‘Open-ended questions can help clients reflect and generate knowledge of which they may have previously been unaware.’ (Jeremy Sutton)
You may have noticed when you order or buy something that, before asking you for payment, the salesperson may ask, ‘Anything else?’ It’s a simple prompt that, when posed, may cause you to remember something, or to make a choice vis a vis something over which you had been wavering.
This same approach can be useful in coaching. A coach could ask during the contracting stage: ‘Is there anything else we should be talking about?’ It can sometimes reveal a very significant issue that, until invited, feels unclear to the client, lays out of conscious awareness or has not yet been aired.
In action learning, similarly when a facilitator invites a presenter to say something more about the issue they would like to think through, insights that come to mind or actions they plan to take, they can ask, ‘Anything else?’ A presenter, when prompted, will often respond with: ‘Oh yes, and…X’
So, now for a brief moment of reflection. What ideas come to mind for you now as you read this blog? Jot down those that surface immediately… then pause for a moment before moving on to something else in your busy schedule. Ask yourself: ‘Anything else?’ and see what may emerge.
‘Behind every problem, there is a question trying to ask itself. Behind every question, there is an answer trying to reveal itself.’ (Michael Beckwith)
Second-guessing. It creates all sorts of risks. ‘What time does Paul’s meeting finish?’ Is that a simple request for information, or is there a question behind the question? ‘I’d like to meet with Paul this afternoon. What time will he be free?’ That’s better. ‘I need you to present an urgent strategy update to the Board.’ Again, is that a simple instruction, or is there an issue that lays behind it? ‘I’d like to demonstrate to the Board next week that our investments are achieving the desired results.’ Better.
A problem with a question that fails to reveal the question, the issue, that lays behind the question is that it leaves the other party to fill in the gaps. In doing so, they are likely to draw on their own assumptions – which could be very different to your own – or sometimes their anxieties. ‘Is he complaining that Paul’s meeting is over-running?’ ‘Is she inferring there’s a problem with my work on strategy delivery that I hadn’t been aware of?’ Simply stating our intention can make all the difference.
‘When trouble arises and things look bad, there is always one individual who perceives a solution and is willing to take command. Very often, that person is crazy.’ (Dave Barry)
We can think of leadership as the property of a structure, in which a person designated as a 'leader' holds particular responsibilities and has, at least in principle, the hierarchical authority needed to fulfil them. We can also think of leadership as an intrinsic property of an individual. In this sense, leadership is something that resides within and emanates from a person, something that she or he has and does. This is the realm of competency frameworks and of leader-development initiatives.
We can also think of leadership as the property of a group; for instance, a leadership team. In this idea, shared leadership is something exercised by a collective, where a diverse united group is, in potential, more than the sum of its parts. We can also think of leadership as a property of a dynamically-complex eco-system, in which acts of leadership emerge, sometimes unexpectedly and from unexpected places, and exert influence. This is the arena of dispersed and distributed leadership.
In organisations, I’m finding the latter perspective especially useful. When working with leadership teams, I invite participants to reflect on the eco-system (cf Gestalt: field) as a whole; for instance: 'Where is leadership-as-influence exercised, inside or outside of the organisation’s boundaries? What are the distinctive roles and responsibilities of different 'leadership' entities within the system? What are the relationships between them? What does each need from the others to be effective?'
I notice this invariably opens up far deeper, wider and richer conversations than those that focus on individual leaders alone, or leadership teams in isolation, as if they exist in a cultural-contextual vacuum. Some people find it useful to experiment with mapping their eco-system graphically, recognising that any depiction will reveal and, therefore, create opportunity to open up to healthy exploration and challenge, the way in which they construe their reality and leadership dynamics within it.
‘When the world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.’ (Malala Yousafzai)
It’s about influencing, convincing, persuading – often with or on behalf of vulnerable people or groups who may lack the power, opportunity or safety to do it alone or for themselves. It always focuses on change, typically hoping to create a shift in strategy, policy or practice. My earliest attempts at advocacy were in my early teens, campaigning against brutal mistreatment of animals in Spanish bull-fighting. In my later teens, I moved into human rights work to campaign vociferously against horrific political abuses and atrocities in El Salvador. In retrospect, I do wonder if my energetic beating of the drum achieved anything.
My approach was certainly driven by passion, confronting head-on what I saw as critically important ethical issues. I would argue my case forcefully, growing ever-more skilful at constructing a stance based on sound evidence and, I hoped, near water-tight rationale. I was galvanised in this conviction and activism by my new-found faith as a follower of Jesus, and by biblical injunctions to: ‘Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy’; ‘Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and oppressed.’
