The fertile void is one of the most read articles on our website. So we decided to delve deeper into the topic of making space for thinking time between one activity and another.
In this podcast episode, James Trager and Tony Fraser, discussed the fertile void and Gestalt psychology in the context of organisations. Tony reflects that often in organisations, activity and action, or being busy, can be confused with being productive and gaining results. Taking time to reflect, to think creatively, to stare out of the window is countercultural. We're taught from an early age, don't just sit there, do something.
But instead, in business the opposite, is sometimes more appropriate. Don't just do something, sit there. Ceaseless driven activity, without a chance to stop can leave leaders with loss of meaning and purpose, on a bit of a hamster wheel, not getting anywhere and not creatively adapting.
The fertile void, is a blank open space between what's been done and what needs to be done now or next. It's a chance to stand back and see what's important and have some undirected thinking time. It's not filled with to do lists and signposts. The value of individuals or organisations recognising the fertile void, is that it can give the opportunity for satisfaction, recognising progress and giving meaning so that people feel better about an activity.
It's an opportunity for creativity, something unexpected, something different to make itself known, making space for that. Priorities. There'll be competing demands and giving yourself time to choose instead of just jumping into the next thing. And finally recognising something is complete. But we don't want to tell you too much otherwise there will nothing there for James and Tony to say. So we'll pass it over to them. Hope you enjoy it.
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Why did Tony write about the fertile void originally?
James Traeger 3:10
Okay, so good. So we're talking about the fertile void, and what that means in relation to organisational change and the practice of leadership development and other things that we do. So it would be good just to start, I suppose Tony, with, you wrote an article. I think it was back in 2015, on the fertile void, and it became one of our most read and downloaded articles or or pieces that we have on our website. So it obviously attracted some attention. So I'd be interested to start with that and say a bit about what what prompted you to write that what was behind that article?
Tony Fraser 3:59
I think it was my experience of working. I was working with a global bank and supporting a leadership development programme with some follow on coaching particularly and some personal development, just in support of this leadership development programme.
My repeated experience was that these very bright, very talented and energetic people were feeling almost crushed by the relentless pressure that they believed they were under. It was a pressure for activity.
And when you ask them about what the purpose of their job was, or what they why they thought they they were in the senior leadership positions, it wasn't really for their activity. It was for their judgement, their presence and their capacity to motivate people and bring people with them. So that sort of franticness that they got themselves into, you know, was so anxiety provoking, and it wasn't productive.
They, when you talk to them about, well, are you getting somewhere, they almost look hopeless, and how would I know? They didn't know whether or not they were making progress, and just felt driven by the need for activity. I think that it was built into the culture. The activity was how you achieved some sort of what was, you know, self esteem or acknowledgement. But actually it was, paradoxically, it was pretty unproductive.
James Traeger 6:06
And these were bright people from what I understand.
Tony Fraser 6:10
I mean, really smart, you know, the minute you talk to them about making space for undirected thinking time, they got it. But also, you know, they were dealing with very large scale complex problems in different regions. In South Africa, in the Middle East, in, in India, where they had all the problems that come of competition, and also the problems of regulation. And during a time, you know, this was in the post 2008, crash time, when, banks were really under pressure, and this bank was doing well in those circumstances. It was well placed. And trying to take advantage of, as it were an opportunity when some of the other banks have been crippled, right?
How does Gestalt psychology relate to the fertile void and making space for thinking time?
James Traeger 7:10
And, and so, in the article, you talk a bit about Gestalt psychology or the approach of Gestalt. So, how did you relate Gestalt then to this, this experience of these people who are somewhat kind of paralysed by incessant activity?
Tony Fraser 7:28
Right? Well, the whole idea about Gestalt is, I mean, the essence of it, is to know what you want, or what you need, or what you want to achieve. And to act purposefully, but in a creative, adaptive way, not not in a compulsive or locked in or habitual way to get your need met, or to get to achieve a result.
The Gestalt has this, this idea of a cycle of a right awareness, leading to some sort of recognition of a need to orientation and an understanding of what's available to action, to a sense of completed to some sort of exchange, perhaps with the environment or doing something in effect.
And this lovely idea in Gestalt of contact is, which is an exchange with the world doing something in the world or having, getting to grips with something, and then a sense of withdrawal, completion, and satisfaction. Right.
