Tuesday 19 December 2023

Time to Reflect

There is something about the end of the year that prompts reflection. In part it is that natural cyclic thing: the pause before plunging into the new year of activity.  That is helped by the shorter days, leaving longer hours in the evening when outdoor activities are less practical, and sitting by the stove is more appealing. And as we approach Christmas, my work has eased off, again allowing more time to sit and think. 

So, perhaps for these reasons, I have found myself re-reading a few of my old blog posts, and (to be quite honest) enjoying them. In particular, though, I have been struck by how much I have known that has receded in my mind.  It is not precisely that I have forgotten it, but more that it is not in my working memory: not knowledge that I am accessing regularly - and therefore (I think) less likely to inform my intuition as I go about my work. So it is not a waste of time to re-visit it.

I also have a more formal discipline, at this time of the year, to re-read my notes from my supervision.  I meet my coaching supervisor, the excellent Ruth Leggett, every couple of months for half a day at a time; and these are all occasions of rich learning. It is valuable to look back on the notes, periodically for two principal reasons. One is to recognise that I have indeed learned and have implemented some improvements to my professional practice, that have added real value. The other, of course, is to recognise what I have forgotten from those sessions, and bring that back into awareness, and deciding what , if anything, to do with it.

So I am in a reflective mood at the moment; before taking a complete break from work and immersing myself in Christmas celebrations with my family, after which I will, I hope, be ready to engage with the new challenges and opportunities of the new year.

And this rhythm is important, it seems to me, both in terms of my famous sandwiches, and because it seems to work with, rather than against, the grain of human well-being. 

So I hope that you, too, find time to reflect at the end of the year; and to take a complete break that is both restful and restorative. 

Saturday 9 December 2023

Goodies and Baddies

This week we saw the unedifying sight of the presidents of two Ivy League Universities (Harvard and Pennsylvania) and MIT, saying that calling for the genocide of Jews was not necessarily against their bullying and harassment codes of conduct.

How did we get here, less than a century after the Holocaust?

Oddly enough, I was already thinking about writing about Goodies and Baddies this week, following another thought-provoking exchange. This one was in a private conversation with an academic, who had discovered, to his shock, that an industrialist with whom he is collaborating on a grant, does not share his left-wing view of the world. So great was his shock that he was wondering whether he would, in fact, be able to work with this person, whom he had previously thought of as a friend as much as a collaborator. But it was when he said: 'I mean, if he doesn't even want to try to be a decent human being...' that I was brought up short (mentally) and had to work hard to stay in listening mode.

As it happens, I did; and in fact, as he thought further about the issue, he realised that he was making rather a large assumption, and that holding socially conservative views didn't necessarily mean that his collaborator 'doesn't even want to try to be a decent human being.' (see my previous post on why we listen to bad ideas if you are interested in what happened here and why I didn't immediately confront this sloppy thinking). 

But I think in both cases, the issue arose because of Goodies and Baddies thinking. The presidents of the Ivy League Universities, I suspect, have decided that the Palestinians are the Goodies in the current conflict. Therefore (and it is precisely that link that is so problematic) the Jews are the Baddies.

Likewise, my academic client clearly knows that he (and all his left-leaning friends - the only people, as he pointed out - with whom he normally mixes professionally, as he works in a University) are Goodies. They work (very hard) for the betterment of humanity, and support left wing politics as they believe that they will best deliver social goods. Therefore (that dangerous link again) those who disagree are the Baddies.

Of course, it isn't articulated like that. That's the problem. The assumption seems to be operating at an instinctive, rather than an intellectual, level; and as my academic client experienced, when submitted to serious reflection, it rather crumbles. And the joke is that I am sure that the three presidents, and my academic client, would all see themselves as liberal and inclusive people.

For myself, I only have to look at myself to see that I am a bit of mix. I have good intentions (most of the time) and try to do good (at least some of the time). However, I can find that I have mixed or even shameful motivations at times (pride, selfishness and competitiveness amongst others) and I behave badly at times (I will not go into full confessional mode here, however). 

It was of course that towering figure, Solzhenitsyn, who put it most powerfully:

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts.

