‘I’m not a teacher, but an awakener.’ (Robert Frost)
I imagine something like a coffee table between us. As the client talks about a challenge, issue or opportunity they are dealing with, I imagine them metaphorically painting a picture on the table, perhaps adding something like colourful photos from magazines, to depict their situation vividly. If, as a coach, I allow myself to follow the client’s gaze, to focus my own attention too on the scenario that is unfolding, I risk losing sight of the client. It may weaken the contact between us; draw us both into the place where the client already feels stuck; diminish the potential for transformation.
How can I know if this is happening, if I have inadvertently become preoccupied with or seduced by the drama the client is presenting? Here are some tell-tale signs: ‘Tell me more about…’; ‘I’d be interested to hear more about…’; ‘Could you share a bit more of the background..?’ It could be that the client’s issue resonates with an area of interest, expertise or experience of the coach; or that the coach has subconsciously slipped into diagnostic-consultant mode, with a view to finding or creating a solution for the client. It’s as if, ‘If you give me enough information, I can resolve this for you.’
A radically different approach is to hold our attention on the client, to be aware of the figurative coffee table in our peripheral vision, but to stay firmly focused on the person (or team) in front of us. This is often where the most powerful coaching dynamic and outcomes occur. Here are some sample person- (or team-) orientated questions: ‘Who or what matters most to you in this?’; ‘What outcome are you hoping for?’; ‘As you talk about this now, how are you feeling?’; ‘What assumptions are you making?’; ‘What are you not-noticing?’; ‘What are you avoiding?’; ‘Now that you know this, what will you do?’
I spent 5 years learning French, 4 years learning German, 3 years learning Greek, 2 months learning to teach English and 1 year learning Hebrew. I've also learned a smattering of words and phrases in languages as diverse as Japanese, Arabic, Spanish, Filipino and BSL. Whereas traditional language-learning often focuses primarily on vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation, I find myself especially interested in social-psychological dimensions such as confidence, context and culture. Manoeuvring between languages often calls for a nuanced interpretation rather than simple translation, paying attention to, say, intention, meaning and relationship before mechanics like spelling or word order.
I find there are similar dynamics at play in other (and equally-complex) human-relational arenas such as leadership, teamwork, coaching and facilitation. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung commented astutely: ‘Learn your theories as well as you can, but put them aside when you touch the miracle of the living soul.’ Textbook techniques will take us so far, yet real transformation often emerges through the sensitive manifestation of human-spiritual qualities in our relationships and practice including: presence, contact and trust. This calls us continually to explore questions such as, ‘What does this person (or group) need in this situation at this time?’ This is very different to a simple, ‘If X, do Y.’
As we enter the New Year, I’m aware of so many complex challenges that are impacting dramatically on people, communities, organisations, nations and the entire natural-environmental ecosystem. In such circumstances, it can be tempting to grasp hold of simplistic, mechanistic solutions that, we hope, will help us to feel less anxious, less vulnerable and less out-of-control. We may risk closing in on ourselves to defend and protect those beliefs, behaviours and interests that provide us with a sense of reassurance, safety and security. In 2023, I hope and pray, with open mind and heart, that I will stay close to the call-principles that guide my practice: prayer, presence, participation.
How about you? Happy New Year! Light shines in darkness. We can be hope.
‘It’s a question of what the relationship can bear.’ (Alison Bailie)
You may have heard the old adage, the received wisdom that says, ‘Don’t try to run before you can walk.’ It normally refers to avoiding taking on complex tasks until we have mastered simpler ones. Yet the same principle can apply in relationships too. Think of leadership, teamworking, coaching or an action learning set; any relationship or web of relationships where an optimal balance of support and challenge is needed to achieve an important goal.
