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Responding to Change in a VUCA world

Greek philosophers are pretty good at pithy quotes. To illustrate, I give you this from Heraclitus of Ephesus: “Panta rhei”, or “everything flows”. Modern-day parlance has translated this into “the only constant in life is change”. 

21st-century change has taken Heraclitus’ observation a step further: change these days isn’t simply a constant. It also isn’t linear, incremental or predictable. Even before the current pandemic we were in a period of social, geopolitical, environmental and technological volatility and disruption. You may have encountered the acronym VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous), originally coined by the U.S. Army in the 1990s to describe the post-Cold War world (and more widely adopted across the leadership literature post 9/11 to describe a work environment characterised by the turbulent and uncontrollable unknown). It may be the circles I’ve been moving in lately, but it does seem that as an easy acronym it’s now entering the general lexicon as it becomes more relevant than ever to all of us. 

There are criticisms about the limitations of VUCA as a framework (e.g. cultural bias, ‘past its sell-by date’, convenient label for a challenging reality without adequate exploration of how we can respond to that reality, etc.), but rather than going off on a tangent I’m going to observe that there are some useful concepts that it offers us.

Change is volatile and complex. The changes we are encountering in our personal and professional lives are rapid, sudden and unstable. They’re becoming ever more dramatic, and moving at an exponential rate. In contrast to many of the complicated challenges you may have come up against in the past, complex problems don’t have logical solutions where an evidence-based approach and learned expertise are all you need. Instead, multiple interconnected variables interact in unpredictable ways and the relationship between cause and effect is blurred. We’re called upon to manage paradoxes and polarities, and if we’re looking for clarity and ‘right’ answers, we’re likely to be disappointed.

Change is uncertain and ambiguous. Changes are also unfolding in unanticipated ways – the context we live in is an evolving state of ambiguity. Like the iteration of fractals or a murmuration of starlings, you can’t predict how the system will change or what will emerge. Historical forecasts and past experiences are, increasingly, no predictor of the future, and planning is becoming an increasingly difficult challenge as the shape of things ahead becomes more and more uncertain. It can feel rather like an existential threat – many of us have a preference for safety and certainty, and when we can’t easily predict what’s going to happen, we have a tendency to predict hazard.

Unpredictability in complex and chaotic systems: (a) A murmuration of starlings (Image: © Wikimedia Commons/Tanya H.) (b) Chaos theory demonstrated through long exposure of a light at the end of a double pendulum (Image: © Wikimedia Commons/Cristian V.)

So, what to do? How do we make sense of complexity and our place in a volatile, uncertain and ambiguous world? How do we want to show up? Here are my thoughts on some of the ways we might respond, in both professional and personal contexts. 

Control vs. curiosity: Standing in inquiry

When there is no blueprint to follow, trying to control the future is an approach destined to frustrate. You may be able to predict broad-brush behaviours, but specific outcomes for specific situations are unknowable. Past experiences, paradigms and dogmas are all ripe for scrutiny. Rather than a focus on control, therefore, we need to respond in a different way – by cultivating curiosity. The answers we seek will change in place and time, but a discipline of inquiry will be a stalwart essential in helping us navigate the way ahead. 

What good questions can we ask? Here are some potential starters: 

  • In how many different ways can we look at the problem? 
  • What has thrown us off-course, and what can we learn from that? 
  • Are there any patterns? Exceptions?
  • What is the most important challenge we need to focus on?
  • What resources and influence are available to us? 
  • What values and guiding principles do we want our actions to align with?

 

You have come to the shore. There are no instructions. – Denise Levertov

Not Knowing: There may be no ‘right’ or clear answers

In the above context it’s also important to acknowledge and accept that there may be no ‘right’ or clear answers – the systems that we are part of are dynamic, and at any point in time there may be paradoxical tensions at play: short-term measures vs. long-term strategy; performance vs. wellbeing; the needs of the collective vs. the individual. This makes it critical that we are open to a diversity of views, helping us to expand our own perspective through constructive debate and dialogue.

