Uncloaking change

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’.

Beisser writes:

‘…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.

On the way to Broadwindsor - photo by Else

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14 Responses to Uncloaking change

  1. Michael Reid says:

    One of the best pieces I have read on this blog.

    Beisser’s thery of change as reported here however is fairly narrowly focussed in this aspect of his theory. There is a wider area of concern. Beware of organisations seeking ”change agents” and ”change programmess” for these are organisations that have lost sight of their purpose and -instead of looking outwards at their true purpose have turned inwards and started to expend their energies in costly introspection. Creating a false market in ”change” as a process.

    The first requirement of real change for person or an organisation is honesty.

    For, as a map is only of use to someone who knows where they are on that map, so a process of change is only of use to someone who truly understands where they are as they contemplate change.

    Beisser is right. Being what you truly are is the most important thing because otherwise you cannot believe in anything. But look again at the faces befoe you in any corporate heirarchy and ask yourself- are these people conforming or are they being themselves? Those who would conceal their true selves are being dishonest at the very outset. Yet those who don’t are often critised for being non conformist or too blunt.

    Socrates said ”Know Thyself” – and he was a hell of a good footballer.

  2. karin says:

    Wow – high praise indeed from you, especially after all the other recent comments…..
    I agree with much of what you say regarding organisational behaviour and life though you are going off on a different tack in some of what you write.

    For me the huge insight of Beisser’s theory is that you change when you are, you don’t change when you try to be. Yes, it’s about being honest but more than that it’s about being. All the rest of the stuff we spend our time doing, saying etc just falls away. That’s the big change.

    Scary for people and scary for organisations. But incredibly liberating. Hard to sustain, there are so many traps…

    Have a look at Beisser’s article which is on the net and is quite short, he goes on to write about his paradoxical theory of change as being relevant to social and organisational change as well as individual change. He talks about the need to integrate the fragments or compartmentalised elements in an organisation just as in an individual.

  3. Vanessa H says:

    Inspiring and remarkable writing. You create the finest passages on the internet. Thank you for your clear thinking, gentle writing and authentic giving. Cheers, V

    • Thank you, Vanessa. Not really sure what to say except that it’s really nice to feel that you like my writing. Your paintings are definitely the best that I see regularly on the internet – I’m sure they’re even better in real life. That makes me think that the internet is a great vehicle for the written word but maybe not so much for what is visual. Anyway…you’ve given me a huge boost.

  4. Stephen says:

    Incredible. I wait several weeks for the blog to come back to life and then, suddenly, I find two wonderful pieces that leave me floundering for words.
    The concept of “full acceptance of what is, rather than a striving to be different” is very difficult to get hold of in this society where everything has to be better, faster, cheaper and we apply these concepts to ourselves because advertising says we should if we are to be complete. I don’t know whether it has always been this way and there’s a danger that we think there was less pressure to change in the distant past but I think human beings have always been striving creatures. Maybe it’s natures way however I doubt that when I observe predators getting enough to eat and then sleeping for the rest of the day.
    Despite appreciating the concept outlined here and having a very contented life I frequently (every day) wish I was different in some small way or another. This applies both physically and mentally. Can we be accepting of ourselves and yet remain striving to achieve more? Possibly.

  5. karin says:

    ‘Can we be accepting of ourselves and yet remain striving to achieve more? Possibly.’
    Great question, Steve. I would want to reword (of course!) I am not keen on ‘striving to achieve more’ as the alternative to being accepting of ourselves. I think being accepting of ourselves encompasses just about anything including such striving? So can we accept our own striving? Somehow in the acceptance of it, it becomes less of a controlling driver of ourselves and is just something else that is there. Make any sense?
    It feels sort of good to be back. But there aren’t so many people here now, so it also feels more exposed! Hoping you are well.

    • Stephen says:

      Hi Karin. I’m very well and life is good (certainly better than the alternative). You’re absolutely right, I should have written “striving to change” or may be “unhappy with oneself” which is not necessarily the same thing.
      As to the decline in posting from others, that will return in time now you’re back on stream but it may take some weeks. People will revisit and then realise normality has returned. It does highlight the need for bloggers to maintain regular updates, whether it be daily, weekly or monthly visitors soon get into a routine of checking on a regular basis that is synchronised by the lead blogs.

