Ghosts

We search for patterns, often without knowing that we are doing so, filling in what we can’t be sure of with what we can already grasp. And so we often relate to other people from our memories of them, or we project onto them aspects of ourselves to fill in the unknown we encounter in them.

But that’s not the end of it. We also easily and unconsciously relate to other people as if they were key figures from other systems and constellations of which we have been a part, in a phenomenon known as transference.

So you join a new organisation, and find that there’s some way in your new boss reminds you of your father. And even before you know it, you’re filling in the blanks as if that’s just who he is. When he doesn’t reply to your email, it feels like all the times you were ignored in your own family. When he’s short tempered or curt with you it reminds you of the times you were judged, and you imagine his reasons for judging you are the same as those you remember from home. You find yourself seeking his praise, repeating the ways you learned to get noticed as a child. And you feel warm and supported perhaps exactly when you get the kind of recognition you longed for when growing up, but feel unseen when he’s recognising you in other ways. And all the while, you have no idea this is going on.

And he, simultaneously, is responding to all the subtle cues that come from the transference you are experiencing. Perhaps you now remind him of his own child, and he finds himself treating you in this way. He looks to praise you the way he praised her. He is frustrated with you for what frustrated him about her. He is reassured when you respond in ways that feel familiar, and confused and exasperated when you don’t fit the pattern that years of habit have taught him.

Before you know it, you have planted the ghosts of brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, teachers and enemies and lovers among your colleagues. And each one of them, in turn, has recruited you into a role you may know nothing about.

And all of you are in a dance that everyone is dancing, even though nobody can see the steps the others are following. On and on, through and through, transferred memories of families and systems that are not of this place, the weave from which your conversations and relationships, your delights and your many troubles, are spun.

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Ritual and culture

Our rituals give us an opportunity to rehearse a different kind of relationship to ourselves and to others than those in which we ordinarily find ourselves.

This is exactly what we’re doing with the ritual of a formal meeting where we take up assigned positions (chair, participants, etc) and give ourselves new ways of speaking with one another that are distinct from everyday conversation. It’s what we’re up to with the ritual of work appraisal conversations, which are intended to usher in a new kind of frankness and attentiveness than is usually present. It’s in the ritual of the restaurant, where the form and setting gives us, from the moment we enter, a set of understandings, commitments and actions shared with both other diners and with the staff. And it is, of course, present in all religious rituals when performed with due attention, which call us for a moment into a fresh relationship with the universe, or creation, or the rest of the living world.

The more we practice a ritual – especially if it’s one practiced with others – the more we develop the imagination and skilfulness to live in this new relationship in the midst of our ordinary lives.

It is for this reason that among the most powerful ways we have available to shift a culture – in a relationship, in a family, in an organisation – is to imagine and then diligently practice new rituals.

And by naming them as such, by declaring that they are ritual, we can help ourselves step in and be less overcome our inevitable resistance, our anxiety, at trying on new, unfamiliar and much needed ways of being together.

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Part of ourselves

How easily, how readily, we see in others – we project onto others – what we don’t want to see about our own lives. And how easily our projections turn others into an enemy to be corrected, scorned, hated or feared.

How easily we end up enslaving ourselves with all this. We lock ourselves into battles in the outer world, when what we want to correct, what we hold in contempt, what we need most to be reconciled with is actually part of ourselves.

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My fantasy self

My fantasy self is perfect. He doesn’t cause any trouble. He can get things done in just the time they take, and no less. He never makes a mistake, and he’s always does exactly what other people really need him to do. He’s humble, self-effacing, kind. He can resolve the most intractable of disagreements simply and elegantly, with reasoned, calm speech and attentive listening. Never selfish, always wise, forever reasonable, he’s always perfectly attuned to the needs of others. People want to be with him, to praise him (quietly) for his sacrifices. They want him to rescue them from their difficulties. And he’s above all disdain and criticism. If people criticise him, they must, simply, be wrong.  My fantasy self is easily hurt, but would never show it.

My fantasy self isn’t me. I’m far messier than that. Often disorganised, late, frequently confused. I leave my umbrella on the bus. I love, fiercely and deeply and in complicated ways. I fall deeply into my passions – books, people, music, poetry, ideas. I’m often filled with self-criticism and self-doubt. I can bring deep, profound wisdom when I’m still enough and present enough. I can be as stubborn as hell. Funny. Over-serious. I make terrible mistakes, and beautiful ones. I know how to teach. I can be exquisitely tender and gentle. I rage.

And what suffering, what sorrow, for me and for others around me, when I confuse the two. When I pretend to be my fantasy self. When I live in ongoing comparison with his impossible standards. And when I defend him, fiercely, closing out the ones who love me because they have had the honesty and care to see me not as my fantasy, but as I am.

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A narrow bridge

Once again the feeling in my body is as it was the day after the UK referendum. Fear, and deep disappointment, and many imaginings (some wild, some not) about what is going to happen.

So I have spent the morning walking, among tall trees and beside water. It’s a practice that I rely on most to restore me to a sense of myself, and to a sense of my own capacity. And I’ve come to see (to be reminded, for I have seen this and forgotten this repeatedly) that there are at least two kinds of fear at play here.

The first is fear for the world – in this instance what will come of electing to high office (and military command) a man who has done so much to inflame tensions, to foster hate and distrust, to demonise anyone who is ‘other’. And the second fear is fear of myself – fear that I will not be able to respond, fear that I will not know what to do, fear that I will be overwhelmed.