But Goodies and Baddies is such a compelling narrative: it is, after all, at the heart of most fiction - and that with good reason! So it is extremely easy to fall prey to it. And from there it is a short step to de-humanising the Baddies, to misrepresent them, rather than seek to understand what validity, if any, their views may have, or (more importantly perhaps) what good values they are seeking to pursue. And we end up with the kind of polarisation that is bedevilling so much political and indeed civic and academic discourse at present. It is lazy and childish.

As ever, it is far easier to spot this in someone else's thinking - and far more important to spot it in our own.

Sunday 3 December 2023

A bit of theology

Over the years, I have reflected on my work in the context of my Catholic Faith. The work has always seemed a good thing to be doing, but, beyond feeding the family ( a good in itself, and at the service of my primary vocation), I wanted to understand why (and indeed if...)

As usual, I use blogging as a way of thinking out loud, so this may not be the finished articulation of my thinking, but it is where I am up to at present.

My initial thinking was simply that my work helped people to do their work better, and sometimes eased the pain. And both of those seem good things to do (assuming their work to have some intrinsic value, or at least not be harmful). 

But I have gone a bit deeper in recent years, not least as I have had more time to read and reflect. And now I see my work as having its foundation in my understanding of what it is to be human, and ultimately in the Holy Trinity.

To be human, it seems to me, is firstly to be. That is, being is better than not-being. We have an intuitive (at least) sense of that which is why murder and suicide are typically outlawed by almost all civilisations of which we have any detailed knowledge. (Yes, I know there are exceptions, but nonetheless, I think the point stands).

Secondly, to be human is to know. One of the things that distinguishes us even from the most intelligent of the higher animals is the ability to gain, store, transmit, and use knowledge.

Thirdly, to be human is to love; that is, to be able to choose the good from the bad, and to will the good of others as well as our own good.

Reflecting on this, I noticed, of course, that it has three elements; and as I was reading Sheed's wonderful Theology and Sanity at the time, I noticed how closely they related to the qualities appropriated to the three Persons of the Trinity. (To understand appropriation in this context, read Sheed!)

Thus the primary characteristic of the Father is to be. He identifies himself in that way: 'I am who I am.' And when Christ teaches his disciples to pray, the very first words are: Our Father, who art...'

The Son is the Logos: the eternal Word of the Father, made flesh. God's knowledge through whom all things were made, as St John says in the wonderful prologue to his Gospel.

The Holy Spirit is the Love Divine, who proceeds eternally from the Father and the Son by way of love (notwithstanding the filioque controversy...).

All of which leads me to conclude that insofar as my work helps my clients to be more truly themselves, to deepen their knowledge (of self, of others, of their work) and to choose the good, as an exercise of love, then it is worthwhile; indeed it is one of the ways in which I can fulfil my own vocation to be, to know, to love and to serve. 

That last, service, is not, of course inherent in the Trinity. But in the Incarnation, Christ was very clear that it is at the heart of the Christian vocation: The Son of Man came to serve... and he explicitly says that we are to follow that example. 

And now my attention has turned to that wonderful phrase in Nancy Kline's Thinking Environment approach, Generative Attention, and I am considering the theological resonances of that concept, But that can wait for another blog post.

Friday 1 December 2023

A Defining Question

Trisha Lord
It was one of those moments that just stopped me short and really made me think... The wonderful Trisha Lord, one of my supervisors for my next Thinking Environment qualification, said:

"Why do we ask questions?  We ask questions, not to get the answer, but to get the next thinking."

And that is a defining statement, when considering the Thinking Environment.

It is also a helpful thing to think about when we are teaching coaches, or participants in Action Learning Sets, for example: why are you asking that question? 

Very often it reveals a desire to generate a solution for the other person, which of course is not the job of a coach or an Action Learning Set colleague. And often, people don;t even realise that is what they are doing: but when they pause and reflect on the question they have just asked - typically for more information about the presenting problem - it becomes clear that that is what is going on.

If we keep in mind that our purpose in asking questions is to get the next wave of thinking going, then we will ask different, more non-directive, and more stimulating questions.