I spent 5 years learning French, 4 years learning German, 3 years learning Greek, 2 months learning to teach English and 1 year learning Hebrew. I've also learned a smattering of words and phrases in languages as diverse as Japanese, Arabic, Spanish, Filipino and BSL. Whereas traditional language-learning often focuses primarily on vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation, I find myself especially interested in social-psychological dimensions such as confidence, context and culture. Manoeuvring between languages often calls for a nuanced interpretation rather than simple translation, paying attention to, say, intention, meaning and relationship before mechanics like spelling or word order.
I find there are similar dynamics at play in other (and equally-complex) human-relational arenas such as leadership, teamwork, coaching and facilitation. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung commented astutely: ‘Learn your theories as well as you can, but put them aside when you touch the miracle of the living soul.’ Textbook techniques will take us so far, yet real transformation often emerges through the sensitive manifestation of human-spiritual qualities in our relationships and practice including: presence, contact and trust. This calls us continually to explore questions such as, ‘What does this person (or group) need in this situation at this time?’ This is very different to a simple, ‘If X, do Y.’
As we enter the New Year, I’m aware of so many complex challenges that are impacting dramatically on people, communities, organisations, nations and the entire natural-environmental ecosystem. In such circumstances, it can be tempting to grasp hold of simplistic, mechanistic solutions that, we hope, will help us to feel less anxious, less vulnerable and less out-of-control. We may risk closing in on ourselves to defend and protect those beliefs, behaviours and interests that provide us with a sense of reassurance, safety and security. In 2023, I hope and pray, with open mind and heart, that I will stay close to the call-principles that guide my practice: prayer, presence, participation.
How about you? Happy New Year! Light shines in darkness. We can be hope.
‘I turned my head and saw yet another wisp of smoke, on its way to nothingness…’ (King Solomon)
On three separate occasions, a female grass roots activist in the Philippines was followed at night by strangers: men on motorbikes. As she walked alone, they would ride slowly and menacingly behind her, aiming to threaten and intimidate her into silence. She had taken a very public stance against corruption in high places – a stance that, for other activists in her country, had resulted in a deadly blade or a bullet in the back from a passing motorcyclist.
Undeterred, this young woman turned around and confronted the bikers, fearlessly: ‘Even if you kill me, you can’t take my life.’ She’s a radical follower of Jesus who has chosen a determined, startling and courageous life stance at the cutting edge of faith. It stands in stark contrast to the greyness of nothingness that the writer of Ecclesiastes speaks to at the start of this blog. It’s a spiritual-existential stance that holds the potential to transform…everything.
Zoom out now, back to our own lives. Strip back the trappings and tear away the superficial facades. What lays behind and beneath for us? This is the deep stuff of spiritual and existential coaching. It touches on fundamental questions: identity, meaning, purpose and stance. ‘Human life must be risked if it is to be won.’ (Jürgen Moltmann). ‘If you risk nothing, then you risk everything.’ (Geena Davis). I don’t want my life to be a wisp of smoke. You?
(See also: Deep; Spirituality in coaching; Existential coaching)
Coaching is listening for a voice. More accurately, at deeper levels, for 4 voices. Firstly, the voice of the client: his or her concerns, aspirations, thoughts and feelings. This is the traditional focus of coaching and counselling, seeking to hear the client, to listen, pay attention, help the client to hear his or her own voice more clearly.
Secondly, the voice of the client’s environment: his or her background, experience and context. It’s what Gestalt calls the field. The introjects, assumptions, cultural norms and systemic constructs that shape and speak implicitly through the client’s outlook and experience. The hidden voices behind the client’s voice.
Thirdly, the voice of God: revealing, guiding, challenging and consoling. The clear, confusing, mysterious voice of God who whispers in sound, in silence, through the visible and invisible. The God who is the Word, who speaks the eternal Divine language behind human language, calling us inwards, outwards, towards and beyond.
And finally my own voice: my learning, intuition, experience and discernment. It’s about listening for a resonance, a dissonance, a sense of harmony with the client, with his or her world, with God. It’s an art, a science, an energetic struggle, a dance. It’s a precious and challenging call, but the potential for transformation is significant.
Advent is – arrival. I bought an Advent calendar for some refugee friends in the UK recently. It was the first time they had seen one and they were intrigued by its idea of opening numbered doors, or windows, as a countdown…to what? For followers of Jesus, the deeper question is to Who. Advent signals the arrival of Jesus in the world, the Saviour who shines dazzling-divine light and dispels spiritual darkness. It’s a celebration, anticipation and invitation to radical faith, love and hope.
Jasmin, a Filipina, spoke today – a voice of the poor, a lived experience of the poor, from among the poor: ‘The poor feel invisible. To discover that God sees us, that he truly loves us, is the greatest gift.’ She’s working hard to provide Christmas gifts for children in a slum community who live beside an open sewer, whose makeshift homes were burnt down in a fire last week. She lives Advent by arriving with Jesus in dark places so that the poor and vulnerable experience God’s love as real.
Whatever Advent means to you this Christmas: Light shines in darkness. Remember the poor.