Seeing that makes it all the more important, I think, that I learn to be good at feeling fear (because fear is always a reminder of what is at stake and there is so much at stake here) rather than being ruled by it, and that I keep on learning to be good at finding my own capacity, and courage, and hope.

Or, as Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav said over two centuries ago about the world and what’s called for:

All the world is a very narrow bridge.
The most important thing is not to fear at all.

Whatever will come now will come in large part because of what many people decide to do. Small actions, taken with others, become big actions. And this is going to mean many of us waking up, stepping outside the small horizon of our immediate concerns, and doing things. Actually doing things, rather than talking about it or hoping someone else will do something. It will mean actively helping one another, helping others beyond our circle, taking a stand every single time we encounter injustice or indignity or bigotry in politics or home or work, teaching ourselves, writing, speaking up, teaching each other, making art, asking big questions, thinking and feeling deeply.

There is another Jewish principle that I think can be illuminating here – that of tikkun olam, or repair of the world. The premise? That the world is incomplete, broken, and has been for longer than any of us can remember. That it can be repaired, by our day to day actions, or neglected, in which case the tear in the fabric of the world increases. That repair is possible.

It is this last part that I find so resonant today – just because so much is broken gives us no excuse to give up.

Indeed it may well be the case that the rise of hate, disdain, ridicule, indignity, violence and indifference in the world is always an opportunity to learn how to better ourselves if we choose – how to be more adult, how to be less narcissistic in our concerns, how to become more active, compassionate, wise, organised, connected to one another and impassioned about life.

I think we have an urgent responsibility to take up the practices that will have us be that in our homes, in our organisations, and in the wider world. And I think this can rightly be a cause for immense hope.

And I am sure that we have to start, right away.

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Atrophy

It’s one thing to have good intentions about your relationships with others.

You also need good practices to bring them about, repeated actions by which you

listen
pay attention
stay open or defend yourself
share your cares and commitments
choose what to say and what not say
respond to emotions
interpret events as they happen.

When the practices that connect you to one another are neglected, relationships atrophy. At first slowly. And then quickly. Before long nobody can point to the moment when the trouble started nor to what it is that is missing. It’s just that something necessary isn’t there, something that once brought this team, this family, this organisation alive.

And then it becomes easy to judge others and blame them for making things so hard. And to forget that it’s how you’re acting right now that’s keeping things the way they are.

Restoring relationships calls for more than wishful thinking, and certainly for more than blaming others. It requires waking up to the actions that genuinely connect people.

And it requires remembering, a central act of all leadership: recovering the very ways of speaking and listening that once supported you, and bringing them purposefully back into being all over again.

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What it takes to listen

It’s when we actually listen to another human being that they get to be human too. Listening allows a shift from I-It relating in which the other is essentially an object to us (an irritation, a way to get what I want, a way to feel good about myself) to I-You relating, in which the other gets to be a person.

As Martin Buber points out, I-It relating is essentially a form of It-It relating, since it’s impossible for us to show up as full human beings, even to ourselves, when we are in the midst of making another, or a group of others, into a thing. To relate to another in an I-You way, to listen to them in their fullness, bestows dignity on everyone and opens wide horizons for understanding, compassion, truthfulness, and relationship.

Listening ought to be the easiest thing to do. After all, it requires no complex framework, no technique, no technology. And yet it can be so, so hard.

Most of us have a lot of practicing to do in order to drop our need to be right, to be ‘the one’, to be liked, and to hear only what we want to hear. In order to listen we have to relax our defensiveness, be skilful with the inner attacks of our own inner critic (which is ready to judge us even when there’s no judgement coming from the speaker), get over our wish to control everything, and be willing to welcome whatever we experience. We have to be able to question our own stories and accounts, be open to seeing things in a whole new way, and quiet our inner world sufficiently that what is being said can reach us. And we have to learn how to be in contact with ourselves, a fundamental prerequisite for being in contact with others.

Perhaps all of this is why real listening is so absent in our fearful, impatient culture. And why we could all benefit from doing some inner work if we want to do the vital outer work of listening well to the people around us.

Photography by Justin Wise

Imagining or listening?

imagining

Our capacity to imagine allows us to convince ourselves that we know other people – their intentions, their wishes, their inner worlds – when we hardly know them at all. But what we are sure we know can so easily turn out to be simply what we’ve invented. And once we’re sure, we quickly discount evidence to the contrary, reinforcing what we’ve imagined by the selective way in which we look and listen.

We can imagine grudges and resentments, frustrations and slights, judgements and failings, hurts and distances, all without even once checking that they are true. And we can go for years, thinking we know others, when what we know is our story about them.

We do this with lovers and enemies, children and parents, siblings and friends, colleagues and acquaintances. We do this with people whose culture is different from our own, people who live or speak differently from us, people who vote differently.

And all of it feels so real.

There is one simple, and difficult, and necessary way to address the suffering, distance and estrangement that comes from our imaginings, and that is to listen.

Simple, because all of us are able to ask another ‘please, tell me about yourself, tell me what I need to know in order to understand you more fully’. We can do this with loved ones, with work colleagues, and across seemingly unresolvable divides. And we can start today, even if we have never had such a conversation before. All it takes is a willingness to be present and to hear, fully, what the other has to say.

Difficult, because listening in this way means we have to drop our defensiveness, our wish to hear things only on our terms, our fear that we won’t like what is said. We have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, available, open. This is not the same as giving up our own way of seeing the world or simply doing what another person asks, but it does require allowing ourselves to be changed by the encounter. And this calls on us to summon up reserves of courage and grace and compassion, and to give up being in control all the time.