And it's an essential part that closing, you know, I'm done with that. That's an essential part of the Gestalt process. And then the fertile void that is where, in that moment when I'm done with that, now what. That's the idea of the fertile void - some space for thinking time between one activity and the next. And of course, in an organisation world. There isn't much space for that, you know, that the idea of a sense of recognition and completion, Completion.
James Traeger 9:44
Tony Fraser 9:45
It's sort of, no, no, we've got to get on with the needle. What's now what's next.
Why is withdrawing and taking time to think countercultural?
James Traeger 9:49
And, you know, you've talked about that idea of withdrawal being countercultural and you know, what, what do you mean by that? I mean, what, why, why is it countercultural to withdraw and go into that space of the fertile void, to have some thinking time?
Tony Fraser 10:11
There's always more to do, and in an organisation, an organisation that's under pressure will create demands, and it actually introduces a sort of an intense intensity of action. And that's what organisations seem to reward, this intense action. Actually, what they reward is results. I mean, you know,
James Traeger 10:38
Yeah, yeah, but what they want is results.
Tony Fraser 10:41
Yes what they want is results. But people equate activity with progress towards a result. Right and, you know people have written about this before. Sometimes doing the same thing harder, does not actually get you where you need to go. Sometimes you need to stop and have thinking time, on doing something different. Right. But that stop bit, which is the first half of it. Yeah, come comes hard. Because it's so ingrained, it becomes habitual, and compulsive, it actually becomes compulsive drive. And, and people lose sight of the fact that it's got them in the grip.
How long does the Gestalt cycle take?
James Traeger 11:26
So what you're saying is that there is this kind of potential kind of healthy cycle of creativity, and completing it leads to a sense of satisfaction. And in order to complete it, we have to have a kind of space a moment, some time to think or, I mean, how long is that moment in that fertile void? How long can it be? Yeah, it will, how big is that cycle? How long does that cycle take?
Tony Fraser 11:53
The cycle can be, like, a second or two? Or it can be half a lifetime. So you know, you can have a quick, I need to check that number. I need to know has that happened? Or I need to see if so and so's there so I can talk to them in a minute about something that's on my mind. It's, it's just a quick, yeah, I need that. I've got it. Or it can be I want financial security and I want financial independence. And that can take half a lifetime or longer to. But when you do you know that sense of? Yeah, I've got it. I'm there.
James Traeger 12:46
Isn't there a danger that people don't go? I've got it. And they're, they're constantly because it's actually kind of cultural of what you're saying to?
Why do we need to make space for thinking time?
Tony Fraser 12:55
My friend used to say, you know, it's like the cat that chases its tail. When he catches it. Now what?
James Traeger 13:05
Yeah. Martin talks about the dog that catches the car, you know, it's like
Tony Fraser 13:15
But you know, life without any sense of satisfaction. What that relentless activity process generates with no thinking time, just feels like a dark, it ends up feeling like a hamster wheel. A dark tunnel, in which I don't, you know, I'm not getting anywhere, I'm just driven.
And what this, the idea of the Gestalt cycle and that sense of satisfaction, and that moment of withdrawal of that quiet thinking time between what's done and what's next. Right, is it's a nourishing experience, and it creates that sense of, of progress, I am you know, things aren't getting done, I am achieving things things get finished and then left.
James Traeger 14:08
So tell me about then if a person or an organisation doesn't do that what what happens, you know, what, what goes on, you know, what, what it what does it become
Tony Fraser 14:25
The experience that people have and the people in the bank had was of remorseless, ceaseless driven activity without, without much, if any sense of progress, right, and these people are really unhappy, you know that it's not, it's, and they lose, they. They have to ask themselves Why am I doing this? What is for that? They lose a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives and feel like they're just being used and even worse, used up used to the point of emptiness. And they often fail, you know, that it can lead to failure, if they, if they don't have a process of self regulation, or a refuge and often, you know, family life, social life, sport. Yeah, do they have refuges, are there places for recuperation? Yeah, but if they don't have, if those aren't satisfactory, then
James Traeger 15:43
They can also have the same relentless activity in them, can't they family life and, and everything else, you know, becomes habitual, that we're because withdrawal is countercultural. So therefore, there's just more activities. And there's never a point.
Why are people so busy being busy and why do they sometimes avoid the fertile void?
