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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Shaping One Another

We’d had a testy exchange earlier in the week and by the time we met, I was sure that he really had it in for me.

Except, he quite probably didn’t. But I was quite sure of how he was going to be in this interaction, and who I was in response. And so I was careful, detached, defensive, and withholding of myself. And the more I was that way with him, the more his sense of distrust and discomfort with me was amplified. Pretty soon we were both spinning away from one another in a spiral of distance and mutual recrimination.

And what’s startling about this is not, perhaps, the obvious point that my story about all this shaped how I was with him. It’s that my story about him also profoundly affected how he was with me.  

We don’t just shape ourselves with the stories we tell ourselves. We shape one another, bringing each other forth even when we might think our stories and interpretations are private and personal.

Seeing this opens up enormous possibilities.

Firstly, and most immediately, that I might actively work to see what interpretation I’m bringing to people and situations, and believe my own stories less readily.

And, secondly, we might start to question the highly individualistic accounts we have about what happens in our organisations. Because if the way he is with me is shaped by my stories, how much more so is the way we all are in our work shaped not just by our own stories but by the stories of all those we are around.

In our organisations, and in our communities, we are all bringing one another into being. This renders many of our simplistic cause-and-effect accounts of performance and outcome very shaky indeed. And it ought to have us deeply question the way we give feedback, hold one another accountable, carry out performance reviews, explain success and failure, and blame others when things don’t go the way we’d hoped.

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From irritating to mattering

I’m sitting at my desk, opening the mail. It’s been a long day. It still feels to me that there’s much to do.

The phone rings. I answer. It’s Sam. He’s calling to ask my advice on something that matters to him. Actually, it’s something that really matters to me too.

A part of me, deep inside, whispers too much to do, too much to do. It has quite a grip, this part. It twists itself around the inside of my chest, squeezing and pushing. And as I acquiesce and reach for the pile of unopened mail, it loosens, but only just as much as it has to. Ah, that feels better.

For the first few minutes of the call with Sam I’m trying to speak with him while opening the mail. Keep it quiet, the squeezing part says, so that he doesn’t know what you’re doing. I open the envelopes as carefully as I can – which even then is not so quiet – and hope that he won’t notice. At least the gripping has relaxed a little so I can breathe.

The thing is, we’re talking about something that really matters to both of us but, caught up as I am in a narrative of productivity (demanded) and deficiency (mine) I’m hardly present at all.

I feel flat, a bit shaky, urgent.

And I’m not listening. Just pretending to listen.

I feel small, shallow, hollow.

And then I remember myself. I remember all the times I’ve called someone I trusted for help and advice and found, quite astonishingly, someone willing to set aside whatever else they were doing to be, fully, with me.

I put down my envelopes, and I set aside the demands of the critic-part, and I surrender myself to the conversation we’re having.

And all at once I’m in contact with Sam, and in contact with myself, and I find myself deeply touched by the conversation we’re in the midst of, which itself moves from irritating to mattering.

And I am reminded that things mattering is what makes us most human.

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An invitation…

An invitation is not an invitation unless the person invited is able to say no.

And, in addition, in the face of the no, everyone remains whole.

You remain whole.
They remain whole.
The relationship between you remains whole.

Without those conditions being met, it’s not an invitation at all. It’s a demand. A condition. A bribe. A form of coercion dressed up as a gift. And, like many forms of looking-good we can get into, it’s a way of being in control while pretending, perhaps to ourselves more than to anyone else, that it’s nothing of the sort.

[With thanks to Karen, who told me about this today]

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When up close

The image you carry around with you of each person you know is not that person.

And the image you carry around with you of yourself is not you.

So often, when you relate to others, you’re relating only to the image – a story, a narrative thread woven from glimpses, half-truths, and your own habitual way of accounting for things. You can hardly call it them. If anything, what you’re relating to is more properly part of you.

How huge the distance there is still to cross to have any real sense of the other.