And necessary because our imaginings so easily act as a wedge between us, prolonging our difficulties, denying us the creative and nourishing possibilities of relationship, and blinding us to suffering as well as to the light and goodness that is in us and all around us if we’ll only look.

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Your family, your team

Here’s a powerful method for working with, and talking about, the unconscious projection of family relationships onto other situations (your team, for example).

1 Map your own family

Start by drawing your own family system – the one in which you grew up. Include everyone who seemed a significant presence to you during your childhood, for better or for worse – parents and siblings in particular, and perhaps aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents.

Map it out on a piece of paper. Draw a circle for each person, with the distance from you showing the amount of contact, and the thickness of line showing the quality of relationship you had (thicker = stronger). For example:

If you wish you can give more detail to your map by noting the mood of each relationship you’re mapping (supportive, caring, threatening, confusing etc).

2 Map your team

Now think about your current work team as if it were a family.

Who do you think takes up what roles? Can you see parents, siblings, cousins, outsiders? What is the age order in this system (it may not be the same as your actual age order)? Who is close in, who is further out? Include yourself in this exploration – specifically, who are other people in the team to you (older brother, younger sister, cousin, parent etc)?

Draw out your team ‘family’ in the same way you did when you mapped your own family.

Do you notice any connections? Similarities? Resonances between the family map and the team map? Can you see any way in which the relationships you take up in your team echo the relationships in your family? Does any of this suggest new actions you wish to take, new possibilities you wish to pursue, or things you’d like to stop doing?

3 Talk about it

Here is where the magic begins. Host a conversation with your team in which you share your family map, your team map, and the insights that have arisen as you compared the two.

If your colleagues are ready, invite them to do the same. Remember that what you’re sharing is each person’s experience – so be curious, gentle, generous, welcoming and as open as you can. This is an exercise in understanding one another, in knowing your shared humanity, not in convincing one another or proving a point.

If you’re willing to be kind enough, and interested enough, and truthful enough, you may just start to give yourself new language that you can all use to observe yourselves in action – and a way of catching the underground patterns that have you relating to one another as if you were people from there and then rather than the people you’re working with here and now.

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Seeing through it

Given how often our naturally associative minds fill in the gaps in our experience with the ghosts of memories, projections, and transference, what are we to do?

Let’s start with understanding that all these processes are entirely natural and – in many circumstances – entirely necessary. Faced with something new and unknown, it’s quite reasonable and very helpful that we have the kind of minds that enable us to predict what might happen and take action on the basis of our predictions.

But let’s also understand that in many situations our associative understanding of the world causes enormous trouble: when I try to gain your approval as if you’re a parent because of the way you have positional authority over me; when I treat you as I do my younger brother because you’re a peer on my team; when I project onto you those aspects of myself I don’t like or can’t tolerate, and judge you or criticise you because of them.

As I have written here in recent days, each of these can lead us into all kinds of difficulty because we are no longer relating to the people around us as they are. So how can we work with colleagues, lead an organisation, parent or be a friend in a more truthful way, a way which is responsive to what’s happening now and here rather than what was happening then or over there?

Perhaps a powerful and insightful place to start is to take up the discipline of regular self-reflection. Buy yourself a journal – something you’ll be pleased to write in. And a pen that you’ll enjoy writing with. And then write, daily. You can uncover wonders with just a few minutes of attention each day (some hints on how you could do this are here).

Write about what you see in yourself – your thoughts, what you experience in different situations, and the actions you find yourself taking. In particular, write about what it feels like to be with others. Where do you feel small, diminished, like a child? Where do you feel grandiose, puffed up beyond your normal stature? With whom do you feel judgemental, angry, resentful? Whose company are you drawn to?

And then, most importantly, write about what each of those feelings remind you of. It’s here that there’s the most uncovering to do – that the watchful, vigilant state you find yourself in with Paul reminds you of the feel of being with your father when you were small; that Dana irritates you the way you feel irritated with your sister; that you long for signs of Karen’s appreciation for you like you did with your mother.

Often it’s just the seeing of our transferences, projections and memories that allows their grip on us to start to loosen – that allows them to move from having us so that instead we can have them. And such self-reflection is vital work for all of us to do, if we want to take responsibility for the systems, communities, organisations and families in which we live our lives.

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Ghosts

We search for patterns, often without knowing that we are doing so, filling in what we can’t be sure of with what we can already grasp. And so it is, as I have been writing in the last few days, that we so often relate to other people from our memories of them, or we project onto them aspects of ourselves to fill in the unknown we encounter in them.

But that’s not the end of it. We also easily and unconsciously relate to other people as if they were key figures from other systems and constellations of which we have been a part, in a phenomenon known as transference.

So you join a new organisation, and find that there’s some way in your new boss reminds you of your father. And even before you know it, you’re filling in the blanks as if that’s just who he is. When he doesn’t reply to your email, it feels like all the times you were ignored in your own family. When he’s short tempered or curt with you it reminds you of the times you were judged, and you imagine his reasons for judging you are the same as those you remember from home. You find yourself seeking his praise, repeating the ways you learned to get noticed as a child. And you feel warm and supported perhaps exactly when you get the kind of recognition you longed for when growing up, but feel unseen when he’s recognising you in other ways. And all the while, you have no idea this is going on.