Too much challenge, too early, and we can cause fracture and hurt. It takes time, patience and commitment to build understanding and trust. I like Stephen Covey’s insight that, ‘Trust grows when we take a risk and find ourselves supported.’ It’s an invitation to humility, vulnerability and courage. It sometimes calls for us to take the first step, to offer our own humanity with all our insecurities and frailties first, as a gift we hope the other party will hold tenderly.
It's an invitation, too, for the receiver to respond with love. John, in the Bible, comments that, ‘Love takes away fear’. To love in the context of work isn’t something soft and sentimental as some cynics would have us believe. It’s an attitude and stance that reveals itself in tangible action. Reg Revans, founder of action learning, said, ‘Swap your difficulties, not your cleverness.’ A hidden subtext could read, ‘Respond to my fragility with love, and I will trust you.’
I joined one organisation as a new leader. On day 3, one of my team members led an all-staff event and, afterwards, she approached me anxiously for feedback. I asked firstly and warmly, with a smile, ‘What would you find most useful at this point in our relationship – affirmation or critique?’ She laughed, breathed a sigh of relief, and said, ‘To be honest, affirmation – I felt so nervous and hoped that, as my new boss, you would like how I had handled it!’
In this vein, psychologist John Bowlby emphasised the early need for and value of establishing a ‘secure base’: that is, key relationship(s) where a person feels loved and psychologically safe, and from which she or he can feel confident to explore in a spirit of curiosity, daring and freedom. It provides an existential foundation on which to build, and enables a person to invite and welcome stretching challenge without feeling defensive, threatened or bruised.
How do you demonstrate love at work? What does it look like in practice?
‘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)
‘When the bombs were falling like rain, Jennie stayed here with us.’
As a leader in international NGO, Tearfund, Jennie had always struck me as a quiet and unassuming person. We visited community rebuilding initiatives together in Lebanon just after the harsh and brutal civil war. Amidst shattered buildings, lives broken by sectarian conflict, aerial bombardment of the Beirut power station (just as we arrived) and Syrian ‘peacekeeping’ troops everywhere, we met with Christian leaders who recounted countless stories of heartache and hope.
One of the things that struck me most was their deep reverence and respect for Jennie. Whenever she spoke, they listened with profound attention. Curious about this, I asked one of the leaders about it afterwards. He replied, ‘During the war, most NGOs withdrew because it became too dangerous for them to stay. Jennie was different. She refused to abandon us. When the bombs were falling like rain and we had nowhere else to run to or hide, Jennie stayed here with us.’
I felt completely speechless, humbled and amazed. I imagined myself in that same situation: how I would almost certainly have fled for my own safety – and have found or created very good reasons to justify myself for doing so. Yet what an impact now. The leadership and influence that Jennie was able to bring to this work by having been-with; not based on any hierarchical status, power or authority she held, but on a deep and incarnational, presence, relationship and trust.
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.’
‘Your choice point is the space you're in right before you make a decision.’ (Martha Tesema)
You are choosing to read this blog – you could have chosen to do something else instead. You are choosing to read it now – you could have chosen to read it at a different time. In fact, according to psychological choice theory, everything you do is a choice. You’re not always aware of it and it won’t always feel like it. The implications and consequences of choosing one course of action over another can sometimes be so different and so stark that it can feel to, to all intents and purposes, as if there is no choice. Yet you are still likely to choose the action that, for instance, aligns most closely with your values; or has the greatest perceived benefits; or has the least risks or detrimental effects.
The implications of this theory are radical and extreme. If every action you take represents a choice, and if you can grow in awareness of the choices you are making at each moment, a vast array of possibilities opens up to you. As you approach any decision, it will be like reaching a road junction, with always at least 2 options available to you. You will no longer be trapped or driven entirely by circumstances. You can exercise greater freedom and personal agency. You can learn to navigate adaptively through choices, like tacking into the wind on a sailboat. You can become more creative and innovative. You can visit places, reach destinations, that you never dreamed imaginable.