‘Don’t just do something. Stand there.’ (White Rabbit – Alice in Wonderland)
It was 1 hour before the workshop was due to start and we discovered the room had been double-booked. With delegates due to arrive at any moment, the pressure and risk was to spring into action to solve this. Suddenly, I remembered the simple yet profound words of a girl in the Philippines: ‘First, pray’. So I paused, prayed, finished my cup of tea (I’m British) then walked calmly to the foyer. The manager appeared: ‘I’ve found you a fantastic alternative room at a nearby conference venue.’
Another occasion. A team meeting was due to start but the leader had been held up elsewhere. He arrived late and saw the anxious gazes of team members at the already packed-full agenda. The risk and temptation was to race through the items at breakneck speed. Instead, he paused, took a deep breath and encouraged others to do the same. Then, he turned the agenda upside down on the table. ‘What, for us, would be a great use of the time we have available?’ Sighs of relief all round.
There’s a question, an idea, a principle here. Guy Rothwell calls it Space and Pace: discerning and deciding when to pause (pray) and when to leap. Pause too long and you may miss the opportunity, allow issues to escalate or frustrate others who need decisions or actions from you. Leap too soon and you may miss wiser options, fail to notice important implications or deprive others of creating better solutions. How do you handle space and pace? How do you enable others to do so too?
‘Kairos moments’. Pivotal experiences. What have been the turning points in your career? What happened and what impacts did they have? How have you learned to ride the waves?
I wasn’t trying to be difficult. It felt like an issue of justice. I was in my late teens and this was a trade union meeting in a local town hall. The room was packed full and I sat upstairs in a balcony. The union leaders were in powerful positions, sitting in a row at the front table. Nobody dared to speak or to raise a challenge. To lose membership meant to lose one’s job. ‘We have mortgages to pay and mouths to feed.’ I valued the trade union ideal but, somewhere along the way, this body had lost its visionary, democratic principles. I disliked the way its leaders abused power and traded on fear.
After making long, tedious speeches, reminiscent of a bygone communist era, the main leader stood up and asked if anyone had anything to say. A tense and tangible silence filled the room. I could feel my heart pounding and nerves straining throughout my body. I had to say something, I had to speak. So, much to my colleagues’ amazement, I stood up, took a deep breath and advocated a proposal for democratic reform. The whole room gasped…then fell back to stunned silence. The leader, now red with rage, shot me down for daring to challenge his authority – and inadvertently proved my point.
I was treated like a hero as I left that day, work mates crowding around, punching my shoulders and patting my back with looks of surprise and admiration. It was a defining moment for me. I had stood up to authority, taken a public stance on my beliefs and values and, by God’s grace, managed to stay diplomatic and assertive. There could be no going back now. I organised a union-wide petition and, as a result, came under threat from union reps who warned me that I was ‘playing with fire’. I resigned, left my job and entered human rights and community development work.
I can see a trajectory in my life that had led up to that point, e.g. from when, as a young school boy, I had hated bulling and cruelty to animals and had created an animal rights activist group at school. I can also trace a clear trajectory through my life and career in subsequent years, e.g. in leadership, coaching and OD roles in charities and INGOs, based on my spiritual-existential-humanistic beliefs and values. I still hold that same passion to support people who are poor, vulnerable or oppressed in the world. What have been the defining moments in your life and career? How did you get here?
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Tuesday night. A close friend in Asia discovers she is in terrible financial debt through no fault of her own. She has supported a near relative through her studies at considerable personal cost and the relative has let her down badly. I ask her to ask the bank how much she needs to clear the debt. Wednesday night. She tells me, UK equivalent, £1000. She says, ‘Let’s pray.’ I agree. Thursday night. A biker in the UK who I don’t know well calls me and asks if I can meet him at a biker/truck stop café on Sunday morning. I wonder if I have inadvertently done something to upset him. I agree to meet.
Sunday morning. He’s waiting at the table and I sit down, nervously. He asks, ‘That girl in Asia you once spoke about trusts Jesus, right?’ ‘Yes’, I reply. He slides an envelope across the table towards me. Now I am puzzled. He says, ‘Jesus told me to give her this – as soon as possible. Can you send it to her?’ Intrigued, I say, ‘Yes.’ He continues, sternly. ‘This is nothing to do with me. It’s between her and Jesus. I don’t want to hear about it again.’ I slide the envelope into my pocket, thank him and leave. At home, I open the sealed envelope. £1000 inside in crisp, new bank notes. I am speechless.
I don’t know about you, but this type of encounter, this kind of experience leaves me stunned and amazed. It has happened to me on quite a few occasions in my life and I’m convinced it lays beyond ordinary, rational explanation. I’m going to be brave here and to call it a miracle. It’s unpopular in contemporary secular culture to talk about God or the super-natural in the context of work and I’m not going to get all religious because that would be inappropriate and annoying. I am, instead, hoping to provoke an open spirit of curiosity. Have we thrown out the baby with the bath water?
