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Tag: existential coaching

Executive pornography

Did that catch your attention?  I thought it would.

Executive pornography is not my phrase.  Shocker of all shockers, it is a Canadian phrase and a Canadian metal industry phrase at that.

As I reviewed my first day at Xoozya, I pondered the difficulty we have with a blank canvas.  When we can live a life we choose with no constraint, its quite disorienting.

Yes, without being told to start, I don’t have a ready idea where to start.  So I hit the internet and media – what else?

David Whyte

First, I listened to David Whyte‘s Midlife and the Great Unknown.  He didn’t disppoint.  He describes a time when he was working for a non-profit and ‘burnt out’ rather spectacularly, as we do.  Fortunately for him, he had a working partnership with fellow scholar, Brother David, who encouraged him to step-up into the role of a full-time poet.

David Whyte discusses this incidence with snippets of poetry and as ever one from the poet, Rainer Rilke.  Rilke talks about the importance of reaping the harvest of summer.  When it is time to reap, we must reap or not have the harvest to see us through the winter.

While this seems obvious, in reality, we are often unwilling to harvest the fruits of summer.  Sometimes we are unwilling to grasp with two hands what we want so badly, even though it is all around us.

We are even unwilling to give up burdensome occupations.  Do you remember dilly-dallying over finishing your thesis?  We often think we are procrastinating out of anxiety or fatigue, but after many years supervising students, I’ve come to believe the real reason delay writing up is that we are don’t know what our lives would be like without the thesis.  When the thesis is done, what will we do?  We are deeply scared by the unknowability of the future.

So, tick from David Whyte.  Yes, we find it hard to write our own job description.  But this fear is just a class of a common dilemma.  We catch ourselves betwixt-and-between.  Desperate for a new life, we focus on all the things that will not happen so that we don’t take the small steps well within our ability, hereby trapping ourselves in a past whose use-by-date has come and gone.

Wicked Questions

Then I googled Wicked Questions to get me to the Plexus Institute which is full of case studies, theory and technique for using complexity theory in consulting.

Within seconds, I was looking at the work of Ralph Stacey of the University of Hertfordshire.  He is well ahead of the curve on new organizations and from a quick scan I was remined of two heurisitcs.  The first is not to live in the future.  He talks about having plans that respond to the here-and-now. David Whyte makes the same point.  We often frame a plan so that activity will begin after something else has happened – fueling procrastination or living contingently, as Whyte calls it.  Otto Scharmer makes a similar point about ideas that emerging from current conditions.  Strategy needs to come from what is happening now and what is emerging from current conditions.

Another phrase also caught my eye: Strength grows from contact with the environment, not from existing strengths.

The key is to look at my interactions with people and interactions between other people to develop a sense of what is possible and where we are going.  I think my heuristic is to think of five genuinely curious and exploratory questions about  Xoozya and take those to work in the morning.

As I focused on this idea I read on.

Executive pornography

The Plexus Institute has many case studies on its site.  One is of a Canadian firm, Federal metals, who regarded typical ‘strategy-speak’ as obscene – as executive pornorgraphy.  They object to the language of setting goals, communicating intent, maneovuring the organization and if they heard the term today, in all probability, employee engagement.

The important heuristic I gleaned at this stop is that strategy is concerned with making sense of the past.  Strategy is doing what I am doing now. It is reflecting on the normal stressors of the first day at work in a new place.

So I have three tasks:

  1. Master the communication system
  2. Consider why I am at Xoozya in terms of my broader life’s purpose
  3. List the skills I find essential and the skills I must develop as I look ahead.

My emotional state is considerable panic induced by the breadth and depth of freedom I have to pursue goals I believe are important.

Bringing these ideas together

So how did I get to a place that is quite so nervewracking?

  • Well, I want to work in a place that respects emergence. Of course, as Ralph Stacey says, not everything is emergent. Some tasks are programmatic and simple. I want my computer to fire up when I switch it on, of course.
  • I bring to the situation a familiarity with management literature and to that I returned for structure. What an insight! I wonder what other people use for structure?
  • In my case I dipped into the corporate poetry of David Whyte and was reminded of the anxiety we feel when we are about to step into a life that is very important to us. I looked at the theory and was reminded of the work of Ralph Stacey of the University of Hertfordshire – which is just down the road from me. From this, I invented a good heuristic. What are five genuinely curious and exploratory questions I can ask about my interaction with the environment – probably within Xoozya or as a representative of Xoozya?

Strength grows from contact with the environment.  What the five questions you would ask about your contact with the enviroment?

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putting Humpty back together again – the psychologist’s challenge

“All the king’s horses and all the king’s men, couldn’t put Humpty together again”.

So goes the nursery rhyme, and for most psychologists, any understanding of a person in his or own terms.

We are trained, for our sins, to be analytical.  I trained other people to be analytical.   And I would still defend our training.  But after we have finished being trained, we have to learn to put Humpty together again.  How does all the information we have collected about someone, amount to a person with a hopes and dreams, with a history and with a future,  and with fears and determination.

Two key ideas for  understanding people

The first is the idea of a sense of self, that, through whatever means, begins to take shape quite early.

“Hold to your own truth, at the center of the image, you were born with”.   (David Whyte, p. 349, River Flow).

Well, maybe you weren’t born with it, but you probably started exploring images of who you are, quite early in your life.  And the question is, what images can you remember that you were drawn to?

I will give you an example.  At about 10 years old, I saw an American movie about a basketball team who put some magic bouncy stuff on their shoes.  I had never seen a basketball game in real life, we played netball, but I was fascinated.  Five years later (a long time when you are a kid), our school announced that we were going to drop netball and play basketball.  I immediately, and I mean immediately, within thirty seconds, asked my mother if I could play in the team (with all the expense that implied).  She happily agreed, as I was well known for not being able to catch a ball, and hey presto, I was captain of the Under 15’s within weeks.  How I loved that game and it took me from clutz to school hero.

We all have creative images, though some we aren’t going to blog about, and it is worthwhile thinking about them, because however bizarre they are, they are important to us.

The second key idea, which David Whyte makes again and again, but rather obliquely, is that these images are essentially social.  They talk to our relationship with the world and the relationship we want with the world.

Now I am not much of an exhibitionist, and I was rather shy as a youngster, but I think I was drawn to two things in the basketball movie: the shared excitement of the crowd and the nippiness of the game.  And those are the roles I played.   The fast break specialist and the ‘man-to-man’ marker.  These are results-oriented ‘closing roles’, bringing home the bacon so to speak, and roles which the crowds understand and set them alight. For someone lousy at sport, this was gratifying.  It was something I could do in a sports-mad school that helped me learn about how crowds become excited and why we enjoy it so much.

We weave our story from a young age.  We see movies quite by chance, and are taken by some and not by others.  Opportunities arise, and we respond to some and not to others.  And we move on, giving up pursuits of our childhood and adopting others.   It is always our story though, woven partly from chance encounters and partly through choice.  We learn as we go, working out what’s next, from the story we are telling to the world and ourselves.

Understanding this story, delighting in this story, cherishing this story, is the privilege of the existential coach.

We are happier as workmates and colleagues when our story is heard and when our current circumstances are woven in to what went before and what will come soon after.  There is no right or wrong.  Simply the unself-conscious bringing of who we have been, to whom we are with, and the celebration of the richness of our imagination in the past, with the shy pleasure of the growing imaginative awareness of a gentle birth into the future.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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