post-rationalise intuitive decisions in order to make them more acceptable to colleagues (Inside Intuition, 2007). It’s a stance that risks dismissing beliefs, values and other dimensions of sense-making, motivation and experience.
John Kotter brings words of wisdom here (Leading Change, 2012): to pay attention to our own default biases and to take account of those of others too, if we’re seeking to influence change. On presenting vision, he offers a helpful rule of thumb, ‘convincing to the mind and compelling to the heart’. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) provides useful insight into different preferences that influence decision-making too. Rush’s epic song ends with its own solution: ‘Let the truth of Love be lighted, let the love of Truth shine clear…with Heart and Mind united in a single perfect sphere.’
‘If you don’t stick to your values when they’re being tested, they’re not your values.’ (Jon Stewart)
We sometimes discover what our values are when someone behaves, or something happens, that cuts sharply across them. It can be like a glass filled with liquid that gets knocked. We find out what’s inside when we see what spills out. At times, we’re surprised to find that our true values are quite different to those we espouse or identify with rationally. We don’t just think values. We feel them. Gut level, heart-wrenching feeling. If you don’t feel it when challenged or experiencing a clash, it doesn’t matter enough to you. If in doubt, shake the tree, see what falls and feel it land. Impact.
I was sitting in an awkward circle during a coaching workshop. It was one of those activities where a group is placed in a room with no instructions and no guidance, to see what emerges. I felt curious as a conversation gradually unfolded… until, that is, a forceful-sounding man assumed the role of leader and put down a shy-looking woman sitting opposite me. Without thinking, I leapt straight to her defence and challenged the power figure, as if the woman needed saving. The group remarked later on my response – and that’s when I became aware of Stephen Karpman’s Drama Triangle.
It wasn’t a rationale that had triggered me but a behaviour that crossed a deeply-held value. That was some years ago now and, although I no longer default to rescue mode, it helps in part to explain why so much of my life and career have been dedicated to international development, advocacy and relief work. I’m a follower of Jesus, I hate that the poor are so vulnerable and I want my life to make a difference. What gets you up in the morning or keeps you awake at night? What are your true values, and how do you know? If push comes to shove, what are the lines that you will not cross?
'There is a voice that doesn’t use words. Listen.’ (Jalal ad-Din Rumi)
I spoke with a friend and colleague recently. It was about a bizarre incident in the news where a group of leaders acted over a serious issue in a way that was clearly ineffective and self-defeating. Somewhat bemused by this, I found myself musing out loud, ‘What were they thinking?’ My friend responded wisely, ‘They weren’t thinking. They were driven by an overwhelming feeling.’ How easy it is to assume rationality in decision-making where, at times, emotion may play a far greater part.
It reminded me of many years ago when I became a passionate and pained activist for human rights in Central America. It was during a period when governments and allied death squads committed acts of unspeakable horror against the poor. Alongside fellow activists, I burned myself out for the people and for the cause. On reflection, however, I’m not sure what practical difference my efforts made. A co-activist commented in retrospect, ‘We were driven more by instinct than strategy.’
Such accounts could lead us to propose that rationality is far superior to emotion or instinct when it comes to decision-making and effectiveness. We could conclude that to think-things-through is the best course of action, prior to action. ‘You didn’t really think this through, did you?’ is a culturally-coded message that signals to a person, ‘You idiot!’, or, in more gentle diplomatic language, ‘If you had thought about this more carefully beforehand, you would have achieved a better outcome.’
On this note, Prof Eugene Sadler-Smith sheds some intriguing light. He discovered that some of the best leadership decisions are informed by intuition, not by rational process, and that leaders often post-rationalise their decisions if rationality is valued personally or culturally as more acceptable, reliable or sound than emotion or intuition. This revelation calls for a critical-creative balance of intuition and rationality, with each inspiring, informing and testing the other.
What do you think? What’s your intuition telling you?
A baptism of fire. I had just moved to the city. It was a new community development project. On a local housing estate, a gang of youths was harassing residents at night. This mostly involved stopping people at knife-point or setting fire to litter stacked against people’s house doors. Here was my mission…if I chose to accept it: to work at night, infiltrate the gang, stop what they were doing and convince them to do something more constructive with their lives. I was 21 years old, wore an earring, combat trousers, white trainers and black leather jacket. They thought I should fit in.
