Tag Archives: Neuro-Linguistic Programming

When asking for feedback fills you with fear

There’s no failure, only feedback

Recently, I found myself talking with a friend about my life as a singer.  Specifically, I was remembering a performance of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast in which I had made a very lusty entry – in the wrong place.

In my early days as a member of the London Symphony Chorus, I would never have made such a mistake.  The fear of making a mistake made me hold back;  my singing was (largely) correct but it lacked gusto.  With time, I have learnt that a mistake is just a mistake so that when I came in (with the men, as I recall) in the wrong place in Belshazzar’s Feast I found myself celebrating it as a sign of a growing sense of ease and self acceptance.

In my work with clients, I am constantly reminded of how vulnerable people can feel in receiving feedback.  At times, charged with giving feedback to people I have assessed for jobs, I meet strong resistance and defensiveness.  One client told me a while back that he thought I’d taken a dislike to him before the interview had even begun.  Another recently asked for chapter and verse of how I’d reached my conclusions.  Coaching clients are no different.  Recently, I invited a client to seek out feedback from three people she trusts about her core strengths.  Even though she was charged with asking for positive feedback, she found herself paralysed by the fear of what people might say.

Maybe you have your own experience of wanting to know how people see you and yet, finding it challenging to ask.  Perhaps you worry that your work falls short of the mark.  You want to know how your work is seen and still, you are afraid to ask.  You want to be seen – and seen fully – and yet you fear that you may be seen as “less than”.  Perhaps “less than” relates to your job or promotion prospects;  you fear you are not performing or lack what you need to make your next career steps.  Perhaps “less than” relates – oh, so personally! – to who you are;  you fear that in some way you are fatally flawed.  You are not alone in having such fears.

Let’s be clear, these are the kind of fears that hold you back.  This is true at any number of levels.  One client, for example, was investing a great deal of energy in guessing where his colleagues might be coming from and seeking to put himself beyond reproach, until he started to test his assumptions and realised that his fears were unwarranted.  Another client kept missing out on a promotion that was easily within her reach because she was not open to hearing feedback and adjusting her approach in one key area.

It can help to realise that your behaviour is not who you are.  We are all so much more than the sum of our behaviours.  Yes, our behaviours reflect who we are – our values and intentions, our feelings and needs.  Still, there are many ways in which they don’t reflect our essential self.  Perhaps, for example, you simply lack skill in a certain area.  Perhaps you have followed a poor example or even been taught to behave in a certain way and are doing so unconsciously.

Once you start to strip away old and unhelpful beliefs or to develop new skills your behaviour comes closer to reflecting who you are and may even leave you with an enriched sense of yourself.  Once you start to understand that you are not your behaviour, asking for feedback becomes easier.  In the discipline of neuro-linguistic programming (or NLP) this is reflected in a presupposition:  there’s no failure, only feedback.

Let me return to my client – the one I asked to seek out feedback about her core strengths.  If you’re anything like her, you may be wondering what steps you can take before asking for feedback to build your sense of ease.  Here’s just one thing you can do to begin to understand what stands in the way (which I learnt from Roger Schwarz, author of The Skilled Facilitator):

Step 1:  Identify a recent conversation in which you could have asked for feedback (and may even have wanted to) but didn’t.

Step 2:  Take some paper or open a document and create two columns.  In the right hand column, capture as much as you can of the actual conversation – what you said and what the other person said.

Step 3:  Write down any additional thoughts and feelings you had during the conversation in the left hand column alongside details of the actual conversation.

Capturing your thoughts in this way offers the opportunity to reflect on what beliefs and emotions you have about receiving feedback and opens up awareness and new possibilities.

Lost your temper with your staff? A second way to turn anger into gold

On Monday I shared one of my favourite ways to transform anger as part of a series of postings in recent weeks.  Today I offer a second way.  The first (see Lost your temper with your staff?  Turning anger into gold) was from Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication and relies heavily on conscious intention.  This second is from the school of Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) and relies on the brain’s ability to process information in a variety of different ways.  The process is called the “meta-mirror” and I’ve written about it a couple of times before (see As a meta of fact and Thinking of all the mirrors in my bedroom).

The meta-mirror is a process I find invaluable when I am angry with someone or telling myself that I am “right” and they are “wrong”.  It’s also a process that I often teach leaders on programmes to develop their coaching skills, because it hones our ability to see things from multiple points of view – an important skill in coaching as well as when dealing with our own emotions.  Today is is the first time I’ve attempted to describe the process of the meta-mirror in detail and I do so with some hesitation:  whilst it’s easy to use with the right training, you may want to seek out a skilled NLP Practitioner to support you in translating the description below into practice.

