I’d never be like that

When you’re irritated or annoyed with someone for the way they’re being, you may think “I would never be like that”.

But the intensity of your irritation could be a sign that you’re experiencing a shadow side ofyourself – a part of you, seen reflected in them, that you deny and which you do your best to keep out of view.

Pushing the other person away is an attempt to push away the part of yourself you’d rather not see.

And instead of believing all your judgements, you could start to recognise that what you’re seeing in them is, indeed, just like youAnd then you have the possibility of reaching out to them with compassion rather than hostility, learning more about yourself, and healing what’s pushing the two of you apart.


We are systematically schooled away from gratitude.

It begins as soon as we start comparing ourselves with each other. We learn to do this at school (there’s always a better grade we should be getting). And, later, our workplaces often draw on our comparisons with others as a way of having us push harder (forced-distribution performance ratings set this up in particular, see here for more on this).

Add to this the deeply ingrained understanding, in the West at least, that human beings are intrinsically broken and not to be trusted, expressed most fully in the work of Augustine (see this post for more). In an increasingly secular society we hardly see how much we’ve internalised this orientation, even as we feel and fear and hide our sense of incompleteness from others.

And we’re subject to an endless wheel of media and marketing that gnaws and needles at our capacity to trust what we have. There’s always something newer, cheaper, more fashionable to own, and a whole set of comparisons which go along with this. How back-to-front is it that the American festival of thanksgiving has – at least in the UK where I’m writing – been expressed entirely as Black Friday, a chance to buy more and fuel our sense of lack? It’s a manipulative reversal of the opening to life that giving thanks is intended to inspire.

Gratitude can be hard to find in all of this. We get caught up in our self-pity and comparison and fear, drawn to everything that is missing, all that somehow was denied to us. We find ourselves in the grip of an enormous misunderstanding that we keep under wraps because we’re afraid of admitting just how afraid it has us become.

But… we have more resources and more freedom than just about anyone before us in human history.

… we live in a period of unprecedented geological stability that greatly increases the otherwise infinitesimally small chances of any of us being here (see Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything for more on this).

… and we are given the gift of a life that we had to do nothing to get, and a body with which to move and express and feel and love and contribute.

Are we really going to keep on fueling our cynicism and despair? Or are we prepared to wake up to just how great are the treasures we are always in the midst of receiving?

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The very last time you’ll hear her

What kind of attention would you pay to the person speaking with you right now, if you really understood that this could be the very last time you’ll ever get to hear her? If you understood how temporary, how fleeting, and how unpredictable human life is, despite all our attempts to control and secure and have ourselves feel safe?

If you really understood this, would you allow yourself to tune out, to defend, to hold back from others as much as you do? Or would you do whatever you could to open yourself, to be here, and allow yourself to be affected by what other people are bringing you?

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We’re often, without knowing it, subtly projecting our experience in one domain of life onto our experiences elsewhere. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than the ways in which we project our experiences of growing up onto situations we’re in the midst of now.

This should not surprise us. Our very relationship with life itself, and with the world, was mediated through the family situation in which we first discovered our sense of ourselves as distinct human beings.

If you turn your attention to it, you may start to see in particular how you’re projecting your childhood memories onto people you work with now, especially those who have some kind of hierarchical authority over you.

How are you treating managers, bosses, leaders as images of your parents?
Are you relating to them as if father, or mother?
And are you relating to your colleagues as if brothers, or sisters?

Does looking this way explain anything to you about:

Who you’ll talk to? And who you won’t?
What you get defensive about? What’s wounding for you?
Who you ask for help?
What you fear people are saying to you (directly or behind your back)?

It’s always a powerful move to get onto all of this, and to see how much of the time what you’re responding to is a memory. And then to find out how to let this go so you can respond to the person, alive and real, who’s in front of you right now.

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This weekend I sat with my eight year old daughter and we coloured mandalas together.

Engrossed in the simplicity and beauty of the task, with no standards with which to compare ourselves, and with nowhere to get to, I found myself connected with her, present with her, in ways that are fleeting at best in the melée of day-to-day family life.

We talked about many things as we drew – topics touched rarely by our more familiar pattern of everyday conversation. And there were long periods of silence in which we just were together. It was exquisite and deep and loving, and so very very simple.

We easily forget the straightforward human satisfactions of being together with others and of making with our hands. Perhaps it’s because we’ve become so sure that there is always somewhere to get to (which isn’t here), that something else needs doing (that props up the familiar feel of our busyness), and that more complex and more sophisticated (more ‘entertaining’) is of greater value.

