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.’
‘Hindsight no longer leads to foresight after a shift in context.’ (David Snowden & Mary Boone)
‘What does this new situation call for?’ is a vastly different question to, ‘What did I do last time that worked?’ I learned this the hard way. In my younger days, I led a youth and community work project in the North of England that was, by most accounts, a great success. I subsequently moved to the South of England where, instinctively, I replicated that same approach. This latter initiative was, sadly, an unmitigated failure – yet a very important way to discover that context is critical.
Increasing dynamic complexity in the world means that, in many situations we now face, the past is no longer a reliable predictor of the future or sound basis for action. In contrast to earlier views that change happens sequentially and linearly with one state of play building on another, Michael Lewis argues that, ‘change may be the result of complex emerging connections that are often random.’ Significant influences can, and often do, emerge unexpectedly at any time and from left field.
There are parallels at an individual level. Karen Franklin comments that for the common maxim ‘the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour’ to be true, ‘the anticipated situation must be essentially the same as the past situation’. Yet, when is it? Is any context really that fixed? Eleanor O’Leary reflects astutely: ‘Everything that we have learned, everything that we have experienced is carried in the present moment.’ The past is known and feels familiar. We can get stuck there.
Whether dealing at macro-strategic-systemic levels or with the people, relationships and situations in front of us, learning to critique our presuppositions-from-experience has never been more crucial. A simple aide-memoire? Post an image of traffic lights on your cell phone, laptop or desk: red light - pause; amber light - reflect; green light - act. Alongside amber, ask: ‘What am I assuming?’ (This can be a difficult question to answer, owing to deep personal-cultural blind spots or defensive routines)*.
Yet, to discover a way to see the past, present and future through fresh eyes is absolutely key. What techniques have you found that help you and others do this well?
(*Interested to develop your own critical reflexivity and critical reflective practice? Get in touch!)
A ‘check engine’ warning light flashed up on my car dashboard this week. It turned out to be a false alarm – a warning that was, apparently, triggered by jump start last week. I know that now. The unnerving part was the not-knowing in-between. What is there was something seriously wrong? How am I to know if a warning symbol can be ignored or if it’s highlighting a genuine cause for concern? In this case, I was able to take the car to a local mechanic to have it checked out.
When, however, we experience ‘warning lights’ psychologically or emotionally, it can be harder to discern. A manager is invited to present to an Executive Team and feels deeply anxious. Is that a false alarm or, perhaps, an intuition that is flagging up what ought to be considered a genuine risk? A team member is asked to give critical feedback to a colleague in another department and feels worried about how they may react. Are they being over-sensitive or should they be concerned?
Here are some insights to help when making a judgement call. 1. Has the person experienced similar situations and associated emotions in the past? If so, their past may be re-triggering feelings in the present. 2. Does the person have any tangible evidence that supports their concerns? They may be making hypotheses or assumptions. 3. Would different others be likely to feel the same if faced with a similar situation? It may be a personal or cultural narrative the person is telling themself.
A tricky part is that it’s not always an either-or phenomenon. The anxious manager may have experienced something similar in the past and the Executive Team may be demanding unrealistic levels of performance. The team member may be highly-sensitive and their colleague may react defensively. How do you distinguish between a false alarm and something that’s real? Do you trust your your feelings or intuition most, or lean more towards evidence or reason – or something else?
‘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?
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
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