As a first step, think of someone or something you feel angry about.  Find a place where you have room to move around and stand on the first corner of an imaginary rectangle, facing the second corner.  You are now in “first position”.  Imagine the person you feel angry about is in front of you and say what you think – no holds barred!  In first position you are not practising what you might say in future – you are saying whatever comes to mind now.  Keep going until you feel complete.  (As long as you want to say “And another thing…”, just say it).

When you have finished, step out of first position and shake off (yes, really!  take a moment to shake your arms and body) everything that you have just experienced.  This is an important precursor to stepping into the second corner of your imaginary rectangle, facing the spot you were standing in when you were in first position.  You are now in “second position”.  Imagine yourself in the shoes of the person you were talking to in first position, receiving everything you have just said.  Notice what comes up for you – you may be surprised!  This is not about any conscious processing.  Rather, it’s about noticing what thoughts and feelings emerge.

When you have done this, repeat the process of stepping out of this position and shaking off everything you have just experienced.  Then step round the triangle to the third corner.  You are now in “third position”.  From this position, look back at first position and ask yourself “how does this me here see that me there?”  You will experience one of two things.  You may notice that the same anger you felt before is still with you – in this case step back into first position and express everything that is alive in you.  Equally, from this third position, you may be able to see yourself in a new way or have new insights about the situation that stimulated your anger in the first place.  At this point, you’re ready to move on.

Once again, shake off everything you’ve experienced in third position and move to the fourth and final corner of the rectangle.  From here you can see yourself in first position and in third position.  Ask yourself “Which me would I like to be in this situation?”  It’s likely that you will choose the you that emerged in third position – take a moment to “swap” yous – it helps to point to them both and to use your hands to swap them over.  Once again, shake off everything that you have experienced before moving on.

Step back into first position and begin the process again.  Having swapped your first you with your third, it’s likely that you will have different feelings about the person or situation and different things to say.  Say them – keep talking until you are done.  Shake everything off before moving on.  As you did at the beginning of the exercise, step into second position and receive everything you said in first position.  Notice what comes up.  The experience should be quite different this time round – a different response to different thoughts and feelings.  When you’re done, shake your experience off and step back into first position to receive the response of the other person.

If your work is done, you will be feeling peaceful and resourceful.  However, at any moment in this process, you may notice that you’re not done yet – that’s OK.  When you spot this, it’s a signal that you need to go back to first position and express yourself fully before continuing the process outlined above.  Especially when you first start to use this process, it helps to have the support of a skilled and certified NLP Practitioner to guide you.

You may be wondering if this process is an invitation to ignore the failings of others and the answer is no – in your role as a leader, however, you do need to bring your most resourceful self to the party when holding others to account.

And is that it?  Well, in terms of the meta-mirror, yes, it is.  If you’ve lost your temper with your staff, though, there is probably one more step to take.  This will be the subject of my next posting.

When you’re the boss – becoming the grown-up in your team

As I sit, I’m keeping one eye on the clock – I’ll be dashing out of the door in 40 minutes or so to sing Carmina Burana at the Barbican concert hall in London this evening.

I have fond memories of this piece from my early days with the London Symphony Chorus.  Back then it was a staple in our schedule – Richard Hickox used to start the year with this crowd puller, which has been used by any number of advertisers over the years for its great tunes.  Popularity didn’t stand in the way of high standards – Richard was famous for rehearsing relentlessly.  I remember rehearsing the semi chorus sections until the pianissimi were unfeasibly quiet as well as tutti rehearsals that ran to the last minute of our allocated rehearsal time – if not a little longer.  In those days, Richard would also give us a final ‘pep talk’ before the concert to remind us of the spirit of the piece and encourage us to sing well.  We were told this was a great piece, and we believed it.  We were prepared to make it a great performance, and we did.

Now, given that I joined the chorus in 1986 (or was it 1987?) you could certainly accuse me of a touch of nostalgia.  Those were the days.  But something else is also on my mind.  Recently, I was struck when a client of mine told me how disconcerting it had been for her to discover just how much weight members of her team placed on all sorts of comments she made.  The implication for her was this:  she was setting the tone for her team without even realising it.  If she expressed frustration about her boss’s latest initiative within earshot of her team she was sending the signal that it wasn’t something to be taken seriously.  If she responded to a mistake by one of her team members before she processed her initial emotions – well, the rebuke she made might cut deep for her team member and the effect would stay long after she’d dealt with the issues arising and got over her initial concerns.  It came as a shock to her to realise the impact of her comments.