It can support our lives enormously to remember that what’s deeply rewarding can be simple and uncluttered. And that it’s right there, in front of us, all of the time.

People are oceans not objects

Today, just this: ‘People are oceans not objects‘, from Robert Poynton’s wonderful blog.

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A life of image or a life of commitment?

Which of these do you think constitutes a life lived fully?

(1) You lived a life in which you kept hold of your self-image – in which you and others always got to see you just the way you intended?

(2) You lived a life in which you committed yourself in each moment to something that really seemed to matter.

Or, said another way, if one of these were to be your epitaph, which would you choose?

To where does a life lived supporting an image lead? And to where does a life of commitment to something you care about lead?

Mostly we’ve been taught to pursue the former. At school and in work, doing what looks good or feels good – what gets us prizes or attention or grades or bonuses or position or fame or a warm-glow of self-satisfaction – is often much more highly prized than doing what matters.

We dismiss this question at our peril (the peril of our very lives).

But dismiss it we do, because it’s scary to face, and because we’ve become so thoroughly convinced that sustaining our image is all that available to us.

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A telescope, the wrong way around

How much of your energy do you devote to managing other people’s impressions of you?

It’s probably so much more than you think. It may even, invisibly, be the single biggest focus of your attention.

Kind. Devoted. Generous. Creative. Helpful. Courageous. Strong. Powerful. Important. Intelligent. Successful. 

As well as managing other people’s impressions you’re also likely to be managing your impressions of yourself, which means that in one way or another there’s always a part of you watching while other parts make sure what is watched-for is always being produced.

All those eyes on you. All those expectations you’re upholding. All that work and attention devoted to making sure you never get seen in ways that don’t fit your own self-image.

Perhaps you hardly even know you’re doing this at all, so convinced have you become that an image you may have been holding for many years is you.

The irony here is that the more effort and vigilance you put into maintaining an image the less space you have to let your most genuine qualities come forward. Life-as-image-management is life lived looking down the wrong end of a telescope – only a tiny part of what there is to be seen ever gets to show up.

If you’re going to lead, or create, or enter into deep relationships with others and with life, it pays to find a way to work with this. To, over time, gradually learn to let go.

This is, in many ways, a project big enough and difficult enough to occupy most of us for a lifetime.

And it’s vital. Because a life of keeping up appearances is also a life in which so much of what you have to bring is held back before it has any chance of being seen.

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How quickly we label people.

“He’s so kind”, we say.
“She’s so frustrating.”
“He’s only out for himself.”
“She’s so brilliant.”

There are at least two problems with this.

The first is that in the midst of these labels we all too readily discount any evidence to the contrary – we see the label and miss the person. The second is that such certainty about others quickly invites into comparisons – ways we get to feel better or worse about ourselves.

Both of these obscure for us the full range of qualities present in the people we know.

And then we have similar stories about ourselves.

“I’m so terrible, so lazy, so selfish”
“I’m wonderful, all together, so perfect”

What would it be to treat our labels as just the start of knowing someone, rather than the end? That way we can step out of the very narrow band through which we experience people. And perhaps we can start to discover the wondrous complexity, and the unknowable vastness and mystery, of every single person we meet.

When we wound others

We all have those moments when, perhaps even before we’ve thought about it, we’ve wounded others – with a well-chosen barb, a dose of sarcastic humour, by locking them out or turning away, by yelling or insulting, by shaming.

Perhaps it happens for you often.

Maybe it’s worth checking what the source of this is.

So often we’re wounding other people because we just got wounded ourselves, sometimes by a thought or a memory rising quietly inside that nobody else can even see. We deal with our own pain by swinging it out onto somebody else.

And sometimes we wound others because, to put it simply, it’s what happened to us repeatedly along the way and now it’s their turn for a share of it.

Whatever the cause, if you’re regularly wounding your colleagues, your team, or the people close to you as a way of handling your own suffering, it might be time to consider an alternative.

You can’t avoid having been wounded. It’s an inescapable part of reaching adulthood. And just as this is true for you, it’s true for everyone around you.

Knowing this, perhaps you can catch on to what you’re really up to each time you lash out. And then, by cultivating ongoing tenderness and kindness – first to yourself – you can work more and more on having your wounds become a gift of understanding to others and not an excuse to act out.

