What is acceptable?

Having just returned from abroad where I was coaching a number of leaders in a large firm where there were some serious internal conflicts, I was struck by the fact that a number of people described the conflict going on in the firm and the behaviour of individuals as unacceptable.  Of course, it was always the behaviour of others that was unacceptable.  There was also much discussion of the fact that relationships had irretrievably broken down.  Both these elements make it sound as if there is a rule book somewhere that can be consulted.  Perhaps such a tome does exist and I have missed it, if so, I would be grateful to anyone who could lend me a copy.

The other thing that I noticed was that they described each other as “having a problem that they need help with”; implying a serious mental instability.  As I have mentioned before, my experience has been that for each of us, there is always someone who is a thorn in our side, but for whom our lives would run smoothly.  Much of my coaching involves trying to help people see these individuals differently to “accept” them in their lives and recognise their value – that they are usually the source of our profoundest growth and development.  Many people subscribe to this view but it is a dangerous path, we describe others as having problems that absolve us of the need to see their actions as human or understandable.

Since some of the individuals involved were also in the midst of painful divorces, it prompted me to think about whether a relationship has ever irretrievably broken down.  The leader of the firm, who had a balanced perspective on the situation, challenged my response that I wasn’t sure there was ever an irretrievable breakdown in relationships and said to me that sometimes relationships do breakdown irretrievably.  This prompted me to think about relationships that really have broken down in a spectacular way; the Palestinians and Israelis, Northern Ireland, South Africa etc.  Since the leader of the firm was Irish, we talked about the relationships in Northern Ireland.  Who would have anticipated that Gerry Adams and David Trimble, or even Ian Paisley could work together?  I think all of us might have suggested that that was a relationship that had broken down irretrievably, and yet, the breakthroughs in that relationship has brought the end of over four hundred years of violence conflict.

The implication in the instance of the individuals who were in the midst of the conflict I was trying to work with, was that there was somehow some imaginary formula or process for action when two individuals acknowledged their relationship had broken down irretrievably, somehow that they were now absolved of responsibility.  After talking to everyone who told me that they were exhausted by the conflicts and that a decision had to be taken and someone needed to go, I threw hexagram 47 – Oppression (Exhaustion).  Well, I could not fault the I-Ching here!  In Oppression, the I-Ching says that encountering an adverse fate is a test of character, that it is important to overcome the trouble inwardly and to be able to rise above one’s fate – to be like a tree that bends and has the capacity to return.  It recommends remaining cheerful so that we are not caught in the Oppression.  Oppression is a black hole, a black hole being a situation where we are stuck because our picture of how we want the world to be does not match the reality we are encountering.  Everyone in the office was stuck in a black hole.  I too felt exhausted by the conflict and how to help the individuals involved.  Having spent many hours the previous day with one of the protagonists, I could see they were very stuck.  Only at the end had I found a way of dealing with it creatively and beginning to make progress.  I felt as sad and stumped as everyone.  At this point one of the leaders not directly involved came to see me (let’s call him Peter) and he had a different perspective from all the others affected; he was someone I had been working with for some time and had started to work with the I-Ching. He was not exhausted like everyone else, instead he described to me with great clarity exactly how the situation had come about and the stunning symmetry in the way that the two main individuals involved had swapped positions so that the way that they were now treating each other exactly mirrored the positions they had started in.  The third person most directly affected by the conflict was also someone I was coaching: let’s call him Philip.  Philip was frustrated because he felt the behaviour of the woman involved, let’s call her Jane (none of them are English but I am going to use English names!), was unacceptable and that the firm needed to kick her out.  I pointed out to him that in the past, he had found himself in this position three times already and each time he had been sure that kicking out the person he perceived to be causing the trouble and distracting everyone from getting on with work would solve the problem, yet each time, a new person had popped up as the problem.  For me, it was like trying to chop off the head of the Hydra, each time you lopped one off a new one sprouted up.  For the first time, he could clearly see the repeating pattern.

In discussing all of this with my coachee Peter, we were relfecting on what a sense of humour Life had and how brilliantly it had orchestrated the situation so that everyone was learning what they needed to.  What had seemed a mess to everyone else was to him perfect and he saw that if he trod carefully he might be able to help everyone learn and shift the situation.  The I-Ching says that all men are one in their hearts.  I could see in this situation that Peter’s heart was open to everyone and critically to the situation – he had not closed down to the possibility of being able to work and to learn, quite the reverse.  Since we are all one in hearts, I have come to realise that if one heart closes down it is like losing an arterial road in the road network, it backs up traffic everywhere as people try to compensate for the blockage in this route.  Everyone is affected and everyone is blocked.  In this situation with the two individuals (Jane and Christopher), the whole firm in this country was sucked into the conflict and everyone’s hearts were affected.  Indeed the whole firm was in danger.  The fact that it was so dangerous for everyone, I could see was very valuable.  If it wasn’t so dangerous where would the incentive be for everyone to take it seriously and work on it.  Similarly, I recognised that it was great that everyone was fed up and exhausted by it, because it meant that they were ready to try a different approach – they had exhausted a way of acting that was not working.  Despite the difficulties and frustrations, there were more breakthroughs in coaching people than there had been for a while.