My client was discovering the symbolic importance of her role as a leader.  The fact that she held this role, rather than anything about her in particular, meant that people looked to her for – well, a lead.  Effectively, she had become for her team members a kind of ‘parent at work’.  Her team members were projecting onto her all kind of expectations of what such a ‘parent’ should be.  One of their expectations was that she would know best so they took her views seriously.  (And in case you find this idea rather fanciful or my client’s experience an exception, you might like to dive into the research which shows that a leader has a significant impact on the climate in a team and that this, in turn, affects performance.  Try Goleman’s The New Leaders for an easily accessible read or Litwin and Stringer’s Motivation and Organizational Climate to dive deeper into the statistics).

What implications does all this have for my client?  Already she had become conscious of the impact of her comments.  She knew she had to choose her comments more carefully.  This is what is called ‘framing’ in the field of NLP (or neuro-linguistic programming) and it does exactly what it says on the tin – it’s about the frame you put around something you talk about.  The boss’s new initiative?  Well, it could be ‘just one more mad idea from the boss to keep us from our day jobs’ or it could be ‘a way to accelerate our progress towards our sales target’.  And if you can’t see the benefit of an initiative from the boss – well, you might want to thrash that out with your boss before you start talking to your team or at least to process your emotions.  In a sense, it’s this processing that makes you the ‘parent’ or the ‘grown-up’ in the team.

And Carmina Burana?  ‘That tired old piece’ or ‘a piece that continues to stimulate the senses and capture the imagination’.  In case you’d like to decide for yourself, click here to listen to an extract.  Meantime, I’m off to sing.    

Great expectations

Yesterday I wrote about beliefs in a posting about Milton Rokeach’s wonderful, touching and thought-provoking book The Three Christs of Ypsilanti.  This book raises an issue which is present in all our lives – the seemingly intractable nature of some of beliefs.  I am thinking especially of those beliefs formed in childhood which continue to have a strong emotional resonance and often to hold us back, even when our thinking brain knows they are irrational and has every proof that it’s time to let them go.  Thinkers in the field of neurolinguistic programming (or NLP) have coined the term “limiting beliefs” to describe such beliefs and offer techniques for changing or out-framing them.  These are the beliefs that, quite simply, hold us back.

Recently, the issue of limiting beliefs turned up for a client in one of our coaching sessions.  Positioned in a new and senior job she reported significant progress across a number of areas.  Everything was on track.  Why then, I wondered, did she not seem more happy and optimistic?  When I explored this with her up came a stonking great limiting belief: roughly, if I celebrate my successes and expect too much (hence “great expectations”) it will all go wrong.  As part of our discussion, she recognised that if only she could celebrate her successes more she would feel less anxiety about the future and be more relaxed.  Still, knowing this was not enough to allow her simply to let go of her old belief.  (It rarely is).

There are all sorts of ways to respond to a limiting belief.  One way, for example, is to act as if it isn’t true – in the words of Susan Jeffers to feel the fear and do it anyway.  Using this approach implies, in this case, taking small steps to notice and celebrate each success as it comes.  The benefit of this approach is that, over time, we have real experiences that demonstrate our old belief is not true.  This is about beginning to walk new neural pathways.  Another way is to demonise the part of us that holds the belief, calling it our “gremlin” for example, subjecting it to ridicule and, in this way (or so the theory goes) laughing our limiting belief right out of town.  Perhaps you can guess that I’m not a great fan of this approach, both because I prefer a more compassionate approach and because I’ve seen how often the limiting belief, banished in this way, continues to exercise a powerful force in the lives of the very person who has dismissed it as rubbish.

