‘The opportunity to make effective personal choices is highly unequal.’ (Robert A. Dahl - After the Revolution)
New Years’ Resolutions. A time and practice in Western cultures when some of the more reflective or impulsive among us will commit to do something new. It could be, for instance, a new relationship, a new job, a new home, a new diet or a new fitness routine. For many people, very soon after having made a decision, the resolve will dissolve and be lost in the mists of time. Yet central to this idea of resolution is the notion of personal choice and, with it, the principle that I can succeed in achieving what I choose – if I’m willing to do whatever it takes.
I often create (prayerfully) a list of key aspirations at the start of each year, then put practical steps in place so that, all things being equal, I will be able to look back at the end of that year and see that I have fulfilled them. The goals are intentionally inspiring and stretching. They are, with God’s help, within my grasp and, therefore, possible. On the whole, this discipline works by ensuring focus, parameters and accountability. It also centres on people and things that are genuinely important to me and, thereby, taps into values, motivation and determination.
We can think of this choosing-acting-influencing phenomenon as exercising personal agency. Shaun Gallagher describes this as, ‘the sense that I am the one who is causing or generating an action’. ‘I can choose’ is a profound existential, psychological and political statement and stance. It means I can break out beyond the apparent default of my circumstances. We hold the potential to be catalysts of real change in the world, within ourselves as well as in broader relationships and situations – and this brings opportunity and responsibility.
I can choose and you can choose. I think vividly of Jasmin in the Philippines, a poor woman among the poor who chooses to follow Jesus’ call and example, whatever the cost. Rather than allowing herself to be limited by her circumstances or by expediency, she exercises radical personal agency and transforms everyone and everything in her path. Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg are famous examples of women too who take personal choice, action and influence seriously – and, similarly, at considerable personal risk.
There are wider dimensions. A person's sense and scope of agency are affected by structural factors that transcend the individual, e.g. social status; wealth; education; gender; ethnicity; culture. Mustafa Emirbayer and Ann Mische observed that a person’s lived experience limits what possible alternatives or future scenarios he or she is able to imagine. Paulo Freire proposed, on a similar basis, that critical consciousness (‘conscientisation’) is a necessary condition for people to exercise freer choices and agency for change.
I worked with a client from Myanmar and asked her what she dreamed of. She looked at me blankly then responded that she was unable to conceive of a different reality to the one that she had lived until now. She felt crushed by the mental and practical constraints of living as an ethnic minority in a country dominated by a military dictatorship. The impact of unequal and unjust social-political power is not a fixed determinant of agency – but the stark psychological and tangible inequalities of choice and opportunity it engenders are significant.
Other influences include personal confidence, competence and capacity. If a person operates psychologically and relationally from a secure base with trust and support, he or she is more likely to choose to take a positive risk. If, conversely, someone has experienced or anticipates unfair discrimination, negative evaluation or other painful consequences, to act can feel hazardous – especially if the stakes are high. Agency can demand energy, courage and resilience. A person may not (yet) feel ready, willing or able to take that step.
If a client is unaware of or avoiding personal agency, William Glasser suggests stimulating his or her sense of reality, responsibility and relationship in order to enable more life-giving choices. If stuck in a pattern of apathy or passivity, John Blakey and Ian Day propose offering high challenge with high support. If we risk inadvertently colluding with or disempowering a client, Reg and Madge Batten advise focusing attention on what the person can do for him- or herself and, only after that, what we could do by agreement on their behalf.
Viktor Frankl, victim of Nazi persecution concluded that, fundamentally: ‘The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond.’ In our personal, social and political lives, we can see how a person’s choices, actions and influence are affected by a diverse range of factors. These include the privileges a person may hold (or not) and the opportunities he or she has benefited from by birth, background or context. Jesus – help me choose this year to exercise my own agency for the life and liberation of others. We can be hope.
(Would you like to discover how to exercise greater personal agency? Get in touch!)
Does risk-taking freak you out or give you a buzz?