And yet… this capacity to relax your certainty about other people so you can reach them and be reached is one of the great human qualities, if you’re prepared to allow for it. And if you’re ready to find out that, up close, other people are quite different from what you were sure they would be.

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Travelling Companions

Time and again, we human beings have had to find out that what we took to be most secure and most solid, was nothing of the sort.

We put down roots, build houses of bricks and mortar, make plans for ourselves. And then, perhaps, we find them swept away in a storm or flood, in a war or earthquake, in political or economic upheaval, in illness or accident, in the ever surprising turns of life.

And sometimes we realise this is how things are for long enough that we remember to turn towards the people around us, our travelling companions on this most audacious and risky of journeys, and appreciate their beauty and magnificence, their sadness and their love, and are able to just be with them for a while.

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How much to learn about love

How much I am learning, and have yet to learn about, love.

How much becomes possible when I see the joy and difficulty of my love and longing for others as well as my halting, sometimes conflicted love of myself, as an expression of a much bigger love – life’s love for itself.

And how life-giving to remember that very love’s presence in the warmth of the sun, in the grey sky, in the call of a bird, in the clamour of the street, in the soft star-shine, in the cutlery on the table and the singing kettle and the pile of dishes, in the slide of pen on page, and in embraces, and in silence, and in separation and rage and illness and disappointment and despair and grieving.

When I know love this way I am no longer afraid of isolation because I see even that as a way I am always part of everything, and everything, always, a part of me.

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Changing my mind

It’s easy to feel sure that who I am is the inner experience I have of myself. To imagine that I am my thoughts, my values, my opinions, what I believe to be true, what I care about. And, consequently, that to change who I am – to grow, or develop, or address my difficulties – I only need to change my mind.

It makes intuitive sense to think this way, firstly because of course we are each uniquely privileged observers of this particular, own-most inner aspect of ourselves that we call mind. And, secondly, we’ve been conditioned by our culture and its strong background of Cartesian dualism to treat mind as primary and everything else as as secondary.

But it doesn’t take very much looking to see how far my identity extends into the world – how ‘who I am’ is part of the world, shaped by the world at the very same time as I shape it.

I am who I am in relationship with others, for example. The kind of son, brother, husband, parent and friend I am is affected moment to moment by the people I am son, brother, husband, parent and friend to. And who they are with me is equally being shaped by their relationships with me. And in this way our identities are inextricably and continually entwined with those who we are in relationship with.

I am who I am in relationship with what I own and use, too. That I now choose to have a phone without email on it, for example, is profoundly shifting my experience of myself, the kind of attention I pay to life and other people, how preoccupied I am, my sense of what I’m supposed to do moment-to-moment, and what I feel (I’m much less anxious). Similarly, my home, what I choose to wear, the art on my walls, the food I eat, and how I travel are not just expressions of me but an extended part of my identity, continually shaping and shifting and reminding me who I can be in the world.

I am who I am in relationship to my actions and body. The me that I am when I live a life of hurrying and frantic activity is quite different to the me that takes time, that puts things down, that is attentive to movement and space. The me that I am when I ask for help is quite different from the me that tries to do everything on my own. The actions I take shift my story about myself, as well as what I notice, my capacity to respond, and how others relate to me including the stories they have about me.

And because of all of this, any time I want to learn, or grow, or change, or be more genuine, or take up my freedom, or reduce a difficulty I’m in I have to do more than just think differently or hold a different set of beliefs about the world. I have to act, in each of the domains I’ve described above.

It is this very practical step of taking new bodily action that brings about a new identity, a new relationship to life, a new relationship to others, and to the stuff around me. And I have to do it not just once, but over, and over, and over, until it becomes habit, skilful and familiar enough to fade into the background.

Then I can say I have changed.

And this is the case even though the culture I’m embedded in, as well as the voice of many coaches, advice columns, and self-help books, would tell me that if I change my mind, everything else will take care of itself.