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Coaching to Excellence December 1-2

Coming up in just a few weeks, a chance to learn with me. We’ll be exploring integral coaching – a powerful way of supporting the development of others, and a topic that’s very close to my heart.

We’ll be in London on December 1-2, and there are a handful of places still available.

All the details are here.

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What shows up when you’re around

It can be illuminating to notice what others bring you, and what they don’t. Or, said another way, to pay attention to what shows up around you.

Do people bring you their anger, or only their gentleness?
Do they make requests of you? Do they offer support?
Will people tell you what they really think?
Do they challenge? Or do they quickly fall into agreement with you?
Do they show you what they’re feeling?
Or is it more often the rational, intellectual side of people that gets shown in your presence?

These repeating patterns may be so difficult to see that you take them to simply be the way the world is. But this obscures that you’re actively involved in shaping the responses of everyone you meet. Your subtle cues – in language, expression, body – tell people much about what they can bring. You are always in the middle of allowing or discouraging, managing (or, put more strongly, manipulating) what can be expressed.

In this way what shows up is not solely the way the world is, but a manifestation of your engagement with it.

This can be illuminating to see, because you may well be actively involved in making it difficult for certain kinds of expression, certain kinds of topic, and certain kinds of mood to be expressed in your presence.

And the result of that is a kind of impoverishment, for everyone.

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Among the most healing of all human possibilities.

Today, can you start by forgiving yourself?

.. for your forgetfulness, your anger, your irritability, your desire to please, your frustration, your resentment, your boredom, your rushing, your waiting, your confusion?

Can you forgive yourself, please, for everything you judge so harshly about yourself? And for everything that makes you, simply, human?

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Needing a no

What we most need in order to support our own development is the capacity to say no to ourselves.

No to our habits, no to our preferences, no to our compulsions, no to doing the same thing we’ve done again and again because we like it, or because it’s familiar, or because of all of our explanations that the world and I are this way.

Our surrounding culture doesn’t do much to support this move. Mostly we’re socialised into saying yes – we come to believe that the answer to all our difficulties is saying yes to more activity (which leads us into busyness) or yes to more consumption (which numbs us to our more genuine needs).

Until we can start to muster a sufficiently strong no to ourselves, we find ourselves imprisoned in a repetitive cycle of our own making.

But if we want to be able to step into a bigger world of possibility for own lives and those around us, no to ourselves is the first and most necessary step.

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Interpreting emotions

Two different interpretations of your emotions:

1. Emotions are just something that happens. They sweep in, and sweep out again. There to be felt, but not to be obsessed over, worried over, analysed. Emotions simply are.

2. Emotions are of the deepest significance. They show you what you care about. They’re the surest route to understanding what matters to you. Far from being an interruption to reason they are a form of intelligent, meaning-laden reasoning, and the heart of what it is to be human.

So often we’re blinded by the particular interpretation of emotions that we cling to.

So perhaps if you find yourself obsessed with what you’re feeling, you might try out living in interpretation 1 for a while.

And if you treat your emotions as a nuisance, a distraction, and better left alone, how about a while treating interpretation 2 as if it’s true?

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When people stand in front of a choir or orchestra for the first time and try to conduct, they often put in far too much effort.

The result of all of this energetic arm waving? In many cases, hardly anything, at least in terms of getting the orchestra to do anything. All that work and energy put in, and relatively little to show for it.

Much more subtle guidance is required to really support an orchestra in performing well. If the conductor puts in too much it leaves far too little space in which the people playing can respond. The more the heavy lifting from the front, the more those whose contribution counts for so much back off. Paradoxical, perhaps, but more effort from the front does not easily translate into more effort from everyone else.

The same dynamic is at play in many other situations where leadership is called for.

The more you insist that your team cannot be trusted (and that you must be the final arbiter of all quality, checking everyone’s output for appropriateness and correctness) the less room people have to step forward. After all, while you’re doing all the work (and doubting the quality of their contribution at every step) how much does anyone feel really welcome to bring themselves?

It’s incredibly difficult for people to be trustworthy unless they’re trusted. And incredibly difficult for them to contribute unless there is space for their contribution.

Just like the over-energetic conductor, your strenuous efforts to stay in control are most probably producing exactly the situation you’re trying so desperately to avoid.

Hard as it is to learn, because it feels like everything is at stake, it’s your job to coordinate with cues subtle and clear and spacious enough that everyone can step forward and bring themselves.

Only by letting go of what you are most attached to can you give others the chance of being the performers you’re so longing them to be.

