‘It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.’ (Henry David Thoreau)
Psychologist Albert Ellis, widely regarded as the founding father of what has today evolved into Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, noticed that different people responded differently to what were, on the face of it, very similar situations. Previously, you might have heard, ‘Person X feels Y because Z happened’. It assumed a direct causal relationship between emotions and events. Ellis’ observations challenged this, proposing that something significant was missing in the equation. After all, if this assumption were true, we could expect that everyone should feel the same way in circumstance Z.
Curious about this, Ellis concluded that the critical differentiating and influencing factor that lays between emotions and events is belief. It’s what we believe about the significance of an event that affects most how we feel in response to it. Here we have person A who hears news of a forthcoming redundancy with fear and trepidation. He believes it will have catastrophic financial consequences for himself and his family. Person B receives the news with positive excitement. She believes it will provide her with the opportunity she needs to pursue a new direction in her career.
Drawing on this insight, organisational researchers Lee Bolman & Terrence Deal proposed that, in the workplace, what is most important may not be so much what happens per se, as what it means. The same change, for instance, could mean very different things to different people and groups, depending on the subconscious interpretive filters through which each perceives it. Such filters are created by a wide range of psychological, relational and cultural factors including: beliefs, values, experiences, hopes, fears and expectations. This begs an important question: how can we know?
Hidden beliefs are often revealed implicitly in the language, metaphors and narratives that people use. To observe the latter in practice, notice who or what a person or group focuses their attention on and, conversely, who or what appears invisible to them. Listen carefully to how they construe a situation, themselves and others in relation to it. Inquire in a spirit of open exploration, ‘If we were to do X, what would it mean for you?’; ‘If we were to do X, what would you need?’ This is about listening, engagement and invitation. Attention to the human dimension can make all the difference.
Few images have more powerful emotional resonance for me than that moment at which the WW2 Allies detonated explosives under a huge marble swastika at the Zeppelinfeld stadium in Nürnberg, Germany. It was the place where, just before the war, Hitler and his followers had held their infamous Nazi rallies. The rallies had proved a potent propaganda weapon, convincing Nazi supporters of their own ‘supremacy’ and intimidating their enemies into fearful submission.
The public destruction of this infamous symbol marked the impending final demise of the deranged Nazi myth and its psychopathic regime, and the end of by far one of the worst eras in human history. I can only imagine how it must have felt for those who had suffered so terribly to witness, at last, this emerging glimmer of hope. Similar evocative and symbolic moments were soon to follow with a Soviet flag over the German Reichstag and an American flag raised on Iwo Jima.
There’s something about these images-as-symbols that capture and express a wider human story and experience. They carry and convey powerful psychological, cultural and emotional meaning for those who understand and identify with what they represent. Other well-known examples of symbols include the Christian cross as a sign of God’s love and salvation through Jesus Christ or, conversely, ominous ‘Z’ insignia on Russian military vehicles during the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
What symbols have a particular resonance for you – and why?
‘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)
Moving from city to village was a big shift. All kinds of changes. On arrival, we took my 7 year old daughter to visit the local village school. Teachers took her around enthusiastically, explaining how the classes work, introducing her to other children, showing her the school equipment, facilities etc. On leaving, I asked her how she felt, what her impressions were. She replied, ‘Great!’ I asked her what she liked most – and she responded immediately, ‘The kids get to wear their own shoes!!’
This young girl came from a school that had a strict dress code. Black shoes were mandatory. The idea that she could choose what to wear at this new school completely transfixed and excited her. Nobody had mentioned shoes or uniform as we had taken the school tour yet this is what she noticed. In fact, it was as if she hadn’t seen or heard anything else. She noticed what she valued, what mattered most to her, and what stood out in stark contrast to what she was used to.
Gestalt psychology talks about this idea in terms of ‘figure’ and ‘ground’. ‘Figure’ is whatever stands out to us, whatever holds our attention, in the moment. ‘Ground’ is the backdrop that, in that same moment, lays largely out of awareness. It raises some very interesting and important questions such as, ‘What are we noticing – and why?’; ‘What are we aware of?’ and, conversely, ‘What are we not noticing?’; ‘What are we not aware of…e.g. that we may do well to pay attention to?’
What we notice – and what meaning we attribute to it – is influenced by our interests, values, cultures, preferences and concerns. We don’t simply see what is there, as if in some objective sense. We focus, filter and construe what we see so that different people see different things in the same situation, or the same person may see different things in the same situation at a different time. So, as leaders, coaches and OD – what is holding your attention? What are you not noticing?
‘Work-life balance’. What's that all about? Picture this: I have my work perched at one end of the see-saw that somehow represents my life and my…erm…my life perched precariously at the other. On the face of it, it signifies that my work is completely and utterly devoid of anything that comes close to life and, similarly, that my life is hermetically sealed off from work. I guess I could re-draw the image so that there’s a blurry, permeable bit between the two ends but, even so, it still depicts my work and my life as a polarity, distinctly different and at opposite ends of a spectrum.