At the same time, part of making changes is to recognise that you don’t have to have all the steps to your end goal mapped out in advance.  Sometimes it’s enough to know that you don’t want your life to be circumscribed by the power of a limiting belief and to ask yourself, if this is my end goal, what might be my next step?  This question draws on the wisdom of the person who is going to make the change.  For me, a useful first step when it comes to limiting beliefs is simply to get curious – not with the aim of changing or suppressing your limiting belief, but simply to understand the territory you’re in.  To this end, I offer some questions to ponder next time you find yourself bumping up against your own limiting beliefs:

  • What is the belief you’re holding?
  • What is the impact in your life of holding this belief?
  • What more might be possible if you didn’t hold this belief?
  • What part of you is holding this belief?
  • What does it want for you?
  • What relationship do you have with the part of you that’s holding the belief?
  • What relationship do you have with the belief itself?
  • Was there ever a time in your life when you remember not holding this belief?  When?
  • Does anyone else in your life (especially but not only family) hold this belief?
  • What is it you’re really wanting in relation to this belief?
  • What else do you know about this belief?
  • What more does this belief want to tell you?
If you’re willing to share, please use the comments section to tell us about your limiting beliefs – from your experiences of successfully moving beyond the limitations of an old belief to your experiences as you play (yes, play) with the questions above.


From the school of NLP: the “problem” and the “outcome” frame

If you listen to Radio 4 in the morning, one of the questions you will commonly hear is “Who’s to blame?”  I confess, my heart sinks when I hear this question.  I have such a yearning for a life without blame.

It’s possible that this question is common in your life, too.  If you have children it may be a daily discussion.  Perhaps you take the view that when a fight break’s out there’s someone to blame.  Perhaps your children want to prove themselves blameless by blaming each other.  In business, too, the same question is often lurking in the environs of a problem or issue.  In many organisations, the idea that some is to blame is woven into the very fabric – the culture – of the organisation.

The way we view a problem or issue has a significant effect on the way we experience it.  We experience the difference:  in the way we view things, in the way we feel (our emotions, our bodily responses), in the stories we tell ourselves.  Neurolinguistic programming (NLP) has captured this difference in the problem and the outcome frame.  As you read this posting, you can test this difference by taking a problem or issue, applying the questions below and noticing your responses.

What sort of questions do we ask when we are thinking of an issue as a problem?

  • What’s the problem?
  • Why is it such a problem?
  • What are the implications of not solving it?
  • Why haven’t you solved it yet?
  • Who’s to blame for the problem?
  • Why are they to blame?
Before you move on, just take a moment to notice the effect on you of viewing an issue through the lens of these questions.
What sort of questions do we ask when we are thinking of an issue in terms of our desired outcomes?
  • What do you want?
  • How will you know when you’ve got what you want?
  • What will be the best thing about getting what you want?
  • What other benefits will it bring?
  • What resources do you already have to help you achieve your desired outcome(s)?
  • What is your next step?

Again, I invite you to take a moment to notice the effect on you of viewing an issue through the lens of these questions.  I also invite you to notice, which set of questions (or style of questioning) is more familiar to you?  This will vary from person to person.

This is not to suggest that you abandon either set of questions entirely.  If you’re working with someone who has a strong problem focus, for example, exploring the problem with them helps to build rapport.  Only when they know you’re hearing them will they be willing to look at the problem or issue through another lens – the outcome frame.  Equally, if you are seeking to encourage change amongst people who want things to stay as they are, it may (just may) help to explore the problems associated with not changing before you even attempt to explain the benefits of change.  For me, what’s key here is the awareness that you do have an option.  You can look through either lens at any moment in time.  Building an awareness that you have an option opens up new possibilities.
I wonder, how do you experience the difference when you use a problem or an outcome frame?

Sometimes it’s all in the framing

One of the achievements of neurolinguistic programming (or NLP) has been to identify the impact on our experience of the way we frame things.  I am reminded of this by a conversation with a client who is grappling with a particular issue*.

At the outset of our conversation the camera is up real close.  The focus is on the response of a particular group of staff who are just not producing the goods.  It doesn’t feel good to be the person who is battling away to get things done and constantly faced with the question of “what can I do differently?” when staff in a matrixed organisation seem always to be too busy, to lazy, or too inept…  The word “impasse” springs to mind.  I notice that it seems quite lonely, too:  being the person – the only person – who has a role to play in making things better.

Take the camera back a little and different parts of the picture begin to emerge.  The organisation has decided to drive higher levels of performance out of this particular group of staff.  This implies raising their skill levels so that they can do work which is currently beyond their capability.  It also implies increasing levels of efficiency (getting the same people to do more work per day or week).  Is it possible?  I don’t know.  Is it the sole responsibility of my client?  Well, actually, more people come into view when we view the issue from a distance.   My client’s boss.  The line managers of the individuals concerned…  Something else comes into view – or perhaps into focus.  It’s the question, “what’s possible?”  It’s not that the goal is impossible, it’s more about the “hows” and the “whens”.  It’s the question of “is the current plan a good one – or does something need to be changed?  And how might my client find out?”