There is a flip side. If you really are free to choose, you’re also responsible for your every action. It could feel easier to tell yourself that you have no choice – especially since you can’t anticipate every potential ripple effect. It would relieve you of the burden of accountability. You could also feel quite overwhelmed by the dread of having to make choices at every moment in time, in every situation. It could feel like existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre’s nightmare, ‘condemned to be free’. You may try to alleviate the anxiety by telling yourself that you’re a product of your background, upbringing, culture or circumstances. Then you could stop over-thinking, over-analysing, and get on with your life.
So, how to handle this paradox? How to create the liberating freedom of expanding one’s sense and reality of choice whilst also to acknowledge the ethical and practical responsibilities it carries with it? First: awareness. Here’s a simple exercise. Write down a paragraph of no more than 100 words that describes the last meeting you had with a colleague. Now, underline every word that represents a choice point in what happened. If you do this rigorously enough, you will be amazed at how much of the text is highlighted. Now the stretch, a thought experiment: jot down at least 2 different choices you could have made at each choice point. Try to be creative and courageous as you do this.
Second: responsibility. To build on this exercise, jot down a list of key criteria that will help you to ensure focus, priorities and boundaries to your decisions and actions. Here are some examples: ‘make best use of my time; achieve my career goals; develop the team’s potential; improve quality of relationships; create best value for stakeholders’. These criteria reflect and represent your values. Finally, test the actual choices you made, and the hypothetical choices you could have made, against these criteria to take note of what you could have done differently, what you could do next time and what lines you will not cross. Now – it’s your choice: given what you know now, what will you do with it?
(See also: Choose; Choice; Agents of Change)
'To err is human. To blame it on someone else shows great management potential.'
That made me laugh! It’s a fun variation of Hubert H. Humprey’s, ‘To err is human. To blame someone else is politics.’ But wow – how easy it is to deflect and project our own faults and failures outwards onto others. We see it happen all over the place, from interpersonal relationships to international relations. It’s a way of defending ourselves; of trying to avoid or escape the costs of responsibility; of promoting ourselves; of appearing innocent or superior. It’s about helping us to feel good about ourselves and-or wanting someone else to feel good about us.
It's quite tricky if we don’t know we’re doing it – and it can lead to potential high-risk consequences. ‘Self-deception is like this. It blinds us to the true causes of problems, and once we’re blind, all the solutions we can think of will actually make matters worse.’ (Arbinger Institute: Leadership and Self-Deception, 2000). This poses a difficult question: how to deal with our blindness if we don’t know we’re blind? And what if, if we’re honest – for whatever reason – we don’t want to know? An old adage goes: ‘There are none so blind as those that won’t see.’ Ignorance is bliss?
I’ll start with the last question first. If I’m working with a person in coaching or a group in action learning and I sense resistance in this area, I won’t push too hard. It could, for instance, trigger repressed trauma or suppressed anxiety. Instead, I may pose an invitation, e.g. ‘Is this something you would find useful to explore further? What, for you, would be the potential benefits of exploring this, or the potential costs of not exploring it? If you were to explore this, what support or challenge would you need from yourself, me and-or others?’ It’s their call, their choice.
Next to the first question. This touches on a field known as critical reflexivity. It’s like holding up a mirror to ourselves rather than fixing our gaze elsewhere or onto others. We can think of it as something like this: ‘What within me – e.g. in my own past, culture or world – is influencing what I’m thinking, feeling and doing now?’ This could include, for instance, our beliefs, values, hopes, fears and expectations. It could also include hidden vested interests; that is, things we want to protect or preserve and-or to acquire or achieve. Such influences act as subconscious filters.
In coaching and action learning, I work with people and groups to help them learn to pose searching questions to themselves in a spirit of open curiosity and discovery, e.g. ‘Who or what is holding my attention in this relationship or situation? How am I feeling? Who or what am I not-noticing? What assumptions am I making? How is my past influencing my present? Who or what matters most to me now? How might I be evoking this response in the other party? What am I willing to take responsibility for? What do I want or need? What am I willing to stop, start, change or compromise?’
