Things to think

Some things to think that might help us do what we’re really here to do:

We’re here and so soon we’re gone.

In comparison to geological and even to historical time our individual lives are the briefest flash of energy and vitality, and then we’re done. For most of us it’s true also that our lives are the briefest flash in our own personal experience – done way before we’re ready.

We’re living longer than anyone previously in history.

Which, if we’re willing to seize the chance and to take our own development seriously, might just give us the time to develop the intelligence, sensitivity, and breadth of vision to solve the problems we’ve made for ourselves.

We’re going to have to get way more intentional about our development than we are now if we want this to happen.

The world was here long before each of us arrived, and will be here long after we’ve left it.

Seeing ourselves as part of something much bigger in this way can help us give up our self-aggrandisement and also our self-obsession, both of which keep our concerns and our lives in very narrow bounds.

And maybe we can find out how much more there is than living a life in which we get comfortable or which is oriented first around our own likes and dislikes. Instead, seeing ourselves as the inheritors and custodians of a world can support us in having our lives serve everyone who’ll come after us.

There’s nobody coming to save us.

Many of us secretly wish for the moment we’ll get rescued from all our difficulty and all our worries – by a parent, a lottery win, a leader, a messiah. Our longing has us place wishful thinking above meaningful action. Let’s give this up and imagine that we are the ones sent to do what saving can be done.

Each of us is an expression of life itself.

In the our disorientation and our confusion, it can help to see how each of us, all of us, are an expression of life doing what life does – experimenting, learning, and responding.

Seeing ourselves this way opens a huge opportunity to take responsibility. And perhaps to trust ourselves enough that we can participate in our lives rather than fight against them.

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When we don’t listen to the response

As well as missing out ‘yes’ or ‘no’ at great cost to ourselves and others, we can fall into familiar ways of interpreting what others say when we ask for support.

Some of us habitually interpret a yes from someone else as if it were no – leading to endless checking and rechecking, micro-managing and over-supervising, or just doing it ourselves. It erodes trust and soon leads to the people who might have once said a genuine yes holding back.

Others habitually take no to mean yes – forcing or cajoling those around us into begrudgingly or resentfully doing what we’ve asked. This also undoes trust, undermining commitment and the genuine willingness to be of assistance.

We make the same mistake with counter-offers, assuming when the other person offers to do something a little different from what we’ve asked that they mean either no, or that their objections are petty and to be ignored.

This is important because when requests, and their responses, are handled with genuineness and attention it’s possible to build deep bonds of understanding, fluid, generous support – vital in any relationship, family, or team. And when we wilfully misunderstand what is being said we quickly undo all of this.

The antidote to our habitual misunderstanding? Learning to listen to what the other person is actually saying rather than to the familiarity of our own inner story.

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The inner life of rebellion

For some worthwhile listening today, check out this gorgeous and provocative conversation between educator and writer Parker Palmer, and journalist Courtney Martin, from the On Being podcast.

A powerful inter-generational dialogue about change, culture, rebellion, making a contribution, and opening ourselves ever more to what life is calling for.

The responses you miss out

There are four kinds of response available to you when someone makes a request, but many of us hardly see that we have only one or two of them in our repertoire.

You can:

  • accept (say ‘yes’ – a promise you’re making to do what the person asked)
  • decline (say ‘no’)
  • make a counter-offer (an offer to do something different from what you were asked, but which you think might still satisfy at least part of the requestor’s wishes)
  • promise to respond at a later time (when you don’t yet know which of the first three response you’ll choose)

So many people become habitual accepters of every request that they have to find sneaky ways out of the bonds of over-commitment they’ve created. And others habitually decline every request, binding themselves into a world with no support because they’re more afraid of losing their freedom by being bound by a promise to others.

Every response you choose shapes the identity you’re building in your relationships with others. And by habitually missing out some responses you close off many opportunities.

Who do you get to be if you only accept? And who do you get to be if you only decline? And which possibilities for relationship and meaningful action would you open up if you started to seriously practice the responses you usually miss out?

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Misunderstanding feedback

‘Giving feedback’ has become so much a part of what is considered good management that we rarely ask ourselves whether it’s effective or question the premise upon which it’s based. I think it’s time we did.