In other words, when we take a few steps back we expand the scope of our vision so that we can see more and, by seeing more, we have greater insight into a problem or issue.  Sometimes, it’s all in the framing.

Back to NLP.  One of the classic ways of framing a problem or issue is by using a problem or an outcome frame.  Look out for a posting on this on Friday.  Meantime, I invite you to take an issue that’s current for you and to step back a few paces to see what you can see from a distance that you can’t see up close.  Are you willing to share?

*I’ve taken care to keep my description vague so as not to share any information which is confidential or can identify my client.

Picture this: on the way to a career that thrills

Hurrah!  Finally, I have got around to having professional photos done for all the places my image appears nowadays – my website, blog, LinkedIn, Twitter – the list seems endless!  I shall be taking time to change my photos in the days and weeks to come, beginning right here on my blog.

I was fascinated by the story Tim Spiers told me about his career history.  Tim was my photographer, thanks to a tip from my friend and colleague in the profession, Anne Smith, who recommended him and with whom I shared a day at Tim’s studio in North London.  From a very young age – just 9 or 10 years old – Tim started cutting people’s hair.  This was something he put aside when he embarked on a course at Eastbourne College of Art and Design in Visual Communications, including photography, where his aim was to prepare himself for a life of doing fashion shoots.

Not everyone supported Tim’s aspirations – as is often the way – so, influenced by the doubts of others, he left his course early.  His father arranged an interview for him, telling him about a guy called Vidal Sassoon.  Tim quickly came to London to work with San Rizz, where he learnt to do people’s hair for photo shoots and also pop videos.  Later he moved into salon management.

Along the way, Tim was also interested in the work of make-up artists so, when he was invited to do a modelling project as part of his studies in NLP, he decided to find out how his colleagues did make up – spending time with the make-up artists he had worked with on modelling shoots and his colleagues in the salons he worked for and studying their approach.  At the same time, his NLP studies helped Tim to clarify his values and revisit some old beliefs, leading to a major shift in his sense of his own capability.  This was, essentially, an experience that empowered him.

When photography went digital, Tim did a photo shoot himself and had one of those “aha!” moments:  “what if I put all these skills together to offer hair, make-up and photography as a service?”  He set up his own business which has been growing at a significant rate.  If you take a look at Tim’s website you’ll see how he caters for a wide variety of clients.  If you’re looking for a good photographer, I can recommend Tim.  It wasn’t just the hair and make-up:  my sense of ease grew over the course of our time together and I was thrilled to come away with a number of options for my signature photo.

I tell Tim’s story (with his permission) for another reason:  it says so much about the journey towards a career that is fulfilling.  The seeds of such a career lie in the things we most love to do – acorns are at their best when they become oaks.  Along the way, we take steps away from as well as towards our most natural career path – often because we are influenced by fear and the doubts of others.  With hindsight, the path looks so clear and obvious and yet, along the way, it can be so messy.  Both the highs and the lows contribute to our ultimate success.  Moving towards our ultimate career takes courage and a willingness to take risks.

That’s enough for now.  As I sign off I leave you with just two photos from my day with Tim.  Please tell me what you think.

Real conversations: creating ground rules for effective communication

Recently, I wrote a posting for Discuss HR on communication, identifying a number of elements which, together, comprise our approach to communication.  In this posting I expand on what I wrote for Discuss HR, writing about some of the areas in which we can set ground rules for communication.

The more you can translate your aspirations into ground rules for effective communication, the more you can implement an approach in line with your chosen paradigm. A number of disciplines and approaches have chosen to do this and some of them have in common areas in which they set ground rules.

One of these areas, for example, is building and maintaining connection – rapport.  Ian McDermott, author and co-author of many books on NLP, including Way of NLP, sees rapport as one of the four pillars of success.  For him, rapport (with ourselves, with others) is not just about communication, it’s also about our success in the broadest sense.  Marshall Rosenberg, in the field of nonviolent communication (NVC) emphasises maintaining connection as a priority in communication.  Rosenberg’s invitation to connect first and only then to correct, reminds us that it’s hard for others to hear what we have to say if they do not, first, feel a sense of connection with us.  By adopting this as a rule, you remind yourself (and others) that communication is about building and maintaining relationships first. Any other outcomes depend on your relationship with others in the moment.

