Thursday 25 May 2023

Diversity Workshop

It was not without some trepidation that I ran a Diversity Workshop the other week.  After all, what could a white, male, Oxford-educated, happily married, middle class, etc etc man possibly have to say of any value on the topic? I don't check my privileges every morning, partly because it would take too long...

Fortunately, the workshop does not rely on my having anything wise to say about the topic. Rather, my role is to co-create a Thinking Environment, and facilitate a process, that allows others to think about the topic, and in some rather unusual ways.

As well as my trepidation springing from my various privileged identities, I was also concerned that some participants might be shocked that I was not using my privilege to preach a strong (eg) anti-racist message. But again, that was not my role.

Instead, we used the Thinking Environment process of Incisive Questions to dismantle prejudices. All the participants considered the various identity groups to which she or he belonged, that may sometimes be disadvantaged or disempowered due to others' prejudices, and each chose one to think about in detail.

They then identified all the assumptions that they believe others may make about their chosen identity; and from all those assumptions which one was the most limiting. Having identified the most limiting assumption, they then considered whether it was true (it wasn't, in every case...) and what they might more helpfully assume instead. Finally they crafted that into a couple of Incisive Questions: If I knew that {new liberating assumption} what would change for me? and then If the world knew that {new liberating assumption} what would change for the world? They generated as many answers to each question as they chose.

Simple, but powerful; again, in every case. But what was particularly powerful was each participant sharing their thinking, at each stage of the process. That is, we heard what limiting assumptions each person felt they were sometimes subject to; the falsity of those assumptions; the individual's words for what was true and liberating instead, and the difference it would make to the individual and to the world, if that truth were lived.  

That was powerful indeed.

And then we repeated the whole process, thinking about different identity groups that the organisation where they worked might sometimes disempower by limiting their influence and self esteem. 

And that, too, was powerful. 

So it is interesting to consider the assumptions that sit behind this particular approach

A first assumption is to do with this very idea of Thinking Environments. We suggest that there are two aspects to a Thinking Environment. One is provided externally by the person or group giving attention to the person thinking. The other is provided internally, residing in the mind of the person thinking, provided by positive assumptions about the self as a thinker. If either is deficient, that is unhelpful and unlikely to be productive.

We also assume that both kinds of thinking environment are affected by society’s limiting assumptions about people’s group identities. 

We further assume that prejudice against people is, at least in part, driven by untrue limiting assumptions about their group identities. If these assumptions becomes internalised by the members of the group, the group tends to stay victimised, and disempowered. 

Therefore, it is valuable to replace those untrue limiting assumptions with liberating true alternatives, both at the individual level (relatively easy as we experienced on this workshop) and at the collective level (clearly, somewhat more difficult...).

And of course, we assume that diversity is a strength: that different viewpoints give us a better triangulation on whatever we are addressing; and that diversity of thought is enabled by welcoming people to think as themselves, rather than in a way constrained by our assumptions or prejudices. 

One of my initial reservations when starting my learning about this process concerned the focus on group identities. With the rise of identity politics and the polarisation that often seems to accompany it, I questioned whether such a focus on group identities was helpful. Interestingly, however, this process also serves to dismantle that, somewhat: it becomes clear that all generalising assumptions based on group identities are unhelpful and untrue. To say that All X are Y is normally either some form of tautology or simply inaccurate.

All of which means that even a white, male, Oxford-educated, happily married, middle class, etc etc man can run a useful workshop exploring issues of diversity.

Friday 19 May 2023

A(nother) Blinding Flash of the Obvious...

I was running a workshop on Diversity and Inclusion, yesterday, using the Thinking Environment Diversity Process (about which I shall probably write more, sooner or later).

Reflecting on that this morning, I was struck by a link between the Thinking Environment and Gestalt which seems so obvious now that I have seen it, that I can scarcely believe I had not noticed it before. But I certainly haven't articulated it like this, and I don't think that anyone else has, that I have seen. Given that I have blogged (and therefore, presumably, thought) before about Gestalt and the Thinking Environment, this is particularly interesting - and indeed entertaining - to me.

