Friday 25 November 2022

Wilful Blindness

At a recent Time to Think Collegiate meeting, we were joined by Margaret Heffernan, the academic, coach and author who wrote Wilful Blindness ( a book I'd already found fascinating and enlightening). She gave a fascinating insight into her work, with particular reference to how it relates to the Thinking Environment. Needless to say, my summary notes here do not reflect the richness (and in particular the research and the examples) or Margaret's talk. But the price of Wilful Blindness is very high: just ask BP...

The first point she made is that we are naturally attracted to people like us. So we are likely to recruit people like us, not just formally to positions, but also informally into project teams, or simply the people we turn to for advice and ideas. The risk being, of course, that people like us will not only share our particular view of the world, but also our blindspots. This is one of the reasons why Difference is one of the ten Components of the Thinking Environment.

Secondly, we can only focus on one thing at a time. We (and in particular some of our senior clients) may believe we can multi-task, but that is largely an illusion. For serious thinking tasks, we need to stay focused: and interruptions kill focus. Which is why Attention, with its attendant veto on interrupting, is another of the Components. 

Thirdly, we all operate with mental models: our understanding of how the world works.  These are valuable, as they save us form having to start from scratch each time we think about anything. But they are also risky, as they may rely on embedded assumptions, which may be inaccurate; and also because we are so prone to confirmation bias: noticing and attaching meaning to what conforms to our mental models, and ignoring, discounting, or even failing to notice, anything that contradicts them. That is why Incisive Questions that seek out and replace untrue assumptions are another Component.

Fourthly, our behaviour changes when we are in an organisational context. In particular, there is an interesting phenomenon of organisational silence. We might imagine that if someone sees that something is going wrong, he or she will speak out. But research and experience demonstrate that is simply not the case; and is, in fact, a very dangerous operating premise.  In fact, Margaret quoted research that suggests that 85% of executives have issues or concerns that they don't raise (which is a stunning, and frightening, figure!)  The reasons for that being both fear of retribution, and concerns about utility (ie it won't actually make a difference). Which is why Equality is so important in a Thinking Environment.

Margaret went on to explain how her attention had shifted from how do we eliminate Wilful Blindness, to at least understanding the contexts and cultures in which it is most likely to flourish.  Some of the key characteristics are:

•     Steep hierarchies (which inhibit dialogue between people who know what's going on at the sharp end, and people who make decisions)

•     Bureaucracies (particularly because they define what is important [eg via KPIs] therefore causing lots of other things to be overlooked)

•     Scale - not least because large organisations are more likely to have steep hierarchies and bureaucracy; (unless they work hard to prevent it, for example by organising into small operating groups).

There was lots more, and all of it good; not least her client examples, some of which resonated uncannily with issues that are live for some of my clients.  But that's enough for now!  Maybe I will write further on this another day.

Wednesday 23 November 2022

The Gestalt Cycle as a structure for coaching.

I have been continuing to read and think about Gestalt, and in Nevis' Organisational Consulting, A Gestalt Approach I found him suggesting The Gestalt Cycle as a map of the consultancy process. Which prompted me to think of it as a possible structure for a coaching session.  

So here are my first thoughts:

Sensation: one might start by inviting clients to attend to their physical sensations in the here and now, as a way of arriving fully at the session; such an invitation also does something to establish the coach’s presence.

Awareness: one might then invite them to consider what comes to mind as the issue(s) to explore at the session.  It may be that many figures emerge from the ground; the coach will then encourage the client to increase awareness and contact with these figures to see which become salient. This can take time as the client processes the possibilities, and also as the client gains the confidence to talk about the serious stuff  Again, the coach’s presence may be key here.

Mobilisation: when the client decides what the most salient figure is, there is likely to be an increase of energy in both client and coach. It may be helpful to comment on this (self as mirror), to help the client to channel energy towards the salient figure. 

Action: at this stage, the coach and the client work together to address the issue, which may take many forms.  In Gestalt, the aim is always to help the client to increase awareness and maintain contact, in the here and now, with both the issue and the coach. This may involve heightening the client’s awareness of ways in which contact is being blocked (by retroflection, introjection etc).

