I was working with a group of teachers today and I shared with them one of my most favourite – perhaps my most favourite – maxims about change: Arnold Beisser’s ‘the paradoxical theory of change’.
‘…change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not.’
This for me is such a powerful statement. It is a huge release from the unrewarding application of energy towards self-improvement, development, change – activity so many of us are engaged in either because we feel we should be or because the organisations we work for dictate this.
Beisser goes on to say that ‘Change does not take place through a coercive attempt by the individual or by another person to change him, but it does take place if one takes the time and effort to be what he is — to be fully invested in his current positions. By rejecting the role of change agent, we make meaningful and orderly change possible.’
How true this is. How often have you thought I just wish that person would be different? And you might try all sorts of techniques to get them to be different. But it just doesn’t work. I don’t know about you, but if someone tries to get me to change – my mind, my heart or my behaviour – I just dig my heels in, metaphorically or really.
And when I hear myself or other people railling against others and bemoaning their faults, saying these others need to change, I know deep down this isn’t going to work.
Beisser again: ‘The Gestalt therapist rejects the role of “changer,” for his strategy is to encourage, even insist, that the patient be where and what he is. He believes change does not take place by “trying,” coercion, or persuasion, or by insight, interpretation, or any other such means. Rather, change can occur when the patient abandons, at least for the moment, what he would like to become and attempts to be what he is. The premise is that one must stand in one place in order to have firm footing to move and that it is difficult or impossible to move without that footing.’ Beisser explains that this approach works as much for the therapist or facilitator or coach or ordinary person. It is there for all of us to follow.
A good example for me, and one I shared with my teachers today, is that when I am bored in a meeting, I can sit there and internally think ‘how tedious this topic is, how dull this person is etc’. But how will that shift things? The person is as they are and if I am finding them boring then it is for me to change my response. I could then sit there thinking ‘I wish I weren’t bored…I shouldn’t be bored….this is unprofessional….can I end this meeting early?…how can I stay awake?!’ But again this is an unprofitable use of my energy. I am now railling at myself, not the person, and how will that shift things?
Or I can next own my boredom and just say to myself ‘yes, I’m bored.’ I can relax the tension in my mind and maybe in my body – my stomach, throat, my jaw. I can just be bored in that moment. Well, maybe that is the first step towards change; and then maybe from there I can share my insight with the person in an appropriate way – so not saying ‘you’re boring me, let’s finish now!’ but maybe saying something like ‘I’m feeling our conversation isn’t very engaging/stimulating’ or ‘I’m feeling there isn’t a lot of energy in our exchange’ or ‘are you finding this discussion interesting?’ or ‘is this what you really want to talk about?’ And then what might happen? Invariably when I try this approach, I find the conversation is transformed. I could never predict what might happen but something unusual and unexpected always occurs. And I then find myself saying a few minutes later, ‘this discussion feels completely different. I feel it’s going somewhere.’ I leave the meeting feeling connected to someone who only a few minutes before I found completely lacking in interest.
So I am not an advocate of the power of positive thinking, though I know it can work – but it is more a palliative approach, a temporary solution that masks the underlying character. Palliative comes from the Latin palliare meaning ‘to cloak’. ‘The paradoxical theory of change’, in contrast, is about uncloaking, uncovering who one really is, the ground one is standing on right now, and staying with it as it changes.
Some people tell me my blog is too confessional, too revealing. I have no idea whether that’s true. But I have to be who I am to change, and my blog is a vehicle for change as it lets me express who and where I am right now. Writing a post is me being who I am in this moment and invariably once I write that post I am more myself and I change.
I believe the paradoxical theory of change is also at the heart of yoga. Yet some schools of yoga adopt a very different approach, they encourage the student to try and be what s/he is not, bending their bodies into shapes of the masters in the books. However the true practice of yoga is about being able to ‘stand in one place in order to have firm footing to move and [becoming aware] that it is difficult or impossible to move without that footing.’ Experiencing this physically makes it possible to understand in a whole body-and-mind felt sense. If you can be grounded in your feet, experiencing what that contact feels like – the connection between your feet and the earth, the smoothness or otherwise of your breath, the way your bones and muscles are supported by the earth – then from that place of acceptance and contact, and only then can you become yourself. You change in that moment, and you also become connected with something greater than yourself (this last a more complex dimension). If you are trying to be the picture in the book, you are never yourself and even if you achieve the external shape, inside you are still wrestling with the challenge of it, you are not relaxed and accepting, you are not integrated. The breath will be short or ragged and that is a dead give-away.
Yoga gives a tangible and felt experience and picture of what happens to us in organisations. We are provided with behavioural and competency frameworks and told to wrench ourselves into these positions. Even the best performers are given some target, especially in this world where year on year, last year’s ‘good’ becomes this year’s ‘needs improvement’ with a PIP to accompany it (performance improvement plan). People go on courses and expend energy and time on becoming the target in the framework. The theory tells us this will make them good leaders.
But Beisser would say if we can only be ourselves, becoming aware of and accepting all we are in this and each moment – then we change and then we become inspirational and real leaders – and teachers we can look to follow.