OK, I’m being a bit playful here. I get the idea – to help ensure that we pay attention to different aspects of our lives, in particular to avoid work taking over our whole lives. There are echoes of biblical principles of Sabbath in this, safeguarding a space for spiritual, psychological, physical and social refreshment, enrichment and restoration. It poses important questions in modern day, post-modern life, especially against a backdrop of increasing mental and physical health costs of a non-stop lifestyle, e.g. how to do ‘Sabbath’ meaningfully in the midst of 24hr connectivity?
Now here’s a weird thing. When I typed ‘work-life’ into my phone, it auto-corrected to ‘worm-like’. I know what you’re thinking: I really need to get out more – and you may well be right. But what occurs to me is that a worm lives most of its life inside a tunnel in total, relentless darkness. By contrast, there’s something for us here about how to discover and create light, freedom, meaning and purpose in whoever we are, in whatever we are doing. The question then is how to be alive in its widest, deepest, most holistic sense in all aspects of our lives - including in our work. How do we do it?
What do you see? What sense do you make of it? What does it mean? I met with a social worker friend in Germany last week. He shared this idea: Imagine sitting in a dark room. You take a torch, shine it across your hand and cast a shadow onto the wall in front of you. The shadow creates a shape that we recognise as a ‘snake’. Its overall shape resonates with previous images of snakes we have seen and, hence, we superimpose that meaning, that interpretation, onto it.
An interesting thing here is that the snake is not a snake or a hand, nor is it a light or a torch. In fact, the snake shares very few properties at all with the hand or the torch that created it. If we tried to infer a hand or a torch from the snake without previously being aware of the way in which hands can be formed to create snake-like shapes when used with a torch, it would be almost impossible. The snake is a consequence of a hand, a torch, an experience and an interpretation.
Now imagine working with a client or team member who describes the consequence of a situation at work. In doing so, they paint a picture of something, maybe someone, much like casting an image of a snake onto a wall. If we focus our attention on the image as if it holds its own intrinsic meaning, or if we assume its meaning to be the same as that of the personal and contextual conditions that created it, we could miss significant factors that carry their own separate meaning.
So, we can pose questions. What is the person seeing, as if projected onto a wall? What meaning are they superimposing onto it? What beliefs, values or assumptions are influencing their interpretations? If the client is the hand, what are they doing to shape the shadow they are seeing? What stance are they taking – or could they take? What contextual factors (e.g. organisational culture, team expectations) are creating the image, like a torch? Who or what is the light?
Picture this. Here I am in a church meeting when a woman sitting in front of me starts to shake physically. This was in the context of a meeting where expectations were high that God would do something dramatic. The people around this woman prayed enthusiastically and the physical shakes were interpreted as a visible and positive sign of God’s activity.
I later spoke to a nurse and asked how the same phenomenon would be interpreted in, say, an Accident & Emergency unit at the local hospital. ‘Possibly as some kind of neurological disturbance’, she replied. I then asked how medical staff were likely to respond if they observed this happening. ‘They would probably conduct tests to understand and treat the underlying physical cause.’
This intrigued me. It’s as if the interpretation we apply to an experience depends partly on the socio-physical environment in which the phenomenon arises (in this example, a church or hospital) and what the prevailing expectations and interpretations are in that context. It also depends on our own personal belief systems and the broader cultural worldview that we inhabit.
This raises interesting questions about which, if either, interpretation is ‘correct’. Someone of a particular religious conviction may argue strongly for a spiritual interpretation whereas someone of a secular-medical outlook may argue equally strongly for a medical interpretation. It sets up the risk of a false dichotomy, as if different interpretations are necessarily mutually exclusive.
One way to look at this is that events and experiences have no inherent meaning of their own. They just are what they are. What happens simply…happens. As individuals and social groups (e.g. cultures, professions), we construct meaning based on what we believe and hold to be true. In other words, we apply meaning to events and experiences rather than derive meaning from them.
A non-medical church member may look at the experience through a spiritual lens; a secular medical practitioner through a scientific lens. As a consequence, they each notice, don’t notice, include and conclude something different. Each lens creates and reinforces its own meaning, superimposes its own meaning, and, having done so, appears obvious or self-evident for those share that view.
It seems possible to me that the same phenomenon can carry more than one meaning. In the example above, it’s possible (assuming, as I do, that God exists) that God may act in a person’s life by creating a neurological disturbance that may, say, reveal some hidden issue psychosomatically or symbolically that is important for that person or cultural community to pay attention to.
Having said that, there may be different explanations altogether to those offered above that could explain this experience. They may not be obvious to us because they don’t fit with our current frames of reference or lenses and are, therefore, in effect, invisible to us. It’s a bit like asking a colour-blind person to describe coloured images or shapes on a card that lie outside their ability to perceive.
So what is the significance for leadership, coaching and facilitation? I think it’s something about being aware, as far as we can be, of our own personal and cultural influences, the effect they have on, say, who and what we notice and don’t notice, who and what we value and don’t value and the impact we have on others.