Another rule which is reflected in a number of different approaches to communication is, in the words of Roger Schwarz (author of The Skilled Facilitator Approach) to focus on interests, not positions.  Marshall Rosenberg puts the same point another way, inviting people to see beyond the immediate message to the needs that underpin the message.  This rule is at the core of approaches to negotiation and mediation.  It also has value in our every day communication – with ourselves, as well as with each other.

It seems to me that any additional rules are in support of these two rules and that these two rules imply a particular paradigm – one in which the emphasis is on a “win, win” approach to communication.  This is an approach in which everyone’s needs matter and power is shared – a “power with” rather than a “power over” paradigm of communication.  The rules for communication may be ones we adopt ourselves, no matter what the approach of others.  Perhaps they are rules we jointly agree to observe in a particular relationship or context.  Either way, they are designed to make it more likely that our communication will be effective.

Roger Schwarz, in his Skilled Facilitator Approach, offers a number of rules which pre-empt some of the most common communication problems. He invites people to test their assumptions and inferences, for example, and also to explain their reasoning and intent. Looking back on my own communication with John, whom I mentioned in my first posting in this series, I can see that I could have done more to make my own intentions crystal clear and that this, in turn, might have made a misunderstanding less likely.

Marshall Rosenberg, in his book Nonviolent Communication:  A Language for Life, distills a needs-based approach into four simple steps.  He invites us to replace the language of judging with clear observations (step one).  Acording to this rule, for example, we might replace a conclusion (“you’re always late at your desk in the morning”) with a precisely observed statement (“I have seen you arrive after 9am, which is your official start time, two or three times each week for the last six weeks or more.  As a result, I’m starting to think of you as someone who is always late for work”).  His is also a heart-based approach, so that he invites us to share our feelings (step two) as well as our needs (step three) or to seek to connect with the feelings and needs of others.  Only then do we make a clear and specific request (step four) such as “Would you be willing to tell me what you are hearing so that I can know how clearly I’ve expressed myself?”

I sometimes wonder if our investment in improving our communications skills – our personal skills or those of a whole organisation – are predicated on the idea that improved skills make for greater ease in the communications process.  I would add that, for me, this is one area when the opposite is also true.  Effective approaches to communication can make it easier, for example, to discuss the undiscussable.  They can make it clearer where the source of a misunderstanding lies.  At the same time, communication depends on the willing participation of everyone involved and is limited by our own – and others’ – current level of skill.

Take John, for example, whom I wrote about in my first blog of this series.  As I write, I experience both needs met and needs unmet in relation to our correspondence.  John has chosen to withdraw from the group of which we were both members as a way to improve his management of his time. He’s also chosen not to have any of the discussions which might help to rebuild our sense of connection. And me? I am ready – pleased – to support John in doing what’s right for him and in this way to meet my need for contribution.  I have also invited him to join me in the kind of dialogue that repairs relationships – a request to which he has so far not responded.  I feel sad that when I think that a number of needs – for connection, for example, and for respect and consideration – are not currently being met.  At the same time, I’m trusting he’ll do that …when he’s ready.

Real conversations – choosing beliefs that support your communication paradigm

Recently, I wrote an article about communication for Discuss HR.  In it, I identified a number of aspects of communication.  In this article, I identify some of the beliefs that underpin – and facilitate or impede – effective communication.

In his book, The Human Side of Enterprise, McGregor identifies two distinct theories held by leaders (“Theory X” and “Theory Y”) which in turn are manifest in two different styles of communication.  McGregor’s classic theory highlights how the communication styles of leaders rest on the different beliefs and assumptions that underpin the two different approaches to communication. By paying attention to our beliefs we can check out whether or not they support our chosen approach to communication.

One discipline which has done this very successfully is neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). Borrowing from Alfred Korzybski’s book Manhood of Humanity:  The Science and Art of Human Engineering, for example, practitioners of NLP are taught that “the map is not the territory”. Holding this belief reminds us to differentiate between the facts and our view of the facts and opens up many possibilities.  It is easier, for example, to maintain a sense of connection with someone whose views differ from our own when we are clear in our own minds that the map is not the territory.  This is true even when our partner in conversation appears to be confusing his or her own map with the territory itself.

