Right from the start
‘If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution.’ (Albert Einstein)
Action Learning is a powerful way to explore an issue, formulate a solution and enable personal agency to act and influence change. It can also be used effectively to enable a group with shared interests or concerns to work on and address an issue together. The first step in this latter approach often entails helping a group to formulate its own question or hypothesis at the outset, a bit like when conducting action research, to establish appropriate focus and boundaries.
As a facilitator, we can invite the group to reflect on criteria and wider considerations as it performs this initial task. Here are some examples: a. In relation to this issue, who are they key stakeholders in the system? b. Do we have the right people in the room to address this issue? c. Is it feasible to make useful progress on the issue in the time we have available? d. Are there any ethical, intersectional, reflexive or relational issues we should pay attention to in how we do this?
Sometimes, I notice that one or more participants may have an intuitive awareness, a feeling or a hunch that something is, say, anxiety-provoking, challenging or stuck in their system, yet they may struggle to articulate it. In that case, I may invite them to, for instance, draw a picture, tell a story or enact a stance to help surface whatever issues lay beneath for them. Then, we continue the process (above) to reach clarity and agreement, as a group, before we move forward.
Reflexivity – a research word. It means that when we explore something such as a strategy for the future or an idea for a significant life change, who we are in relation to what we are looking into will influence what we see – and what we don’t see – how we do it and what conclusions we draw from it. This is because our subconscious personal and cultural assumptions and biases along with our psychological filters and defence mechanisms can create blind spots and hot spots.
Gareth Morgan characterised the blind spot phenomenon as, ‘People have a knack for getting trapped in webs of their own creation.’ In other words, we can get stuck in our own way of seeing things. Similarly, Morgan characterised hot spots by, ‘What passes for rationality is often irrationality in disguise.’ That is, we may mask and try to justify our emotional responses by rationalising them. Reflexivity is the skill of identifying and addressing such spots to minimise their influence.
Blind spots are what we are not thinking about. They touch on what is invisible to us. They are concerned with (un)awareness. They are created by our beliefs. They reflect the paradigms we hold. If we challenge them, it can feel mind-bending. Hot spots are what we are not talking about. They touch on what is sacred to us. They are concerned with relationships. They are created by our values. They reflect the passions we hold. If we challenge them, it can feel heart-wrenching.
Here are some reflexive questions that can help. Blind spots: What are we assuming? What appears self-evident to us and why? Who do we need to involve in our exploratory process? How can we draw in contrasting perspectives and ideas? Hot spots: What are we avoiding? How will we handle power dynamics and vested interests? What will we do if we feel threatened or defensive? How can we hold robust conversations that feel safe? How do you deal with the hot and the blind?
Art of influence
What makes a great influencer? What influences you? What have been your best and worst experiences of influencing other people? What have you found makes the difference?
Influence is sometimes described as the art or psychology of persuasion. It’s about creating a shift in a person or group’s beliefs, thinking, feelings, attitudes, actions or behaviour. We’re influencing all the time through our everyday social interactions but not always in the ways we would hope for. For example, as you read what I’m writing here, your own views about influencing will be affected at some level. It could strengthen your existing beliefs or create a shift, no matter how small. The art of influencing is at heart about enabling a shift in the direction that the influencer hopes for.
This implies at the outset that influence demands intentionality. It implies a deliberate act, a strategy or sorts, with a particular goal in mind. This intention is not always clear, however, even to the influencer. We’re not always sure what influences our own behaviour, even if we rationalise or post-rationalise it at a conscious level. So, for instance, I could tell and convince myself that I’m behaving or acting in a certain way because that explanation feels more personally or socially acceptable, even if deeper factors or motivations are at work at subconscious or unconscious levels.
Assuming for argument’s sake that I have a clear and conscious intention or goal in mind, what can I do to create a shift in another towards my desired direction? As a leader or manager, I could use my positional power to demand a change in action or behaviour. It could result in compliance to achieve reward or avoid punishment, or resistance as an effort to avoid the change. It’s unlikely, however, to change the other party’s underlying beliefs, values, attitudes etc. in the way that I may hope for, especially if I want to achieve transformational and sustainable change.