It’s about being willing to engage in the existential struggle that holding core assumptions lightly whilst taking a stance with conviction entails. It’s about using our work to help others – whether individuals, teams or organisations – grow in awareness of their personal and cultural beliefs, values and assumptions so they can explore new possibilities constructively and creatively. It’s about modelling and nurturing curiosity, integrity and hope.
I live in a small rural community in central England. Until a couple of years ago, it was a tranquil, peaceful area. Then the local farmer introduced gas gun bird scarers, hoping to protect his crops. If you haven’t heard these guns, they emit a very loud bang every few minutes. It now feels like living next door to a live artillery range. Imagine a grenade exploding outside your front window every 2 minutes. From dawn until dusk. Day in, day out. Week in, week out. Month in, month out.
I struggle to find words to express how stressful and exhausting this experience is. As time goes by, I range from anger to frustration to despair. The sheer relentlessness of it tests my Christian values to the limit. I’ve written so many letters in my head and yet, thankfully, managed to avoid sending them. I’ve explained how I’m feeling and asked the farmer, politely, to consider alternative methods available that are not so intrusive. No response. The loud blasts continue. No end in sight.
And now imagine the farmer’s experience. Struggling to make a living, growing and selling his crops in an increasingly competitive market. Climate change making things worse, alternating between drought and floods. Birds wreaking havoc, or so it seems to him, on the crops. Every loud bang brings a feeling of comfort, an expectation of birds dispersed, hope for a good crop this year. The guns make him feel safer, better protected, more able to deal with the challenges he faces.
This begs questions such as whether the gas guns actually have what the farmer considers to be the desired effect (because increasing evidence shows they are ineffective or even, over time, attract birds) and whether a better win-win solution could be found. However, the striking aspect I want to focus on here is how two parties are able to experience and respond to what is, on the face of it, the same phenomenon, in this case loud bangs throughout the day, so very differently.
Bolman & Deal explored this phenomenon in 1991 and commented that, ‘What’s important is not what happens but what it means’, that is, that every event carries with it potential psycho-symbolic significance. This resonates with Ellis’ earlier observations (the basis for his rational emotive therapy, forerunner of cognitive behavioural therapy) that what we feel tends to be governed more by what we believe about an event, what associations it holds for us, than the fact of the event itself.
There are important implications for coaching and organisation development, as there are in therapy. When working with individuals, groups and organisations, we need to pay attention to what is happening in the client’s world and what meaning, what significance, it holds for them. Imagine, for instance, a change initiative at personal, team or organisational level. What, subjectively, will the change mean to the client? What hopes and fears and implications does it evoke for them?
The client’s meaning-making is likely to be influenced psycho-dynamically (i.e. how it resonates with their previous experiences) and culturally (i.e. how their cultural group – e.g. team, sector or wider community - makes sense of these experiences, including what value judgements it places against them). It means that where leaders seek to introduce proposals, solutions or resolutions, they need to take careful account of different stakeholder values, goals, perspectives and experiences.
When teams are under pressure, e.g. dealing with critical issues, sensitive topics or working to tight deadlines, tensions can emerge that lead to conversations getting stuck. Stuck-ness between two or more people most commonly occurs when at least one party’s underlying needs are not being met, or a goal that is important to them feels blocked.
The most obvious signs or stuck-ness are conversations that feel deadlocked, ping-pong back and forth without making progress or go round and round in circles. Both parties may state and restate their views or positions, wishing the other would really hear. If unresolved, responses may include anger/frustration (fight) or disengagement/withdrawal (flight).
If such situations occur, a simple four step process can make a positive difference, releasing the stuck-ness to move things forward. It can feel hard to do in practice, however, if caught up in the drama and the tense feelings that ensue! I’ve found that jotting down questions as an aide memoire can help, especially if stuck-ness is a repeating pattern.
1. Observation. (‘What’s going on?’). This stage involves metaphorically (or literally) stepping back from the interaction to notice and comment non-judgementally on what’s happening. E.g. ‘We’re both stating our positions but seem a bit stuck’. ‘We seem to be talking at cross purposes.’
2. Awareness. (‘What’s going on for me?’). This stage involves tuning into my own experience, owning and articulating it, without projecting onto the other person. E.g. ‘I feel frustrated’. ‘I’m starting to feel defensive.’ ‘I’m struggling to understand where you are coming from.’ ‘I’m feeling unheard.’
3. Inquiry. (‘What’s going on for you?’). This stage involves inquiring of the other person in an open spirit, with a genuine, empathetic, desire to hear. E.g. ‘How are you feeling?’ ‘What are you wanting that you are not receiving?’ ‘What’s important to you in this?’ ‘What do you want me to hear?’
4. Action. ('What will move us forward?’) This stage involves making requests or suggestions that will help move the conversation forward together. E.g. ‘This is where I would like to get to…’ ‘It would help me if you would be willing to…’. ‘What do you need from me?’ ‘How about if we try…’
Shifting the focus of a conversation from content to dynamics in this way can create opportunity to surface different felt priorities, perspectives or experiences that otherwise remain hidden. It can allow a breathing space, an opportunity to re-establish contact with each other. It can build understanding, develop trust and accelerate the process of achieving results.
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'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
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