Contact: this is the moment at which learning occurs: the moment when what is desired and what is possible are brought together. Bothe Perls and Nevis suggest that there is the need for an ‘aggressive’ contact with the figure of interest: it needs to be chewed before digestion, as it were, rather than simply swallowed whole. Thus the coach might want to ensure that a client doesn’t  reach to quick or simplistic a sense of resolution, but has really engaged with the figure with sustained attention.

Resolution and Closure: the learning from the moment of Contact is interpreted; and the figure is no longer salient: it has, in some way, been resolved. Again, the presence of the coach, including an acknowledgement of what has occurred and reflections on what has been observed and experienced by the coach may be valuable here. 

Withdrawal: attention is then withdrawn from the figure, the learning is assimilated into the ground, where it is available for future use.

 I should stress that this is purely theoretical at this stage.  I have not (or not consciously) sought to structure a session in this way; but as I wrote it out, it seemed strangely familiar...

Saturday 12 November 2022

More Thoughts on Gestalt and the Thinking Environment

 I blogged recently on Gestalt and the Thinking Environment. That post attracted quite a lot of interest and comments on Linked In, and I have been thinking further about the subject.

One of my lines of thought is that the concepts of contact in Gestalt, and Attention, in the Thinking Environment, are clearly closely related. 

In Gestalt, the practitioner both encourages individuals to stay in contact with themselves, and with the figure which they are addressing; and also strives to establish and maintain contact between the practitioner and the individual.

In the Thinking Environment, it is axiomatic that the practitioner gives complete and unqualified attention to the thinker.

Which led me to reflect that the classic blocks to contact, in Gestalt, may also be at least some of the things that a Thinking Partner needs to avoid, in order to sustain that extraordinary quality of attention that is the core of this approach.

Those blocks are:

Desensitisation: blocks sensation - often a result of trauma.

Deflection:  eg rather than acknowledging one's true sensation, one makes a little joke…

Introjection: all the shoulds and shouldn'ts one has swallowed over the years.

Projection:  where one guesses what others might be thinking or feeling based on one's own thoughts or feelings.

Retroflection: where one avoids taking action for fear of (eg) failure  - and suffers worse consequences.

Confluence: acting on someone else's needs or desires rather than one's own. 

Egotism: (self-explanatory).

William Coulson

And even as I type them out, I am aware (in a very Gestalty way) of a sensation of unease around Introjection. I think that we have to be very careful here. According to William Coulson, who was Carl Rogers' right-hand man for many years, one of the problems Carl had when training others in his work, was that many of them bathed in the heady warmth of unconditional positive regard so luxuriously, and treated all moral injunctions as introjections, with the result that many ended up having casual sexual relationships with multiple clients.

In conversation with a colleague recently, I noticed an aversion in her to any sense of 'rules' about this work. Yet when I mentioned the need for 'boundaries' she was in whole-hearted agreement.

And of course, most professional coaches consider themselves bound by the global code of ethics drawn up by the EMCC  and AC (or a similar professional code). 

So whether you consider them boundaries, ethics, or rules, don't be misled by the idea of Introjection to consider yourself free of them.  Introjection really applies to the kinds of rules that we may have learned as children and be bound by out of our conscious awareness. In Gestalt terms, the key issue is to become aware of them, and then to evaluate them and their applicability (or not) to the issue at hand - not simply to discard them!

Monday 7 November 2022

Gestalt and the Thinking Environment

 I have long been interested in Gestalt, especially as it applies to learning and development, and coaching. This interest was initiated by two of the colleagues whose work I have most admired, and with whom I have particularly enjoyed working. Both work with Gestalt a lot, though in very different ways.

More recently, I have re-engaged with the theoretical base of Gestalt, as i was running a development day on the use of Gestalt in coaching supervision for my friends and colleagues in the Coaching Supervision Partnership.

One of the key concepts in Gestalt is the Gestalt Cycle of Contact. This suggests a cycle of Sensation: Awareness: Mobilisation: Action: Contact: Resolution and Closure: Withdrawal; in which we are all engaged all the time that we are conscious. Different practitioners use slightly different labels for the different stages of the cycle.  The idea is that when something becomes salient for us (emerges as a 'figure' from the 'ground' of all the things we could attend to), we engage in this cycle, and if we reach resolution, closure and withdrawal, that is a healthy, completed cycle. The figure then returns to the ground, and something else may emerge as salient, as a new figure. However, if the cycle is not completed, we are left with that unsatisfied sensation of unfinished business.

