Saturday 28 January 2023

'I'm doing the best that I can...' or am I?

As I continue to explore my interest in Gestalt approaches to coaching (see previous posts, passim) I am reading Peter Bluckert's book on the subject. I had high expectations, as the last book of his that I read was very good (see my reflections here).

And I am not disappointed. Bluckert writes clearly and concisely, with authority and wisdom. But I was brought up short by this sentence: People are always doing the best they can from how they see, experience and make sense of the world, and taking into consideration their personal histories. Bluckert describes this as a 'Core proposition' of Gestalt.

The trouble is, I don't subscribe to it. Without even going to the extreme examples of the various evil dictators and despots who caused such carnage in the twentieth century, or of the self-interested and power-hungry politicos of our own time, I don't subscribe to it. Because I look into my own heart, and as St Paul observed 2,000 years ago "the good that I would - I do not: but the evil which I would not - that I do."  Or, as Solzhenitsyn, another wise observer of humanity put it: "The line separating good and evil passes ... right through every human heart."

Indeed, the proposition, as Bluckert states it, removes any moral agency from us.  If whatever I do is the best that I can, then I am an automoton, not a human agent.

I do understand where he is coming from, and why that assumption is a useful starting point for any productive coaching with people who wish to change. It's the word 'always' that made me stop and revolt.  Perhaps I am too literal; or perhaps it is because I really do believe in absolutes that I take absolute claims very seriously and investigate them carefully.

So I would treat this core proposition as a useful fiction as discussed on my Shifting Stories blog: it may not always be true, but it is a good assumption to start with, at least.  And that much is fairly self-evident.

My late granny, who was a vibrant character, took the other starting point. She seemed to assume that anyone who disagreed with her was either mad or bad or (most probably) both. It made for an interesting life, of course, but was not, perhaps, the most peaceful or the most productive way to relate to others. And we see the same in the polarising conversations that characterise the so-called culture wars: the assumption that anyone who is not whole-heartedly one of us is both malicious and deluded. And that doesn't play out too well, either. 

But as those who have worked with me may remember, I am often on the look out for false binaries. So whilst rejecting my granny's outlook, I think I can find a more nuanced place that Bluckert's counter-proposition.

Which leaves me with an interesting question. Is it legitimate for me to use an approach, such as Gestalt, when I dispute one of its core propositions? And that legitimacy question is perhaps two questions: is it intellectually legitimate, and is it morally legitimate?

I think so, on both counts. Intellectually, I have two lines of defence. One is that using any approach does not necessarily mean that one subscribes to every claim that it makes; and if anyone is interested, I am happy to explain my useful fiction concept. 

But also, I have a theory that with Gestalt, as with many other approaches, the useful practices were discovered experientially as much as anything, and the philosophy and intellectual framework was built either concurrently or subsequently. Further, I think that some of that theorising is often mistaken. For example, Carl Rogers was clearly an incredibly gifted and skilled practitioner; but it is noteworthy that those whom he trained in what he thought he did that worked were rarely anything like as accomplished. So I suspect his theory of what he thought he did that worked was, at best, partial.

The moral question is in part answered by my intellectual answer; but there is a further dimension: do I risk doing (or implicitly teaching) anything harmful by working with an approach whose philosophy I don't subscribe to? And here I think that my more nuanced approach is less likely to be harmful than the approach Bluckert advocates. If one is coaching someone whose boss is, for example, very political, somewhat narcissistic, and manipulative, how well does one serve the individual by encouraging her to base her plans and approach on the belief that he will always do the best that he can...?  And as far as implicitly teaching an absolute that is not universally true is concerned, again, I think being explicit in my assumption that it is a useful fiction is a morally sound stance. 

Having said all of which, I still highly recommend Bluckert's book, as very readable, practical and thought-provoking. But as with any book, don't swallow the ideas whole...

Friday 20 January 2023

The Vagaries of Blogging

The other day, I wrote a blog post about a tiny incident that had amused me: catching myself looking around, a bit embarrassed, to check that nobody had seen me be less than perfect. It struck me as a mildly ridiculous, but very human, moment. 

I nearly didn't post it, as it was pretty light weight and inconsequential; but I did anyway.  And to my (mild) surprise it got more likes and comments on Linked In than anything I had posted for quite a while.  That, too, struck me as amusing. Normally I try to share something that is thought-provoking, or offers an insight, or at least some musings about some aspect of my professional practice - all things that you think might better engage the type of people who read my Linked In posts.  But no, it was the trivial and inconsequential post that got more people engaged. And it's not the first time. And -interestingly - the comments were often quite insightful and always thoughtful - more so than the original post.

And that got my wondering: why? I came up with several hypotheses. One is simply that I had given the post a punning headline, so people may have been misled or intrigued by that, and got sucked in to reading it. A second is that people find it refreshing when a Linked In post isn't 'how wonderful I am, buy from me' or 'How inspirational this person/quotation is!' A third is that my laughing at myself prompted the reaction: in some a sense of vulnerability that is a common human condition; and in others a sense of pathos - a number were keen to reassure me that I wasn't a failure of a human being... (this one missed the mark, somewhat, as I am more inclined to an inflated sense of my self-worth than the reverse, and such posts are, in part, an antidote to that).

