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.
This is a place where Gestalt and Social Constructionism meet. ‘Ge-what and what?’ Already confused? You could well be. I’ll have a go at explaining it. I discovered these words whilst studying organisational and coaching psychology. They arise out of a background, a field of research, experience and practice where psychology and philosophy dance together to create meaning. They have become words that I love, carrying all kinds of exciting insights, ideas and potential.
Yet my point is that they only hold meaning, evoke a response, against a backdrop. My experience and understanding could be very different to yours and that will influence what we each notice, what sense we make of it and how we feel when we encounter it. So, for instance, if you are feeling irritated now by my use of academic-sounding language, your focus is likely to be on me, on my words, rather than on the personal background and experiences that influence your reaction.
Gestalt describes this phenomenon as ‘Figure’ – for argument’s sake, the thing we notice, that is holding our attention, in the moment, and ‘Ground’ – the background to the ‘Figure’ that we are not noticing. Similarly, Social Constructionism proposes that it’s the hidden subconscious backdrop of our beliefs, values, interests, experiences etc. that create meaning and make sense of that which we notice and focus on. And, for most of the time – the background is completely invisible to us.
So here are some ideas: You’re leading a team and people get stuck, fixated on an issue. Why is it so important to them? Check out the invisible backdrop as a way of resolving it. You’re facilitating an organisation through change and things start to feel derailed. Surface underlying cultural constructs and assumptions to enable a shift. You’re coaching a client who presents an issue, a relationship, as if it exists in a vacuum. Explore the invisible context, the ‘what else’, to create a solution.
I woke up this morning with a sense of excitement, threw back the curtains and…oh no. It was foggy and grey. The weather app had predicted sunshine and the heavy mist dampened my spirits as well as the ground. I was looking forward to a ride out on the bike under blue skies and bright sunlight. Now I would need to dress for the wet and return my cool cycling shades to the shelf.
Immediately, the voices started in my head. Not literal voices, but speaking powerfully to me all the same. ‘Take the day off.’ ‘You don’t want to go out in this weather.’ ‘The bike will get covered in salt and you’ll need to wash it when you get back.’ ‘My knees are aching anyway so best to give it a miss.’ ‘Wait until another day when the weather is better.’ ‘Go back to bed!’
It was as if everything inside me was subtly yet fiercely resisting what I really wanted to do. My creative mind was generating a whole host of rationalisations to convince me of a different course of action and, what is more, to persuade me it would be the right or best thing to do. Yet deep inside, somewhere, I wanted to go out on the bike and knew I would feel much better if I did.
There are parallels in my Christian experience where one part of me wants to live in relationship with God and yet another part struggles actively against it. (If you’re interested in this dimension, have a look at Romans 7 and 8 in the Bible). Projected across a lifetime, this struggle can be exhausting and calls me to something, someone, beyond myself to grow and know peace.
On the whole, it’s as if there are competing beliefs, values, motivations or dynamics within us that struggle for prominence, analogous to Freud’s struggle between the superego and the id. Willpower alone is insufficient to win the battle, although in some situations it works. Often, I’ve found I just need to ignore the voices of dissent: get the bike out or drive to the swimming pool.
Motivation theories suggest different factors that motivate us. Sometimes, it’s about moving towards something, e.g. ‘If I save hard enough, I will be able to buy that shiny new bike.’ Sometimes it’s moving away from something: ‘If I get this new job, I will be able to leave this terrible neighbourhood.’ Sometimes it’s about doing one thing to avoid having to do something else.
As leaders and mentors, we’re often engaged in helping people grow in awareness of subconscious motivations, or motivating them to move in a different direction or towards a more healthy and sustainable goal. It’s one reason why understanding motivations is important in leading change. The closer changes align with people’s motivations, the greater chance of success.
We get stuck when competing motivations leave us feeling paralysed, like the proverbial donkey that stands between equidistant piles of hay and dies of starvation because it can’t decide which pile to go for. We weigh up pros and cons and yet they still hang annoyingly in the balance. ‘Should I tell people in advance about possible changes or wait until the changes are finalised?’
I believe this is where skilful coaching can really help, e.g. by enabling a person to understand ‘what lies beneath’, identify wider systemic influences, paint a picture of a different desired future, release fresh possibilities for lifestyle and action. As for me, enough of writing this blog. It’s time to get the lycra shorts and t-shirt on and to head for the open road! :)
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!