Running for the school bus every morning felt like hard work. I don’t know why I didn’t just get up a bit earlier but, hey, I was a teenager. I remember vividly having my attention caught by a programme on TV featuring Timothy Gallwey and his revolutionary idea of The Inner Game. I think it served as an introduction for me to the world of psychological insight. I practised his idea, focusing away from the activity itself onto something else as a distraction, and the running became smoother, easier.
Some years later, the UK’s Guardian Newspaper ran an advertisement on TV, Point of View, that challenged perspective and interpretation. It invited viewers to re-think their own ways of making meaning of events, including the implicit risks of assumptions and prejudice. I found the ad’s message simple yet profound. It was at a time when the need to question everything was already pulsating through my own mind, within a prevailing culture that seemed to question far too little.
Later still, I saw a psychology experiment on TV, The Invisible Gorilla, by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, designed to test selective attention. The narrator invited viewers to try the test for themselves by watching a short video clip with specific instructions to follow. She also suggested that viewers record it so that they could play it back afterwards. I dutifully followed the instructions and was so completely astonished by the results that I did play it back to check if I’d been tricked.
Such influences, among others which now included my Christian faith, drew me into the professional fields of psychological coaching, training and organisation development (OD). I continue to be curious, intrigued and amazed by the dazzling weirdness, complexity and potential of people, teams, groups and organisations, and by different cultures. I hope and pray I will never lose that sense of wonder. Who or what have been the earliest or greatest influences on your life and career?
‘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?
‘They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.’ (Maya Angelou)
It was a dire and inspiring experience, a hospital for children with severe disabilities in a desperately poor country under military occupation. Conditions were severe, the children were abandoned by their families and the staff were often afraid, suspecting the children were demon-possessed and, therefore, holding them disdainfully at arms’ length. A fellow volunteer, Ottmar Frank, took a starkly different stance. He was a humble follower of Jesus and I have rarely witnessed such compassion at work. I asked him what lay behind his quiet persistence and intense devotion. He said, ‘I want to love these children so much that, if one of them dies, they will know that at least one person will cry.’
Ottmar’s words and his astonishing way of being in the world still affect me deeply today; the profound impact of his presence, and how my own ‘professional’ support and care felt so cold by comparison. I remember the influence he had on others too – how, over time, some others started to emulate his prayer, patience, gentle touch and kindness – without Ottmar having said a word. It invites some important questions for leaders and people, culture and change professionals. If we are to be truly transformational in our work, how far do we role model authentic presence and humanity, seeing the value in every person and conveying through our every action and behaviour: ‘You matter’?
As a young child, a Filipina living in the jungle threw a bucket down a deep well to collect water, but forgot to let go of it. She fell down the well, almost drowned and was rescued at the last minute by her father. He had happened to pass by and was surprised to see that both she and the bucket had vanished. A short while later, this same girl was climbing a guava tree to collect its fruit. Hanging upside-down with her feet around a branch, she parted the leaves and, to her horror, came face to face with a deadly cobra. This time, she did let go, fell and hit the ground hard. It saved her life.
The principle here is to know when to let go. In English, we use to ‘let go’ metaphorically to mean to make a break with the past. It’s as if by letting go, we release ourselves psychologically to move on. (It’s sometimes used euphemistically to mean to make someone redundant – but that isn’t the way in which I’m using it here). It can also mean to relax our metaphorical grip in the present moment. In this sense, it’s the opposite of to grab, hold on tightly or seek to control. It’s about learning to relax, trust, flow and breathe – and, for me, to pray – then to see who or what emerges, new, into view.
Are you holding onto, e.g. a person, home, job, role, income, plan, structure or way of doing things, that's stifling what’s truly possible? How easy do you find it to let go? How do you enable others to do so too?
‘Did you just fall?’ ‘No, I was checking if gravity still works.’ (Meggy Jo)
‘You are responsible for everything that happens to you.’ That’s a bit extreme, isn’t it? This was the opening line of some motorcycle training I signed up to last week. I have owned 24 bikes and been off 19 times but some of them definitely were not my fault. At least, I didn’t think so. The training is challenging me to think very differently about my own part in what happened – what I knew or didn’t know; what I was feeling; the various choices and decisions I made; the actions that led to a crash.
