Thursday 15 December 2022

A Mistaken Attribution

It happened again, the other day. Someone was drawing the threads together at the end of a coaching conversation, and said that one of the things she was taking away, was my contribution X.

Which was interesting, in that I had not said X. Neither had she.  Indeed, it was clear to me that X was an insight that had arisen for her, in conversation with me, that was both important and useful; but that she had not actually articulated it at the time.

And yet now, reflecting on the session, she recognised it as one of the key take-aways that she was going to act on and think further about.  And possibly because she knew that she had not said it, she assumed that I had.

And as I indicated at the start of this post, that is not the first time that this has happened. It is quite frequent for me to listen to someone work through a difficult issue, with my offering a Thinking Environment (qv) to help the person take their thinking further than before; and for that person to reach some insight or revelation, or develop a plan of action; and then to close the session by thanking me for my advice, which is always so valuable - even though I have given none.

When that happens, I sometimes accept the thanks, assuming that what they really mean is thank you for creating the space in which I gave myself such good advice; and sometimes I laugh and point out that I haven't given them any, but I am glad that they have found the session useful.

But this case was a little different, in that she attributed directly to me a very specific insight. And partly because she did this in the middle of a paragraph, as it were, and went on to list other important ideas and actions that had arisen, I did not comment. I strive not to interrupt people, and sometimes that means that the moment passes. However, I suspect there were other reasons for my silence, not least of which was surprise, and not being sure what to do. 

An interesting pattern...
On the one hand, I didn't want to distract her from the useful activity she was engaged with - planning her actions and continuing learning - by reopening the session, discussing who had said what. But on the other hand, I was uncomfortable with the attribution to me of a thought that wasn't mine - and that applies whether it proves valuable or disastrous!

Reflecting on all that, I think what I will do is watch out to see if it happens in a future session, and if it does, draw her attention to it as an interesting pattern.  And if it does not - well the moment has passed now; I'll just have to hope that it isn't, in fact, a disaster.


With thanks to Lesli Whitecotton for sharing this photo on Unsplash

Friday 9 December 2022

Don't worry...

Don't worry is another of those useful pieces of advice: easier to say than to implement. 

But what struck me this week is the very different approaches to this suggested by Mindfulness, on the one hand, and Gestalt, on the other.

When practicing mindful meditation, as I understand it, one notices if a worry presents itself to one's mind, but then one simply releases it and allows it to float away.

Whereas in Gestalt, if a worry emerges as significant - a figure emerging from the ground, in Gestalt terms - then one holds it in attention, and engages with full contact and awareness of it, in order to reach some resolution. 

Yet, as opposed as these two approaches may appear, it seems to me that there is an underlying unity: that is, each is based on a conscious decision about how to use the mind.  And that, I think, is the opposite of worrying, which is often an involuntary process, that leaves us feeling devoid of agency.

So next time you find yourself worrying about something, instead of that somewhat sterile process of rumination that we sometimes indulge in, make a conscious choice: do I wish to engage with this seriously at this time or not?

If you do, then full attention is the way to go. If you do not, then deliberately releasing it (if necessary with a promise to your brain about when you will address it), might be the way forward.  At the very least, such a deliberate mental action is an exercise of agency, and therefore of power, and may mitigate any risk of feeling over-powered or disempowered by the worry.


With thanks to  Molnár Bálint for sharing this photo on Unsplash

Thursday 1 December 2022

Unhelpful advice?

Time and again, when people are talking about the importance of listening (a proposition I have a lot of time for) they say that we should also listen for what is not being said.

I have always found that to be very unhelpful advice: because the answer is practically infinite. I stored it with other unhelpful injunctions, such as 'Never point a gun' (how will you ever hit a target?) and 'keep a straight bat' (as if you could bend a cricket bat...). 

On reflection, I realise that my misunderstanding of each of these bits of wisdom is of a slightly different order. 'Never point a gun' is simply a contraction of the very good advice never to point a gun at a person (unless you intend to shoot him); whereas 'keep a straight bat' is a slightly inaccurate way of saying 'keep your bat vertical' - also good advice in its own place.

But where was I going wrong with 'listen for what is not being said'? I think it was again being over-literal in my treatment of the actual words, and insufficiently curious about what people meant by them. What I suspect people are getting at is a few different things, all of which may be worthy of attention.

One is 'what category of thing is not being discussed (that one might reasonably expect to be discussed in this context)?' For example, is someone only talking about facts, and logic, in a context where one might expect emotions to be mentioned? Is someone only talking about problems, and the past, when it might be appropriate to think about solutions, and the future? Is someone only talking about other people's responsibility for an issue, when it might be reasonable to consider their own?

A second aspect of this, is what is being communicated but not said out loud. That is, what messages are being transmitted by body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, levels of energy and so on, over and above the words that the person is saying. (Don't get me started on that more that 90% of communication is non-verbal rubbish, though!...). 

And a third thing to consider is what an individual's behaviour says, over time. Consider someone who assumes a cynical stance in dialogue, but in practice is very caring and compassionate; or conversely, someone who declares their commitment, but consistently turns up late and under-delivers.

So yes, it is important to attend to what is not being said, but is being communicated; and in the context of coaching, for example, it can be valuable to raise that as a topic for consideration.  We do need to be careful, however, that we are not projecting our stuff onto the person we are coaching: so owning it as ours is important. 

In a Gestalt-style of session we might mention what we are noticing in ourself in response to what they are saying (self-as-tool); or in a Thinking Environment session, we might offer a reflection under the general heading of Information (once people have thought as far as they can by themselves, of course).

But in all cases, we should explore these as issues to be curious (and open-minded) about, rather than assume that we have seen the truth that the other is (deliberately or inadvertently) not discussing.  As ever, humility is a very good starting point!


With thanks to Joel Moysuh and Yogendra Singh  for sharing their photos on Unsplash