I worked alongside Dan, an experienced detached youth worker. We set out at 10pm each evening, wandered the streets and hoped to find the gang. I wondered what would happen when we did. The youth worker gave me two practical words of advice: ‘1. Always carry money and, 2. Always ensure we are outnumbered.’ I felt puzzled, laughed nervously and replied, ‘Surely you mean 1. Never carry money and, 2. Always ensure we outnumber them? Isn’t that a better way to stay safe?’ This was my first encounter with counterintuitive thinking in youth and community development work.
Dan elaborated: ‘If a gang tells you to hand over your money and you do, they are likely to leave you alone. If you say you have no money, they probably won’t believe you and may well attack you to rob you.’ I responded, ‘Oh – and outnumbered..?’ He replied, ‘If we outnumber them as we approach them, they may feel threatened and attack us. If they outnumber us, they are less likely to feel threatened and more likely to be curious.’ Later that night, we did find the gang huddled under a dim street light. Dan walked casually into their midst, lit a cigarette, smiled…and said, ‘Hi.’
DeBono calls this lateral thinking. It’s a way of approaching a person or situation that involves challenging default perceptions, instincts, logic, decisions and actions and trying out radical alternatives instead. It’s like the judo teacher who instructs, ‘If an aggressive person grabs you by the lapels and pulls you forward, walk towards them rather than instinctively pull back.’ Jesus modelled it to dramatic effect. It can feel mind-bending, universe-warping, paradigm-shifting. It can be hard to do. Yet it can also yield creative and innovative results.
What have been your best counterintuitive moments, insights and ideas?
Language can be a blunt instrument at times. I was in Germany struggling to hold a conversation with a social worker. I have limited German and she has limited English. After a few minutes, she looked thoughtful and said something along the lines of: ‘Isn’t it strange that language, which is meant to facilitate communication, can be such a barrier to communication?’ It’s as if we were so focusing so hard on finding the right words, understanding each others’ words, that we lost sight of each other as people and failed to notice what our intuition was telling us.
Again in Germany, I was invited to sit in and observe a counselling session between another social worker and a client. I could only understand around 30% of what was spoken so tried to focus, instead, on what was happening behind the words. After half an hour or so, the social worker turned and invited me to speak to the client – to share anything I noticed that may be important and valuable for her, no matter how tentative. I said what I had sensed and wondered, intuitively. They fed back afterwards: they were astonished by how much I had discerned.
Such experiences have had a profound impact on my coaching practice. I sometimes encourage trainee coaches to imagine that, while the client is speaking, the sound is turned off completely like muting the volume on a TV set. ‘Now – what do you notice as the client speaks?’ ‘If you were an independent third party observing this interaction between you and the client, what would you notice?’ ‘What are you sensing now as the client speaks?’ This helps the coach to stay in the here-and-now moment, with the client, and to avoid getting lost in the client’s story.
I once trained with Mark Sutherland, a supervisor and psychotherapist, who shared the image of a client as someone floating out at sea on a raft. Whereas some coaches may swim out to rescue the client, to pull the raft back to safer shores so to speak, Mark saw his role by contrast as simply joining the person on the raft: ‘Two people…wondering together.’ For many years now, I’ve found that image incredibly attractive and releasing.
A good friend and colleague, Ian Henderson (Eagle Training), uses a similar principle when drawing on NLP to evoke curiosity in a training group. He may open an event by telling an evocative story at the outset, without introduction or explanation, then stop the story at a critical juncture and shift focus to the formal agenda. It leaves the group surprised, confused and curious…and it’s that state of curiosity that draws the group into deep learning.
A very similar principle attracts me to Gestalt, a coaching approach that involves active, physical experimentation with a client or group. The key to the experiment is to follow your intuition, support the client’s intuition, go with the flow, be playful and creative, let go of control. It means trusting the moment, the dynamic between you, and seeing what happens. I’m continually amazed by what surfaces into awareness and what changes take place.
So picture the coach, the leader, the facilitator or trainer as someone whose role is to evoke curiosity, to enable the client, the team colleague, the group, to wonder. It is a child-like quality that can lead to all kinds of exciting adventures and discoveries. It entails suspending what we know, the pressure to know, and surfacing the power, the gift of not-knowing, allowing the unexpected to emerge – and noticing the newness that is revealed.
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.
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
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