There is much discussion these days about ‘speaking truth to power’. But what if power isn’t capable of listening?
Before we judge them for that, let’s put ourselves in power’s shoes. Who do we mean when we talk about the people in power to whom the truth has to be spoken? Are we talking about those that Barry Oshry calls ‘Tops’? Those that stay awake at night worrying about things when others are soundly asleep?
The people in power
I imagine our Top to be a chief executive of a large organisation with complex challenges and multiple, difficult balances to be worked through. With hard, often intractable choices to be chewed over. They are ultimately accountable when things go the way they go. In a contemporary organisation one might view the job of the Top to be almost undoable; the considerations almost crushingly contradictory and complex. Whilst at the same time facing and a great number of problems over which they have little or no control. For most people this is the sweet spot of anxiety: being held responsible for that which you can’t change. Most Tops I meet often feel ironically powerless, like the pilot of a plane whose controls have been disconnected.
This anxiety has impact. Surfacing as routines of defensiveness and self-protection that we all can exhibit. Meanwhile, let’s imagine someone who works for you has been on a course to learn how to speak the truth to you. Perhaps even the truth that you may be very sensitive to, of which you are half-aware, amongst all the difficult balances and choices that you face. In theory you are supposed to respond like a veritable saint, to someone telling you in no one uncertain terms (because that’s what they’ve been taught on this course) what you may least like to hear. No wonder there are somethings that remain ‘undiscussable’.
Speaking truth to power is not just a question of the skill of the speaker. It might also be as much about the skill of the person being spoken to.
Someone who supposedly has the magnanimity to respond calmly and openly, even though that is a very big ask indeed. So how about we help the person being spoken to, the Top, learn how to deal with this arch complexity and anxiety that they are faced with? Is it possible to give them a greater capacity to hear truth? Can they learn to side-step those defensive routines?
Helping power listen to truth – an example
A few years ago, I worked for a large public-sector agency. I had the dual role of coaching the senior team and supporting the community of change practitioners working on a new operating model. This was a complex task, being played out in the public eye.
The Chief Executive was new in post, quite young and eager to make their mark as a high achiever. They had a good heart and were well-intentioned, despite the enormous pressure that they were under to deliver. Their own personal style was to be in an enormous hurry. This hurry infused into the culture of the organisation, sometimes to the detriment of quality decision-making. Yet no-one felt confident to point this out.
In a series of one to ones, I managed to help this Top start to notice how their hurry was having an impact on the ability of their colleagues to do the work, that ensured the operating model was something staff felt they had a stake in. The CEO had just enough self-awareness to notice their own impact, and yet it was not easy for them to hear my feedback. These conversations were at times uncomfortable. As one of the members of the change community tasked with the operating model work said to me: ‘Only you could have said that to them, because you are an external consultant. It would have been career limiting for anyone else’.
This is not an unusual pattern. In fact, it is very common for the most senior leader to find their own psychological patterns in some way imprinted on the wider system. If they are unaware of these patterns, then it can become a real problem.
How can Mayvin help?
For many years now we have been running a programme that helps leaders carefully and sensitively face their own personal patterns. It is a group process, using the techniques derived from Gestalt Psychology, amongst other influences. A group of peers is led through this process by two skilful facilitators. The way the process works is by bringing peoples’ experience of each other into what is sometimes called the ‘here and now’. Enabling direct and honest feedback in an atmosphere of safety and maturity.
It isn’t always comfortable, but it is often profoundly transformational, because the group has a way of facing each person with their own defensive routines in a helpful way. When these defensive routines are exhibited by a person of some authority and positional power, they may well be played out across their organisation, as per the example above. It is in a setting like this ‘here and now’ group where people can usefully understand how their own personal patterns play out in the wider organisation and indeed in their personal relationships and even in their families.
This is not a magic bullet. It is a carefully constructed and skilfully run arena that is based on nearly a century of thinking and technique, brought up to date by Mayvin’s know-how, for example, in the virtual as well as the face to face environment.
At Mayvin, we have been offering our own particular flavour of this work since 2012. We see this as a laboratory in which people can find a safe work bench where they can practice and develop their awareness of their own defensive routines and patterns which get played out in their relationships and workplaces.
Power Listening to Truth Event Recording
Feedback from our Power Listening to Truth Event
During the event people went off to breakout rooms to discuss the following
What do you imagine people say about you?
- That makes you difficult to be with/work with
- That they don’t say because they don’t want to hurt you or upset you?
- Notice when you talk about this rather than do it!
Here were some of their answers:
If this is something you would be interested in talking to us about further please get in touch on email@example.com and if you are interested in our upcoming events take a look at our Events Calendar.