‘If you risk nothing, then you risk everything.’ (Geena Davis)
Snapping my leg sideways at the knee was a painful experience. It shattered my confidence too. I had been cycling when, unexpectedly, I hit a curb and flew off, unceremoniously, and hit the ground hard. The next year was a gruelling experience of trying to learn to walk again. The consultant told me, bleakly, that my biking days were over – as were my chances of ever hiking, swimming or climbing stairs again. I felt stunned, numbed, in shock. How could this have happened?
This changed when I met Leanne, a remarkable Olympic athletes’ physiotherapist. She asked if I’d like to cycle off road again. I told her what I had been told and had believed – that it wasn’t an option. Nevertheless, she persisted and posed the same question again. I felt frustrated and confused. I had already answered. She asked what I’d be afraid of happening if I were to cycle again. I responded that I risked sustaining further injury to my knee - and that really scared me.
This turned out to be a transformational conversation. ‘Every time you went out on a bike, you risked injury. Knowing what you know now, if you were to go back in time, would that stop you taking up cycling?’ ‘Not at all’, I answered. ‘Some of my best life experiences have been out on the mountain bike.’ ‘So,’ she replied, ‘It’s not about what’s possible so much as your attitude to risk. Will you allow that same risk of injury to prevent you doing what you love now?’
Six months later, I cycled the longest distance I had ever done off road. It was a breath-taking experience. I learned that risk isn’t just about balancing probability and impact. Positive risk-taking is about stance: taking what can feel like a leap of faith, being willing to crash and burn if it all goes wrong and, at the same time, to experience the possibility of discovering or achieving more than we had ever dreamed possible. When have you taken a positive risk? What did you learn?
‘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?
As I wrote this short piece, I kept thinking: ‘God calls us to be wise...but he doesn't call us to be safe.' What do you think?
'Human life must be risked if it is to be won.’ (Jürgen Moltmann)
It’s natural to feel afraid, especially when the threat is real. Today, we are bombarded from all directions with messages to Stay Safe. It’s good, wise and rational advice in the face of a serious global pandemic. After all, our actions as individuals, communities and nations impact not only on ourselves, but also on the health and wellbeing of others too. Yet an imperative to Stay Safe, if that’s the only thing that matters, can turn us in on ourselves; cause us to retract and to retreat.
A physical lockdown can all too easily become a psychological, emotional, spiritual and relational lockdown too. It can become a fight-flight-freeze response, a defensive, self-protective barricade. It takes awareness, love, courage, faith and hope to break out, to break through and not to break down. I was humbled and inspired by this poor woman in the Philippines this morning. I pleaded with her to Stay Safe inside, but all she could think about were the vulnerable people left outside.
She wrapped her face in a headscarf, the best she could manage, prayed to Jesus, then went out to the local market, bought 50kg of rice and gave it out to poverty-stricken day-workers at the roadside; people who live at subsistence level, people left destitute by the effects of the lockdown. In doing so, she quite literally saved their lives. I believe this model of loving, courageous, self-sacrifice in the face of imminent risk may have saved something in my life too. Let’s Stay Safe…but not too safe.
Are you struggling with a 'safe-too safe' dichotomy? How can I help you? Get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org
‘If you equate listening with being silent, not disrupting the status quo, not interrupting another person’s monologue, not challenging their view of the world ...you’re not ready to be a coach.’ (Ana Karakusevic)
I’m paid to be disruptive.
Isn’t that, after all, at the heart of what it is to be a good leader, coach, OD change agent or trainer? There’s something about an encounter with leadership, a true leader, that leaves us changed and transformed. The best OD people I’ve known have challenged, stretched and reframed much of what I thought I believed. The best trainers have impacted my ideas and practice. The best coaches have left me startled, dizzy, at times disorientated, and yet, somehow…renewed.
There is, however, a cost to all this. Don’t always expect a warm welcome and smiles in the room. An honest HR colleague commented to me once: ‘You pose questions and perspectives that can make us feel jarred, frustrated and, at times, even threatened. You turn everything upside down, inside out – and you are absolutely right to do so.’ And this is where contracting and trust prove critical. Without a genuine spirit of relationship and intention of support, we risk simply p***ing people off.
So, how far are you a disruptive influence? How well do you build trust through risk-taking with support?