This is of course one of the critical challenges of change leadership: how to move a person or group to a psychological place where they choose freely to change without coercion or external pressure. It’s the same kind of challenge faced by trainers and marketeers: how to influence people’s attitudes, choices and behaviours without access to formal power or authority to ensure those changes happen. It begs interesting and important ethical questions, e.g. how to achieve a shift without unethically manipulating people or groups, especially those who are vulnerable.
In my experience, a key factor in influencing is understanding what matters most to other people. This is often the starting point for market research, surveying targeted populations to find out what they choose and why. If I understand what matters to you, what you value most, I can frame my product, service, idea, argument, language etc. in terms that will make it feel familiar, acceptable or attractive to you. In advertising, I may use people or images you consider iconic, admirable, inspiring or trustworthy to build a psychological bridge towards you – and to entice you to cross it.
The same principles apply to influencing in the workplace. Recognising that employee engagement influences talent retention and organisational performance, many organisations conduct staff surveys, pulse checks, focus groups etc. to understand how the organisation feels to those who work for it. Such surveys provide opportunity for leaders and staff to influence the organisational culture and climate and for staff to influence what leaders pay attention to. Some of the more sophisticated surveys check ‘what matters most to you’ alongside general satisfaction scores.
Many organisations also use a whole variety or initiatives including competency frameworks, performance management systems, reward and recognition strategies to identify, publicise, affirm and reinforce behaviours that leaders consider most valuable for the organisation. All of these processes aim at some level to influence perspectives, attitudes and actions. The leadership agenda involves not only understanding what matters most to staff but influencing what people will choose in order to align personal choices and decisions with what the organisation wants or needs.
So, what are the key factors that enable us to be effective influencers? Firstly, have a clear and explicit intention. If we have mixed or hidden motives, we lack integrity, others will pick it up intuitively and it will undermine trust. If you’re unsure what your true motives are, reflect on this honestly with a critical colleague or friend beforehand. Secondly, research and understand what matters most to other people. If we can tap into others’ language, culture, values and goals and address them well in what we propose, we are more likely to build bridges and achieve win-win solutions.
Thirdly, have a clear sense of what we want others to think, feel or do differently. This enables us to design and communicate messages clearly. I often ask myself before presentations or meetings, for instance: ‘What do I want people to think, feel and do as a result of what I do today?’ Fourthly, reward changes in ways that others value and appreciate. If we ask those we seek to influence, for instance: ‘How do you want to do this?’, ‘What would make this worthwhile for you?’ or ‘What would make a great outcome for you?’, it demonstrates humanity, relationship, humility and respect.
Developing strategic thinking
Strategic thinking is about keeping the big picture in view. It’s often about asking the right questions, questions that frame or reframe an issue and place it in a broader perspective. It’s about stepping back, raising awareness, challenging assumptions, discerning what’s most important. This demands listening to God, our environment, ourselves and each other.
In order to do this well, we need to develop an ability to step back from immediate detail, plans and activity. Imagine yourself with a camera. It’s about zooming out to see the wider landscape, the ‘what else’ that can go unnoticed. It’s often the bigger frame that makes sense of what we’re seeing when we zoom in. It provides context, a basis for meaning-making.
The value of stepping back mentally, metaphorically zooming out in this way, is that we can re-evaluate our priorities, our direction, what we’re spending time and resources on, how we’re approaching things, whether we’re focusing on the right things, whether we’re allowing ourselves to become distracted by things that are not adding optimum value.
One way to develop our strategic thinking ability is to jot down sample questions that can help draw the big picture into view. ‘What do our customers or beneficiaries value most?’, ‘What are our competitors planning and doing?’, ‘What are the major forces driving change in our environment or sector?’, ‘What challenges and opportunities are emerging over the horizon?’
Be open and curious. ‘What would a great outcome look and feel like for our different stakeholders?’, ‘What do we do best?’, ‘What do we feel called to do?’, ‘Who are our potential allies?’, ‘What assumptions are we making?’, ‘What are we avoiding?’, ‘How are we constraining ourselves?’, ‘What might someone else see that we’re not seeing?’
Another way is to start with a day to day issue, perhaps something you’re working on at the moment. At an operational level, the key concern is how to do it well to achieve the desired results. It’s as if the frame has already been set. ‘This is what I need to do. I will spend my time, effort and resources on working out how best to achieve it, then do it.’
