‘To demand perfection from someone is to crush them.’ (Joyce Huggett)
I’m a recovering perfectionist. Perhaps I’ll never fully get over it, but the first step is at least to admit it. In the olden days when we used to write things like letters, essays and reports on paper with a typewriter or pen (some of you won’t remember that far back), I can recall clearly a sense of dismay if I made a mistake at the end of a sheet, and ripping it up to start all over again. The thought of a crossed-out word, or Tippex, was far too painful to contemplate. Everything had to be…perfect.
This kind of perfectionist streak can be a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it can drive us to achieve dizzying heights that would otherwise seem impossible. On the other hand, it can leave us permanently frustrated, disappointed or exhausted. We may spend inordinate amounts of time and energy on tasks and relationships, where ‘good enough’ really would have been good and enough. There’s an opportunity cost too: I’m wasting resources that would be better used elsewhere.
Yet perhaps the most dangerous dynamic is if and when we begin to impose those same standards, expectations and demands on other people; irrespective of what the situation or relationship itself calls for. This is a risk of ‘red pen leadership’ – where a leader or manager (or, perhaps, parent or partner) takes issue with every slightest detail in another person’s e.g. appearance, performance or behaviour, to the point where the other person is left feeling damaged, diminished or despairing.
If you have perfectionist tendencies or are leading-coaching others who do, there are some useful insights from psychology that can help, e.g. psychodynamic: ‘What has happened to you that makes perfection feel so critical?’; Gestalt: ‘What are you not-noticing here and now?’; cognitive: ‘What assumptions are you making about who or what’s most important?’; systemic: ‘What cultural factors are driving your behaviour?’ I’m learning to breathe, pray, relax, be more pragmatic – and forgive.
‘We are interested in the past only insofar as it impacts on the present.’ (Geoff Pelham)
I worked with a training group recently that was learning the skills of action learning, a form of group coaching in which one person presents an issue and others help her or him to think it through to find or create a solution. As one person at a time talked about a challenge that he or she was facing at work, I noticed others often instinctively posed questions or prompts that aimed to uncover the person’s history or the backstory to the situation. The person presenting would then typically respond with something like, ‘OK, let me take you back to the beginning, where it all started.’
In doing so, the presenter used up precious action-learning time reciting a story that he or she already knew. It was as if, by sharing wider background information in this way, the peer coaches would have greater understanding and, therefore, be better equipped to pose useful questions. Yet, as Claire Pedrick (Simplifying Coaching, 2021) puts it: ‘…our role is not to see the situation thoroughly, or to diagnose. It is for the thinker to see the situation thoroughly.’ The purpose of action learning, like coaching, is to enable the person to think more deeply and broadly for themselves.
Claire goes on to reframe past-facing questions by bringing them into the present, e.g. from, ‘Tell me your backstory?’ to ‘Tell yourself your back story and let’s see what we notice?’; or from ‘What have you already tried?’ to ‘If you look at what you have tried already, what do you notice?’ If a person repeatedly recounts the same story from his or her past, Claire will shift the focus to the present, the here-and-now, by posing a gentle challenge, e.g. ‘Assume I know everything. What do we need to think about today?’; or ‘What is your most important question about that today?’
I worked with a psychodynamic consultant, Kamil Kellner, in an action learning group. Once, when a person presented a topic by framing its origins in the past, Kamil noticed her emotional state as she spoke and reflected back simply with, ‘The past feels very present.’ I had a similar experience when once, as a student in a group, I became quite emotional. The psychotherapist tutor, Mark Sutherland, responded, ‘It’s not the first time you’ve been here is it, Nick?’ The past can resonate so powerfully in the present. The gift is to notice its presence and create a shift in the now.
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.
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?
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 only exercise some people get is jumping to conclusions.’ (Hal Elrod)
A recurring theme in psychological coaching/OD is that of enabling a person or a team to grow in awareness of what they are believing, assuming, hypothesising or concluding. This could be about, for instance, themselves, another person, a relationship or a situation. In Yannick Jacob’s words, ‘Human beings are meaning-making machines’ (An Introduction to Existential Coaching, 2019). We are wired to see things as complete wholes and, where there are gaps, to fill them subconsciously – and therefore, by definition, without noticing we are doing it.