Some of the blocks, which impede 'contact' and completion of the cycle, are:

  • Desensitisation: (blocks sensation - often a result of trauma)
  • Deflection: eg rather than acknowledging your true sensation, you make a little joke...
  • Introjection: all the shoulds and shouldn'ts we have swallowed over the years.
  • Projection: where we guess what others might be thinking or feeling based on our own thoughts or feelings
  • Retroflection: where we avoid taking action for fear of (eg) failure and suffer worse consequences.
  • Confluence: acting on someone else's needs or desires rather than one's own
  • Egotism.

Another interesting observation is the paradoxical theory of change: Change occurs in the process of becoming more fully what is rather than in trying to become other. This is an aspect of awareness - full attention and contact with how things are has the result that change naturally arises.  Along with this is the paradox of resistance: if we support resistance, we encounter less of it.

Also, the presence of the practitioner (therapist, coach, supervisor) is an essential aspect of this work; and the practitioner's awareness of, and naming of, what is going on for him or herself is very valuable: 'self as tool.'   Likewise, there is an emphasis on working with the here and now: if a coach wants to think about a particular coaching incident, for instance, a Gestalt perspective is to focus on what the coach is feeling about that incident right now, rather than at the time it took place.  Exploring that is often very rich and provocative of insight. Gestalt questions are generally about the present, not the past or the future.

And because I continue to be a keen advocate, and practitioner, of Nancy Kline's Thinking Environment, I have been thinking about the points of commonality, and the differences, with Gestalt.

Some of the commonalities are the focus on the present moment, including a recognition of the importance of sensations and feelings; the importance of the presence of the practitioner, and an assumption that change will arise from increased understanding or awareness. Both approaches are marked by a very high level of listening, and giving a very large proportion of the time to the individual to explore his or her thoughts and feelings.

However, there are also marked differences: Gestalt practitioners are likely to have much more content in their interventions (compared to the largely content-free approach that characterises a Thinking Environment).  For example, they may draw attention to anything that they notice that is blocking contact. Likewise, they are likely to give feedback about their own feelings here-and-now as a key part of the process. 

Having said which, I find that in practice the two approaches are very consonant, and it is relatively easy for me - and sometimes seems helpful for my client - to move between the two.

I'll be particularly interested in any comments from other practitioners who are engaged in both approaches: as ever, this post is very much my thinking aloud about something that has become salient for me (a figure that has emerged from the ground), and is my early musings: I am sure there is much more for me to learn here.


With thanks to LinkedIn Sales Solutions for sharing their photo on Unsplash

Friday 4 November 2022

Humour and tears

I have blogged about humour a few times, but keep coming back to it. This time it is the result of a few conversations with a coach who I am supervising.

At the end of a session a while back, she said something about humour, and having been discouraged to use it professionally; and was interested in my take.  

I explained why I thought it could be beneficial, and mentioned C W Metcalf; and after the session I sent her the link to this video:

The next time we met, she said what an impact that had had on her coaching work; and how there was now much more laughter, but also, interestingly, many more tears.

Her view of this was that once people have laughed, they find it safer to go to the darker and more dangerous places, as they know that there is a way back - via laughter. It is as though they have let themselves down into the pit via the safety rope of humour and know that they can climb back up that rope at any time.

I found that intriguing; not least as my initial thoughts were different. I thought that by laughing together in a session, she and her client were expanding the emotional bandwidth, as it were, of the session. It clearly marked this out as a space that was different from many work contexts; and that gave permission for other emotions to be expressed, including grief and distress.

Chatting about the link between laughter and tears with Jane, my ever-perceptive wife, she had another perspective. She suggested that laughing together promotes an intimacy, and thus trust, that makes it easier to go to the difficult places.

I suspect we are all right, and that all these aspects are relevant. And I am quite sure, based both in theory and experience, that enabling the expression of grief and distress in a coaching session can be very helpful.  People often think better after they have cried: tears serve a purpose, and whilst it might not be appropriate to cry in the Board Room, having a place where that is safe, private, accepted and understood, is hugely valuable.


With thanks to Denis Agati and Tom Pumford for sharing their photos on Unsplash