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The non-obviousness of what’s obvious to us

When I feel ashamed, particularly by something someone else has said, my body quickly steps in to defend me. I tighten up, contract, shut down, back off, go silent, get out of the way. It protects me from the feeling of being wounded, but it makes staying in conversation and in relationship quite difficult.

Other people I know, in exactly the same circumstances, have bodies that have them rage, or puff up, or cry.  And some step in, opening, softening, allowing themselves to feel and be vulnerable, coming into closer contact and into questions and curiosity about the other person.

Knowing this reminds me that what seems so obvious and familiar in my body, because it’s been practiced for decades now, is not the only path. Seeing how other people are able to respond shows me that there many different responses to shame, many different stories about it to live. And not all of them involve freezing, or running.

And all of this is a source of hope for me, because I see that with diligence, and practice, and kindness, and some measure of courage – but mostly with practice – I, too, can find a way to stay in contact with feelings I really don’t like to feel. And, as a consequence, to be more open when I’m shaky, to be more present when I’m suffering, to maintain integrity even when I want to give in, and to be curious even when I want, most urgently, to get away.

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The parts of ourselves we see in others

There are parts of us we know well – those that are in close – and parts of ourselves we know less well – the more hidden, invisible parts. Sometimes, simply giving a part its appropriate name allows us to see it and to interact with it more skilfully. The inner critic is one such part. Seeing it, naming it, entering into a different kind of relationship and conversation with it – all of these can be powerful moves in having it take up a more helpful and life-giving place in the constellation of entities each of us calls ‘I’.

But there are also parts of each of us that we have disowned or split off and that we barely see as part of ourselves at all. These may be parts of ourselves that we dislike, or judge, or abhor. Or they can parts we long for, but do not feel are available or appropriate for us. But parts of us they are, and since we can’t bear to identify our experience of them with ourselves, we readily project them into others.

So often, when we find ourselves disliking other people, when we get irritated by them, feel judgment or scorn or disdain or even hate towards them, we’re seeing in them what we most dislike or scorn or are irritated about in ourselves. A simple way of saying this is that what we encounter in them reminds us so strongly of what we’re trying to get away from in ourselves, that we try get away from it in them too.

The very same process can also be in play with those we are drawn to, admire, or put on a pedestal. In this case perhaps we’re seeing in the other, first, a reminder of split-off parts of ourselves that we deeply long to be reunited with but do not consciously know as our own. We feel drawn to the other person, or good about ourselves around them, precisely because of the feeling of wholeness and re-unification it brings about it in us.

Perhaps it becomes obvious when described this way that the work for us to do with people who irritate us is not to try to change them (which in any case does not address the primary source of our irritation or anger or frustration) but to find out what it is about ourselves that we dislike so much and work with some effort and diligence to understand, turn towards, and accept it.

And with people we love and admire the inner work for us to do is much the same if we want to love and admire them for who they are rather than because a hole or an emptiness or a longing gets filled when we’re around them.

Then, we can find, it’s more and more possible to be around a wider range of people with openness and warmth and genuine regard. And it’s also more possible to be close and compassionate with those we love most, who are so often the very people with whom we have the most difficulty because it’s in them we find parts of ourselves most readily reflected.

 

 

The unseen chances of life

I didn’t know what to do. I was tired, and deflated, and miserable in my work. But I didn’t know how to choose anything else.

It was Davina who first showed me that it might be possible to open to something new.

I thought for a while about studying law. But my friend Jonny, who I first met on a summer camp when we were sixteen, had been grappling with his own choices and suggested I speak to his friend Jane, who worked as an organisation development consultant – a field I’d been interested in for years.

Jane told me about a personal development course that she thought would help but I couldn’t make the dates. I remember how disappointed I felt, but I asked around about alternatives and Zahavit, who I knew from another part of my life, introduced me to Cheryl, who pointed me in the direction of Sue‘s wonderful programme on the same topic.