At this point, I want to take a slight detour to talk about my experience of organisations.  Margaret Thatcher famously said that there is no such thing as society, only individuals and families.  At one level, there is a truth in this similar to that of the old chinese proverb which states that if you want to change the nation, change the state, if you want to change the state, change the family, if you want to change the family change yourself.  I have written about the fact that organisations only change when individuals become more conscious.  However, I also recognise, as an astrologer that organisations like individuals have personalities (charts) and that it is valuable to think about what the black hole game might be for an organisation.  Most individuals do not consider that organisations have personalities, they consider that they can create the personalities of the organisations (in this sense I see cultures and personalities as interchangeable when it comes to organisations).  From my experience it has been far more valuable to see organisations like I see individuals, ie. that their basic nature is a given, in the same way it is for our personalities.  Our role then, is not to try and work against their natures but rather to understand and become more conscious of them so that we can get the best from them and learn how to develop and evolve them.  In this firm, the culture has remained the same for the many years I have worked with it.  There are always large flamboyant central conflicts in relationships which dominate the firm and it has regularly tried to scapegoat one of the protagonists and hope that this will solve the problem, but in the process it has become smaller and smaller as more and more people have to be cut out.  I have been working at helping people become aware of this and be able to handle conflict and competition so that there is a core of people who can help the firm move forward. This has had some success, in parts of the firm we have caught the seeds of conflict early and resolved them so that the individuals work co-operatively together and that part of the organisation thrives.  It is a critical time for the firm, everyone thinks it is disastrous but really it is an opportunity.  There is a chance to break the pattern inherent in the culture of scapegoating difficult people and getting rid of them and instead working with them.  I see in organisations (and individuals) that we are often tested by difficult situations and fail to be conscious enough to resolve them, they then do tend to come again and if we have worked at becoming more conscious we have a chance individually and collectively to put it right and to resolve the conflict.  The results are well worth the difficulty.  Northern Ireland was stuck for four hundred years and now it has moved forward.  Every situation holds the possibility of starting afresh for me, which is why I wonder about the finality of irretrievable or unacceptable.

Central to this issue of how to tolerate people is how we see business.  The I-Ching states in the top line of the Receptive;

Six at the top means: Dragons fight in the meadow. Their blood is black and yellow.

In the top place the dark element should yield to the light. If it attempts to maintain a position to which it is not entitled and to rule instead of serving, it draws down upon itself the anger of the strong. A struggle ensues in which it is overthrown, with injury, however, to both sides. The dragon, symbol of heaven, comes to fight the false dragon that symbolized the inflation of the earth principle. Midnight blue is the color of heaven; yellow is the color of earth. Therefore, when black and yellow blood flow, it is a sign that in this unnatural contest both primal powers suffer injury.

I noticed that in this instance a number of people said to me, that one had to be practical and the important thing was clients and the work.  The issue of the conflict was seen as a distraction that needed to be got rid of, that individuals did not have time for these emotional difficulties.  This for me, is an example of this line operating.  Most people felt that these issues and challenges they faced were the distraction that was getting in the way of business.  Yet my own experience has been that these issues and how to respond to them and work at them are our business, our most important business.  The paradox for this firm is that not having dealt with these issues is the factor that has most damaged the firm and where they have been dealt with wisely the business has thrived.  I recognise that in all businesses there are people with difficult and challenging personalities, I am interested to work out how we help these people not how we condemn them or scapegoat them.  Since some (mentally unstable) people would see me as having a difficult and challenging personality, I clearly have a vested interest in this respect!

So is there behaviour which is unacceptable or a relationship which is irretrievable?  In both of these cases, the real message was that these were excuses for not being willing to work at a relationship.  Saying something is unacceptable absolves us of the responsibility to understand it, to see if we might have contributed to it, to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes.  Saying a relationship is irretrievable is a similar cop-out.  It is really saying, I do not want to work at it.  The latter is more honest because it takes responsibility for our choice, the former pretends that the choice is out of our hands.  I wonder if what is unacceptable is to say that anything is unacceptable – of course this statement too is unacceptable!

In the I-Ching Hexagram 54 The Marrying Maiden talks about relationships.

Thunder over the lake: The image of THE MARRYING MAIDEN. Thus the superior man understands the transitory in the light of the eternity of the end.

But every relationship between individuals bears within it the danger that wrong turns may be taken, leading to endless misunderstandings and disagreements. Therefore it is necessary constantly to remain mindful of the end. If we permit ourselves to drift along, we come together and are parted again as the day may determine. If on the other hand a man fixes his mind on an end that endures, he will succeed in avoiding the reefs that confront the closer relationships of people.

The end that endures is to keep our heart open and to work on understanding others and resolving conflict.  This does not mean that there will not be short term conflicts and difficulties, that our emotions will not feel overwhelming but that our short term emotions will not be a good base for the relationship working. Only if we can set our sight on making relationships work can we avoid being blown off course by short term conflicts.  Perhaps the saddest part of this situation was that the two individuals involved had once been the very closest of friends.  If we can love someone once can that really be lost forever?  Everyone in this situation was looking for who was to blame.  I told the two protagonists it was my fault; I should have done a better job of resolving the conflict between them from the start.  My maxim has been not to reject others.  I am prepared to challenge people to see the truth of situations, but I have never sacked someone yet from any organisation.  Some have left by their choice but I have made it clear that they are not being rejected, I have given them choice about whether they wanted to work at the problems they faced with my full support or whether they choose not to.  In the end, even if they have left, they have acknowledged that it was their choice for which they had responsibility.  I think something changes when we have choice.

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1 Comment

Filed under On Life the Universe and Everything

One response to “What is acceptable?

  1. I think you are brave dealing with these big issues. What would the world do without a challenging personality who is unafraid of being challenged itself to walk into the fray and sort things out. Go for it –

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