Getting comfortable with being in a space of not knowing, and creating an environment in which we can inhabit that space with others, requires a few things of us. I think the following are particularly worth reflecting upon:

  • No man is an island. It can be difficult to admit that you don’t have the answers, but there is strength in vulnerability. How can we stand in inquiry together with others so that new and diverse thinking can be encouraged to emerge, and collaborative solutions to new challenges can be co-created? 
  • We may not always be able to plan for a desired outcome, but we can nonetheless seek to develop in ways that allow us to seize the day when opportunity presents itself. What can we do right now to shore up our capacity for resilience, whether personal or organisational? At a personal level, how can we orient our thinking towards an attitude of optimism, self-efficacy and healthy risk management, and how can we develop our capacity for persistence and flexibility?    

Experiment, fail

The curiosity that we need to encourage is all about an appetite for continual learning. Solutions to novel and complex challenges don’t come about through repeating what we’ve always done and reiterating what we already know – they need to emerge through seeking out new experiences and new knowledge and insight. Evidence-based methods need to be accompanied by an attitude to risk that involves encouraging experimentation and an agile, iterative approach: trying, failing, regrouping and learning, and trying again. Sometimes it also requires a leap of faith – jumping and not knowing where you’re going to land, but taking each step in line with your core values and principles, and trusting in the journey.

Traveller, there is no path. The path is made by walking. – Antonio Machado

Compassion and connection 

At the core of everything is the person. Any approach we take needs to embrace both the rational and the human: the values, emotions, the way our social and cultural history can bind us to limiting horizons for action. In the face of threat and pressure it is exceedingly easy to find ourselves being harsh and critical of ourselves, or judgemental and intolerant of others. 

Many of us find self-compassion a big ask. We may be able to show compassion to others, but then judge ourselves by a far harsher standard. Negative self-talk is common and perpetuates an unhelpful mindset. These are hard times, during which it can be hard to focus, see the bigger picture, and perform the way we may have been used to. These tough moments don’t need us to square up to them – they require us to be firm yet resolutely gentle with ourselves. I am dealing with a lot, and it’s ok not to be ok. What’s the best thing that I can do for myself right now that will help me get to where I need to be? Self-compassion is also vital in experimentation – we need to allow ourselves to fail.

That same compassionate-yet-firm approach also applies to the way we deal with others. When we’re stressed and there is no clear way forward it depletes our inner resources, which usually means we are much quicker to become irritated when other people don’t meet our expectations or frustrate our intent. Rather than reacting with intolerance, however, we can elect to respond with kindness, understanding and respect. Starting with kindness makes it far more possible to forge a connection through which we can jointly work to find solutions.

A discipline of inquiry, getting comfortable with not knowing, and a willingness to experiment can all take practice. I think compassion, though, calls upon something that is an integral part of our humanity; something that can be simple, straightforward and constant in the face of a volatile and complex reality. Henry James said: “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” We are all in this together, and a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world is a little easier to deal with when we place compassion at the core of us. 

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass, Quiet Space Ltd

Articles

Resilience

I originally wrote this article in 2018. Since then, coaching for personal resilience and mental wellbeing has seen a surge of interest, with individuals and organisations both keen to find ways to reduce the toll of ever-increasing demands on their mental and physical health, increase their ability to adapt flexibly and positively to change, and start thriving rather than simply coping.

The extraordinariness of 2020 has brought this into even sharper focus. In the early weeks of the pandemic, many of us went into a heightened energy state of adaptation – described by Ann Masten as the ‘surge capacity’ we draw upon in short-term survival situations, rather like an emotional and physical power bank to help us navigate a crisis effectively. Except that, as the acute phase became chronic, our uncertainty over how long the uncertainty would last continued to stretch out, and we found ourselves with little opportunity to recharge through many of our usual means of self-care, we were all left significantly depleted. 