And he, simultaneously, is responding to all the subtle cues that come from the transference you are experiencing. Perhaps you now remind him of his own child, and he finds himself treating you in this way. He looks to praise you the way he praised her. He is frustrated with you for what frustrated him about her. He is reassured when you respond in ways that feel familiar, and confused and exasperated when you don’t fit the pattern that years of habit have taught him.

Before you know it, you have planted the ghosts of brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, teachers and enemies and lovers among your colleagues. And each one of them, in turn, has recruited you into a role you may know nothing about.

And all of you are in a dance that everyone is dancing, even though nobody can see the steps the others are following. On and on, through and through, transferred memories of families and systems that are not of this place, the weave from which your conversations and relationships, your delights and your many troubles, are spun.

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Missing

Aside from our projections (the aspects of ourselves we see in others when they are actually present in ourselves) we also miss the truth about other people when we hold on too tightly to our memories of them.

We so readily fill in the gaps in our experience with that we think we already know. But our stories are necessarily incomplete, and our memories are in many ways unreliable. And, added to that, people keep on changing, so that our certainty about others quickly becomes a way to have them be familiar to us rather than a way of meeting them. Often even a well-worn difficulty feels more inviting than the uncertainty and openness of not knowing.

And it may even be the case that the child, the friend, or the partner you said goodbye to this morning is not the same as the person who is walking back in through the door this evening.

Responding to this is not at all easy. We’d rather hang on to our stories than take the risk of being surprised, with all that could bring. It takes courage to set all that aside. But learning to see people more accurately (and with more kindness) might be our best source of hope for healing our relationships and finding the goodness in ourselves and others that we so urgently need.

With thanks to Jason for our recent conversation that brought this into view.

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On undoing our projections

Our projections onto others cause us such difficulty because, in effect, we are asking other people to take care of what we can only take care of ourselves. And we can only take care of it ourselves if we’re prepared to look, with some attention and persistence, at what it is that we are projecting – often a part of us that’s out of view.

My big work on this topic over many years has been with anger. For so long unable to see and feel how angry I felt about so much, I’d project anger onto others in at least two ways that I can determine.

The first – being sure that other people were angry with me when it was me that was angry with the world and with myself. Perhaps you can imagine how confusing it is for other people when I’m reacting to them as if they’re already furious with me – when I withdraw, or become sullen, or snap back in response to something inside me rather than in response to them. As is the way of such things I’d often quite successfully bring about what I most wanted to avoid, as other people became angry as a result of my way of orienting towards them.

The second – trying to shut down anger in others when it did arise, because it put me so directly in contact with my own fury, the very thing I was most afraid of and most wanted to deny. The result, a stifling way of controlling and dampening others’ responses towards me, of not letting them be whoever and however they needed to be.

And, most fascinating about this, how invisible both of these processes were for me for a very long time. I knew I was afraid of other people’s anger, and I suppose I had some sense of the ways I’d try to avoid it or reduce it, but I had no idea that I was seeing it everywhere because it was present, so very present, right here in me.

Perhaps if you look you’ll start to see similar processes at play in your own life. Maybe it won’t be anger but fear. Or if not fear, perhaps it’s shame that you’re projecting onto others while trying strenuously to avoid it yourself. And once you start to look, perhaps you’ll see how projection shapes relationships at home, with your colleagues, across your organisation and in many other situations in which people relate to one another (isn’t that everywhere?)

We’ve taken up our projections for good reason. They have doubtless, along the way, had a necessary protective effect. But learning to still ourselves enough that we can see them, and coming to observe ourselves accurately enough that we can drop them, liberates a new kind of truthfulness and a much needed-freedom into our relationships and interactions with everyone around us.

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We see what we project

So much of our difficulty with relationships comes because we’re projecting onto others what we won’t see in ourselves.

So you get angry and frustrated with a colleague because she’s tentative and hesitant, without seeing that it’s a cause of anger (rather than compassion or curiosity) precisely because you’re angry at all the ways that you are tentative and hesitant.

Or you get furious with your partner for leaving the kitchen table in a mess, not so much because of the mess but because your inner critic is eating into you for all the ways you struggle to keep things neat and in line.

Or you fall in love with another’s creativity and spontaneity, all the while because he reflects back to you all your own creativity and spontaneity with which you’ve lost touch.

Or you feel afraid of an entire group of people because they remind you of what you’re afraid about in yourself.

Our projections – if they illuminate anything about other people at all – leave so much of their true beauty and complexity shrouded in darkness, so that we’re often relating to what we project rather than to who they are.

None of this is so unusual. But it can be a huge source of difficulty and suffering for us. Because behind our projections is another human being, different from us, confounding, surprising, and worthy of both curiosity and wonder. Behind all our projections is another who we are sure we know, but perhaps barely know at all. And behind all our projections are aspects of ourselves – gifts and suffering – that we’re sure are out there in the world, but are in fact right here if we’ll only turn towards them and look.

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Where conflicts go

Whenever we bring our commitments, longing, plans and requests to others there’s the possibility of some kind of conflict. We could avoid this only if world were made up of billions of clones, designed to sweetly anticipate and accommodate our every need and wish. But because people are different from us in uncountable ways, we’re always called on to listen, to make ourselves vulnerable, to hear what we’re not expecting to hear and to feel what we’re not expecting to feel, if we’re going to navigate our difference with dignity and for the good of everyone.

