Last week felt like a perfect storm, an unexpected convergence of pressures from all directions that left me reeling. Betsy Kolkea describes it as like having the tail shot off a plane in mid-flight; a sudden loss of control that sets us spinning downward at terrifying speed. I’m reminded me of the dramatic plane-falling-from-the-sky scene in the film Knight & Day, where Cameron Diaz asks Tom Cruise anxiously, ‘Are we going down?’, to which he replies with a grin, ‘It’s just a rapid descent.’
In that satirical moment, the character played by Cruise actually models an important principle in a sudden crisis: create a pause, no matter how brief, to breathe, reflect, weigh up options (and, for me, pray) – then decide and act. I heard a similar idea in a video this week, about how to survive a parachute jump if the parachute doesn’t open. The most important thing is not to panic (yeah right!) and to use the moments available, no matter how brief, to breathe, focus, scan options and choose.
This skill may indeed, of course, come a lot easier and more instinctively if we’ve had opportunity to practise and gain experience beforehand. There’s something about having already been through a challenge and survived, having been tested repeatedly under fire, that can develop a resilience and psychological adaptivity akin to muscle memory. It makes an auto-response possible in the midst of unexpected and extraordinary circumstances and, thereby, creates a vital moment-space to think.
When have you gone into a tailspin? What have you done to recover from a surprise nosedive, a crisis that came from nowhere and hit you out of left field? What can you do to help others caught in free fall?
‘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?
My daughter is a guinea pig. This afternoon in the bright sunshine, I invited her to take part in an experiment. First, we stepped out into the street and, gesturing to a line of cars parked at the roadside, I asked, “If you were to buy a car, what colour would you choose, or definitely not choose?” She answered, “I’d love a white car.” “OK,” I replied, “let’s go for a walk into town and back. Your task is to count every white car that we pass. If you have the same number as me when we get back here, I will give you £10. How does that sound?” She grinned and willingly agreed.
An hour later, we stopped back where we had started and I asked her, “So, how many red cars did you see?” She looked at me blankly. “I didn’t see any red cars. I counted 206 white cars.” In fact, we had passed 93 red cars, yet she had been so focused on the white cars that she hadn’t seen a single one. This simple experiment illustrates an important psychological phenomenon known as selective attention: “The ability to pay attention to a limited array of all available sensory information…a filter that helps us prioritize information according to its importance.” (Bertram Ploog, 2013).
Gestalt psychotherapist Geoff Pelham comments that, in any given relationship or situation, we notice who or what matters most to us (The Coaching Relationship in Practice, 2015). This idea of who or what matters most reflects beliefs, values and emotions. In this exercise, my daughter was influenced and motivated by her beliefs (that this experiment would serve some useful purpose), values (the prospect of a £10 reward) and emotion (her choice of a colour she likes). These factors combined to ensure concentration on a task (counting white cars) that required selective attention.
Why is this insight significant in our work with people? The principle extends beyond literal-visual perception to deeper psychological processes too. Our beliefs, values and emotions subconsciously influence our focus and act as filters. We construe personal-shared narratives based on what we perceive. Such narratives appear to us as-if reality, as-if totality, and often without any awareness of who or what we have excluded. As such, narratives always point to and reveal, implicitly, who and what matters most to a person, group or culture, rather than to a definitive account of reality per se.
A key question is, therefore: who or what are we, and others, not-noticing? If we can enable a shift in perception, a re-shaping of a narrative, what then becomes possible?
Interested to do further reading in this area? See: The Art of Looking: Eleven Ways of Viewing the Multiple Realities of our Everyday Wonderland.
‘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!
Better to be on the edge than on the fence? There are times and places where diplomacy is the best option. There are, too, roles and situations in which a degree of neutrality is essential to enable a successful outcome. Coaching, mediation, group facilitation and process consultation are good examples. To become too embedded or embroiled is to lose the value that relative independence can bring. Yet, in spite of this, the most radical change often takes place at the bleeding edge.
What does that mean? At times it’s about leadership, taking a firm stance based on our beliefs and values, no matter how unpopular that may be or make us. This sometimes involves taking a counter-stance to prevailing received-wisdom, culture and norms. We associate various graphic metaphors with this approach, e.g. cutting edge; cut-through. The bleeding can result from the reaction, the push-back, the potential personal and professional cost. To take a stance can be and feel bruising.
At times it’s about being authentic, congruent and revealing our proverbial cards. ‘This is my stance on this issue. Let’s discuss how we can manage the boundary together so that it works positively for our relationship’ is very different to, ‘I don’t have a view on this’ or, ‘I don’t want to reveal my stance in case it impacts negatively on our relationship.’ The former can build trust; the latter may leave a person or a group suspicious or unsure. In my experience, this can be a sharp edge to negotiate.