In the immediate crisis stage there is often increased clarity as people are forced to focus on a delimited set of priorities and they pull together more than ever before. Individually, however, the adaptation can often come at profound cost to our wellbeing as we try to prioritise performance. Crisis can bring out the best in us, but can also make us revert to a lower level of emotional function. 

I’ve read a lot of very well-written pieces in the past few months about finding new ways to be in this brave new world. There is so much in the resilience science to draw from and so much good advice out there about identifying your own set of primary resilience factors – certainly far too much to distil into one short article. I hope, however, that some of this will prove helpful to you. If you’re finding life particularly challenging right now, there are really just three things that I hope you will take from this: 

(1) You are not alone and there is plenty of support out there. 

(2) Be kind to yourself; there is no shame in struggling and feeling overwhelmed. 

(3) All you need to focus on is the next step. The rest can be something for another day.

———————

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

I bend, I don’t break.

I always bounce back.

Do you use any of these metaphors when you talk or think about resilience? Personally, I like the picture of resilience that’s summed up by this plant.

It illustrates nicely the definition given by Carole Pemberton (2015) in Coaching for Resilience:

The capacity to remain flexible in our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours when faced by a life disruption, or extended periods of pressure, so that we emerge from difficulty stronger, wiser, and more able. 

In other words, resilience is gradual adaptation in the face of adversity. Being resilient doesn’t mean you have to be somehow invulnerable to life’s hard knocks – it’s all about learning and growth, and the ability to steer your way constructively through difficulty. I think the danger of the popular characterisation of ‘bouncing back’ is that it gives the impression that recovering from setbacks is as effortless and instantaneous as the rebound of a rubber ball. You just pick yourself up and carry on as you were, utterly unchanged by the event. Except you’re not.

Even if you’re of the true grit school of thought, it’s important to recognise that resilience isn’t a you’ve-either-got-it-or-you-don’t thing; it’s a continuum. Life continually tests us, and our ability to respond well to this can vary depending on context and domain. You may be able to cope very well with pressure in your professional life, but feel crushed by the breakdown of a personal relationship. You may historically have had no problems navigating the ups and downs of life, but find yourself unexpectedly and completely derailed after being made redundant. Our resilience can become overwhelmed in all sorts of different ways – and we will all respond differently, too.

I find it useful looking at this from the perspective of the three-factor model that combines the effects of genetics, external protective factors, and learning (diagram below adapted from Pemberton, 2015):

What this tells us is that although some people may be more naturally resilient than others, resilience isn’t just a product of our personality. Research has also shown the important contributions made by the support networks around us (the availability of ‘secure attachment’) and what we learn from experience. That latter factor is probably most crucial for me. I love the way Masten puts it: resilience, she says, is ‘ordinary magic’: something we develop through the demands of living. It marks resilience out as something that can be available to all of us, even if we haven’t had the most fortunate start in life.

So how, then, can we cultivate resilience? It’s worth spending some time thinking about resilience factors – here are some that I think are particularly important, although resilience studies have identified dozens more: 

(1) Finding meaning

Purpose is a key factor in what drives us – the desire to connect to a greater and meaningful cause can give important direction and a reason to keep going. What purpose can you find in what you may be going through? What can you take from this experience that you can channel positively into something meaningful?

(2) Flexibility, Perspective and the Big Picture

Inflexible patterns of thinking stop us being able to see the larger picture and its possibilities for learning and growth. What can you learn from this adversity? How can you widen your perspective? What other ways are there to think about this situation? What can you control about this situation (conversely, are you expending energy in wrestling with what is actually outside of your control)? 

(3) Thinking Space 

It’s difficult to get perspective when you’re mired in the doing and the detail. What time are you taking to get the necessary headspace that will allow you to take a step back for a more objective evaluation? Resting from its incessant activity is what the brain needs to really harness its creativity and problem-solving capability. 