Too often, perhaps because it feels safer, we try to find our way around conflict without doing any of this. We imagine we can force our way through (wishing for those clones, again) and in this way spare ourselves from encountering any real resistance, and from having to be changed by the encounter. Or we accommodate, keeping our own wishes, desires and requests quiet, silently and resentfully bending ourselves to fit in. Both of these positions diminish everyone involved. Both appear to keep us safe by keeping us out of contact with one another. And both, I know, are approaches I’ve fallen into countless times.

I’m reminded, though, that avoiding the heat of difference between us doesn’t make the conflict go away. It only changes its form – into silence, or resentment, or insincerity; or shifts its location – from the public realm to our inner lives, where our avoidance of outer conflict leaves us in ongoing conflict with ourselves.

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A conversation for clarification

Between the moment one person asks and the other responds comes a necessary but often neglected step – a conversation between both of you to determine what’s actually being asked for.

I know it sounds obvious when said this way but how often do you take the time to talk and listen before you say ‘yes’ (which most of us are conditioned to do) or ‘no’?

Without this conversation for clarification, it’s so easy to launch into a project that’s:

  • not wanted (those three pressured and frantic days writing a financial report when all that was needed was a single paragraph summary)
  • not yours to do (the hours you spent trying to understand the figures when there’s someone else who could do it in a half hour)
  • not something you were ever really prepared to do (and now you have to find a way to wriggle out of it, or delay, or pretend you’re busy, or make excuses)

Hierarchical relationships at work make this more difficult, of course. Perhaps you avoid the conversation because you don’t want to look like you don’t know, or like you’re unsure, or like you’re anything less than fully committed. And then there’s navigating feelings of uncertainty, or fear, or shame.

But how can a yes be a yes, or a no be a no, unless you understand what it is you’re saying yes or no to? And how much precious effort and time gets wasted on the ‘yes’ that was yes to the wrong thing or never really meant at all?

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Leaping onto the wire

You’re standing for the first time on the edge of a platform above a wide and deep canyon, harnessed, checked and secured to a zip wire that descends at a steep angle towards the forest floor below. Many people have gone before you. And yet you hesitate at the edge, feeling both the way this possibility calls to you, and the way it frightens you.

Can you distinguish your anxiety at this moment from your fear? They’re different, in important ways.

Fear is related to the threat to your safety, real or imagined. I’ll die here. The harness will undo. I’ll fall. I’ll go too fast. I won’t slow down in time. Something will go wrong. I’ll never be able to get back again.

Anxiety is related to your freedom to step into this possibility or to step back, and your knowledge that the choice is yours alone. I want to do this, but I don’t. I’ve never done this before. I won’t know how to feel. I won’t know how to be with what I do feel. I won’t be able to deal with how unfamiliar this is going to be, with being changed by the experience. I won’t know how to be with others when I’m done. I won’t know how to be myself. 

Every developmental opportunity in our lives is like this, when we find ourselves standing on the brink of a new opening, a deep, broad vista stretched out before us that we suspect will change us. And while fear can sometimes be addressed with competent support – someone who can show us the equipment, explain how everything works, point out the successful descents that came before, and give us the statistics – anxiety cannot be resolved in this way, because anxiety is to do with what it is to become the one who leaps.

And when we want to travel the wire, or start to see that we simply must do so, what we need most is not people who’ll push us over the edge, nor people who’ll try to pull us back to the familiar world that is no longer serving us, but those who’ll stay with us a while, peer with us into the opening, and explore what we see with compassion, curiosity and wonder until we’re ready to do the work for ourselves that nobody else can do.

 

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Angels

Anxiety is different from fear, in that fear is always in some way about memy safety, my circumstances.

Fear comes and goes, but anxiety is nearly always with us. It isn’t personal. It comes from our very human capacity to choose, and from our ability to invent possible futures without knowing how they’ll work out. As the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard tells us, anxiety is the dizzying effect of our freedom, and the consequence of the boundlessness of our horizons.

When we deal with anxiety by trying to run from it, or by trying to numb it, or when we let ourselves be overcome by it (so that the anxious part of us is the only part that’s speaking), one of the consequences is disconnection from ourselves and from the possibilities that are calling. But when we treat it as a messenger we discover that anxiety is here to show us something we’ve been asleep to, something we’ve been avoiding, some way we’re holding on tight to that which ultimately cannot be held onto.

The difficult part, often, is knowing precisely what it is we’re avoiding, asleep to, or holding on to so tightly. And this is where we can often be helped so much by others who love us but who won’t rescue us. People who, instead of sending us back to sleep, will stand alongside us with compassion, truth, hope, and light as we discover what new way of being alive the anxiety, from which we so want to run, is calling us towards.

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She should know

“My manager (or partner, child, colleague, best friend, client, customer) should know what to do. She should. And because of this, I’m not going to ask. I’m not going to tell her what I need, what I want, or what I see. I’m going to stay quiet. Why should I say anything? Because she should just know.”

Where does this get you – even if it’s true?

Can you think of any move more sure to rob you of your power, distance you, and deny you the very thing you want or need most – except, perhaps, your wish to remain frustrated, bitter, resentful and endlessly disappointed?

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Supplier or partner?

A choice to make whenever you work with others: will you relate to them as supplier or partner?

Suppliers are there to give you what you ask for. ‘We want 300 widgets by Friday’ – there’ll be a supplier for that. The supplier does not need to know much about what you care about, or are committed to, beyond the needs of the current supply. Once they have fulfilled your request to the standards you lay out, their job is done. And in relating to them as supplier you become consumer – the one with the right to determine the spec, the one upon whose sole discretion the supply gets accepted or rejected, and the one who expects not to be challenged, or disturbed, or questioned.