How do you handle disclosure and stance in your professional relationships? How close do you get to the bleeding edge?
'Don't be still. One of the most common mistakes when change is upon us is to take enormous amounts to time to run analysis and come up with various routes to be followed. Sitting still in moving waters will only lead to a ship becoming adrift, with no indication of where it will end up or whether it will sink. If adjusting the course is needed, the leader should do it quickly and without hesitation.' (Raluca Cristescu)
The start of this new year has felt like a very rough ride for some people. I’ve been working alongside humanitarian disaster management experts in and from a wide range of countries, trying to make a difference for those who are poorest and most vulnerable in the world. In some places, wave after wave of devastating impacts have hit hard and fast, ranging from drought, crop failure and swarms of locusts to military conflict and deep civil unrest – all with the ongoing Covid-19 crisis overlaid on top.
A close friend in the Philippines spent today with her children, praying earnestly and wrapping what few possessions they have in plastic bags in preparation for the roof of their fragile boarding house being torn off by an impending typhoon. Others I’ve been supporting have been grafting long hours, trying to help people and communities recover from the effects of war. The power fluctuates on and off, as does the wifi signal, making online communication difficult – yet I, we, they, persevere.
My first direct experience of disaster response was some years ago during the Kosovo crisis. I travelled with a team across Spain, France, Italy and Albania to take emergency logistical supplies to refugee camps on the frontline border with Serbia. Our vehicles were fitted with spare tyres, satellite communications equipment and ballistic blankets in case we drove over land mines. I remember vividly the ‘No weapons on board’ symbols on our windows – signalling, I hoped, ‘Please don’t shoot us.’
We encountered challenge-after-challenge on route. At times, it felt as if everything was against us. As military helicopters flew overhead in impressive formation, we meanwhile were often stuck firmly on the ground, mired in red tape or the insidious effects of blatant corruption. It was a rapid learning experience for me, seeing how my seasoned disaster response colleagues handled this. It was my first exposure to adaptive leadership in a crisis too – out in the field, not inside an organisation.
It went something like this: 1. Hold tightly to your goals and values but loosely to your plans. If you expect everything to go smoothly, you will get disheartened and frustrated. 2. Treat every roadblock as a new reality. It’s not the end of the road, it’s another challenge to navigate. 3. Think quickly and tactically. Lateral thinking will prove more useful than strategic planning. 4. When faced with an obstacle, take a decision and act. Don't stop, keep moving. 5. Pray – God can do more than you can do.
This kind of activist-pragmatist outlook, behaviour and stance draws on and develops creativity, innovation, resourcefulness and resilience. It’s a way in which the poorest and most vulnerable people and communities learn to survive and thrive too. When a life situation is too painful, turbulent or dynamically-complex to understand, predict or control, a focus on the here-and-now can be the most meaningful choice. Even small steps can engender and evoke a real sense of agency, hope and change.
My work now includes coaching, mentoring, facilitating and training of humanitarian field workers in action learning: a here-and-now, real-time methodology to stimulate adaptive leadership and learning in the midst of action. It’s an experimental pilot initiative with a global network of humanitarian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and a team of action learning specialists. When have you developed or used adaptive leadership in a crisis? How did you do it? What difference did it make?
‘If you don’t know what an extrovert is thinking, it’s because you haven’t listened. If you don’t know what an introvert is thinking, it’s because you haven’t asked.’ (Richard Marshall)
Extroverts speak, introverts write. I first noticed this reality whilst studying for a masters’ degree. I enjoyed writing my dissertation immensely because it felt like an exciting journey of discovery. It was like a stream of consciousness, seeing my learning and ideas take shape as I wrote them. I didn’t know what I thought until I wrote it down. By contrast, an extrovert colleague found writing her own dissertation tedious, an administrative task to simply record what she had already talked-through.
‘Extroverts tend to think externally; they need to verbalize their thoughts to think. Thoughts are actually formed as they are verbalized. They don’t know exactly what they are going to say at first, but they know their thoughts will take shape as they speak them. That is, an extrovert will speak it to think it. By contrast, an introvert will sit quietly and ponder, mulling ideas over in her head, looking for the right word and the best description of the ideas that are taking shape.’ (Heather Hollick)
Now, it’s not that extroverts can’t write well or take pleasure in it, or that introverts can’t talk or enjoy conversation. It’s more about a preference or a default. Whereas extroverts sometimes need to remember to listen, I sometimes need to remember to speak. The conversation can be so vivid, so active in my mind that I feel as if I’m engaged in the discussion out loud. I have learned over time that sometimes I need to speak earlier, before my thoughts are fully-formed, to invite others in.