(4) Support

Resilience is not helped by social isolation. How can you reach out for help? What positive and mutually supportive relationships can you build? 

(5) Mindfulness

Pain is typically seen as a problem. Mindfulness helps us learn to detach from our negative thoughts and feelings in order to observe and accept them without becoming trapped in them – moving forward despite them, rather than trying to remove them from our lives. As Camus says, the human condition is absurd. But man’s freedom, and the opportunity to give life meaning, lies in the acceptance of absurdity.

(6) Proactivity

What action are you taking? Sometimes all we need to take back control is to take one small step at a time.

What someone needs in order to help them become more resilient will of course vary. In coaching, there are many tools that can be drawn upon, including mindfulness, cognitive-behavioural approaches, narrative coaching, and positive psychology. If you’re interested in how coaching can help you build your personal resilience, why not get in touch?

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass, Quiet Space Ltd

Articles

To Follow Your Heart

I posted the image above on my social media accounts a while ago and was amazed to find how much it resonated with people. Maybe you’re not tired, maybe you’re just doing too little of what makes you come alive. It’s a theme that has kept cropping up in my coaching sessions and in random conversations with people over these last couple of months, as well as something that has been particularly close to my heart this past year.  

I don’t know about you, but my energy typically comes in bursts – often in moments of palpable connection and chemistry when I find a kindred spirit, when I’m talking about things I care about a great deal, or when I’m completely absorbed in making a project that matters to me happen. It’s also a running joke in my family about my ability to sleep anywhere, at any time, and for rudely long periods. There are days when I’ve simply had no energy for anything at all, yet also others when I’ve been on fire. 

You have, most likely, experienced what it feels like to just get by in a job, your work environment or just life in general – your energy levels dip, motivation wanes and productivity suffers. I hope, however, that you will also have had moments of alchemy when everything seemed to be working out – when you believed yourself to be happy, you were surrounded by the hope of possibility, and your energy levels and motivation were correspondingly high. 

There’s a complex relationship between energy, motivation, productivity and happiness. I’ve written before about motivation and how we’re all driven to achieve three things: autonomy (the ability to behave with a sense of volition, endorsement, willingness and choice), competence (mastery of our environment), and relatedness through purpose (the ability to care about and connect to others and to a bigger cause). When those three conditions of autonomy, competence and purpose are in place, there’s a much higher chance that you’ll be able to find yourself in the zone of what positive psychologists call ‘flow’: the mental state of being completely immersed in what you’re doing, where your skill is equal to the challenge and you are enveloped in the focus of the present moment – a space for you to be more productive, creative, and yes, happy. Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi (credited with having popularised the concept of Flow) has described it thus:

(Flow is) being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” (Wired interview, 1996)

You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears. You forget yourself. You feel part of something larger.” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990)

You’ll see from the images above that Flow has a number of key characteristics, but I like a bit of simplification, so where all these concepts come together for me is in recognition of this one thing: tapping into what, for you, is the meaning that makes life worth living. 

Meaning, I think, is the ultimate intrinsic motivator.  We catalyse our own happiness when we have meaningful goals that challenge us, yet are within our grasp, and when we’re able to direct and control our own actions in pursuit of those goals. 

In coaching I sometimes find that people feel happiness to be quite elusive, mainly because they’re looking for it anywhere but right here, right now. The thing about the energy of happiness, however, is that – unlike many of the events and things around us – harnessing this energy is very much within our control.1 Rather than expending energy on places, people and things that drain us, we can choose to direct our energy and presence into the optimal experience and ease of pursuing mastery of an area we care deeply about.

So where do you start? When working with my coaching clients we often look at the question of values pretty early on. ‘Values’, in straightforward terms, are the things that we stand for and how we want to behave as we move through life – they’re not something to be achieved, but rather what we want our lives to be about. Your set of values is individual to you, and when you connect with and set goals based on those values, you become able to take your life in meaningful directions even when the going gets tough. 