The consumer-supplier relationship, even if it lasts over a long time period, is essentially a relationship of safety and utility (an I-It relationship). If someone else comes along who can give you what you ask for more quickly, or more cheaply, or with less fuss, have them supply you instead.

And while supply gives you what you asked for, it gives you only what you asked for. You may get what you want, but you may well not get what you need.

Partners are there to be in your commitments with you. To be a partner is to step in, to care about the same things that another cares about, and to build a relationship which can hold creativity, surprise, trust and difference. To be a partner is to be prepared to question the spec, the strategy and the premise, and be questioned in turn for the sake of the larger commitment you share. It’s to enter into something big together, to be influenced by one another, and to be in it for the long term.

When you step into a relationship this way, you invite the other party to join with you in your endeavours. As such partnership is an essentially I-You relationship, a shared commitment aimed at a far bigger set of possibilities than a supplier-consumer relationship can ever hope to address.

The partner-supplier choice applies to just about any relationship. Colleagues, employees, consultants you bring in, people who make things and services you use – any can be partner or supplier. In each case you choose. Will you invite the other to be supply for your requests or partner in bringing about what matters most?

Each kind of relationship has its place, and each has its consequences. But what gets most of us into trouble, sooner or later, is how often we try to make ourselves suppliers when a bolder, riskier and more significant contribution is called for. And how often we look for the safety and reassurance of a supplier, when it’s a partner that we really need if we’re going to have the impact on the world we’re hoping for.

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Family

Seen against the ever-present certainties of our lives – we will die, we will grow old, all that we build or create will eventually fall apart – differences between us drop away. We are all the same.

It’s so hard to live consciously with this in mind, to reach out across the space we imagine separates us and be open to one another. So hard to share our fear, our longing, our truest hopes. So hard to stay present long enough to look deeply into the eyes of others, to fall into them, allowing ourselves to know and be known.

Why so difficult? Perhaps because of the shame we necessarily picked up along the way: sharpened every time we had to be told not to do this or that, to be this way or that way in order to fit in with our families or with our culture. Because of our self-doubt and our inner-criticism, which make it so hard to love ourselves fully (a pre-requisite for allowing ourselves to un-self-consciously love others). And because we are afraid.

And so we hold back, always reserving some distance even from those who love us the most, because that way it feels as if we’ll hold on to some measure of safety. Or we judge others, resent them or hate them, turning them into less than human-beings in our hearts, because it makes us feel better for a while.

Even though we know that our deepest connection with one another is precisely that which can save us from the void.

This is the great ethical work, so difficult to do and so necessary, which calls to us – learning the sensitivity to respond and be open to other people, who we take to be so different from us but with whom we share common ancestry, and common destiny.

For we are intimately related.

Family.

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Asking for it

If your requests to others aren’t resulting in much in the way of action, you might like to look at whether you are actually asking anything at all.

“That office needs tidying”

“The rubbish is collected tomorrow”

“We’re spending more on travel than we should be”

“This is really difficult”

“It’s my birthday next Tuesday”

and even your silence

may seem to you like obvious displays that you need help. But they quite possibly sound nothing of the sort to the people around you.

Indirect requests are a manipulation, a demand that others show they love or respect you by being able to work out what you really want. But when you don’t get what you were expecting the result is frustration and resentment. And confusion, for everyone else, when you’ve become annoyed, or angry, or withdrawn – and they don’t understand why.

Over time, such vague requests erode the foundation of your relationships even as you’re trying to get people to come in closer.

Please, if you want to enrol others in doing something that matters you, ask them directly for what you want.

It creates so much more possibility and dignity for all of us.

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Five narratives for leadership

Five narratives for leadership…

… a way to get liked, respected, or to get what I want (all variations on an idea that leadership is an opportunity to fulfil my needs)

… an application of expertise – being the person who knows what to do, reliably, so that other people can be told what to do too (leading by being ahead of others and having other people be like me)

… a way to make sure people are measurably productive at what we’ve decided is to be done – rewarding with bonuses and prizes, threatening by withholding them, cajoling, pressuring, motivating, engaging, punishing, cascading (all variations on a theme that leadership is about getting others to produce measurable efficiency and productivity)

… a way of inviting a new conversation – asking questions that nobody is asking, pointing into collective and individual blindspots, helping others say no as often as yes, welcoming truth and difference, enrolling in compelling stories or counter-stories that allow others to make meaning of what they’re doing and free themselves to take action, and in doing so become skilful at coordinating their actions with one another (leadership as laying out a space of possibility by the stories and conversations we weave)

… a way to help others marshal their efforts by meeting the realities of the world – learning how long things really take, going with the forces of life rather than fighting against them, finding out how to take care of ourselves so that we are resourceful and creative, giving up doing what’s familiar in favour of what’s needed now, working with the complexities and unpredictability of big systems rather than trying to pretend the world works like clockwork (leadership as a way of helping others ever more effectively and wisely bring their intentions to the world as it is)

… a way of taking up our responsibility towards life – responding with acuity and sensitivity to the unknown and unknowable, taking care of the cross-generational consequence and possibilities of our actions, helping others overcome their fear and frozenness so they can contribute, being wide awake and present in the midst of it all and inviting others to be the same, helping others deepen their understanding of life and flourish within it, nurturing what needs nurture and undoing what needs undoing, practicing radical kindness, acceptance and generosity (leadership as a spiritual path)

Are any of these what leadership is to you?