This reflects a core concept in Gestalt psychology; where you may be familiar with, say, an image of black shapes on a white background that viewers typically see as a ‘panda’. This assumes, of course, that the person seeing the image already has an idea of panda in mind – i.e. what a panda looks like. We join the dots or, in this case the shapes, to create something that we already know. In doing so, we superimpose meaning onto the image and, at the same time, exclude alternative interpretations. It’s as if, to us, if the image is self-evidently that of a panda. Full stop.
This panda-perceiving phenomenon can help us to understand how we, as individuals and as cultural groups, construe our ideas of reality at work. Drawing on limited data, we fill-in any gaps (e.g. with our own hopes, anxieties or expectations) to create what looks and feels, to us, like a complete understanding of a situation. Yet, in Geoff Pelham’s words, ‘The facts never speak for themselves’ (The Coaching Relationship in Practice, 2015). If we enable a person or a team to revisit the gaps and to hold their hypotheses lightly, fresh insights and opportunities can arise.
First, pay attention to how a person is feeling, or the mood in a team. Acknowledge the emotion without necessarily seeking to change or to resolve it. Instead, invite a spirit of curiosity, a desire for discovery. Next, facilitate a process of critically-reflexive exploration: e.g. of what meaning they are making of their experience; of what needs it reveals; of what strategies they are using to address them. Now, offer support and challenge to test assumptions, stretch boundaries, shift a stance. Be prayerful and playful. Release the panda to emerge as something new.
Feedback – a topic that often keeps people awake at night. There’s something I want to say, perhaps need to say, but I can’t think of the right way to put it. ‘What if it provokes a negative response?’ ‘What if I can’t handle the person’s reaction?’ ‘What if it makes things even worse?’ Such questions can understandably create an anxious psychological, emotional and physical state. If I’m feeling anxious, no matter what carefully-crafted words I may use, the other person is likely to pick it up intuitively and it could, to them, look and feel like attack or defence: and evoke the same in them.
The truth is, we are continually giving and receiving feedback, yet often out of conscious awareness. Our tone of voice, body language, use of words and behaviour all convey implicit messages and we only have limited rational control over them. What is more, we filter and interpret signals we receive from others based on our own personal experience; including our hopes, expectations and fears. Feedback always takes place in a dynamically-complex and fluid relational (e.g. affinity; trust; hierarchy) and cultural (e.g. language; values; norms) context – and that influences everything.
Take, for instance, feedback that lands positively on one day, yet could feel negative on another, depending on how I’m feeling. If I like and trust the person, I’m more likely to hear and respond to it positively. Conversely, if trust is low, of if we’ve just had a bruising argument, it could evoke a negative reaction; even if the feedback itself is valid and fair. In light of this, we are most likely to give and receive feedback successfully if we pay attention to our psychological, emotional, physical and relational state first, and then give equal attention to that of the other person too.
We can do the former in a number of ways. Take a moment to relax, breathe (pray) and imagine the person and conversation. How am I feeling? Is now the best time to hold this conversation? What will I need to handle it well? What beliefs am I carrying? What am I saying to myself? If: ‘What if it goes wrong?’, what happens if I reframe it to, ‘What if this goes well?’ If I’m saying, ‘I want this person to stop what they’re doing’, what happens if I change it to, ‘I want this person to succeed’? Now rehearse the opening of the conversation – in a positive, relaxed state.
We can do the latter part in a number of ways too. Invite the person into a constructive review conversation together, not simply impose something onto them. Be clear about your (positive) intention, purpose and desired outcome. Ask them where and when would suit them best. Frame the conversation in an appreciative, solutions-focused way, reminding them of the vision and goals and inviting their reflections first: e.g. ‘What is going well?’ and ‘What will make it even better?’ – before offering your own feedback and ideas. Close with, ‘How shall we move this forward?’
Do you lose sleep over giving or receiving feedback and how to do it well? If so, get in touch!
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!