Tony Fraser 16:00
Yes, that can happen that, you know, family life is something to get on with, or, you know, relationships or something to get on with rather than, and there is a part of this is for some people being left with nothing to do. And no activity, no, no forward drive, can feel, because it's so unfamiliar. Yeah. Can feel very threatening.
James Traeger 16:35
Tony Fraser 16:37
Very comfortable. And so if they get into a sort of, what am I going to do? They get frantic about having a full shedule of activity.
James Traeger 16:49
And so there's something about meaning, isn't that? Actually, if people don't have that chance to stop that, you know, to complete something in that sense, then it sort of becomes a bit meaningless. They become bit robotic? And
Tony Fraser 17:06
Yes, well, if, if the, if the underlying purpose is to maintain a high level of activity, that's very different from what do I need. An understanding of what I need or want or an intention that, as it were, has? Yes, has some meaning exactly, as you say, has something, this is something I want, or I know what this is for. Yeah, I am doing this. And so they're quite different. One is a sort of, as long as I'm active. Yeah. I'm safe, I can carry on. Yeah. That's one stance. The other is, what for? What, what's the meaning? What's the purpose here? Why, why am I, why is this important to me?
Why do we need to make space for the fertile void/ that thinking time at work?
James Traeger 17:59
So they're not creatively adapting anymore. They're in a kind of, as you say, the hamster wheel, so we want to ask then. So why does that matter organizationally? What happens to the organisation? If people are in that, in that state? Yeah.
Tony Fraser 18:16
I think the simple answer is that they come to they simply build activity into their, they translate their jobs into a series of activities, that doesn't have much meaning and doesn't have much purpose. And therefore, first of all, may not be, they may be very busy, but not doing the right things or not doing the thing, the things that really need doing. So they they never get to question. Is this the right thing? You know, working hard at this is this the right thing? And, and the second is, it's a life that that it feels empty, it feels a life without, without a sense of purpose, there's no satisfaction in in even if there's progress being made, it doesn't feel satisfying.
James Traeger 19:10
But uh, but I would imagine that priorities become a bit unclear, you know, bigger, bigger fuzzy, that what gets measured is activity rather than anything that's achieved it reaches a goal or at least, that's unofficially what gets measured. Officially the goal is to get measured, but actually what people are noticing is whether people are busy or not.
How do you tackle the start early, finish late culture? And does it really mean we and the organisations we work for are more productive?
Tony Fraser 19:36
Yeah, well, I think that does, you know, organisations do get into a sort of competition of, you know, Oh, I'm so busy. And the long hours you know, in, in this bank that I worked with, was a sort of competition to be the last to leave the office you know, and the senior you are the later you know, the earlier you need to arrive the late and that your constant You're seem constantly to be being people doing things. Yeah.
James Traeger 20:04
And so very active.
Tony Fraser 20:08
I think it's, it's more about people reassuring themselves than it is about the organisation being productive.
What is the fertile void?
James Traeger 20:20
But that productivity is very important, though, isn't it that the fact that, you know, this could be a way of organisations thinking more about what makes them productive? Yes. And that's important, I think in terms of what we're doing. So, so to kind of summarise them, what, what is the fertile void in all of that, you know, what, actually, how would you define it?
Tony Fraser 20:46
It's the space between what's done? What's finished? And what's next. It's a moment of, and it can be, you know, a very short time, like, fractions of a second. Yeah. And, or it could, it can, you know, you can extend it and into, you know, a few, certainly minutes and possibly even hours. And in some ways you could think of, you know, a really good away day for a group might be, you know, a sort of fertile void, a place in which we're not here to carry on business. As usual, we're here to see, notice where we are, and see what's, what's needed now. To have some reflecting and thinking time.
James Traeger 21:44
And what might emerge anew I mean, we're very often have to work quite hard when we're organising the sessions, particularly for top teams to get them to have a bit of space in it, rather than just fill it with more kind of, you know, more of the same, more activity.
Tony Fraser 22:02
And of course, as an OD practitioner, if you've, if you've set a programme, yeah. You want to follow the programme, even if that's not what you need to stop and pause for a moment. So the fertile void is that space between what's, you know, what's been done? And what and what is needed now? And it, it's an opportunity. It doesn't have. And that's what makes it avoid, it isn't full of signposts and to do lists. Yeah. It's a moment of, let's see, what, of standing back and seeing what's important.