The very idea of ‘feedback’ as a central management practice is drawn from cybernetics. The simplest kind of single-loop cybernetic system is a home thermostat. The thermostat responds to feedback from the room (by measuring the ambient temperature) and turns on heating when required so to warm the air to a comfortable level. When the target is reached, the thermostat turns the heating off. It’s a ‘single-loop’ system because the thermostat can only respond to temperature.

In a double-loop feedback system it’s possible to adjust what’s measured in order to better address the situation. If you’re bringing about the conditions in your room to make it suitable for a dinner party you may need to pay attention to temperature, lighting, the arrangement of furniture, the colour of the table cloth, the number of place settings, the mood and culinary taste of your guests, and the quality of conversation. Single-loop systems such as thermostats can’t do this. But double-loop cybernetic systems allow us in principle to ask ‘what is it that’s important to measure?’. And, of course, human beings are far more suited to this kind of flexibility than thermostats are.

It’s from this way of looking that we get the contemporary idea that feedback – solicited or not – is what’s most helpful or appropriate for someone to learn to do the right thing. But it is based on something of a questionable premise. Thermostats, even very clever ones, and other cybernetic systems don’t have emotions, or cares, or worries. They do not love, or feel fulfilled or frustrated. They do not have available to them multiple ways to interpret what is said. They do not hurt, and they do not feel shame. They do not misunderstand or see things in a different way. They don’t have an internalised inner critic, nor do they have bodies that are conditioned over years by practice to respond and react in particular ways. They are not in relationship. They do not have to trust in order to be able to do what they do. And they do not have a world of commitments, intentions, relationships, hopes and goals into which the latest temperature data lands.

People have all of these.

When we simply assume that spoken or written feedback, even if carefully given, will correct someone’s actions or help them to learn, we assume they are more like a cybernetic system than they are like a person. Sometimes it can certainly be helpful – when the feedback is in a domain that both giver and receiver care about, given in language that makes sense, and when it meets the hopes and aspirations of the receiver with sensitivity and generosity. But many times we find that the very act of giving feedback wounds or confuses or deflates or misunderstands or treats the other person as if they don’t know what they’re doing. We find that the world of the giver is nothing like the world of the receiver. We find that our best effort to construct feedback according to the ‘rules’ mystifyingly doesn’t bring about what we’re intending. And then we get frustrated or disappointed, and try to give the feedback another way, imagining that if we can come up with a clever technique or way of saying it then our feedback will work.

Perhaps a place to start would be to stop thinking about people as if they were glorified thermostats. In order to do this we’d have to soften our ideas of truth in feedback – specifically the idea that the one who knows the truth gives feedback to the one who must be corrected. Secondly, we could start to think how many ways there are to learn how to do something well than being told how someone else sees it. And third, we could wonder how we can share the riches we do see in a way that gives dignity and maintains connection between both parties – starting by knowing when it’s time to request, demonstrate, reflect, inquire together, make new distinctions in language, show someone how to make good observations for themselves, or simply stay out of the way.

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A great gift

Ten years ago today I left my work in computer software to step onto the path that brought me into coaching, and teaching, and more recently into writing.

Many people told me at the time how brave I was, to step so fully into the unknown. But none of it felt at all like bravery to me. I was afraid, confused and mostly very lost, stepping away from a familiar world into one with no shape, no certainty, and little sense of direction. What it did feel like was necessity. Though I had few words for it at the time, I had caught on to the way that my life, and the gifts I had to bring, were being strangled and ossified by the working life I was in the midst of living.

During the foggy period of undoing that led to that moment it was my wife who brought me the gift for which I am most grateful. One afternoon, as I was sitting in my attic office, wrestling with my lethargy and disappointment, and trying to complete a software project that was long overdue, she walked in with a cup of tea and said “Do you have any idea how unhappy you are?”. And all my defences, all my well-honed ways of looking ok to everyone, all of my fighting against myself unravelled. Her gift? The courage to see beyond the facade of personality and habit, and to speak to the part of me that was in the most pain and most longing to take wing. And once I was prepared to take that part seriously, to take care of it, nothing could be the same again.