One of the findings that informs the way we work in a  Thinking Environment, is that thinking comes in waves. Very often, if someone thinks they have reached the end of their thinking, if we wait, rather than jump in, another wave of thinking arises in them. Or maybe it doesn't, and then we invite one by asking What more do you think, or feel or want to say?  And more often than not, another wave of thinking arises then. And of course listening without interrupting is foundational in this approach.

Moreover, we recognise the importance of feelings, and allowing the expression of feelings: a wave of emotion may arise, and we are very careful not to interrupt that, any more than we interrupt a wave of thinking. And once the wave of feeling has been engaged with, uninterruptedly (eg the person cries, or shouts or whatever he or she needs to to), that wave subsides, and a new wave of thinking may well follow.

This, of course (I mean, d'oh!) is completely congruent with the Gestalt idea of the Cycle of Contact; and with the importance of attending to (and where possible minimising) interruptions to contact, which is a key element of Gestalt.


With thanks to Brandon Morgan for sharing this photo on Unsplash

Friday 12 May 2023

I remember, I remember... (or maybe I don't)

 When I was in my early 20s I did one of those lifeline exercises: where you draw a line from birth to now, with ups and downs representing the highs and lows of life to date.  It was part of a course I was on, and I think we spent 20 minutes or so on it, and then looked for patterns or something (I don't really remember, to be honest).

But what I do remember very clearly is picking my lifeline up a few weeks later, and realising that I had not included the biggest down of my life so far: the death of my father when I was 17. Reflecting on that, I realised that threw light on how I had handled that great loss: I had not thought about it very much - I had banished it from memory. I suspect I had learned a child not to dwell on unpleasant emotions. That felt like a valuable insight, but I had not thought much about it in the intervening years: I had, to all intents and purposes, forgotten it.

But it came back to me recently, as I have been working on another development programme that asked me to reflect on times when I had been emotionally upset recently. I struggled to remember any: I see myself as being on a pretty even keel most of the time. But I asked Jane, my wise and perceptive wife, if she could remember any such times recently,  She said: 'Yes, this morning!' And as she explained what she was thinking about, I knew that she was right. 

I then realised both that I had failed to register that I was really cross about something (that had happened a while back, but which I was recounting to a friend that morning), and failed to remember that I had been at all animated about it, in telling my friend. Though on reflection (prompted by Jane) I realised that his response (which I had thought a little over the top) was pretty clear feedback that I was telling the story with strong emotional charge.

All of which reminded me of that earlier insight: that one way I deal with disruptive emotions, at least sometimes, is not to register or remember them. Not only that, but my memory more generally is pretty poor: when we start to watch an old film, Jane will remember instantly if we have ever seen it before, however long ago - whereas I can watch it through and still be surprised at the twist in the end...

That has some significant benefits, of course. It means that I am not prone to carrying emotional distress forward (or at least, not consciously) and that I rarely harbour grudges.  It also makes observing confidentiality very easy. But on the other hand, there are some distinct risks, including the risk of not learning from experience, and the risk of not connecting authentically with others.

I already have some strategies to address this, of course. I try to write up my notes of coaching sessions, events I have facilitated, etc very promptly; and I keep a reflective learning diary on a regular basis. But even here, I rarely comment on the emotional charge of events.  So that is my current work in hand, in terms of increasing my self awareness.

And I thought I had better write the intention down here, lest I forget it.


With thanks to Ivana Cajina and Marcos Paulo Prado for sharing their photos on Unsplash

Wednesday 3 May 2023

Organisational Parallel Process

I have recently finished reading Time to Think. Not the (excellent) book by Nancy Kline, which I have read many times; but the newly-published one by Hannah Barnes, subtitled The Inside Story of the Collapse of the Tavistock's Gender Service for Children.

Barnes is an investigative journalist with Newsnight and has interviewed many of the clinicians who worked at the Tavistock, as well as a number of the people who were treated there. It is an extraordinary story.