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Feet and Hearts

It’s easy to be afraid.

There is, after all, so much to be afraid about – for all of us.

So much to lose.

We walk our lives, afraid and hiding it, looking strong, looking good, denying how lost we can feel. We pretend we’re not afraid because we can’t imagine that anyone else could be quite as scared as we are. And because we have no idea where to look for support.

But what about our feet, that carry us through a million more steps in each year of our life? The simple everydayness of feet, bestowed upon us by generations of ancestors we never knew. They support us. Perhaps when we’re most scared we could simply, with humility, be thankful for our feet.

And our hearts, pumping the blood that keeps us alive, beating some 100,000 times per day, tens of millions of beats a year, billions in a lifetime. We did nothing – nothing at all – to receive our hearts. They are a gift to us from life itself, the legacy that stretches back more than 520 million years (to Fuxianhuia protensa, the earliest known creature with a cardiovascular system) and beyond.

Perhaps when we’re feeling afraid and lost we can, in a very simple and straightforward way, turn our attention and gratitude to our feet and our hearts. And from there, wonder at everything else we’ve been given that supports us without us even having to do anything, moment to moment in the chaotic, uncertain, always provisional circumstances of our very human lives.

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Shaped by the world

If you’re always taking action, producing, making, shaping the world…

… do you leave open any space for the world to shape you?

What happens if as well as being the potter…

… you allow yourself to soften enough that you can also be the clay?

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Blowing apart your certainty

Every action, every choice, is inherently risk-laden.

There’s the risk that people won’t like what you’re doing, or that they won’t like you.

There’s the risk that you misjudged, that you misunderstood the situation.

And there’s the risk that your choice could make a situation worse, that things might not turn out in the way that you or others would like.

Far better, then, to keep the peace. To not act. To keep your head down.

At least then you won’t imprison yourself with the consequences of an action that failed, a decision that went wrong.

But, here’s the thing – your commitment to acting only when you know it will work out is itself a prison.

And so acting, choosing, taking up your freedom – even at its most creative – always involves a necessary act of destruction without which it’s not freedom at all.

In order to act you need to be prepared to blow apart your certainty, and your surest conviction that you’re doing the right thing.

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Concentric Circles

Whereas development in children is easy to see, because of the obvious physiological changes that accompany it, our development as adults – if it happens – is more subtle, but no less profound.

One way of describing successive developmental stages is as a series of concentric circles. With each developmental shift the world we inhabit (the world of possibility, action ideas, responses) grows bigger, including rather than replacing the world in which we lived before. Another way of saying this is that we find ourselves inhabiting a world with bigger horizons than we had known. And along with that, usually, comes new language to describe our experience, new skills, and new ways of relating to others and everything.

In Robert Kegan’s language (and he is one of the most comprehensive, thoughtful, and grounded writers I know of on this topic) our development is always in some way a shift in subject-object relationships. Or, put more plainly, we come to a different understanding of what is me (subject) and what is in relationship to me (object). Often, we find that what we’d taken to be obviously ‘me’ is only a small part of what being ‘me’ really is – a shift in which we discover that ‘me’ actually includes more than we could have imagined before.

An example. In an earlier stage of our development we relate to our emotions as if they are a feature of the world, enveloping us like the air we breathe (and similarly invisible). We’re frustrated, and so it’s the world that is frustrating. We’re angry with another person, and conclude that they must be making us angry. We’re in love, joyful, and so the world is joyful. We feel despair and take it that the world is a despairing place.

In this way of being an adult the world, and we, are indistinguishable from the mood we are feeling. In this stage we’re subject to our emotions. It is almost as if, instead of having emotions we are being had by them. We can’t see that they might have something to do with us.

When the subject-object shift in our development comes we start to see that emotions are something we have. We’re able to say that we’re feeling anger about this or that, and feeling joy about something else or at some other moment. We see that although our despair or love seems all consuming it’s not the world that is despairing or lovely but a feature of our relating to it that has it be that way for us. We can understand too, maybe for the first time, that others really do often feel quite different from us – that we can feel anger about something while somebody else, quite legitimately and truthfully, feels joy. It’s not until our relationship to our emotions move from having us (being subject) to being something that we have (an object) that all this becomes apparent to us.

Concentric circles, widening, as we inhabit the world in a new way.