Ten years on, and in the midst of a life which calls on that once hidden part ever more deeply, the sense of being lost and of being on a path that leads who-knows-where has not lifted much. But I’m often able to understand it in a new way. To see that allowing myself to respond to life, in all of its messy unknowability, rather than fighting it, opens up huge vistas for contribution and connection. And to see that one of the greatest gifts of all can be to find people with enough love, and enough fierceness, to name the possibilities in my one and only life that I am so brilliant at hiding from myself.

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Your glorious ordinariness

There’s a certain harshness in wanting change, transformation, improvement all the time.

Does it arise from feeling ashamed at how things are? At ourselves?

A response to the gnawing of the inner critic – its demand that we do better every day?

Today, can you allow yourself to know your glorious ordinariness? And the wonder of a messy, incomplete, everyday life? To feel the simple weight of the dishes as you wash them? To marvel that you can breathe, move, experience? To gaze into the eyes of your glorious, ordinary loved ones?

There’s much to be said for turning our attention away, some of the time, from what we imagine needs to happen and into the exquisite texture of what is here already.

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The life beyond our narrow concerns

We’re taught to ask ourselves the question ‘What do I want to do with my life?’.

But we’re much less familiar with asking ‘What does my life want to do with me?’.

Asking this question requires us to see that there is a something called ‘my life’ that is beyond the usual narrow, more self-interested concerns that we hold.

Beyond ego, beyond all the conditioning that comes from our culture, and beyond our familiar preferences lies something that is always calling to us, if we can quieten ourselves and be still for long enough.

Responding to our lives in this way no longer means that things will definitely ‘work out’ for us in the way we’ve been taught. But it does offer the possibility of making a bigger contribution to life. One that goes far beyond what’s possible when we only look for ways to be liked, to be safe, and to know how things are going to work out.

Photography by Lior Solomons-Wise

Enabling constraints

Often, our attachment to personal freedom becomes its own kind of slavery.

When we demand freedom with no bounds, our endless right to choose, it’s incredibly difficult to

enter into a relationship
make a promise we’ll have to keep
make a decision (because any decision closes off options)
publish a blog post, letter, report, book

Our demand that we keep everything open closes off the very possibility of taking many kinds of action. In this way freedom becomes its own kind of slavery, a trap disguised as liberation.

As a result it’s often only through willingly submitting ourselves to particular kinds of limitation that we find any kind of freedom at all. In order to

deeply commit to someone
take a stand on something that’s important
follow a path that takes dedication and focus

we have to discover that the truest freedom sometimes comes in the form of choosing, deliberately, to be bound by enabling constraints.

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The courage to ask

Too often we use feedback as a hidden way of making requests or getting what we want from others and, in the world of organisations in particular, it’s got us into deep water.

Feedback is when we speak with someone in a way that shows them what they can’t readily see about themselves. It’s valuable in all of our learning because we don’t become skilful at self-correcting until we get to know ourselves from multiple perspectives.

Giving feedback that is clear, coherent, grounded and which serves everybody’s learning is quite a skill. It takes the capacity to describe phenomena accurately in language and to take into account the intentions and the world of the person to whom it is said. It also requires the speaker to understand timing and mood – even the most accurate feedback can be impossible to hear if brought at the wrong moment or in an accusatory or wounding way.

Requests are different. They are a way of speaking with another person in order to bring about an outcome that we wish for by way of their participation or support.

Making powerful requests requires that we are clear about what we want to have happen, and the ability and capacity of the person we’re asking to contribute to it. It takes an existing relationship of sufficient trust and commitment in order for the request to be meaningful.

All too often we give feedback not because we want to help someone else learn but because we want something from them.  But a request disguised as feedback combines the worst of both. The feedback is difficult to hear because it’s not oriented towards the other person’s learning. And the request is difficult to respond to with sincerity because it’s not clearly a request – the listener can’t easily determine what’s being asked for nor the conditions under which the requestor will be satisfied.

Clumsy feedback when you want someone to do something easily results in confusion, hurt, and resentment. A skilful and thoughtfully made request, on the other hand, invites the other person into a conversation and gives them the dignity of a sincere ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in response to what you’re asking.

