Recently I was hired to work with an intact team whose presenting issue was poor communication, with associated breakdowns in collaboration and decision-making. They knew they “needed to communicate better,” and by all accounts, they were absolutely right.
As I met with each member individually and facilitated a series of meetings, I learned about some of the big unspoken rules driving their behavior. They included:
- Don’t hurt the founder’s feelings.
- In fact, avoid hurting anyone’s feelings at all times.
- Because hurting feelings can happen anytime you say something that might be construed as a critique, avoid offering critical feedback.
- If you do offer critical feedback, it should lead to a change in behavior, and if it doesn’t, you shouldn’t bother to offer your feedback because it is wasted.
- Since I’m not offering you my honest critique of you, you’re not in a position to offer me your honest views of me.
You can imagine where these unspoken norms might lead over time and repetition—to a culture of profoundly implicit perceptions, unintegrated shadow qualities, and a self-perpetuating mechanism for increasing distrust alongside decreasing learning and understanding.
The self-diagnosis of the team, that they needed better communication skills, wasn’t wrong. But it was only part of the story. Of course communication skills matter—and in our work together, we learned and practiced some essential skills that the team could repeat together in order to shore up trust and begin to rebuild relationships.
I say ‘maybe’ because the big question when adopting a new skill or technique is “who is doing the adopting?” Commonly, we don’t ask this question. Instead, we imbue the new skill, technique or method with the power of change. The know-how is the solution, and we’re more like the vehicle for it to work its magic. But when we do ask this question, it takes us in a different direction—a direction we must turn our attention to if we care about seeing results from our efforts.
During my time in meetings with this team, what revealed itself to me over and over again was that the failure of communication skills was itself a symptom of a different problem. A bigger, more significant root problem.
And that was, individuals weren’t looking at themselves.
I don’t mean superficially. I think most people nowadays know enough to know how to be superficially self-reflective. Or at minimum, we know how to talk a good game, even if we’re not that disciplined with actually taking a good hard look in the mirror.
When I say they weren’t looking at themselves, I mean they weren’t taking stock of their own interiors honestly, with sobriety and rigor. They didn’t display a strong self-reflective capacity. I observed no culture or practice of asking things like,
“What’s my motivation right now?”
“Why am I reacting the way I am?”
“Is my perception accurate?”
“What is my intention?”
“How am I contributing to our shared purpose?”
There wasn’t, in essence, evidence of a fundamental commitment to the working on oneself as ground zero for bringing about change in team dynamics.
Now I have to pause here because a number of voices are chattering in the peanut gallery of my mind and rather than swat at them, I think they belong out on the mat.
“Of course, duh. People don’t like to look at themselves. Everyone knows that!”
“You can’t ask people to navel gaze at work.”
“The fact that people aren’t self-reflective shouldn’t be surprising, and is so obvious that it’s not news.”
“You’ll never get people to do it—let alone pay for it. And besides, there are other ways to effect change and improve how people relate and collaborate.”
The last one is the kicker for me. I’ve heard versions of it countless times in response to the suggestion that, basically, “change starts from within.” It’s the essence of an argument that purports to be motivated by efficiency, by a promise to get us where we want to go without too much pain, time, or money. Its an attractive, bold and intoxicating idea: that we can change the world out there, without changing the world in here.
Especially in fast-paced organizational life, the idea that it just “takes too long” or “feels too unwieldy” to address the interiors of people is the holy grail of avoidance strategies, and begets a litany of change-solving snake oil salesmen.
The problem is, this argument is actually wrong. It’s not true.
Ok, one caveat. If your struggle is to increase your unit production rate of red widgets, then sure, you need to address your problem with an external measure like upgrading your production facility.
But, short of those super clear instances (which are few on balance), any time your challenge involves people and the complex array of motivations, drives, challenges, preferences and interpretations that come with them, then your solution must look at interiors. The soft stuff. Subjectivity. It must, because if it doesn’t, then it is excluding some of the most significant variables that are going into creating the difficulty in the first place.
Until we take a look at ourselves, we can’t actually make recommendations for what people should do. We can’t perceive ourselves accurately. We can’t see clearly what’s originating the problem. So we also can’t accurately diagnose the problem or ensure that we’re not making it worse.
Plus, when we pretend that our complex people challenges can be addressed with external solutions, we beget profound inefficiencies over the long term. By applying ill-fitting solutions to the problem—solutions that don’t take into account the full source of the challenge—we’re basically just kicking the can, or putting on a band aid. Being seduced by the idea that we can achieve the (fill in the blank) culture / organization / community we want without attending to who we actually are as the starting point is a delusion.
If you’ve got a shred of doubt, then try this thought experiment on: Imagine every elected official in the United States was a committed, diligent and determined practitioner of self-observation, self-reflection, and committed to taking an honest look at their own motives, intentions, and impact.
In the case of the team I was working with, here are some things I observed in one meeting:
One fellow sighed audibly and rolled his eyes when a colleague spoke. Another fellow didn’t look at or make eye contact with a colleague as she spoke. Someone else made assertions about what the group wanted without checking to see if they were true. Another person put forth his idea, and repeated himself any time a contradictory view was offered many times. Someone made a suggestion, and it was completely ignored by others in the group.
What are these behaviors? You could call them a lack of communication skills, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But they are also something else. They are the honest expression of preferences, feelings, desires, and drives. They’re a window into the attachments and aversions each person is bringing with them. Actually, they’re loud communications about what’s felt, believed, and feared within this team.
Now even if I am the most skilled communication trainer in the world, if we’re not working at a level that addresses these motives, drives, fears, and preferences directly, then we won’t be making any real change. We’ll just be learning to act a little nicer, for a little while.
Yes, better behaviors can be learned. And a facilitator can referee. And in the short run, that can help some. Indeed, building skills can be a door that opens our attention towards a more honest self-reflection, so it’s role in our growth shouldn’t be completely discounted. But we’re deluding ourselves if we say that the source of these behaviors is simply a skills issue and leave it at that.
Tools are necessary, but insufficient, because tools are empty but for the hands of the tool-wielder. And by the way, deploying textbook communication skills doesn’t even work if the actions are rote repetitions of a step-by-step guide for how to, say, listen well. It just backfires as false and inauthentic.
My point here is, looking inward is not a luxury, or a failed endeavor, or the provenance of self-absorption. It isn’t just for the woo-woo seekers and the personal development junkies. Looking inward is the height of efficiency when it comes to understanding complex human systems, large scale challenges, and persistent conflict. Any promise otherwise is a lie. And conversely (thank goodness), any change program or initiative that does develop self-understanding is offering a more accurate and more true solution to the question “how can we really change things?”
If it’s efficiency, accuracy, and progress we’re interested in, then we can’t afford to look anywhere else but right inside. We are the overlooked assets of greatest value—or the unaddressed liabilities—for the things we most care about. And the choice is ours.
Lauren is a Senior Consultant, Director of New Program Development and Editor-in-Chief at Ten Directions. She is a Certified Presence Based Coach and a Certified Integral Facilitator, and a member of the training team for Integral Facilitator programs. Lauren received her MA in Integral Theory from John F. Kennedy University, and for over a decade has been immersed in the fields of human development and transformative learning. She is experienced with many of today’s most innovative tools for transformation and collaboration, including: Immunity to Change, Sociocracy, Holacracy, The Natural Change Process, Evolving Worldviews, Way of Council, Cynefin Framework, Permaculture Design, Integral Theory, and Presence Based Coaching. As a facilitator and coach, Lauren’s sweet spot is working with individuals, teams and small organizations who are confronting challenges at the intersection of interpersonal dynamics, vision & mission, and process design.