In later years, I became increasingly convinced by the need for a radical change in my approach. There are occasions on which direct polemic is needed, for instance: for sake of conscience, to take a clear and unambiguous public counter-stance on an issue, irrespective of whether it will win the day. In many cases, however, I’ve found that prayer, empathy and diplomacy are more effective and less likely to provoke a defensive response. Diplomacy doesn't mean compromise. It does, however, call for humble respect; to see and relate to the ‘other’ as human, with their own hopes, anxieties, interests, pressures and concerns.
John M. Lannon proposes 4 main strands to this approach: ‘Show empathy; Acknowledge opposing views; Maintain a moderate tone; Use humour where appropriate.’ To show empathy is to identify with the others’ feelings and to express genuine interest in their best interest. To acknowledge opposing views is, before arguing your own case, to show respect for the other by acknowledging any merits in their position. To maintain a moderate tone is to resist overstating your case and stay away from emotionally-loaded words. To use gentle humour can ease the tension in a situation, depending on the nature of the relationship.
Some of the most inspiring role models in my own advocacy work have been: Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Bob Hunter, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Jasmin Philippines, Mike Gatehouse, Sister Isabel Montero, Andy Atkins, Rudi Weinzierl, Mike Wilson, Greta Thunberg, Malala Yousafzai and Ruth Cook. Their approaches have all broadly been characterised by what the founders of Greenpeace saw as as 5 core elements and stances in world-changing individuals and movements: ‘Plant a mind bomb; Put your body where your mouth is; Fear success; The revolution will not be organised; Let the power go.’
‘When the winds of change blow hard enough, the most trivial of things can turn into deadly projectiles.’ (Despair.com)
You’ve probably heard of change management. You’ve probably heard of change management teams too. You’ve probably heard of change plans, like project plans, sometimes expressed in Gannt charts with rows of scheduled tasks, mapped against proposed timeframes. You’re less likely, I would guess, to have heard of a transition plan. A transition plan deals with the human dimensions of change, the underlying psychological, emotional and relational issues that often prove critical to its success.
Whilst change can often be planned and prepared for by agreeing desired outcomes, then working backwards to identify the practical steps needed to achieve them (a bit like working out the mechanical structure of a car engine in order to build one), transitions don’t work like that. A change process may be complex, in that there may be many interlinked moving parts, yet is in principle manageable. A transition process is dynamically-complex and, therefore, inherently unpredictable.
This means that transitions can only be handled effectively by ongoing conversations with affected people. It calls for open and honest dialogue. It calls us to be invitational, curious and co-creative. It involves listening, hearing, being responsive and building trust. ‘If we were to do X…what would it mean for you?’ ‘Given what it would mean for you, what would you need?’ Well-led transitions will influence mood, climate, energy, engagement and agency: critical success factors in any change.
‘Life is like the harp string. If it is strung too tight it won't play, if it is too loose it hangs. The tension that produces the beautiful sound lies in the middle.’ (Gautama Buddha)
In World War 2, when faced with a critical decision on how to respond to the Nazi threat, one of Winston Churchill’s advisers argued forcefully that ‘organisation is the enemy of improvisation’. This wasn’t a diatribe against the power of organisation per se. It was, however, deeply rooted in a belief that the UK’s main chance of success would be to act in ways that would capitalise on its own agile cultural traits – and leave the highly-organised German war machine disorientated and defeated.
I’ve noticed there are parallels in learning a second language too. Students are often taught in highly-organised ways – focusing on vocabulary, grammar, reading and writing. It can provide them with a useful foundation, yet can also leave them completely paralysed in free-flow conversation. I’ve concluded that, at least in this respect, ‘Accuracy is the enemy of fluency.’ Remove the expectation to get everything right, distract from fears of making a mistake, and the words will start to flow.
That said, I need to beware of unhelpful polarisation. Early in my OD career, I worked alongside an experienced HR consultant, Chris Rowe, who introduced me to a tight-loose principle. I had argued instinctively that an organisation needed to let go of its highly-organised, stifling structures and processes to become more flexible, responsive and innovative. Chris challenged me: there is a time for tight and a time for loose – and wisdom in knowing which, where, when and for whom.
