Human, all too human
In Orson Welles’ brilliant film, A Touch of Evil, the director himself played the nefarious Police Chief, Quinlan, finally shot dead in a gun-fight. Marlene Dietrich – who plays a worldly-wise brothel Madame – is asked about Quinlan and says in her smoky tones, infinitely knowing and wry, ‘he was some kind of a man’.
In a sense coaches are often trying to help their clients see a detested colleague, boss or team-member as some kind of a man or woman, i.e. a fallible human being with desirable and less desirable qualities. In other words someone like them. Without getting too technical, this represents also a move to what Klein called the depressive position, where a person (originally the mother as seen by the infant) is accepted as an embodiment of the good and the bad. In adults a regression to dichotomous thinking about others – idealisation or demonization – is, to put it mildly, unhelpful to relationships….
And of course we don’t need to look far to see how this process plays out on the global stage, which illustrates how fundamental these tendencies are. From national, political, gender, religious and racial stereotyping to scapegoating twitter-storms, the constant creation of demonic Others engenders and escalates conflicts as each side seeks to deposit all that is bad in the Other, and all that is good in itself. Is this infantile? Yes, utterly.
In organisations the issue can affect relationships between colleagues, groups and create inter-organisational issues. There are the obvious outcomes in terms of hostility, sabotage, inefficiency, pointless arguments, and political decisions that don’t help the organisation, but there is another: the impact on learning. If you intensely dislike someone, another group, or a competitor company, you often refuse to learn from them as that would somehow represent a victory for them, and also – at the subconscious level – rupture the comforting ‘I’m entirely good; he/she ain’t’ fantasy. Experienced and successful colleagues aren’t listened to – envy may be at the root of the dislike – important departments are isolated and enfeebled, and competitors are ignored or despised even if they are creative and innovative.
The coach’s task here is to help the client see the good in the other person or group, which once achieved changes the dynamic between them and creates a virtuous circle: because people sense at a subliminal level if they are despised or admired and respond accordingly. In order to do this, he or she may have to explore the root causes of this dislike – e.g. an echo of a potent figure who featured early in life, envy, a defence against feelings of vulnerability or incompetence (anger can temporarily make one feel potent). This of course is tricky, because as the other is gradually revealed as ‘good’ as well as ‘bad’ the client may now have to unearth and accept ‘bad’ elements in her/himself and shatter the unconscious self-idealisation and the exporting of those elements that can’t be acknowledged. Only the successful ‘containment’ of the client by the coach – the creation of a safe and supportive environment and relationship in which difficult issues can be explored – will allow these elements to be revealed.
To end with a digression: Nietzsche – who interestingly also wrote ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ – once declared God to be ‘dead’, but went on to warn of the consequences: that without religion moral sensibility might also die. (As an example, the Ten Commandments are all essentially to do with respect for the Other.) The word compassion is less used now, but with its origins in the Latin for ‘suffer with’ it helps us not only to empathise and sympathise with our erstwhile enemies but to recognise and accept that we too are ‘some kind of a person’.
James Mackay is Founder and Director of the Tavistock Institute’s courses: Certificate in Coaching for Leadership and Professional Development and the Certificate in Supervision for Coaching and Consultancy
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