When emotions are object rather than subject many other possibilities open to us. We can question our feelings for their accuracy and appropriateness, rather than be swept up in them. We can open to the different experience of others, instead of insisting that they feel the same. We can start to wonder about our own relationship to our emotions in a way that simply was not possible when they were part of the invisible background that had us:

What is this emotion about?
What draws me more towards some emotions than others?
How is it that I’m participating in keeping sadness going, or joy, or longing, or despair, or frustration, or resentment?
What can I learn about others’ worlds in all of this?

Indeed, it’s only when such a developmental shift happens that we really start to understand that other people inhabit worlds that are related to, but not quite the same as, our own. The world, which we were previously subject to – the world that had us – seems much more like something we have or are at least participating in. And it’s from here that a deeper understanding of, and compassion for, others can grow.

Cultivating such shifts matters because, as perhaps you can see, a world in which we fully experience emotions as something we have rather than something we are had by is a world in which we have much more freedom to act. And a world in which we are less imprisoned by what seems – so obviously – beyond us.

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Why development matters

Cry. Wave arms and legs. Make eye contact. Smile. Gradually reach for things. Raise head. Roll onto tummy. Crawl. Faltering steps. First words. Walking. Asking. Phrases. Dawning sense of self as separate from others. Friendships. Reasoning. Simple descriptions of cause and effect relationships. Adjectives. Adverbs. Understanding that others have their own world, different from mine.

These developmental stages that small children go through, if nothing interrupts them, are familiar and easy to see. They take place in a predictable order, each building upon those that come before.

What’s less easy to see is that adults go through developmental stages too. Like the stages in children they are sequential, each building upon the other. But unlike those in children, they come with no guarantee. If circumstances allow, we can continue our development throughout our adult lives, finding ourselves in new orientations to ourselves and others and life itself as we go. Or we can remain over long periods of time in a more fixed, static relationship with the world.

While the developmental stages in children are easily identified by corresponding shifts in physiology or skilfulness (stronger muscles that support walking, the capacity to speak and understand), developmental changes in adults are marked most clearly by shifts in our relationship with the life in which we are living. Put most simply, each shift brings about a greater capacity to respond to the inner and outer world and lessens the hold of our reactive, habitual patterns. Or, said another way, development brings about the ability to include more and more of the complexity of the world, relate to others who might be quite different from ourselves, and act in the pursuit of what’s genuinely important rather than what feels comfortable or familiar.

In many contexts, the world of work in particular, we don’t pay very much serious attention to development. We largely think of adults as fixed – able of course to learn some new kinds of skills but not able to significantly shift our orientation to the world by opening to wider horizons and greater possibility.

It could even be said that in many contexts we actively work against the possibility of genuine development, because as we become less rigid and able to respond in more sophisticated and subtle ways to what’s happening and what’s needed, we also start to question more. Our development wakes us up first to our own wishes and longing (what’s important to me that might be different to what I was taught or from what is being asked of me now), and then to the wishes and longing of ever wider circles of concern (the communities in which I participate, the society in which I live, the wider world of which we’re all a part). Our development opens up far wider horizons for possibility and relationship while at the same time, necessarily, having us ask questions about how we’re working and how we’re living. And this kind of questioning can be unwelcome in a world of targets and measures, performance ratings and behaviour frameworks, predictability and rigid process.

It seems clear to me that our development is important, necessary even, if we are to take full responsibility for our own lives and for the organisations and projects to which we contribute.

Because unless we can develop, opening more and more to ourselves and others, we risk sleepwalking through, in thrall to our preferences and habits, doing things simply because ‘they are this way’ or because ‘I am this way’, fixed in a predictable cycle of event and reaction.

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Reteach a thing its loveliness

The poet Galway Kinnell, a writer of exquisite and moving poetry, died this week.

His poem ‘St Francis and the Sow’, which you can read in its entirety here, opens with these lines:

The bud
stands for all things,
even those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;

This expresses so clearly a central responsibility of leaders (isn’t that all of us?), parents, friends, coaches, consultants, doctors, nurses, teachers of all kinds – to act in a way that enables the people and systems in which we work to flower from within, of self-blessing.

It is ridiculously easy to be cynical. Easy to create distance. Easy to forget the capacities that lie within us. And the easiest (and sometimes, in the moment, most self-satisfying) to pull people and projects apart with our knowing insight and sharp judgement, or with our world-weariness.

And it’s probably the hardest, and most necessary, to be someone who patiently, over time, brings about genuine flourishing by reminding us all of our most life-giving qualities – the ones we so easily forget – so they can be called into expression.

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