‘One fish asks another fish ‘How is the water?’ The two swim on for a bit and eventually the other fish replies, ‘What is water?’’ (David Foster Wallace)
The more I know, the less I understand. That’s the conclusion I came to after spending 5 years in a Christian faith community in London with 70% Nigerian people, 20% Ghanaian, 8% Mauritian and 2% from the UK. It’s a belief that’s been reinforced by 7 years closely alongside people from the Philippines and other countries in East and South East Asia.
Beyond surface-level cultural traits such as distinctive clothing and food, culture runs very deep, mostly well below the radar of conscious awareness. Like the values and beliefs that underpin it, culture often only becomes known, including to ourselves, when we encounter a person or situation that contradicts or clashes with it. It can take us by surprise.
I’ve made various cross-cultural blunders on route, ranging from an innocent hug in one context to posing questions in a group in another. On reflection, I’ve sometimes been astounded by my own naivety. Yet few opportunities for learning compare with a cross-cultural experience. It may feel like a bumpy ride on route yet the results can be transformational.
[See also: Cross-cultural coaching; Crossing cultures; Cross-cultural action learning]
'I would rather have questions that can't be answered than answers that can't be questioned.' (Richard Feynman)
When a person introduces an issue they are facing, we and often they are not always clear at the outset what underlying challenge that issue is posing for them. Rather than asking more questions about the issue itself, however, we could invite the person to reframe the issue as a question. ‘What questions come to mind as you think about this?’ ‘What question is this raising for you now?’
I worked with a strategy consultant who asked great questions; for example ‘What are the questions that, if we were to answer them, would enable us to make strategic decisions?’ In Action Learning sets, we could ask a presenter, for instance, ‘What are the questions you’d find most useful for us to ask?’ And, in high-challenge coaching, ‘What’s the question you’re hoping I won’t ask you?’
Priest-philosopher Thomas Aquinas observed that a good question can set a person off on a quest; a restless and intense journey of searching and discovery. It’s very different to providing a superficial answer that can close thinking down. I sometimes go one step further and ask, ‘What’s the question behind the question?’ It can raise tacit, subconscious and intuitive knowing into view.
‘There’s nothing more dangerous than a resourceful idiot.’ (Scott Adams)
15 minutes before I was due to lead an online change leadership workshop in Germany, I stepped outside briefly for a breath of fresh air. I wanted to clear my head, focus and pray. Then…oh no, I heard a gentle click behind me and discovered, to my alarm, that I couldn’t open the door without a key. It hung tantalisingly on the inside and I could see my mobile phone staring at me blankly from the table. Aha, I thought. I will ask my hosts to let me in. Oh, they were out. Mild feelings of panic rising, I rushed to a neighbour. Thank God they were in, could understand my Englisch-Deutsch, had the hosts’ number and could call. Now, with just 2 minutes to go, my host appeared and saved the day.
It was a timely reminder that sudden change can come from anywhere, unexpectedly and often from left field. It was also a helpful reminder that leadership, resilience and agency aren’t simply inward, intra-personal qualities or strengths. Our ability to handle the impacts of changes and transitions often emerges from an outward-facing resourcefulness, looking outside of ourselves openly (and, for me, prayerfully) for people and-or other resources who can co-create and co-enable a solution with us…or – if no solution is possible – sit with us in the midst of discomfort, disappointment or pain.
‘What is most important about any event is not what happens, but what it means.’ (Lee Bolman & Terrence Deal)
Here’s one way to think about human change and transition: change is what happens around us and transition is what happens within us. Imagine, for instance, a change at work – ‘We used to do X and now we’re going to do Y instead.‘ Simple, right? It can be, yes…except when it isn’t. It all depends, at heart, on what that change will mean to a person, team or organisation, and-or what it could mean for others that matter to them too; e.g. colleagues, family, friends, people who use their services.
It can get more complicated still. The same change could mean different things for different people and groups. It could also mean different things for the same person or group e.g. at different times, depending on what else is going on for them. In practice, this means that to support people through transitions, change leaders do well (a) to avoid making assumptions about what a change will mean and (b) to explore, ‘What will this change mean for you?’; then, given that, ‘What will you need?’
I can almost hear some leaders crying out in protest, ‘Don’t be naïve, Nick. Be realistic. People don’t like change. They’re resistant to change.’ Yet, here’s the thing. People will sometimes resist change, even though they agree with it, if they don’t feel heard or understood. Conversely and paradoxically, people will sometimes support change, even if they disagree with it, because they do feel heard and understood. Working with transitions isn’t an optional add-on. It can prove the key to success.
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
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