Shifting orientations and multiple ways of knowing

On Being Stuck

For a couple of weeks now I’ve been trying to write something. More to the point I’ve been feeling a need to write something on new ideas about learning and knowing. But every time I sit down to do so – nothing really comes. Certainly not anything that causes me to say “Ah, that’s it.” Rather, to the contrary, I keep saying (to myself), “No, that’s not it!”. At the same time I have been trawling back through a range of practices and “practical theories” that I’m interested in or that I know have influenced the way I go about my work.

Last night it struck me that at least part of the reason why I keep feeling “that’s not it” is because I have begun to wonder how these practices and theories, that might best be described as being “at the edge” of practice for consultants, coaches and facilitators, might also be useful for the people I work with. As I began to think about this my first temptation was to go where I have been before and to think about the skills and capabilities that leaders and managers might need in order to operate “at the edge”. Something tells me “that’s not it either”! So rather than try to decide in advance what needs to be said I decided to simply start writing.

It starts with a several of shifts I’ve made. Not in any kind of “Ah-ha moment” but gradually over time in more of a slow, connected epiphany.

Multiple Ways of Knowing

I have become increasingly aware that I have shifted to operate from the perspective that we know in many ways that go beyind simple logical-rational, language-based understanding. These ways of knowing are inter-connected and mutually reinforcing, but can be very difficult to express. For me this has two really important consequences. Firstly it means that we know much more than we can say or write down, so we need other, more poetic and visual ways of expressing what we want to convey. Conversely we also need to open up to hearing what is expressed in these more poetic ways. Secondly it means that there will be times when we have a “felt sense” about something that we can’t yet put into words.

Operating From Within

I have also shifted to a heightened awareness of always operating “from within” whatever situation I am involved in. It is very tempting as a coach or consultant to think that you somehow stand outside the situation your client is working on and that this gives you some sort of privileged knowledge. Likewise, as a facilitator or coach it is very tempting to think that you can be a disspassionate observer, and that because of this your observations carry more weight. To pretend that we are not part of the situation or that we can look in from the outside and see it more clearly doesn’t really make sense. See it differently – yes. Draw attention to unnoticed aspects of it – certainly. But seeing it in a qualitatively better way – possibly a bit arrogant! The consequence for me is interesting, and something I’m still exploring. I’ve begun playing with the idea that my presence and the tools I use to stimulate description, exploration and discussion about future possibilities can open people up to what they already know but haven’t noticed. It can also enable “expansive” learning about things they are yet to know.

Competing Commitments and Interests

Finally I have shifted to become much more curious about how any of us, but leaders and managers in particular, juggle the competing interests and commitments. These can arise out of their own motivation and concerns for being involved in particular work, what the situation seems to call for, bearing in mind that this is always socially and relationally enabled and constrained, and their capacity to act in new and different ways in order to change the situation.

There is a link here to my other two shifts. As I’ve become more curious about this aspect of working together with others I have become more attune to working from within and more open to the sorts of knowing that arises out my relating to people and situations around me. I have also become less dependent on more theoretical/propositional knowledge. At the very least I am much more attentive when my experiencing of things begins to grate with the kinds of theoretical “oughts” and “shoulds” propounded by some of the mainstream leadership and management thinking.

Perhaps the most significant consequences of all this exploring and thinking has been the impact on the methods and practices I’m using. Increasingly I’m looking for approaches and practices that work well “from within” (ie that have some form of built in reflexivity), that draw on multiple ways of knowing without needing to settle on a single answer and which nurture the ongoing juggle among personal motivation and commitment, innovation and socially/relationally acceptable activity.

So … that’s something like “it”! I’ll write more about some of the practices and approaches in future posts.


This article was written by Connexity Associates member and Director, Phillip Bonser.