It’s helpful to think of them as a compass, giving you direction and keeping you on track as you go through life, setting and achieving goals along the way. Or perhaps like a lighthouse, guiding you on your way – your goal never being to obtain the lighthouse itself. Valuing is about the process and the journey, rather than the destination. 

There are plenty of tools and techniques to help people identify and clarify values. With my clients I like working with values card sort exercises (e.g. Carriochi and Bailey’s (2008) Survey of Life Principles) and questionnaires like Crace and Brown’s (2002) Life Values Inventory, but you can also do this old-school with a pen and paper, thinking about what matters to you in your life – you can split your life into as many areas as you like, or you may want to keep it simple with just a few key domains: work and education, love and relationships, health and wellbeing, and leisure and recreation. The values you identify might be obvious to others, or deeply personal to you, and there are no right or wrong answers. Perhaps your list might contain connecting with nature or having a life filled with adventure, or being self-sufficient, working with your hands, and making a lasting contribution to this earth. And then, perhaps the trickiest part: once you’ve clarified your values, it’s time to take a good close look at them and think about whether the life you’re leading is one that aligns with what you care about. 

What really matters to me, deep down?
What kind of person do I want to be?
What personal strengths or qualities do I want to develop?
What legacy would I like to leave?
And what am I going to do with these answers?

Plenty of people think of success in terms of goal achievement. If you do, I invite you now to consider an alternative to this, and see how it changes your thinking: success is living by your values. No matter how far your goals reach into the future (and no matter whether you ever achieve them), just like how happiness can be right here for you in this moment, so too can you have success right now – all that is required of you is that you choose to commit to your values, and start to work in the service of what really matters to you.2

This isn’t always going to be easy. You may have heard the adage that ‘fear and desire are two sides of the same coin’. If something really matters to you, when there’s a lot riding on something, the more it also matters if you don’t get what you want: what you desire is also what you fear to lose. 

British theologian John Henry Newman said, “Fear not that thy life shall come to an end, but rather that it shall never have a beginning.” So ask yourself this question: Are you willing to face whatever comes when you’re heading in the direction you desire? Self-doubt, distress and anxiety are common when we’re seeking meaning. Willingness takes strength, but if you summon the strength to say ‘yes’ to overcome your fears, there is a whole world beyond what you think you already know, filled with possibility.   

And finally, that image I posted at the top of the article? This was the accompanying caption.

Life is fleeting. One day you may look back and see how you let time march on inexorably, passing you by. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Happiness doesn’t only come about through grand gestures; it is in the moment of unguarded laughter, finally learning to be who you are, the willingness to be vulnerable, the seeing of joy in the mundane, the purpose in the pain, and living out what really matters to you. Go big or small, as long as you go. 

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

References

Carriochi, J. & Bailey, A. (2008). A CBT practitioner’s guide to ACT: How to bridge the gap between cognitive behavioral therapy and acceptance and commitment therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Crace, R. K., & Brown, D. (2002). Life Values Inventory. Williamsburg, VA: Applied Psychology Resources. 

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row.

Coaching

Slow Down Retreat, 22-24 November 2019, Cotswolds

***20% discount when quoting Quiet Space!! Say I sent you and pay just over £350 rather than the normal price of £445 for a shared room***

Exciting news! I’ve joined the Slow Down Retreats team to deliver a very special retreat weekend from 22-24 November in the luxurious surroundings of Cotswold Park Barns.

It’s going to be a weekend of relaxation, yoga and meditation, and nourishment for body, mind and soul. Time for you, time to breathe deep and press pause. Time to rest, to unwind, to find some headspace, and to sleep.

I’ll be leading a group session during the retreat focused on self-care and self-acceptance – do you know what your body and mind need and what replenishes you (and conversely, what drains your energy)? How kind are you to yourself? We’ll be working to identify your personal strengths and your unique self-care recipe, and discussing how we can all move towards self-acceptance.