‘Don’t try to fly near God. You might not come down.’ (Barclay James Harvest)
‘Hold your nerve.’ It was good advice from a friend and consultant as I started out on a new business venture. It felt exciting and scary in equal measure. I had started out full of hope but my faith was now beginning to waver. Things don’t always work through or work out in the ways that we imagine. Was I missing something? Had I made a mistake somewhere on route? After all, there’s a fine line between persevering courageously in the face of all odds and simply being stubborn or resistant to change where needed. As I pondered this, I recalled a previous and strange experience in my life.
Flashback: at 21, I had decided to follow Jesus and I had left my job and studies in industry to work alongside the poor. I felt called to give away all my possessions, except those that I could fit into my rucksack, and I did so willingly – apart from my motorcycle. I moved from the North to England to a community development project in London. On arrival at the hostel where I would stay, a van hit the bike and knocked it to the ground before I’d even had chance to ring the doorbell. That same night, someone vandalised it at the roadside, stole the suppressor caps and poured sand into the tank.
Just five days later, I was riding the bike to work when a dog leapt out from between parked cars and ran straight under my front wheel. The bike jack-knifed and I flew over the handlebars, somersaulted three times (whacking my helmet hard on the ground each time) and the bike was wrecked. I limped it back to the North to get it fixed and got a front puncture on route. One month later, I rode it back to London and, within 15 minutes, was hit from behind by a hire van travelling at high speed. The driver gave false details, the bike was written off and I sustained serious internal injuries to my back.
One year later, just as my volunteer placement came to an end, astonishingly I received a letter from the van’s insurance company, inviting me to claim against it for the accident. I did so and, with the money, bought a sleeping bag and tent and hitch-hiked around Europe and into the Middle East. It was truly a life-changing experience for me. At the end of this time, I became very sick and went to a local travel agent to find a cheap flight home. ‘That will be £157.83’, they said. I looked at my cheque book stub to see how much was left in my bank account: £157.83. Hold your nerve, hold onto God.
When have you held your nerve – or not – in the face of adversity? What happened and what did you learn from it? How has it influenced your life and your work with clients?
‘I was embarrassed to ask the king for a cavalry bodyguard to protect us from bandits on the road. We had just told the king, ‘Our God lovingly looks after all who seek him.’’ (Ezra 8:22)
I don’t often laugh when reading biblical texts but this honest, heartfelt confession did make me smile. The writer, a role model and leader, found himself in a daunting situation and the faith he had felt in more secure circumstances now felt pretty daunting too. It was a moment of decision and it feels so contemporary, so real. Would he be willing to put his feet where his mouth had been? I can so relate to that tension. Do I stick with my vision, my beliefs, my values, when things get tough – or do I shrink back, compromise, take the easier road? Am I willing to take genuine steps in faith?
In the UK, we have ‘zebra crossings’ on busy roads, intended to provide safe crossing points for pedestrians. If I stand at the edge of a crossing and see cars flying past at speed, I may well hesitate to step onto the crossing for fear of being injured or killed. In fact, for visitors to the UK, choosing not to step onto the crossing will look and feel like a rational decision. Yet here’s the rub: until I take that first step, that step of faith, the cars are not obliged to stop. It’s only when I do so that the traffic will come to a halt, as if by magic. Change is what happens as we move forward.
So back to Ezra – and to us. Faith is acting on what we believe, as if it were true. I can imagine that daunted feeling, that heart-racing moment, that deep-breaths experience before taking…that…step. It could be an unnerving time, a risk-taking venture, a profound exercise in trust; whether in God, our intuition, research, resources, training – or all of the above. It could also be a thrilling, life-giving adventure, taking us to the edges of what we had dared to imagine possible or hope for. As leader, coach, OD or trainer, how do you enable people to take scary steps? How do you do it too?
‘When I was a young girl, I slipped and fell down a deep well. I was only saved because my father happened to pass by and noticed my flip flops had floated to the surface.’ As I listened to her story, I felt transfixed…and terrified. This Filipina has survived so many life-threatening experiences that it blows any cats-with-9-lives stories I’ve heard into the proverbial weeds. As she recounts various tales from her life of growing up in the jungle on a remote island mountainside, I feel by contrast like I’ve lived in a sheltered cocoon, free from a freedom that creates so much adventure and danger.