The outcomes and benefits of this approach can be truly transformational. It calls for humility, courage, authenticity and a willingness to exercise personal leadership and agency, yet can open up all kinds of fresh possibilities – and hope. Imagine, for instance, to approach an adversary, prayerfully, in the midst of conflict: 'We are in such a mess. I'm sorry...and, as I look at how we got here, I could have handled my part in this better...' It’s a stark contrast to avoidance, accusation and finger-pointing. What a possibility to co-create a different relationship – and a different future.
(See also: Spots; Art of Deception; Stealth)
'Management speak is the strangling of language. It is the wringing out of any meaning from once-beautiful words.' (Chris Huet)
Research published this week by the UK communications firm, Enreach suggests that, in the UK, management-speak still annoys and irritates. Expressions such as: blue sky thinking; thinking outside the box; low hanging fruit; and touching base appear to provoke particular disdain. Yet what is it about these phrases that triggers such strong and cynical reactions? Duncan Ward, author of the survey, proposes two principal reasons: that jargon conveys inauthenticity by presenting: (a) a smokescreen – an attempt to hide shortcomings; or (b) a façade – an attempt to impress others.
Ward also reflects that, given that many people are now not working face-to-face partly owing to the residual effects of Covid restrictions, clear communication is considered as essential. My sense is that, in an egalitarian social media era where soundbites and short-sharp messaging are the norm, people are also impatient of any language that comes across as pretentious or waffly. Against this backdrop, management jargon is disliked at work because it creates a fog factor: clouding rather than clearing. It blocks – rather than builds – relationship, meaning and trust.
Viewed through a cross-cultural lens, the UK sometimes looks down on language it perceives as imported. It likes to see itself as culturally sophisticated; using simple, clean language. Management-speak is perceived as originating in the United States and with that, for some people, it carries an underlying (and, I hasten to add, unfair) judgement of superficiality. This is one possible reason why I believe Scott Adams' satirical Dilbert was so popular in the UK. We were able to smile at a phenomenon ‘over there’, whilst also to recognise its growing influence ‘over here’.
Ward added that most respondents use jargon, in spite of disapproving of it. I can add my own name to that list of offenders. I worked with Peter Robson, a great leader who came from a very different background. At my first appraisal, he said, ‘When you speak in OD language, I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.’ He also added, in generous spirit, ‘Yet I have seen and felt the impact of what you do. It’s like magic. Whatever it is – keep doing it!’ Ward concludes simply that: ‘people would prefer to understand more clearly what their colleagues mean.’
What jargon phrases do you find yourself using? Which wind you up most – and why?
‘The willingness to experiment, it turns out, is the chief indicator of how innovative a person or company will be.’ (Hal Gregorson)
Test and Learn is an experimental, adaptive technique, used to address complexity, uncertainty and innovation. It’s useful in situations where, say, past experience isn't a reliable guide for future action because e.g. critical conditions have changed. It’s also useful when moving into new, unchartered territory where the evidence needed for sound decision-making can only be generated by, ‘let's suck it and see’. It shares a lot in common with action research: create a tentative hypothesis, step forward, observe the results, try to make sense of them, refine the hypothesis, take the next step.
Test and Learn is used in fast-paced, fluid environments, such as by rapid-onset disaster response teams where conventional strategizing and planning isn't realistic or possible. By the time a detailed plan is formulated, things have moved on - and the paper it's written on is sent for recycling before the ink has dried. Test and Learn is also used by marketing teams when testing new products or services or seeking to penetrate new or not-yet-known markets. It provides tangible evidence based on customer responses which, in turn, enables change or refinement before investing further.
What psychological, relational and cultural conditions enable Test and Learn to work?
When have you used Test and Learn? How did you do it? What difference did it make?
(See also: Unpredictable; Adaptive)
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
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