So, what does this mean in practice? If you’re working with an extrovert, speak to them directly and give them chance to speak, to think. Give them time to mull things over by talking out loud until they reach their own conclusions. Conversely, if you’re working with an introvert, give them quiet space to think, to write down, to form their thoughts before speaking. What’s your preference? How do you take preference into account when working with people? Do you prefer to speak or to write?
Anita asked during a coach training workshop this week if it’s appropriate to address emotion in coaching. After all, isn’t that stepping too far into a person’s personal space or risking a drift into therapy? Curious, I asked which dimension of the issue she was feeling most concerned about. Anita replied that she felt anxious about straying into what could feel like a counselling relationship. If she did, she said, she would feel both out of her depth and as if she had breached a professional boundary. I paused, then asked if it had felt inappropriate when I posed that question to her, or if she had felt compromised in how she answered it. She looked up, smiled and said, ‘No.’
Another coaching workshop and Brian, a colleague, was introducing reflecting back as a core skill. One participant looked increasingly frustrated and eventually blurted out, ‘You call this a skill but it’s like playing a game with someone, using techniques on them rather than holding a real and respectful conversation.’ Brian listened then responded calmly, ‘So, reflecting back feels to you like toying with someone, and that clashes with your value for authenticity.’ 'Yes – that’s it exactly!’ he replied with a burst of positive energy that took everyone in the room by surprise. After a brief moment, he and everyone else broke out in fits of laughter. ‘OK, now I get it.’
The principle here is that of modelling an idea, an approach, a method or a technique, rather than simply describing or explaining it. There’s something about experiencing that can feel profoundly and qualitatively different to understanding a concept purely intellectually. This insight lays at the heart of Gestalt coaching and experiential learning. It’s primarily about doing, not thinking, and seeing what emerges into awareness when we do it. I worked with a leadership team that agreed a set of and behaviours to govern its practice. It looked neat on flipchart paper but its potential for transformation didn’t emerge until they grasped the nettle and practised it.
What have been your best examples of learning by experience? How do you model this principle in your work with others?
The boy looks about 13, maybe 14, and is guiding cars into parking spaces. The sun is beating down and its steaming hot. Exhausted, he sits down against a wall for a break. This is in the Philippines last week. A poor woman from Samar, Jasmin, notices him out of the corner of her eye as she steps down off a jeepney – a mini-bus used for public transport. The boy looks weak and unwell. She walks across to him, speaks gently then reaches out and touches his face with her hand. His skin is burning with a fever.
Jasmin urges him to stay there and wait for her as she rushes quickly to find a shop where she can buy medicine, food and drink. Then she returns and says she will take him home, to the slum area where he lives. She reassures him that things will be OK, that she will give his family the equivalent of what he could earn in 2 weeks, along with the food, so that he could take a rest to recover. The boy looks up at this stranger, can’t speak…and just cries. She helps him into a jeepney and honours her promise.
I ask Jasmin why she has taken such a risk, to touch a person with clear signs of a fever when the Philippines is in the midst of a Covid-19 lockdown. She looks emotional now and says, quite simply, ‘I imagined how I would have felt if I was that teenager.’ She couldn’t bear to leave him alone, so very sick. She gave what little she had so that his family would not become destitute. I flash back to the parable of the good Samaritan. Jasmin loves Jesus and is willing to engage. I might well have just walked by.
No, not platypus – that’s a duck-billed, beaver-tailed, otter-footed, egg-laying aquatic creature native to Australia. ‘Don’t worry – be happy.’ Now, that’s a platitude. It’s a superficial cliché that rolls too easily off the tongue, without thinking, and presents itself as truth. It’s the kind of thing you may well hear from well-meaning, secure, content-with-life people; yet lacks empathy, depth or genuine appreciation of a person, situation or struggle.
Now you may already be thinking, ‘I wouldn’t worry about that if I were you.’ Oops. Ding! Platitude. Here’s the thing: I’m not you; I might not worry about it if I were you; you might worry about it too if you were me. Furthermore, I’m a human being, not a robot. I don’t have an on-off switch for worry, or for happiness, although I sometimes wish I did. A platitude creates the sense of saying something useful…without actually saying something useful.
So, what’s the antidote? How can I avoid inadvertently slipping into platitude-speak? 1: Listen. Don’t speak. Zip it. Resist the temptation to fill the space, to apply a fix without having heard. 2: Empathise. Feel the feeling, the emotional tone, the tremor, the resonance that lays behind the words. 3: Understand. ‘How are you feeling?’ ‘What do you need?’ Great questions, powerful reach. 4: Offer. Share your wisdom – if called for. Make it real.
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!