Now step back from the same issue a little and ask yourself or invite someone else to ask you some wider tactical questions. ‘What is it that makes this task so important?’, ‘What other ways could I achieve the same, or even better result?’, ‘How does what I’m doing dovetail with related tasks that others are doing?’, ‘How well does this serve our overall team goals?’
Take successive steps back until the questions you are asking draw the wider external environment and future considerations into account (as above). Now you are likely to be approaching a strategic level. The further you step back, the more research it is likely to entail. It’s about moving outwards from your normal frame of reference to consider wider issues that may prove pivotal.
What all these questions do so far is to develop an awareness of ‘what else is in the picture that we should take account of in our key decisions?’ In other words, they focus on the ‘what’. The next stage involves discernment, or the ‘so what’. What does all you’ve been thinking about, looking at, exploring and researching point towards that could be significant?
Facing multiple issues, knowns and unknowns, clarity and ambiguity, can feel bewildering. In light of this, moving forward may best involve working with others, drawing on shared thinking, experience, intuition, listening and prayer. ‘What are we hearing?’, ‘What should we pay attention to and what can we safely ignore?’
The final phase, the ‘now what’, involves making strategic decisions. These are the fundamental decisions that will form the basis of subsequent strategising and planning. The best decisions provide focus and clarity. ‘This is how the strategy will achieve our vision’, ‘This is what we will do and not do’, ‘This is how we will resource the organisation to achieve it.’
The process as a whole is about learning to plan with our eyes open. It’s about seeking to be open, exercising wise judgement and making sound decisions. In light of the fluid, rapidly changing and often unpredictable environments that many organisations are facing these days, strategic review and re-focus is now more often an on-going than periodic venture.
A model for pastoral coaching
I was leading a development seminar for leaders this week, introducing various schools of psychology and their application to coaching thinking and practice, when a colleague challenged me. ‘How does Christian spirituality fit with the models you are presenting?’ It was a great question. How to develop an effective, integrative and authentic coaching approach that is consistent with Christian beliefs and values and, at the same time, draws on the best of psychological theory and coaching practice. Let me call this ‘pastoral coaching’.
The reflective practice model I’ve developed in coaching over the years could be depicted as three interlocking circles: (a) theology and spirituality, (b) theory and research, (c) experience and practice. The coach enables the client to explore and respond to these domains. The theological dimension could be conceived of as what the client and others believe about God and, thereby, as an existential metaphysic, what he, she or they believe about everything else. Spirituality could be conceived as living out personal and shared beliefs.
The theory dimension is concerned with principles or conclusions drawn from experimentation, observation and critical reflection in relevant fields of thinking and practice. Research is concerned with on-going exploration, experimentation, analysis and learning. Experience is what happens when the client acts in the world. This could be conceived of in phenomenological or rational-scientific terms. Practice is about the client enacting decisions about behaviour, action and engagement in real-life relationships and situations.
I was influenced some years ago by Foskett & Lyall (Helping the Helpers, 1988) who wrote an excellent book on developing supervision in the pastoral care arena. Foskett was a psychotherapist, Lyall, a university lecturer in practical theology. They proposed that Christian development tends to deal with issues from one of two perspectives: ‘applied theology’ which entails application of Biblical principles to practice or 'theological reflection’ which entails critical reflection on Biblical material in light of experience.
Green in Let's do Theology (1990) illustrates the former as the ‘Swedish Method’ of engaging with biblical material. It entails posing a number of questions, e.g. what things in the passage illuminate or inspire you; what things don’t you understand; what things in the passage surprise you; what things to you agree with and approve of; what are you turned off by, reject or question; can you name something like it from elsewhere in the Bible; can you name something like it from your own life and experience; what are you now prompted to do?
In contrast, Lyall in 'Pastoral Action and Theological Reflection' (Spiritual Dimensions of Pastoral Care, 2000) illustrates the latter approach through a case study. In effect, he proposes starting with a real-life experience and posing questions to it, e.g. what are the components of the situation; who is involved; what policies or protocols applied; what ethical issues did it raise; how did the past influence the present; what did decisions taken reveal about wider social or systemic values and decisions; where were the signs of God’s grace?