NLP also offers the belief that “every behaviour has a positive intention”.  Holding this belief invites us to look behind some of the behaviours we find most difficult in others in order to identify and respond to the positive intentions that underpin them.  This belief is also shared with nonviolent communication (NVC) which suggests that every behaviour is designed to meet a need, even whilst recognising that some behaviours are poorly designed to meet that need.  When we combine this belief with a core value of compassion we are equipped both to be present to a behaviour (in ourself, in others) which we do not enjoy and to be curious – what is the need or intention that underpins this behaviour?  If we can see past an ineffective or unpleasant behavioural strategy to the need it is designed to meet, we open up opportunities to identify alternative and more effective strategies.

These are just two examples of beliefs designed to open up possibilities to meet our needs more effectively whilst also supporting others in finding ways to meet their own needs.  It is worth saying that our beliefs are, often, unexamined, sitting outside our conscious awareness.  For this reason it may not be enough to say “I want to adopt this style of communication” since we may not be aware of unconscious beliefs that inform our behaviour and undermine our chosen communication approach.  My mother, for example, still laughs when she recalls a neighbour who – many years ago – used to say to her son “speak proper, or I’ll pie ya!”  By my mother’s standards, the form that this message took was incongruent with its intention.  And of course, it’s fair to assume that any one of us will, at a particular point in time, hold unconscious beliefs that are incongruent with our chosen approach to communication.

I wonder, what beliefs do you hold that inform the way you communicate with others?  Please take time to notice them and – if you’re willing – share them here.

Taken together, the areas I have identified over a number of postings can be translated into ground rules which support communication in line with your chosen paradigm.  I’ll be sharing some examples of ground rules in my next posting.

A tragic expression of an unmet need

We’ve all met them.  The person whose behaviour in our monthly business update meeting is so bizarre that all the post-meeting talk is about them (“what was THAT about?”) rather than about the business.  The person everybody has labelled as “difficult” and whose office nobody visits – unless they HAVE to.  The person who seems so calm and on top of things one minute so that we are surprised when, suddenly, they respond to something we say in an entirely different tone.

Daniel Goleman, in his book Working With Emotional Intelligence, draws on the field of neuroscience to identify the “amygdala hijack”, the moment when something in our external environment stimulates emotion in us which is disproportionate to the event itself.  Sometimes we observe it in someone we know and are taken by surprise.  Sometimes it is the regularity with which we observe it in someone that prompts us to call them “difficult”.

What can be more challenging is to own that we, too, are stimulated in this way.  It is challenging because, as an observer of others, it is so clear that their response in a given moment is not rational – so clear that we judge.  And when we, too, fall prey to this ancient cocktail of stimulus and response, what then?  Are we to judge ourselves as harshly as we judge others?  No wonder we prefer to look away as if we are not witness, too, to our own behaviour.

I am reminded of this today when my work with a coaching client prompts me to offer an alternative perspective.  Marshall Rosenberg, author of Nonviolent Communication:  A Language for Life, describes such moments (and more besides) as “a tragic expression of an unmet need”.  Rosenberg’s phrase captures with compassion an assumption which is also at the core of neuro-linguistic programming (or NLP), the assumption that every behaviour has a positive intention.

At times, our attempts to meet our needs are highly ineffective.  This may be because we are overtaken by an amygdala hijack.  It may be because we lack the skills to take effective steps towards our desired outcomes.  It may be because we are so fearful of the feedback that is coming our way that we refuse it, so that we miss a valuable opportunity to adjust our course.

When we respond to ourselves and others with judgement, when we see such actions as irrational and inept, we are liable to tell ourselves that somehow something is wrong with the person, as if we are our behaviour.  A equals B.  Worse still, it is as if we are our behaviour at our moment of greatest ineptitude.

Rosenberg’s phrase and its first cousin assumption in NLP offer a more compassionate view.  We were trying.  We were trying to meet a need.  We did not meet it well in that moment.  Paradoxically, this more compassionate view does not excuse us so much as open up new possibilities.  For, if I can recognise that I have a need which is not yet met, I can try new ways to meet it.  And if I can see past the behaviours of others to embrace them as people who, like me, also have needs which they did not meet well in a given moment, I have an expanding range of possibilities in the way I respond so that both my needs and theirs might be met more fully.

Are you ready to let go of your judgements – of self, of others – to connect with the needs that lie beneath our most irrational and inept behaviours?

PS  Just to let you know, as a member of Amazon Associates UK, I shall receive a referral fee for any books you buy using the links in this posting.