And what’s the consequence – for you, for others, for those who’ll come after you – of the narrative you’re currently choosing?

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Help, truthfulness, kindness

One of the questions I always ask my coaching clients is ‘who is in this with you?’

It’s a way of asking three questions at once –

  • Who’s helping you with this topic you’re working on?
  • Who sees you with enough truthfulness that they can support you in making corrections and adjustments as you go?
  • And who is prepared to see you with the kindness you need to find your own kindness towards yourself?

Help, truthfulness, kindness – three qualities in others that are a vital, life-giving force for us human beings.

We need people around us who’ll be this way if we’re going to flourish.

But so often the answer is ‘nobody‘. There’s nobody in this with me. I’m in this on my own. This is how it’s meant to be. 

We don’t see how crazily we’re trying to be super-heroes, hauling ourselves up in the world with our own muscular strength, propelling ourselves along with inner harshness, and pushing away the heartfelt attempts of others to support us. And that in living this way we live our struggles alone, even when surrounded by others.

It takes some softening and a large dose of letting go – of our own self-concepts and our attempts to control life – to let help, truthfulness and kindness in. But when we admit that we’re neither omnipotent, nor meant to be, we give ourselves our best chance of taking up our place in the web of support that’s around us. And it’s a necessary step if we’re going to play a part in our own flourishing, and quite possibly in the saving of our very lives.

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Anxiety and fear aren’t the same

Anxiety and fear aren’t the same.

It’s important to see this, because they lead to different places. Anxiety – felt, allowed and responded to – can be an invitation into a new way of relating to the world. But fear so often leads us into actions that cut us off from ourselves, and from others, and from what’s called for.

It’s David Steindl-Rast who makes this distinction in his wonderful interview with Krista Tippett at On Being.

Anxiety, he says, is the feeling of being pressed-in by the world. It comes from the linguistic root anguere meaning ‘choke’ or ‘squeeze’. The first experience of it in our lives, the primal experience of anxiety, is that of being born. We all enter the world through a very uncomfortable occurence in which we are squeezed and pushed and all there is to do is go along with it. In a very real sense going with the experience is what makes it possible to be born into life in the first place.

And though we’re born through an experience of anxiety, Steindl-Rast tells us, at that moment we do it fearlessly. Because fear is exactly what comes when we resist feeling anxiety, when we try to deny it or push it away. Anxiety can bring us into birth, while fear – our denial, our resistance to what we’re experiencing – is a different move altogether: life-destroying, a totally different direction for our minds and bodies to take.

“And that is why”, he says, “anxiety is not optional in life. It’s part of life. We come into life through anxiety. And we look at it, and remember it, and say to ourselves, we made it. We got through it. We made it. In fact, the worst anxieties and the worst tight spots in our life, often, years later, when you look back at them, reveal themselves as the beginning of something completely new, a completely new life.”

And what, he says, makes the biggest difference between anxiety and fear is learning to trust – trusting life, trusting the capacity of our own hearts, trusting others.

We live in times that give many of us good cause for anxiety. But instead of collapsing and narrowing ourselves with fear we can choose to feel, and choose to practice trust. One step, and another step. And perhaps this way we can allow to be born in us a capacity to respond to our difficulties without turning away, and a greater ability to live without choking off our own lives or the lives of others.

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Undoing the spiral

We discover early in life what the people around us expect from us. And we find ways of doing just that. Even if we’ve completely misunderstood what was being asked.

Meeting these expectations becomes, before long, central to our identity. We know ourselves as this or that kind of person, and then actively work to keep the identity we’ve established going. It feels familiar and comfortable to keep having people around us respond to us in the way to which we’ve become accustomed.

I learned early on to be the peacekeeper: the pursuer of harmony, making sure I and everyone around me remained undisturbed and untroubled; listening, supporting, staying quiet, defusing conflict, avoiding anger (my own and other people’s).

All these ways of being seemed, unquestionably, to be me.

And of course they affected and shaped what was possible in any kind of relationship with me. Peacekeeping can be a great gift to the world, but also stifling and frustrating for others when anything genuine and troubling and sharp needs to be said.

Other people around me took on other kinds of identity – the helper, making sure everyone is cared for and nobody is left out; the achiever, getting ahead and making things happen, knowing themselves through the outward signs of success; the challenger, being sure to be in control, using assertiveness and power to have things happen.

We have powerful inner forces that keep us inside the bounds we’ve established – among them the inner critic, and shame. For years, if I would be ashamed – mortified – if I said anything that I thought might hurt or upset another. And I’d be eaten up by my inner critic if anyone dared express anger towards me.

This is such an important topic because most of the time we can’t tell that this is what we’re doing – manipulating the world so it’s just so – not too hot, not too cold, but just as we expect it to be.

And this is why we all need people around us who can see through our strategies and habits, who can see who we are beyond the tight spiral these identities produce in us – a spiral which keeps the horizons of the world smaller than we imagine, and smaller than we need.

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Hard, and essential

Relationships that fall apart because we won’t talk about what’s happening in them.

Business difficulties that intensify – at great personal and financial cost – because we’re afraid to look directly at them and have a conversation with the other people involved.

Learning, and teaching, undermined because we’re more committed to avoiding feeling uncomfortable.

Possibilities missed and progress denied because we insisted on speed at the expense of good conversation.

Patients subjected to unpleasant and hopeless treatments because we’re terrified of talking about dying.