This is similar to psychiatrist William Glasser’s ‘total behaviour’ in Choice Theory. Glasser proposes that everything we ‘do’ (i.e. thoughts; actions; feelings; physiology) is a dimension of chosen behaviour. He argues strongly that we have a high degree of direct control over our actions and thoughts and a fair degree of indirect control over our feelings and physiology. It’s a radical idea, offering a vision of far greater personal agency and responsibility than many of us would imagine possible.
If I genuinely have choice over what I do, I am also capable of choosing something better. It means no more ducking and diving, attributing what happens in my life (or on my bike) solely to others or to circumstances. I can’t control everything, but I do have an influence over what happens next and how. This kind of awakening can feel liberating and scary, and often calls for real humility and courage. What are you willing to take responsibility for? How do you challenge and support choice in others?
'The visible emerged from the invisible.’ (Lailah Gifty Akita)
In a week dominated by news headlines of violent clashes between Black Lives Matter (BLM) and English Defence League (EDL) supporters in the UK – and similar conflicts over the same critical issues elsewhere in the world – the words of Martin Luther King seem as resonant as ever: ‘Violence is the voice of the unheard’; a rage-filled cry and angry lashing-out of those who feel, and are treated, as if invisible. It raises some hard questions: Who do we see and not-see? What would open our eyes?
Invisible is a deep sense of unseen, unheard, unnoticed or ignored – and that in contrast to a perceived, seen person or group. If I’m invisible, it’s as if I don’t matter, count, or exist. ‘You need to be more visible.’ It’s about exposure, acting in ways that will attract others’ attention; others that matter to you; that have sway over, say, your livelihood or career. That often means dancing, however awkwardly, to their tune; doing and achieving what matters most to them, and making sure they see it.
To be truly not-seen, to feel invisible, is a painful existential state, imbued with rejection, hurt and fear. If we feel marginalised, excluded from who or what matters most to us and can find no legitimate means to get close, we may resort to more desperate means to fulfil our need. To be seen is to be acknowledged, respected and invited in. It recognises, speaks and affirms a sense of dignity and worth. I exist, I matter and I belong; I have a voice and I will be heard; I’m engaged with real skin in the game.
I see a biblical narrative of a slave girl who was treated unjustly, cast out with nothing yet miraculously encountered by God: ‘You are the One who sees me.’ To see someone, to really see and not simply to cast a passing glance, is a call of leadership. To enable people to see themselves, and others, in a vibrant, fresh light is a call of coaching, training and OD. It inspires, reveals and releases talent, potential and contribution. Who do you see and not-see? How could you make the invisible more visible?
‘The mind is a fire to be kindled, not a vessel to be filled.’ (Plutarch)
Curiosity killed the cat. True? The allegations were never proved. As far as I’m concerned, curiosity is innocent and the accusations were fake news. My 5 year old daughter asks me, ‘Dad, why is it cold downstairs but hot upstairs?’ ‘Because warm air rises’ I reply, gesturing a floating-upwards movement with my hands. ‘But why does it rise?’ Now that’s curiosity. Posing a question beyond the question; being not-satisfied to accept things at face value.
Curiosity is a pre-requisite for learning, discovery and change. It’s a psychological state and a metaphysical stance. It means I am open; willing to engage actively in a spirit of invitation and inquiry. It means I am seeking; I want to know and, as such, I’m excited by fresh insights, ideas or challenges to what I think I already know and understand. As such, it’s a healthy and courageous antidote to the fight-flight-freeze response of defensive anxiety.
What does curiosity entail in practice? How can we do it? 1. Suspend our already-knowing; hold it lightly, as-if possibility. 2. Expose ourselves to new and diverse people, cultures and experiences. 3. Listen and hear, especially for useful dissonance with our own assumptions and beliefs. 4. Be courageous in seeking critique and in responding graciously, with humility. 5. Inspire colleagues and clients to practise it too.
Can I help you develop greater curiosity in your work? Get in touch!
‘It’s about moving on in some way from point A, not necessarily to point B or C, but to some position beyond A.’ (Bill Rosseter)
I love Rosseter’s open definition of the fundamental goals of learning, development and education. We could argue this principle lays at the heart of leadership, coaching, training and facilitation too. After all, an axiom of Western thought is the unquestioned value of personal autonomy and agency. Applied more broadly in organisation development (OD), we can attach the same idea to teams, groups and organisations. It points towards an underlying and oft-implicit intention, trajectory and destination: from dependence towards ever-increasing independence: to stand on one’s own two feet.
