Moving from city to village was a big shift. All kinds of changes. On arrival, we took my 7 year old daughter to visit the local village school. Teachers took her around enthusiastically, explaining how the classes work, introducing her to other children, showing her the school equipment, facilities etc. On leaving, I asked her how she felt, what her impressions were. She replied, ‘Great!’ I asked her what she liked most – and she responded immediately, ‘The kids get to wear their own shoes!!’
This young girl came from a school that had a strict dress code. Black shoes were mandatory. The idea that she could choose what to wear at this new school completely transfixed and excited her. Nobody had mentioned shoes or uniform as we had taken the school tour yet this is what she noticed. In fact, it was as if she hadn’t seen or heard anything else. She noticed what she valued, what mattered most to her, and what stood out in stark contrast to what she was used to.
Gestalt psychology talks about this idea in terms of ‘figure’ and ‘ground’. ‘Figure’ is whatever stands out to us, whatever holds our attention, in the moment. ‘Ground’ is the backdrop that, in that same moment, lays largely out of awareness. It raises some very interesting and important questions such as, ‘What are we noticing – and why?’; ‘What are we aware of?’ and, conversely, ‘What are we not noticing?’; ‘What are we not aware of…e.g. that we may do well to pay attention to?’
What we notice – and what meaning we attribute to it – is influenced by our interests, values, cultures, preferences and concerns. We don’t simply see what is there, as if in some objective sense. We focus, filter and construe what we see so that different people see different things in the same situation, or the same person may see different things in the same situation at a different time. So, as leaders, coaches and OD – what is holding your attention? What are you not noticing?
I live in a small rural community in central England. Until a couple of years ago, it was a tranquil, peaceful area. Then the local farmer introduced gas gun bird scarers, hoping to protect his crops. If you haven’t heard these guns, they emit a very loud bang every few minutes. It now feels like living next door to a live artillery range. Imagine a grenade exploding outside your front window every 2 minutes. From dawn until dusk. Day in, day out. Week in, week out. Month in, month out.
I struggle to find words to express how stressful and exhausting this experience is. As time goes by, I range from anger to frustration to despair. The sheer relentlessness of it tests my Christian values to the limit. I’ve written so many letters in my head and yet, thankfully, managed to avoid sending them. I’ve explained how I’m feeling and asked the farmer, politely, to consider alternative methods available that are not so intrusive. No response. The loud blasts continue. No end in sight.
And now imagine the farmer’s experience. Struggling to make a living, growing and selling his crops in an increasingly competitive market. Climate change making things worse, alternating between drought and floods. Birds wreaking havoc, or so it seems to him, on the crops. Every loud bang brings a feeling of comfort, an expectation of birds dispersed, hope for a good crop this year. The guns make him feel safer, better protected, more able to deal with the challenges he faces.
This begs questions such as whether the gas guns actually have what the farmer considers to be the desired effect (because increasing evidence shows they are ineffective or even, over time, attract birds) and whether a better win-win solution could be found. However, the striking aspect I want to focus on here is how two parties are able to experience and respond to what is, on the face of it, the same phenomenon, in this case loud bangs throughout the day, so very differently.
Bolman & Deal explored this phenomenon in 1991 and commented that, ‘What’s important is not what happens but what it means’, that is, that every event carries with it potential psycho-symbolic significance. This resonates with Ellis’ earlier observations (the basis for his rational emotive therapy, forerunner of cognitive behavioural therapy) that what we feel tends to be governed more by what we believe about an event, what associations it holds for us, than the fact of the event itself.
There are important implications for coaching and organisation development, as there are in therapy. When working with individuals, groups and organisations, we need to pay attention to what is happening in the client’s world and what meaning, what significance, it holds for them. Imagine, for instance, a change initiative at personal, team or organisational level. What, subjectively, will the change mean to the client? What hopes and fears and implications does it evoke for them?
The client’s meaning-making is likely to be influenced psycho-dynamically (i.e. how it resonates with their previous experiences) and culturally (i.e. how their cultural group – e.g. team, sector or wider community - makes sense of these experiences, including what value judgements it places against them). It means that where leaders seek to introduce proposals, solutions or resolutions, they need to take careful account of different stakeholder values, goals, perspectives and experiences.
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