So let’s stop saying ‘You’re not pulling your weight’ when we really mean ‘Please can you give more attention to the project that’s most important to me?’. And let’s stop trying to get what we want without the courage to directly ask for it.

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Solo or duet?

When your relationship with someone is proving difficult, when you’re sure that they are acting against you or judging you, and just when you’re sure that nothing can be done, the most helpful and most powerful move is to start making requests.

Your certainty that nothing can happen from talking makes your powerlessness self-perpetuating. You’re silent, because you think nothing can happen. You’re silent, so nothing can happen. And you remain silent, because nothing is happening.

It may well be that the other person is trapped in the same cycle, holding back from making the requests that would connect the two of you again. Your silence turns you into solo players.

In the space between you – and in the stories that fill the quiet – difficulties multiply.

So start asking for what you want. Encourage them to do the same.

You may well discover that what is happening is quite different to what you imagined. That the other person has a quite different motive to what you thought. And that a conversation in which you raise your requests and concerns, listening deeply to the response – and in which they do the same – shifts things profoundly for both of you.

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Not broken

Because you’re not your failures, nor are you your successes, remember this:

Being in trouble, no matter how deep, is not proof you are broken.

And being successful, no matter how so, is not proof that you are saved.

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Running from fear

We’re afraid. Most of us, more than we’ll let on.

We’re afraid that our lives will be meaningless. We’re afraid of our aloneness. We’re afraid of our ending.

And, mostly, we’re afraid of our fear. We’re sure it means there’s something wrong with us. We each think we’re the only one who feels this way.

So we hide how afraid we are, even from ourselves, distracting and numbing and enchanting ourselves with diversions and addictions and rushing and busyness that have our life pass in a blur, leaving us feeling shallow and out of touch with ourselves.

We wonder how everyone else seems to have it so sorted (without realising that they are afraid, and hiding it, too).

And we’ve forgotten (because we seem to have wilfully abandoned so much wisdom we could have been taught by those who came before us) that fear avoided and denied goes underground, holding us ever more tightly in its invisible grip. And that running from fear is really running from life.

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Rembrandt, luminosity, and the contribution of our gifts

Today, a visit to the Rembrandt exhibition at London’s National Gallery – a shimmering introduction to the work of a man who so clearly loved human beings and was deeply interested in understanding human life, emotion, and meaning in all their shades of light and dark, joy and suffering.

Such love for the world is much needed and yet, I think, for most of us very difficult to cultivate. Cynicism, judgement, resignation and despair about others (and about ourselves) are far easier for us to maintain. They are safer moods, less questioning, and with far less of a call on us to be open, vulnerable and affected by life than that called upon by love.

Walking from room to room, it was impossible to escape the sense that exploring and expressing this love and wonder was the point of Rembrandt’s life. Even in the midst of repeated personal tragedy, financial ruin, the ridicule of his peers and critics and his long fall from fame – even in the midst of all this, he never stopped painting.

The room with his very last works, completed very shortly before his death and when his personal life had fallen apart, was the most luminous and transcendent and generous of them all. A powerful reminder of what it is to dedicate life to the whole-hearted contribution of our gifts. And how different from a life in which all our effort is expended trying to have things work out for us just the way we want them to.

Image: Self-portrait with two circles, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1669
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Who is to blame?

We assume that most, if not all, of our actions arise from within us. We talk about drivespreferencesgoals and intentions as if they are, without question, the only forces that move us. And as a result we pay little attention to the way we’re brought about by what’s around us – the people, places and things we encounter repeatedly in our lives.

The inner drive model gives much more weight than is due to our conscious selves – the explicit choice-making part of us that we most readily identify as ‘I’. Much of the time, it’s not this ‘I’ that’s in operation, but a much more automatic, habitual aspect of us that’s skilful at navigating through the world without needing our conscious intervention. This ‘I’ knows the world through its repeated interactions with it. It can navigate stairs, roads, chairs, doors, people, windows, showers, toothbrushes, pens, paper, phones, cars, trains… everything we have to do without really thinking about it.