Connection with others missed because we’re too afraid to be open with them.

How hard it can be, and yet how essential it is, to find out that almost everything in the human world is solved by, brought about by, and made more alive by talking and listening.

It’s hard, because we all have layers of defence against encountering our own vulnerability – our capacity to be wounded by our openness to others, and to be touched by it. And it’s essential because no process, procedure, technique or tool – no turning away from one another – can ever hope to make up for this most simple, most powerful, and most life giving of human acts.

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On being unstoppable

Today I want to share, in its entirety, a post from my colleague Jessica Minah, in which she writes beautifully about both the human condition and the kind of coaching to which we are both dedicated in our work.

With my sincere thanks to Jess for her permission to reproduce her work here. You can see more about her and what she’s up to in the world at Pronoia Coaching.

Last week, I visited the webpage of a coaching school someone I know is considering. On the school’s homepage, a graduate of the program boasted that the school’s methodology had enabled her to teach her clients to be “unstoppable.” And that stopped me, right in my tracks.

The nature of being human is that we are eminently stoppable. Our very biology gives us natural limits to how hard we can push. We need to breathe, to drink, eat, and sleep. We crave touch, the sun, fresh air, and communication. Our bodies are covered in a soft flesh–relatively defenseless with no claws or sharp teeth. We bleed and heal. Our reproductive cycle gives us utterly helpless young, demanding that we stop and take notice and care for these vulnerable creatures. And, of course, we die–the ultimate full stop. Death comes for us all with no regard for how hard we try to push it back. To be human is to be stoppable.

And yet we seek to be unstoppable.

Life should be able to stop us. If not for beauty, then for heartbreak. If not for the joy of seeing a tree’s stark branches waving against a gray winter sky, then for the horror of seeing people starving to death in our own rich cities or drowning to death on the shores of Europe. If not for the pleasure of a beloved piece of music, then for the despair of another mass shooting. If not for the happiness on the face of a dear friend or family member, then for the agony present  when they suffer or when we let them down. Let life be present to us. Let it stop us.

To be unstoppable is to be blind to what is happening all around us. To be unstoppable is to refuse to notice the effect that progress–at any cost–might have on our relationships, our bodies, and our spiritual life. To be unstoppable is to deny our own biology. To deny our hearts and the beautiful web of relationships that surround us.

Sometimes the world demands a response. And sometimes the only response is to pause. To be stricken. To be soft. To take a moment to laugh, or to cry, or to hold someone’s hand. A moment of noticing how angry we are, or how sad, or how–this is the really hard one–how numb we’ve become.  And cultivating the ability to be stopped takes deep work.

It requires relational sensitivity to know when our families, colleagues, and friends need us to downshift and approach them in a new, more attentive way. It requires somatic wisdom to be able to sense our energy status and get a clear reading on what our bodies need. It takes emotional awareness to stay present in strong emotions while also noticing the emotional states of others. And, finally, the ability to stop often takes great bravery as it will likely be questioned by those who would not dare question the cultural value of being unstoppable.

In my coaching practice, I do not seek to teach clients to be unstoppable because I believe it is deeply problematic, even dangerous. What happens when you teach your client to be unstoppable, and their family and friends need them to stop because they have been neglecting their relational responsibilities? What happens when you have an entire culture of unstoppable people, and the culture next door needs them to stop because they are encroaching on ancestral lands? What happens when you have an entire planet of unstoppable people, and the environment is begging them to stop because species are going extinct and the land is being polluted?

Can you see where being unstoppable can lead? Do you see where it has already led?

Instead, I believe that we must learn to listen to the call of the world, to our loved ones, and to our bodies–to stop. In the coaching relationship, mutual trust and mutual respect create a strong container wherein clients can examine their relied upon, habitual responses. Over time, they become better at recognizing the persistent ‘turning away’ that is pandemic in modern society and eventually they learn to cultivate a new response. This requires learning new skills and competencies: patience, compassion, resilience, discernment, and the ability to self-observe, to name a few. I’ve seen clients, over time, become more resilient and able to stand in deep witness to their own emotional experience; to be stopped by the world, and to be touched by it. They have the freedom to experience their own reactions without becoming overwhelmed. This, in turn, affords them the opportunity to make choices that were unavailable to them before.

Today, let a small part of yourself be broken by this heartbreaking and fragile world. What might happen if you opened yourself up enough for this to occur? What meaning might leak into your life if you dared? Find out.

Stop.

On the performance of others

I’ve been arguing here for a while that human beings are deeply affected by what we’re around, including by other people. We are far from the separate, solitary, unitary individuals that our contemporary understanding (or at least the understanding of the past 200-300 years) would have us be.

This has far-reaching consequences for much of the ‘common sense’ by which we think about ourselves.

In the world of organisations in particular, it’s considered good practice by many to give people enduring labels such as ‘high performer’, ‘low performer’, ‘star’ or ‘troublemaker’. Whole performance management systems are based upon the premise that this is a reasonable thing to do.

What such labelling always leaves out is any understanding that we have any affect upon one another.

Someone who you are sure is a troublemaker may, indeed, be a gift of possibility when around others. A ‘low performer’ can easily be someone who contributes enormously when they’re in different company.

Being so sure about others’ enduring qualities without looking at your own role in how they show up means you’re missing a huge opportunity to effect change in whatever organisation or system you’re involved.

How people ‘perform’ around you, will – in the end – have as much to do with you, as it ever did with them.

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Just like me

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 of yourself – 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.

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