I remember reading Holloway’s book, Spirituality & Social Work (2010) and Mathews’, Social Work and Spirituality (2009) which re-introduced questions of faith and spirituality into domains where such considerations had effectively and, I would argue, over-hastily been dismissed as irrelevant. Having reacted rightly against ‘religion’ in its worst, oppressive forms, I detect a fresh openness to consider Who or what may lay beyond the boundaries of empirical science; especially when working with people and cultures for whom life-giving faith and spiritual dimensions are fundamental.
As leader, coach, OD or trainer, what role, if any, do faith and spirituality play in your practice? How do you work effectively with people and cultures who consider them critical? Have you ever seen or experienced something that caused you to question everything you had believed was real and true?
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I can’t imagine how it must feel. To rush into darkness in the middle of the night, torrential rain pouring down, seconds later a flood of thick mud crashing through your home, in just moments destroying everything you own and have worked for. This happened to some close friends in the Philippines this week. A typhoon brought widespread and heart-breaking devastation. The poor have no insurance, no savings to fall back on and to recover. I hate that the poor are so vulnerable.
Yet what happened next astonished me even more. Having ensured her parents and children were safe, this Filipina girl hitched a ride into a nearby town, bought bags of warm bread and returned to distribute them to her stunned and shocked neighbours. She then returned to the town to cajole local officials into assembling an emergency response before, finally, setting off to search for a safe and dry room to rent. That was the start of an extraordinary week, entering this New Year 2019.
In the following days, she bought emergency supplies of rice, noodles and other essentials for people living in a nearby jungle village whose homes had been flooded too. They were cut off by a raging, swollen river without food or shelter. She adorned each package carefully in gift wrap so that hearts as well as bodies would be touched and warmed. She then navigated the river, trudged through sodden forest and rice fields and handed over the gifts to astonished, grateful families.
Wow. What a response: this instinct to look out towards others in crisis, to reach out rather than to shrink back, to open up rather than to close down. I reflected on how self-focused I could be, prioritising my own needs over those of my neighbours, paying attention to my own concerns first. I ask what motivates her and she responds simply yet profoundly, ‘It’s what Jesus would do.’ What’s your first instinct in a crisis? Does it evoke self-preservation or radical altruism? What do you do?
‘Of all the things that sustain a leader over time, love is the most lasting.’ (Kouzes & Posner)
I honestly believed I was following Jesus until I took my first step into the Philippines. I had become a Christian some years earlier and, as such, had tried to centre my life on the Christ of the gospels. I say ‘tried’ because it has been a rocky ride so far. Highs, lows and everything in between. I swing from burning inspiration to faltering faith, from close to God to straying widely off the path. I always struggle with church-as-institution and with my own stumbling discipleship. Then I encounter a poor Filipina, a girl who grew up on a remote jungle mountainside, whose life transforms everything.
She is wild, crazy, passionate, funny and compassionate. Much like Jesus – whom she loves – she both inspires and terrifies me: inspires me by what’s possible; terrifies me by what it may call from me. Her life models her own radical mandate: ‘Whatever status or power you have, use it for those who are vulnerable; whatever money you have, use it for the poor; whatever strength you have, use it for the weak; whatever hope you have, use it to bring hope to those who live without hope. Speak up for justice and truth – whatever the cost. Pray.’ She lives it literally – and that scares me.
Where I see issues, she sees people. While I’m still thinking about it, she’s out there doing it. Her self-sacrificial lifestyle looks and feels profoundly reckless and unnerving. It unsettles me. It alarms me. It evokes a spiritual-existential crisis. It shakes everything in me to the core. Yet it also kindles fresh glimmers of light. I see amazing hope on the faces of people whose lives she touches. I see the ordinary-extraordinary miracles that God performs through her every day and it strengthens my own faith. She evokes a yearning in me to see and love Jesus and the poor more deeply: whatever.
‘I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.’ (Tony Campolo)
The first time I heard those words some time ago, I was left speechless and reeling. Firstly, with the scale of the awfulness of the human tragedy and secondly – ashamedly – that I too was shocked to hear a Christian leader use the ‘S’ word. How easily we get distracted, preoccupied or fixated by things that really aren’t important and miss those that are. For those familiar with Jesus’ teaching, logs and splinters come sharply to mind. My last blog, ‘Whatever’, touched on a similar theme.
I visited the Philippines for the first time in 2016. I had visited and worked in various other countries in South East Asia with international charities but this was a new experience for me. One day in the hot sunshine, I sat on a kerb to listen to a talented marching band practising at the roadside. I was vaguely aware of people nearby but didn’t really take much notice. My attention was fixed firmly on the rhythmic band and music and on taking video that I could show friends on returning home.
After a while, I turned to speak to the young woman, a very poor Filipina, who had brought me to that place as her special guest. I was astonished to discover that she had vanished…and then even more astonished to see her with the other people, strangers, nearby. I became aware they were mostly elderly poor people trying to eke out a living by selling what little they could. This girl was on her knees, offering them the very food and drink we had brought for ourselves. I felt humbled and amazed.
This experience, alongside others in the Philippines since, has inspired and rekindled my desire to ‘cut the cr*p’ in my life and to live for Someone, something worthwhile. I hate that the poor are so vulnerable. It feels like a spiritual, existential journey for me. What journey are you travelling? Who is inspiring you? What are you inspiring in others?
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