      • karin says:

        Hi again, I’m unhappy with ‘unhappy with oneself’ – I don’t think you can be accepting of yourself and also unhappy with yourself at the same time? I think you can be accepting of self and open to other potentials, which feels quite inviting and exciting to me!
        I kind of think the Big Comment time is past – don’t know. Life on the internet is pretty weird, and it’s nice having loyal friends such as yourself appear when convenient for you. That’s enough for me these days.

  6. karin says:

    Chris Hill from circle dancing sent me the following comment which I think is so perceptive, I wanted to log it here, with his permission of course: “I read your recent blog, and do so agree with, and have experienced myself, the statement that we can only change by starting from experiencing and accepting who we are now, at this moment, and then stepping off from that firm footing into authentic relationship (with myself or other). The change, as I see it, consists in deciding to move from the habitual behaviour of our outer fearful,defensive, protecting self ( who does a good job in many situations!) to an openness to listen to, and act on, the wisdom and love of our inner and true self, who knows who we are and what we need in this moment.” Thank you, Chris.

  7. Chris says:

    Yes – I can go with all the comments about being yourself. But I’m not sure how the world would work if we just sat about being ourselves with no aspirations to improve or change the faults we see in ourselves or to develop the latent potential we think or hope we have.

    I agree too that trying to change others is a pointless exercise. The drive has to come from within. What is it they say about alcoholics – that they’ll only give up the booze when they themselves want to do so?

    I fear that there is a whole world out there that has made a good living out of change – I’ve earned the odd £ in that arena myself – but as I get older it looks increasingly like moving the deckchairs on the Titanic. I think, with hindsight, that a lot of so-called ‘change’ has been merely improving processes. But hard maybe to sell the proposition to senior managers of helping an organisation’s people to be themselves?

    • karin says:

      Hi (non circle-dancing) Chris, good to see you here. Thanks for your thoughts as ever.

      The paradoxical theory of change does not mean just sitting about being ourselves….it is a highly evolved place to be and involves going way beyond the conscious striving to be different. In the moment of accepting who I am with all the qualities I have (to use judgmental words – good and bad), then and only then can I change. My acceptance is the gateway to change. All other efforts to change will be either doomed to failure or merely invoke superficial differences. My potential deepens in that moment of acceptance. I think this is so incredibly profound and when it happens, it is a transforming experience, a moment of breakthrough, an epiphany, or just a feeling of pure comfort like never before. My relationship with myself changes and through that, my relationship with others and the world.

      I totally agree that most change ‘activity’ is about moving the deckchairs. The paradoxical theory of change might be called, in contrast, ‘change stillness’ – and it is here that the insights and transformation can be found.

      Leaders like the man who died realise the power of this mantra – and if they can bring it to life in their organisations, people relax into being themselves and so find deeper reserves of energy which they contribute to the organisation and to their effectiveness.

  8. Chris says:

    Mmmmm! As you say I don’t do circle-dancing!

    Either I found my inner self a long time ago or maybe sometime in the few years remaining I’m in for a surprise.

    But you can keep trying, Karin. (I’m smiling as I type.)

  9. Tricia says:

    Yes – another wise post. It seems so simple but actually the simplest things are always the most complex to achieve. I work in education – and have done for 25 years so feel well placed to comment that so often the many many changes in the system and philosophies and teaching approaches have been forced on people externally – top down and one on top of another, this is why in all that time progress has been so slow and people have been regularly bored by education – both pupils and teachers in many cases. When change comes from within – and the best managers pull out what is within their staff and thus their children of course – it is a hundred times more powerful, deep and long-lasting. Sadly it is also rare. People also need a broad training to be able to discover what appeals to them, and this is happening less and less due to budgetary constraints. Instead, the government seem to be putting in yet more testing to measure the gaps, it seems to me, a negative approach in every way. I like your ideas for changing the direction of a conversation, Karin – they need a certain sort of confidence to pull off I suspect – but I will try them out! i just wish someone like you could explain to the politicians and change the direction of change!

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