One thing that caught my attention particularly, right near the end of the book, was the reflection of Will Crouch a highly experienced psychologist and psychotherapist on what had gone wrong, fundamentally, at the Service. He said: 'organisations helping a certain group of people will develop symptoms that are related to the work that they do.' His hypothesis is that exposure to the concrete thinking of the young people that GIDS was trying to help became embedded in the service itself.

I found this fascinating. I have long been aware of what therapists and coaches often refer to as parallel process: that is when the therapist or coach starts to experience emotions that originate with the person they are working with, but feel as though they are their own. This is related, I think, to the idea of confluence, in Gestalt psychology, where we act on someone else's needs or desires, rather than our own. It may spring from a high degree of empathy, and a failure to maintain boundaries, or professional and personal differentiation.

But I had not considered that organisations might be subject to the same tendency.  I mentioned this to a client of mine, and it was like an aha moment for her. Early in her career, she had worked in what was then called a Mental Hospital. And she reflected that it was a mad environment: but very specifically - the organisation had taken on some of the characteristics of its most distressed patients, and they formed a rather dysfunctional organisational culture. 

In the context in which I do most of my work, that is, Higher Education, that raises interesting questions.  Increasing attention is given to the Student Voice: and in many ways, that is clearly valuable.  But this risk suggests that it is also important that the academic body maintains some differentiation, and appropriate boundaries. That, of course, will not be popular, and given the importance of the National Student Survey to Universities' reputations, it will take some courage. But, if I am right, failure to do so will result in Universities becoming increasingly aligned with the more vociferous and extreme elements of their student bodies, and that will not end well, either. 

And I fear that we are already witnessing the start of that trend, when I observe that political stances are placed above academic principles: no platforming, failure to support academics who are harassed for having the wrong views, alignment with partisan advocacy groups, discouragement of unpopular research and so on.

That is one of the reasons that I am so keen on the other Time to Think: the underlying philosophy that we should encourage people to think as themselves and for themselves, and champion diversity of viewpoints and understandings. Higher Education must be the environment in which we can discuss complex issues and explore competing strongly-held views and beliefs. And I hope and pray that Universities will continue to foster that environment.

Monday 1 May 2023

Calming the Amygdala

I have been engaging with Shirzad Chamine's work (Positive Intelligence) over the last fortnight, with real interest. And it occurred to me that a common thread with many of the other approaches that I am interested in, was this idea of calming the Amygdala. That, if I understand correctly, is what Chamine's work is predicated on.

Professor Paul Brown (who wrote Neuropsychology for Coaches, for example) suggested to Nancy Kline that her approach worked so well (more reliably, in his view than many therapeutic approaches) because it calmed the amygdala: a phrase that has stayed with me since Nancy quoted him on the topic.

The amygdala, it seems, is that part of the brain that scans the horizon for threat, and if any is detected, initiates our fight or flight response. 

Of course, many of the threats it now identifies are not of the sabre-toothed tiger about to jump on you type, but our neural response is the same. Daniel Goleman, in Emotional Intelligence, writes of the amygdala hijack: when our emotional response is rapid overwhelming and disproportionate.

So calming that - so that we are not overwhelmed and prompted to respond in a reactive way - is valuable. Viktor Frankl famously wrote: 'Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.' 

Stephen Covey, in his famous 7 Habits, suggests that the skill of proactivity includes creating a gap between stimulus and response, precisely in order to choose one's response.

And practices such as meditation are designed (inter alia) to help us to develop the discipline of focusing our mind on what we want to focus on, not on all the things that clamour for its attention.

One of the ways we attempt to do this is to strengthen alternative neural pathways to the disruptive ones of our habitual automatic responses. That is what visualisation seeks to do; also Chamine's PQ Reps, Affirmations, and the Enrich the Plot phase of my own Shifting Stories approach.  And this, I think, is what Peter Bluckert is getting at (in Psychological Dimensions of Executive Coaching)  when he says a core coaching competency is increasing psychological muscle.


There's an old joke about someone who was lost in South Kensington, trying to go to a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. He saw someone coming out of the Royal College of Music, carrying a violin case, so assumed that she would know the way. So he asked her: How do you get to the Albert Hall?

'Practice!' she replied.

And the same is true, of course, of calming the amygdala.