Is the fertile void a time to celebrate what has come before?
James Traeger 22:49
Yeah. So assessing, choosing, you know, celebrating even, I wonder whether it's a chance for for that to emerge as well.
Tony Fraser 23:00
Well, I think the celebrating probably comes before, you know, that's in the completing and withdrawal. But the fertile void is the it's, it's a moment blank space, an open space, into which oh, you know, sometimes competing, you know, more than one thing will come up. But it's a space in which, right, what, what should what, what is the most important, or what's the right thing to be focused on next.
From the blank thinking space something will arise
James Traeger 23:37
It's quite, philosophical, isn't it? Because it just reminds me of Shakespeare talking about Nothing comes from nothing. Where he was actually challenging that idea that something does come from nothing, you know, something emerges from space. Yes. And that was in a what he was discussing there. So, you were talking about earlier about why it might not happen. You know, what, what, what stops us from from engaging with, you know, a bit of space where something can come from nothing? Yeah,
Don't just do something, sit there
Tony Fraser 24:09
Yeah. Well, I mean, the, you know, the obvious thing, if, if, if you're just sat there staring out the window or twiddling your thumbs as it were, and that's visible, and it would be, it's disapproved off, you know.
It's, and it makes people anxious, you know, this guy's been paid, God knows what, and, and he's not doing anything. Yeah. So, so that, so being seen to be not doing anything, yeah. It's, you know, and whilst, you know, you can take a minute not to be doing something, but because activity gets so, such a premium and it's it seems so essential, people don't allow themselves even the minute, you know.
So, so it's disapproved of, and people will be judged for not acting. And that there isn't immediate evidence that they're acting and their activities productive. As I said, I think another reason why it's difficult is this activity has a sort of reassurance to it, at least I'm doing something. And, you know, there's that don't just sit there do something.
James Traeger 24:16
Don't just do something sit there. For some people, silence is very uncomfortable, isn't it, that silence is very uncomfortable, because actually what might happen in that space, anything can happen in that space.
The fertile void / thinking time can lead to the recognition of uncomfortable feelings
Tony Fraser 26:02
So that I think that that is, some of what people want to avoid is their own. The reality of their own experience, some of their own experience, you know, realising I, I'm frightened,
James Traeger 26:21
I'm not happy.
Tony Fraser 26:22
I'm not happy, I'm, I'm furious.,angry, hopeless, helpless.
James Traeger 26:29
I'm helpless. I'm lost.
Tony Fraser 26:32
So, so activity, banishes all those things to the periphery, you don't have to deal with them, because I've got something to get on with.
James Traeger 26:42
Because because if I'm right, what comes next in the cycle, because it is a cycle is sensation. So people, you know, in the Gestalt cycles. So what people what might emerge from the fertile void is a sensation, which becomes a feeling it might be again, a full of rage or unhappiness, or just general
Tony Fraser 27:06
Disruptive and unwanted feeling. So, you know, a good reason and good in inverted commas. Reason for avoiding the fertile void is to eliminate or suppress disruptive, unwanted feelings. Yeah. But you know that that works for a while. Yeah. Those bloody feelings have a habit of popping up at some other point, or disturbing or disrupting,
James Traeger 27:38
They're always going to be there. I mean, is that that notion of unfinished business in Gestalt? This idea that, that if we don't, in some way face and make contact with those uncomfortable feelings that always be there kind of at some level?
Tony Fraser 27:53
Yeah. Yes, that's one part of unfinished business. But it's also, you know, if, if you if you're frantically pursuing one activity after another after another, and you never do the completion and the satisfaction bit? Yeah. That that also kind of disrupts the sense of purpose and meaning.
Does someone's position in an organisation affect whether they feel they have permission to take time to think between activities?
James Traeger 28:24
Yes, absolutely. It reminds me a little bit of that the Don Draper pose in Mad Men where he's sat there with his hand, on the back of the sofa kind of staring out the window. And his colleague, Roger is always complaining about the fact that he's sitting there doing nothing, but you know, because he's the creative director, he can get away with it. So there is something about power in there, I suppose about you know, who has the right to have, you know, the moment of pause, you know, or allows themselves takes themselves into that space. So, I think, I think in the article, you tell a bit of a story about that, don't use someone that you encountered, who, who, who took you into that realisation,
Tony Fraser 29:10
Really enacted personified it in a, demonstrated it, I was I was hugely, I mean, he was a very, very successful, he was an IT head of it for a different another bank. It was, as it always is, you know, a time of massive changes going on in in technology and he ran, you know, it was definitely it was the biggest function, if you like in in the bank.