And it’s not just theoretical. If, like me, you were born into a Western culture; perhaps especially into a UK proud-of-its-island-mentality culture, notice the connotations and feelings we associate with the words themselves: dependence vs independence. Dependence can sound and feel (negatively) weak, vulnerable and needy. Independence, by contrast, can sound and feel (positively) strong, resilient and resourceful. We see this language played out increasingly on the global-geopolitical stage too; with independence often being associated (desirably) with power, control and self-determination.
So, what could this look like in leadership, coaching, training and facilitation? Reg and Madge Batten, development pioneers against a backdrop of colonialism in Africa, proposed three distinctive forms of intervention that, when used well, can support a useful journey of empowerment. In paraphrase, there are things we can: (a) do for others; (b) enable others to do for themselves; and (c) leave others to do without us. Some critical questions this spectrum begs are: what is most facilitative (that is, enabling) for this person (or team, group, organisation) in this situation, at this time - and who decides?
There are further considerations too. The Battens (above) coined an important qualifying phrase, qualitative autonomy, stating: ‘We are interested not only in the fact of independence but also in its quality.’ Independence is not a values-neutral end in itself and, therefore, needs to be balanced with broader ethics and values in order to ensure holistic change. It is possible, for instance, to imagine a form of independence that is self-centric and limiting, undermining or exploitative of others; lacking any sense of altruism, mutuality-synergy or healthy interdependence; and, ultimately, self-defeating.
So, how do you work with people, teams or organisations to learn, develop and grow?
How far do you take your, and their, cultural backgrounds, beliefs and values into account?
How do you help ensure that wider people, relationships and systems are kept in view?
‘So much more was said in the unsaid.’ (Bridget Devoue)
Silence: a powerful rhetorical device, used by speakers and musicians to evoke resounding emotional impact. Silence leaves the audience…waiting…in...anticipation and ‘the sound of silence can be the most deafening sound of all’ (Toth). Silence is an important presencing tool in coaching and therapy too: an inviting silence that signals attentiveness; a space to feel deep and think hard; a willingness to listen and to hear. Silence interrupts and creates a...pause. It’s the silent space between notes that makes music possible.
These kinds of silence are so very different to the deadly silence of…intimidation. ‘The predator wants your silence. It feeds their power, entitlement, and they want it to feed your shame’ (Davis). This is the act, the feeling of being, becoming, done to, suppressed; collusion and fear. I’ve felt that silence at times; as if an invisible hand is grasping at my throat; making it hard for me to squeeze the words out, to breathe. It’s the silence of the silenced, the voice-less; where all that's left is a dark, lifeless, empty...void.
So, we do well to tread with wisdom and insight here. 'There's a time to be silent and a time to speak' (Ecclesiastes 3:7). ‘Not every truth is the better for showing its face undisguised; and often silence is the wisest thing for a person to heed' (Pindar). Some things are best said, others better left unsaid. We may find ourselves awestruck, speech-less, lost for words. We may simply feel no need to speak. The same silence that one person finds awkward, difficult or lonely can feel calming, refreshing or revitalising for another.
What part does silence play in your leadership, OD, coaching or training? When is your best advice: ‘Don’t speak’?
‘Can miles truly separate you from friends? If you want to be with someone you love, aren’t you already there?’ (Richard Bach)
Social distance. It’s not just physical. It’s a feeling. I meet someone close to me, albeit with a 2-metre space in between, and my instinct is to hug, to shake hands, to embrace. There’s a brief, awkward dance as we hesitate, come to a halt, hold the rule. It’s an invisible gulf that separates us, interrupts our contact, keeps us apart. After a moment, we adjust ourselves and the conversation begins to flow. Gradually...a new and different normal emerges. We find a way to bridge the gap. A smile, a gesture, an animated movement, a tone of voice. We start to feel closer again. A metaphorical touch.
Perhaps it’s the same on-screen. We meet a person, a client, a colleague online and, at first, the technology forms a barrier, a boundary and a bridge between us. It feels different to being in the same physical room at the same time and we may feel that similar sense of distance, of strangeness, of desire to connect. Yet, somehow, we do it. Our intrinsic human powers of empathy, imagination and communication create their own paths of relational contact. We tune into voice, expressions, movement and surroundings. Over time, we feel each others’ presence intuitively, and the gap feels smaller.
How have you handled social distance with people at work?
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