Full details are available at Slow Down Retreats. I’d be thrilled to see you there!

Confidence and motivation

Climb on

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At the climbing wall today I managed to get told off again (twice), once for having an unsupervised child (in fairness I thought someone else was watching him, but no excuse really) and once for failing to notice that I was clipping said child into an autobelay adjacent to a route already being climbed on. I was musing to the child that it wasn’t very nice being told off, whereupon he said wryly “welcome to my world”.

I also failed to send most of my climbs. After one 6a+ on which my grip had failed three moves from the top, I joked to someone that I was going to do one of the easier routes for my ego.

I was chatting with the child after having failed on this lovely V2 route for the third time and I said something to him along the lines of “I want to try that again…” “So try it.” he returned promptly.

“…I’m not sure I’ll be able to do it’.”

“Just do it.”

So I did (swipe to second video.)

Sometimes life is really that simple. You might rip your palms slightly in the process but you know, no pain, no gain. Failure lies in not trying. Kick the ego to the kerb and just do it.

Climb on.

Coaching

Remember that sometimes not getting what you want is…

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I believe in providence and serendipity.

As I work out my next career steps I’ve been applying for new part-time roles that might fit well alongside Quiet Space as part of a coherent career portfolio, and recently got news that I’d been unsuccessful in an interview for a job I’d really wanted.

Naturally I was disappointed, but I’d been satisfied with my interview performance and had pretty much expected the outcome. So by the time the news came, I think I’d already mostly moved on. In that context the prospect of exploring other opportunities has become exciting and liberating, for which I’m grateful.

Coaching others these past few years has been incredibly helpful for my own personal development, particularly in terms of my appetite for risk and attitude towards the unknown.

Embrace pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. That’s where the growth comes. It is stressful and scary and destabilising, but it is without a doubt worth it all. Everything will be all right. Things will take shape. At the end of this you will look back and be amazed to see how far you’ve come.

Coaching

From this moment despair ends and tactics begin

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I rather liked this slightly off-the-wall motivational poster that I came across in my travels today. Buckle up, folks, say goodbye to despair because here’s where the good stuff starts.

Now go work out those tactics. You’ve got this, stay in the game!

Change

And through the rivers they shall not overwhelm you

 

I’ve felt several times over the past eight months like life was unravelling. Things falling apart; questioning maxims I’d thought I lived by; reevaluating lots of things about me and my relationships with various people. When I’ve lost ground in the past my faith has always been there for me but lately I’ve felt distanced from that too. It’s been an interesting time.

This week I visited Salisbury Cathedral and was struck by the beautiful font in the nave and the reflections in the water.

This life has got to be about something beyond yourself. Something bigger than you. Not necessarily God, if that isn’t part of your belief system. But as humans we naturally seek meaning, purpose and connection. What am I doing this for? For whom am I doing this? Who’s got my back?

Coaching

How long is forever

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“How long is forever?” asked Alice. “Sometimes, just one second.” replied the White Rabbit.

There are dreams lasting but a moment in which everything is suspended in eternity.

Get more of those moments. Don’t be afraid to dive deep with someone. Love intensely. Make that connection, take that leap, embrace the now. It’s all we have – the past is gone, and the future is promised to no one.

Change

Finisterre

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I took this photo yesterday on the beach and it made me think of ‘Finisterre’ by David Whyte: https://onbeing.org/poetry/finisterre/

“but because now, you would find a different way to tread, / and because, through it all, part of you would still walk on, / no matter how, over the waves.”

If you’re looking for something to read that makes you say yes! that’s exactly it, you just put into words exactly how I felt – have a look at Whyte’s poetry.

One of my other favourites is ‘Sweet Darkness’.

“Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet / confinement of your aloneness / to learn / anything or anyone / that does not bring you alive / is too small for you”.

Your world is so big and blue and beautiful. Go explore.