And at Sue’s programme I met Susan, who I happened to tell me over lunch that she thought I’d really enjoy the programmes at Roffey Park. And so within a couple of months I was there, beginning a Master’s Degree in Organisation Development, and where I met Paul, who ended up in the same programme design group as me. Paul invited a colleague of his, Deborah, to speak to us, and Deborah introduced me to a book that would change so much – James Flaherty’s “Coaching: Evoking Excellence in Others“.

Two years later, I was a student on James’ programme in integral coaching, half-way across the world, hardly even really knowing how I’d ended up there. And James, seeing a possibility in me that I was only just starting to see in myself, invited me to become a leader-in-training for the extraordinary programmes that I now teach in London and which are among my greatest joys.

Had any link in the Davina-Jonny-Jane-Zahavit-Cheryl-Sue-Susan-Paul-Deborah-James chain not happened – and so many of them came from purely chance conversations – who knows what I would be doing now, and with whom?

And these are merely the chances that I know about. How many must be the other, unseen, coincidences that made what I have described here possible – the chances that brought people together, into the path of each others’ lives, so that any of what I’ve described here could come about.

This is the way life always is, even though so much of it is invisible to us.

It occurs to me on remembering this how illusory is any idea that I’m really in control of what happens in my life. And I’m humbled, and grateful, that life so often seems to have a way of bringing what needs to be brought, even when I can’t see it, fail to appreciate it, or fight it away.

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Holding on, letting go

How long do you hold on to the hurt you feel when criticised, or judged, or when you don’t feel seen?

I know that I, first and most habitually, can interpret slights and hurts as a sign of the unravelling of a relationship, the beginning of the end. And so perhaps it’s little wonder that I have over time developed the kind of body and mind that easily holds onto them, feeling ‘the end’ again and again when I meet the people (usually those I love most) around whom I got hurt in the first place.

It was a revelation to discover that the world simply isn’t this way for everyone else. That there are people, close in, who care for me deeply and who have moved on within hours – and quite often within minutes – from the original intensity of encounter. For them, fierceness is just fierceness, disappointment just disappointment, anger just anger, gone when it’s gone and certainly not the end.

And so I’m learning, gradually, to pay better attention to what’s actually happening now and over time in a relationship rather than taking as true the story that my body and emotions – conditioned by years of practice and habit – hold on to.

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No email in my pocket

Our tools shape us. I’ve argued this here before, most notably earlier this week.

And so, inspired by a blog post from Danielle Marchant, I have disabled email and facebook on my phone. It has been a revelation.

No longer do I carry in my pocket a device that calls to me in the way that it did. A smart-phone, I have found, beckons to me even when it is doing nothing. It lays out a pathway, a scaffold, for checking and rechecking, for wondering if anyone has tried to contact or me or if anyone needs me, and for addressing my longing – and my wish to help – in a very superficial way. I find myself drawn towards it, but left hollow and wanting from my interaction, and then checking again in the hope that the emptiness will be filled. A feeling of emptiness, itself, I see, that is brought about by the very pattern by which I try to assuage it.

As I let go of the neediness that my phone both invites and promises to resolve, I see why we have been hooked so absolutely by our amazing and life-altering devices. I do not wish to abandon technology that can serve to connect us in ways we could never have imagined. But I do wish to give up on the world that gets brought about by my being always-on, always-available, distant from myself and so often distracted.

I am checking my email only when with my laptop – a purposeful act, chosen consciously and deliberately around my other commitments, rather than a habitual, reactive interruption to them.

So, please, if you know me personally and need me urgently, a call or a text are the way to go.

And as a result of all this I find myself more present, more fully engaged in the simple contactfulness of conversation with others, more alive to the places I’m in and to what’s going on around me. I am less split, less distracted. My horizons have shifted, subtly, meaningfully, by spending less time looking down at a sliver of screen in front of me and more time looking up and out at the world and at other people.

And, in the way that such subtle but important shifts of perspective can bring about, the world feels bigger too.

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