The first approach starts with God and works out towards reflection and application; the second starts out with experience and works out towards reflection and God.
Green’s book expands the theological reflection method by drawing on Kolb’s learning cycle (1984) which combines experience, perception and reflection and cognition and behaviour, and applies it to pastoral contexts. In a later text, Graham, Walton & Ward published a new book (Theological Reflection, 2005) that explored a range of theological reflection methods including theology-in-action or praxis which insists that ‘proper theological reflection cannot be formed independently of practical engagement.’
It’s this praxis model that I find most compelling. Much of the Bible itself depicts God engaging actively with people and communities in the midst of the clarity, confusion, joy and struggle of normal life. If theology as an enterprise is about knowing God and not simply knowing about him, it’s difficult to see how it can be properly developed in the abstract or in an isolated classroom environment. The challenge is how to understand and relate to God authentically without superimposing our own assumptions onto him.
This is where the coaching task and agenda become significant. How to enable a person or team to make sense of complex, ambiguous experience in order to act with personal and professional integrity and to influence positive change. This is particularly important for leaders of organisations operating in fast-moving fluid environments. It’s easy to feel confused or paralysed, to lose one’s nerve, to feel draw into regressive behaviours or to sacrifice integrity for short-term expediency. Holistic coaching can play a role in helping leaders navigate turbulence and stay well.
So how does this work in practice? I may start with inviting a Christian client to share an issue. It could be an issue from the Bible or an issue from experience. I may pose questions for reflection, e.g. of all the issues we could have spoken about, what is it about this issue that feels pressing or significant for you at the moment (i.e. why this, why now); how are you feeling now as you talk about it; what would you like to move towards as a result of this conversation; what questions or issues is it raising for you; what role would you like me to play?
As the conversation progresses, I may pose more questions, moving around the theology and spirituality, theory and research and experience and practice model as a conceptual backdrop. Weeson in his article, Theological Reflection on Practice (The Foundations of Pastoral Studies & Practical Theology, 1986) offers a number of particularly helpful pointers for the theology and spirituality dimension that draw on his experience or mentoring students. Since this dimension is the main focus of this blog, I will quote him fully here:
"Where is God's activity to be found in the situation we are exploring? Is the client's understanding of God limited so that he or she looks for His activity only in the (say) institutional framework or charismatic (personal) experience? What characteristics of God dominate the client's thinking? Can the client relate events and encounters with people to a theology of creation, providence or redemption? Does the client show theological imagination in forging an understanding of God's activity that is both true to Christian beliefs and relevant to the context?
Is there a link between the experience encountered and some biblical character or situation? Can the client make connection with (say) a relevant issue which is addressed in a New Testament epistle or with the experiences of an Old Testament or a Gospel character? Are such links drawn with integrity and with due hermeneutic rigour or has the client a speculative tendency to make the Bible fit? How do proper connections throw light on an appropriate Christian strategy for engagement?
How is a particularly painful or baffling situation handled? Can the client face and deal with ambiguity and complexity? Is there an ability to work with a doctrine of God or an understanding of humanity that will make some sense of the complexity? Or does the client show a tendency to run back into tidy formulations? Can the client ultimately retain convictions and yet live with areas of uncertainty? Can he or she handle this ambiguity in an encounter with a baffled person?
How has an event or encounter affected the level or pattern of the client's prayer life? Has the client learned how to incorporate an ambiguous situation into his or her intercession? Has an experience resulted in a deeper meditative understanding of God and His purposes? Has the context promoted some new biblical insights which have fed personal devotion?
What theological material demands further study as a result of the reflection on practice? Is there now an area (e.g. life and death, sin and salvation, justice and forgiveness, grace and truth, personal and corporate, freedom and responsibility, suffering and hope, holiness and incarnation, humility and leadership, discipline and love) where more work should be done? Has the client identified books, materials or people to help that further study?"
The challenge for the coach is how to help the client or client group develop and move forward without projecting the coach’s own theological and spiritual constructs onto the client or the client’s situation. This demands high levels of self-awareness, sensitivity, wisdom, discernment and skill. The coach needs to pay close attention to his or her own intuition (‘inner voice’), the voice of the client, the indirect voice of the client’s world or system through the client and, ultimately, the voice of God.
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