Last week, in a quiet café, I witnessed two intelligent people shouting at each other over a latte. Neither seemed once to listen to the other, in their twenty-minute heated exchange. I speculated that if I had interrupted them and asked each what the other had just said, they would have been unable to say… I was reminded of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, when the bard cautions us not to let life become a tale ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’. My heart sinks, as I hear this sound and fury everywhere – in Parliamentary discussions, in Presidential addresses, in corporate boardrooms, on FaceBook posts, and now here in a café in Chester.
We live in The Age of Anger, a Guardian report announced recently. This confirms my own experience: lurid and venomous exchanges are proliferating, publicly and privately. We are being confronted with the question of how we relate to rage? Is it even possible to look at anger, hatred and violence (including our own) with immediacy and courage, and engage with these forces as potentially transformational paths – for ourselves and for the world?
I believe so. If we know how to handle our anger skilfully, it is an effective tool for helping us recognise that a situation needs to change; and for providing the energy to create that change. Yet more often anger is destructive—and in its grip, we hurt ourselves and those around us.
Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön reminds us that we always have a choice - we can let the circumstances of our lives harden us and make us increasingly resentful, angry and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder. Yet exercising this choice is a constant practice. As coaches and consultants, I think that we have several foundational practices that we need to revisit and promote in these unstable times…
My friend, Gestalt teacher Malcolm Parlett, talks about the practice of self-recognising as one example of how we can exercise ‘whole intelligence’. I see self-recognising as the practice of continually asking myself, ‘who do I take myself to be, and how am I showing up here right now?’ It is the ability to reflect in the moment (rather than afterwards) on my way of being, and bring awareness to how I engage with others. Self-recognising is also, for me, about taking ownership of and responsibility for my own stuff – my projections, my preferences, my prejudices, my assumptions, my blindspots... For example, as a ‘Remain’ voter, I can’t in all conscience call Brexiters irresponsible until I have accepted all of the ways I shirk my own responsibilities as a European citizen. Too many of us call the world dirty because we don’t clean our own glasses.
Insisting on Truth
The Oxford English Dictionaries’ Word of the Year for 2016 is post-truth – an adjective that means ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. We certainly live in a post-truth world, where ‘alternative facts’ are given higher status than veracity. Corporations still use PR spin practices indiscriminately and despite regulations to inhibit excessive deceit, individuals and whole institutions continue to inflate achievements, disguise poor performance and misrepresent results. Too many of us flinch from telling the truth – both about ourselves, others and the situations we find ourselves in. Too many leaders don’t make it safe for others to be truthful, and hardly think of making explicit invitations to teams for open disagreement and bringing constructive criticism forward. Many of us in corporate life learn to bury our honest opinions instead of bringing them forward in the strategic interests of the company.
For me, dialogue is a deep practice of mindful and creative relating. To be in generative dialogue we need to relax our grip on certainties, set aside fears, preconceptions and the need to win an argument; and instead take time to listen, to become appreciative and curious about differences of opinion, to be alert to and nurture moments when newpossibilities arise. It is the opposite of shouting at one another over a latte. David Kantor’s work on dialogue suggests that we each have a pattern of relating – either we have a preference to move (propose), follow (agree), oppose (disagree) or bystand (make a process observation about how we are relating). Bystanding is the least common and yet most useful in terms of furthering genuine dialogue – it requires us to self-recognise and be truthful about how we are engaging, both separately and together.
While there are many effective approaches to relational change (including Nonviolent Communication, Constellations, and more), without these three foundational practices I fear we will continue to polarise and enrage one another. And there are far too many examples recently of how ‘both sides’ of a divide (Leave/Remain, Republicans/Democrats, etc) harden and hold each other in contempt rather than truly consider how to produce concerted action together.