Negative Space

Negative Space

I’ve increasingly been making films and using the process of film-making as an integral part of my coaching and OD practice. For those who are interested, one example of an early experiment is here… It’s been a fascinating development and contrary to my expectations, including a camera in a coaching conversation has brought an element of what is trendy to call ‘mindfulness’ to the conversation, for both myself and those clients who are up for it. I have to pay attention to how to visually frame my client within the camera’s viewfinder, and leave space for them to speak in to. At the same time the presence of the camera and all it represents helps us both leave space for deeper and different reflection upon what is being explored, and upon the nature of our interaction.

The film process has drawn my attention to what designers call ‘negative space’. ‘Positive space’ is what occupies the frame, while negative space is the space around the subject. This is not just arbitrary emptiness, but a spaciousness that expresses a relationship with whatever the space holds, and tells a story about that relationship. Negative space is absolutely vital – it draws attention, it defines boundaries, it brings balance, it accentuates a theme, it creates new relationships. It is the ‘nothing’ that takes you powerfully to something unexpected and often exciting, just as in this example of a book design for Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’…

In Gestalt, we call this a Figure/Ground relationship – where the relationship between what is figural and what is background determines meaning. I have been wondering how this use of negative space applies in my coaching practice. Three things immediately come to mind:

  • In a coaching conversation earlier this week, a client remarked, “I am not who I want to be yet.” The comment struck me as fascinating. All year he has been paying a lot of attention to self-development – focusing on the ‘figure’, so I asked him if the context (the ‘ground’) he was working and living in supported him, at all? It was a lightbulb moment for him – he had not been paying attention to the negative space of his experience, which is where many of his possibilities resided. Self is always relational, and so drawing attention to context always reframes our experience in ways that are loaded with insight. I think this is the true power of systemic thinking – it redirects our attention from self to not-self.
  • In my coaching, consulting and facilitation work – and increasingly in my work as a film-maker – I often ask myself “What is not being said here?” Or, “What am I not seeing here?” Or, “What is not yet being addressed that would help?” It is a paradoxical intervention, of course… In supervision recently I asked my supervisee – someone I’ve worked with for years – how come he never seems to ask his clients if they are annoyed with their situation? It had never occurred to him, but he shared that anger was not allowed when he was growing up. The question about negative space opened a new seam of enquiry for him.
  • A different client has been exploring the ‘customer journey’ with me that her company offers. A customer journey is always an accumulation of ‘touchpoints’ with the company, and is always a perception – not an operational KPI – and this perception is based not on what the company offers, but on what the customer needs. Yet companies often explore and construct a customer journey based on operational issues, rather than looking at the negative space of a customer need. Of course customers need goods and services as quickly, easily and economically as possible – yet if we look at what perceptually frames the customer need, we will get insights that often transform the customer journey: for example, my client learned that a significant number of her customers were more interested in environmental performance (the ‘ground’) than in the product’s technical specifications (the ‘figure’ for my client’s product design team.

In Japanese, the word for ‘space’ is ma. Someone who is stupid is manuke – that is, they leave themselves no space. My film-making is bringing my attention to all sorts of relationships between what is shown and not shown, seen and not seen, to exploring the relationship between emptiness, form and function. I shall continue looking…

Posted in Change Coaching film-making on Thursday, Dec 21st, 2017

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