The automatic ‘I’ is sophisticated enough to take part in conversations, guide our speech (once the conscious ‘I’ has set an intention or a direction) and drive us home. And, rather than being separate from the world, it relies on the world to orient it. It is drawn out by the affordances that surround us – the door handles, keyholes, street crossings, utensils, chairs, keyboards, and people that we have become skilful at responding to by years of apprenticeship.

We quite easily see that this is the case if we visit an unfamiliar culture where the tools, signs, symbols and practices make no sense – there we really have to think in order to get around (if we can get around at all). It’s incredibly hard work. There is little or nothing to draw out from us the skilful, embodied, habitual, automatic response upon which we rely so much. In these situations we feel most acutely our separateness from the world as conscious, thinking, deciding beings. The rest of the time, when we’re on automatic, in a culture with which we’re familiar, there really is very little separation between ourselves and the world to which we’re in the midst of skilfully responding.

And this is one of the reasons why so many of our ways of accounting for the actions people take in our organisations are so unhelpful. Individual performance reviews and targets locate agency solely in the separate conscious self – we are punished or rewarded, hired and fired, blamed and praised as if it’s only the separate inner world of thought and choice that’s relevant to the actions we take. As if what we are in the midst of has no part to play in what happens.

But we are, in significant part, being brought forth by what we’re surrounded by. Which is why it should be no surprise that when we force people to leave (‘manage them out’) we often find the very same problems recurring in the hands of the next person into the role. We are blind to the history that’s bringing about our difficulty. Which is because we’re blind to the surrounding world of people, objects, places and systems that’s bringing it about too.

And so when trouble arises in our organisations it’s enormously helpful to start looking systemically. Not simply ‘who is responsible for this?’, but also ‘what in this system is bringing about this difficulty?’. Instead of ‘let’s get rid of this troublemaker’ we could ask ourselves ‘how are we, collectively, and our whole situation with its tools, procedures, relationships and environments bringing about this trouble?’.

We’d save ourselves, and those we so easily blame, enormous heartache and practical difficulty if we were prepared take this seriously just a little more often.

For a powerful and practical exploration of this topic, you could take a look at Barry Oshry’s work, especially his book Seeing Systems.

Photo by Lior Solomons-Wise

Taking wing

Perhaps it’s no surprise that our endless and often invisible self-judgement is quickly projected out into to the world and onto others.

We build family cultures and organisation cultures around our wish to find, and correct, the faults we find in everyone. And we can easily make the central project of our lives comparing people to standards and finding all the ways they (and we) fall short.

So how about a different project?

What if you were to see and show people the possibility inherent in them that they barely know themselves? Not platitudes, not untruths, not clichés, not making-them-feel-better. Instead, the difficult and important work of noticing and naming what is waiting to come into the world through them.

Who could you be if you dedicated yourself to finding the as yet unborn goodness in others – that which is struggling to free itself – and naming it for them so that it can take wing?

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With thanks to both Parker Palmer and
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg for the ideas that inspired this post.


Could it be that we’re so harried, so unhappy, so stressed because we’ve forgotten the simple pleasure and discipline of being up to one thing at a time?

When we’re committed to being always on, always connected, always responsive – and to reacting to every email, phone call, tweet, facebook posting, news report – how can we expect to lose ourselves, completely, in something that’s both fulfilling and of value?

Everything is interrupting everything else, all the time. And we keep it this way – make it this way – because we think we like it. It makes us feel important.

And perhaps most significantly, it saves us from having to feel, really feel, anything in particular.

The consequence? The successful numbing of both our anxiety and our joy.

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Learning with me in the Spring


As well as writing, teaching is one of my great loves.

On Feb 16-17 I’ll again be teaching a two-day Coaching to Excellence course in London. A great way to build your capacity to support others (and yourself) in their development. There’s also one Feb 2-3 in Madrid.

And March 19-22 is the start of the next intake of the year-long Professional Coaching Course (4 sessions over 12 months).

Both are works of great love for me. I learn so much, every time, from being involved in them. And we always have some quite wonderful participants, who often go on to do big things with what they’ve learned. Maybe you’ll be one of them.

I’m looking forward very much to meeting some of you this year.

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