I flash back now to a conversation with a German social worker about how it is today that so many people in so many prosperous, stable, Western societies engage in so many extreme sports. It’s as if people do something dramatic and place themselves deliberately at risk in order to feel alive. I once spoke with a female base jumper who said with a huge grin on her face, ‘It’s even better than sex!’ I have to confess that I struggle to imagine that but…hey, I also struggle to imagine throwing myself head-first off a building suspended only by an elongated elastic band. Each to their own.
The social worker hypothesised that our societies have become so sanitised, protective, health-and-safety conscious and risk-averse that at some deep psychological level we can feel dead. In an era where even the once-unconquerable Everest now appears trampled and tamed, have we lost the thrill of surviving, of overcoming-against-all-odds, of achieving beyond what we ever dreamed possible? Contemporary Western people and societies often feel listless, bored and frustrated and lack resilience, purpose and hope. Can we co-create healthy risks that enliven and not endanger?
I haven’t always been good at doing the sensible thing. Take, for instance, the time when I left my job and studies in industry after 5 years of hard work, 3 months before my finals. I had recently become a Christian and believed Jesus was leading me into a new volunteer role in community development instead. My family and friends thought I had gone crazy. What on earth was I thinking of? They urged me to do the sensible thing, not to be so reckless with my life. I could understand what they were saying. Nevertheless, I resigned and never looked back. Not even for a moment.
That was one of the best decisions of my life. It changed the course of everything for me. I also wasn’t sensible, apparently, when I decided to give all my possessions away, to live out of a rucksack in an attempt to identify with the world’s poorest people. I wasn’t sensible when I worked in some unstable and dangerous places in the world in my work with charities, human rights and NGOs. I wasn’t sensible when I applied to do a master’s degree when I didn’t have any of the pre-requisite qualifications. I prayed, negotiated, worked hard and completed it with a distinction grade.
I wasn’t sensible when, more recently, I crashed my bike on a charity ride and snapped my knee sideways, leaving me seriously debilitated. I was told to be mindful, to accept my new reality and not to fight against it. I refused and I dragged myself forward step by painful step. I can now walk. I have managed to cycle and swim further than I had ever done before. I have learned that ‘sensible’ is a construct, a preference, a cultural outlook, a state of mind, a stance in the world. It appears self-evident, rational, reasonable and safe. Yet how far are we willing to take a risk - a leap of faith?
Two years ago, I came off a mountain bike – badly(!) - during a UK Sport Relief charity ride. I demonstrated perfectly how not to fall, how not to land and, as a consequence, snapped my left leg sideways at the knee and ruptured two ligaments. During the next twelve months of leg splints, crutches and intensive physiotherapy, specialists told me I would never be able to walk up and down stairs again, never be able to swim again, never be able to ride off road again.
It was a shocking, painful and numbing experience. I kept playing over in my mind what had happened, what I could have done differently, what this could all mean for my life, how it could impact on my family and work. I felt angry with myself for making such a simple, stupid mistake, frustrated that I could no longer do activities I loved. And I realised I faced a choice. I could give in to the experience, accept my ‘fate’, or take what action I could to re-shape the future.
Two years on, after months of (at times) agonising physio, dragging myself up stairs by hand rails etc, I managed to reach the top of a mountain without leg splints. Two years on, having learned to use a pull buoy float and hand paddles, I managed to swim 80 lengths with arms only. Two years on, with leg braced and lots of deep breaths, I managed to complete a 22 mile off road bike challenge. It has shed revealing light onto my attitude to risk. A reminder to hold onto hope.
I thank God, family, friends, colleagues, professionals, neighbours - and even total strangers - who have supported me. It has influenced my thinking as a leader, coach and OD practitioner: how to support, challenge and increase the resource-fullness of people, teams and organisations. It has strengthened my conviction that we and others are often capable of far more than we know or believe. It has reinforced my faith that God stands with us in the midst of trials.
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