The question that then arises, of course, is: do I therefore publish more posts of that nature, rather than my (clearly less engaging) thoughtful pieces? And that raises two further questions. One is, was that post really more engaging, or (for example) am I indulging in confirmation bias?  And the second question is, is the point of my posting to get the most likes/comments, or something else?

A quick skim back over Linked In shows that there was certainly more comment on this post than on others recently; but perhaps not as much as I was thinking. On my own blog, comment is much less frequent (that in itself is interesting) and reader numbers were similar to other posts.  Also, my own blog (on which it is much easier to see these stats over the long term) shows that my most-read post of all time was a more thought provoking one (about non-judgemental coaching, as it happens, and what we really mean by that). 

Turning to the second question, whilst it is easy to be gratified by likes and comments, that is clearly not the reason for my writing - otherwise I could produce much more click-baity posts. So why do I do it?

There are several reasons. One is that part of my identity is as a writer. I believe I have a certain talent for writing, but have only written one (published) book - blogging (in which I include posting articles on Linked In, as I always cross-post my blog posts in that way) is an outlet for that part of me. Related to that, I find that writing is often a good way for me both to clarify and to capture my thinking at a point in time; and writing for others (as in blogging) is very different from my own reflective writing. On the one hand, I clearly can't go into specifics about individual clients without fictionalising them to make them unidentifiable; but on the other, writing for others has a different dynamic, in terms of meaning-making, and reaching (at least) some tentative conclusions etc.

However, the most important reason for blogging is that I see it as an effective way of staying in touch with a wide range of people who have come across me and my work, in a way that I hope they find enjoyable and thought-provoking. And perhaps that last point - thought-provoking - is why I will continue to post mainly more reflective pieces about my practice and my thinking, and save the trivial life stories for the odd occasion when they arise and may speak to the enjoyable part of the mix...

Friday 13 January 2023

Parallel process

The other day I was reflecting on a coaching session I had just finished. I was uneasy; but could not pinpoint the source of my dissatisfaction with it. I had prepared well, opened the conversation well, listened well, helped the individual think in depth and with fresh insight about the issues under consideration, and generate some ideas for action to try out; and I had closed the conversation well, inviting a summary of the learning and actions, and a review of how we were working together; and the individual was happy with the session and the process. 

And yet, I wasn't. And I couldn't quite pin down why - my review hadn't highlighted any particular flaws; I just felt that I hadn't been very creative or resourceful in the session, and I wasn't sure that they individual was really committed to the actions identified.

It was the following morning, first as I was reflecting during my early morning cycle, and then in a supervisory conversation with a colleague, that I realised: parallel process! 

Parallel process is the name we give to the experience of taking on someone else's emotional state as our own, without realising that we are doing so, and that distorting our perception and behaviour.

In this case, I had listened with sympathy to the very difficult situation my client was in, and his sense of powerlessness, arising from having tried many things (he had done a great deal right, and yet some situations remained unresolved). And I had moved beyond empathy into sharing his sense of stuckness. And that had contaminated the session (or at the very least, my experience of it) so that I left the session with some of his feeling of powerlessness.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether he does actually take any of the actions we discussed, and what impact, if any, they have. But regardless of that, it is valuable for me to have identified what was going on for me: it enables me to learn from the experience, and in particular to ensure that I prepare for our next session with a focus on not getting drawn into the same situation.

More broadly, it reminded me that I still have work to do on that most difficult of skills: reflection-in-action. That is, being mindful in the moment, whilst giving full attention to my client, of my own response and how to manage that so that I stay in the most compassionate and also the most resourceful state of mind, so as to offer the best coaching I am capable of.


With thanks to  Alex Motoc for sharing his picture on Unsplash

Tuesday 10 January 2023

Putting my foot down

The other morning, as I was cycling up the fell in the dark, wind and rain, I suffered the indignity of having to put one of my feet to the ground, to maintain stability. A small thing, I know, but embarrassing to a cyclist who likes to think of himself as proficient. I know I found it embarrassing as I caught myself looking around to see if anyone had witnessed this shameful lapse. Given that it was 7am, dark, wet and deserted, that seemed unlikely. But clearly, I wanted to be sure.

Then I cycled on, wondering whether this was a sign that I was really getting too old for this cycling malarkey. I skidded in some deep mud, and put my foot down again.  Another furtive glance around to check there were no witnesses.  

And so up the steep part towards the summit of my local hill, pondering gloomily on how that was twice - and I had not previously had to do such a thing for ages... I was so deep in thought, indeed, that I went too near a sharp dip and my bike slipped from under me, and I fell off. The indignity!  I didn't hurt myself: the hill was steep, and the headwind strong so I was going slowly; and the mud was soft. And by now I was pretty certain that there was nobody about, let alone with the infra-red technology that would have enabled them to see me. But still, the shame!

Me in the mud (in the dark)

As I cycled back home, still brooding, I realised that there was a bright side: it would give me something to blog about this week - and I hadn't done a cycling blog for some time.  Further, it was a perfect metaphor for... what?  I was really clear at the time, but now the memory eludes me. You will have to construct your own meaning or metaphor, as I simply can't recall the pithy wisdom that I had generated. 

Maybe I'm getting too old for this blogging malarkey.