We must create a climate for our clients in which the truth can be heard. Acknowledging ‘what is’ in the relationship makes it psychologically safe.
By Lindsay Wittenberg
As I write this, a president of the US has – uniquely – faced impeachment twice.
Did silence help to bring things to this point? If some of those loyal to a president behaving in unethical ways had not been silent, could some of his actions have been prevented? Did the silence happen through blind loyalty, fear of the threat to individual careers or to status, or simply not knowing, not seeing that the silence needed to be broken?
We sometimes see processes like this in organisations: a leader may be on a path judged by others to be heading in the wrong direction, or enacting less than desirable behaviours. What’s obvious may not be articulated – sometimes because it’s so obvious that it doesn’t occur to anyone to call attention to it. I’ve found especially useful a perspective that John Whittington, in his work on Systemic Constellations, refers to as being ‘radically inclusive’: the simple (but not easy) articulation of ‘what is’. A Gestalt approach to coaching also calls attention to what’s here in this moment, and encourages its expression.
I hear people of colour expressing indignation that a white coach may be silent about the client’s colour or ethnicity, which as a defining aspect of their sense of identity may merit enquiring into as part of the coaching. In that silence and lack of acknowledgment of ‘what is’ lie opportunities for the coach’s assumptions and beliefs not to be surfaced or
explored – and so to not appropriately articulate and recognise what needs to be acknowledged.
In that lack of recognition we stay silent about our differences from each other, and so we don’t release the significant advantages of our collective intelligence. Yet can we afford not to notice and articulate difference?
It seems to me that relationships resting on these incomplete foundations also risk being incomplete – or at the very least may dilute the richness of the relationship. What are the implications for coaching relationships – which at their best are built on trust, openness and honesty (and in fact require these characteristics if they’re to fully succeed): is there a sense in which these relationships risk being only partly true?
Hearing the views and the experiences of people of colour in these situations has increased my alertness not only to what I’m not seeing or hearing in a coaching encounter (which I’ve written about elsewhere – for example ‘Inconvenient Truths’ in Coaching at Work, Jan/Feb 2019) but also to what I’m not saying.
Researcher and business author Jim Collins calls this “confronting the brutal facts” and the importance of creating a climate in which the truth is heard. Cultures in which it’s hard to express, and to hear, the facts are contexts that are psychologically unsafe (and which could benefit from, for example, a tool such as the Fearless Organization’s Psychological Safety Index). They don’t release individuals’ thinking, and thus they diminish the release of the team’s potential.
Silence is golden in contexts where hearing the coaching client, and enabling space for them to hear their own voice, is the most important factor. But in contexts where silence is a veil over something or someone that needs acknowledging, that gold is tarnished.
I’m not only listening differently these days. What I say is changing too.
- Lindsay Wittenberg is director of Lindsay Wittenberg Ltd. She is an executive coach who specialises in authentic leadership, career development and