I was involved in developing some training programme and I wanted big sort of major technology intervention to enable the distribution of training, using, you know, the technology system to deliver it. So I needed to know whether or not he was going to support that.
Because if it was going to take a substantial budget, and I, you know, he was, he was very busy, it was difficult to get hold him, I went end of the day, sort of 18.30. I thought I'll see if he's in his office. And I, you know, he's got five minutes for a chat. So I went up to his, his office. And he was there, sort of quietly looking out the window.
So I knocked, you know, I thought, am I, you know, what am I disturbing here? So I, asked what are you doing? And he said, well, I'm just reflecting on the day, kind of recognising what I've got done. And, you know, I'll, I'll spend a few minutes kind of working out what I need to set up for tomorrow. I was, you know, that that was not how things worked in this bank. I was really surprised that this and the atmosphere in his office was, it was almost meditative.
There was a sense of calm and quiet. And this guy was under huge pressure. But he just gave himself about 20 minutes every day, he said, to see what what to know, where he was seeing what had happened, and see and make some, put his thoughts together about what what was next where he needed to put his attention.
How does the fertile void relate to mindfulness practice and how is it different?
James Traeger 31:58
So that having that sense of achieving things and, and feeling satisfied, and yes, for it to be to be. It reminds me of mindfulness, I suppose. I mean, is it related to mindfulness practice?
Tony Fraser 32:11
James Traeger 32:13
So I suppose the difference for me about about mindfulness is, we're sort of deliberately creating a kind of space to do that as an activity. It's almost like another activity, it's quite ironic, whereas what you're describing is a more natural kind of cycle of life.
Tony Fraser 32:32
I think that's the difference. So I mean, mindfulness practice is, is really good for this, because you get into that state of mind, where you can see what's important, you can allow things to come up. Yeah, but the difference is you don't you don't sit for 10 minutes or half an hour, or whatever it is, you simply in this in, in the course of your work, you will, you know, as things get done.
And as your as you conduct your day, those those spaces come up naturally, and just maybe opening them up and fully allowing them to, you know, allowing yourself to experience it. That might be the that's where they join up as it were. But it is yes, it's part of the natural order as opposed to another sort of assigned activity,
James Traeger 33:39
Or we've turned it into another activity in a way. So anyway, just to finish, then to sum up this idea of undirected reflection or thinking time, so we talked about reflective practice quite a bit and reflectivity as well, which is sort of looking at yourself in the process of reflecting. But that undirected reflection, which is potentially hugely creative, emerging, something from a space, but also potentially quite disruptive as well, because who knows what might emerge, it might be, you know, people can only stand so much truth as they say, yes. So it's actually aware of being faced with what might emerge, which might be surprising or, or even discomforting, yes.
It is your choice how and whether to respond to the thoughts which arise
Tony Fraser 34:30
But you know, it's there and if it's there, you might as well, feel it and you don't have to do anything, but you can choose what you do with it.
Yeah. So I, I would say you know, the value of recognising the fertile void and giving it, giving yourself the chance and organisations supporting people who do and maybe even encouraging. First of all, it creates a sense of satisfaction, that that you recognise progress. And that brings meaning to what you're doing and feeling better about the activity.
The second thing I think that's really important is is that what you've just talked about, that creates the opportunity for creativity. So something unexpected or something different to make itself known. Creating a space in which that can happen.
And the third really important thing is is about priorities. You will have competing demands. How do you choose and, and give yourself thinking time to choose rather than just jumping into the next thing? Yeah. I think those those are probably, you know, and recognising when something's finished, and you can, you know, it's it's done.
James Traeger 36:26
You're good. Yeah. Okay. That's fine. So, you know, that's a good point for us to stop, isn't it to have satisfied? Thank you.
Tony Fraser 36:38
Claire Newell 36:40
Thank you so much for listening to us today. And we hope to see you next time. Take care bye bye.