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In praise of philosophers and other experts

philosophers

I haven’t much time for the anti-expert sentiment that came out of the referendum campaign. But the Brexiteer blogger, Pete North, has made an articulation of the case against expertise that makes sense to me. He takes issue with the the narrow economistic perspective advocated by the corporate sector and he rightly points out that other considerations are at play in Brexit:

“There seems to be a quest to seek out a perfect answer to a complex question. But there is no perfect answer because you have to hold this Brexit crystal up to the light and see the many reflections it casts. It is entirely a matter of perspective and it extends beyond the realms of economics and into the domain of identity, culture, heritage, class and a myriad of rational and irrational concerns, all of which have equal standing. So diverse are the views that there is only really one way to settle it. Democracy. Imperfect though it may be, it is at least fair.”

Much as I agree with the sentiments expressed, this doesn’t amount to a convincing case against expertise. Rather, it underlines that what we take to be expertise in public debate is much too narrow.

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Going deep in conversation with insight dialogue

If I’m working with a group that is highly committed to improving the quality of relationship between them, I might reach for Insight Dialogue.

This is actually a meditation practice developed by Gregory Kramer, a meditation that is conducted in relationship with someone else. Its essence is that it interrupts the normal routine of conversation with deliberate pauses and reflections, so that we might connect with the perception that we hold that might otherwise lie just beneath conscious awareness.

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Dancing with nonviolent communication to change the conversation in organisations

One of the methodolgies we use to change the habits of conversation in organisations is nonviolent communication (NVC). This is a clunky name for a practice, developed by Marshal Rosenberg. It is deceptively simple but also profound in the insights it generates about what’s going on when people talk to each other.

Marshal Rosenberg’s key insight is that often communication, people are seeking – consciously or unconsciously – to satisfy needs. It’s the frustration of these needs that can cause relationships to become mired in conflict. The route to understanding needs is to notice the feelings that are at play in a situation. So Marshal Rosenberg proposed a four-fold grammar for communicating in a way that could help people bring empathic attention to these factors.

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Conversation matters more than structure in organisations

A lot of our work in organisations focusses on getting people to show up differently in conversations. This is because it’s through conversations that organisations exist. People often think of organisations as structures which have a solidity beyond the people who comprise them. There’s some truth in this construct. The BBC existed long before I joined it and seems to be managing to survive quite adequately even though it’s a decade since I left.

But it’s also true that organisations are enacted into being by their members. The day-to-day interactions people have with each other in organisations are much more material to how things get done than the structures, strategies, documents and plans that people imagine to be their work.

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18th Century insight on 21st Century complexity

Who, these days, speaks for conservatism, the philosophical orientation that is cautious of change? We have an answer in the small band of Tory rebels, led by Dominic Grieve, who have won for Parliament a right to decide on the final Brexit deal. But the very fact of their struggle against their own party shows that cautious conservatism is not much in vogue.

My question is prompted by reading Jesse Norman’s 2013 biography of Edmund Burke, one of the founding thinkers of conservatism. Jesse Norman is a Conservative MP and current government minister. But I imagine he might be out of sorts with his party since the philosophy he describes is not much reflected in current Conservative practice. His book demonstrates, though, that even if Burke is out of fashion with the Tories, he still has much to say to contemporary Britain.

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Nick Cave: the transcendent power of music

bad seeds

The most memorable and moving cultural event I experienced this year was seeing Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds perform at the London Arena in September. In fact, I could say that in any year I see the band in concert. But this year was especially poignant.

Rock music has acquired roughly the position in our culture that jazz had when I was growing up: the breakthrough art form of an earlier generation, kept on life support by an ageing cohort of afficionados. Nick Cave has been in the business a long time and manages to observe the boundaries of the form while keeping it fresh and innovative. He surrounds himself with musicians of the highest calibre and inventiveness and produces music that spans the spectrum from hard-edged, dark, aggression to the most heart-wrenching and romantic ballads. Nick Cave himself is a consumate performer: he strides the stage with visceral energy and has an electric relationship with his audience.

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Who will lead democratic renewal from the left?

Labour was founded as a party when its first MPs were elected in 1906.
Labour was founded as a party when its first MPs were elected in 1906.

Opposition politics in the UK are in a sorry state. The Labour Party is in the grip of a far-left cult which is not much interested in parliamentary democracy. Since the General Election, those in the Labour Party who don’t favour Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership have gone quiet – perhaps buying into the myth that by not losing the election as disastrously as everyone expected, he somehow won it instead. Because the moderates expressed their lack of confidence in Corbyn on the grounds of his unelectability, they are now shouted down by those who crow about Corbyn’s apparent popularity. What has been lacking is a principled critique of what he stands for.

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Remembering Cindy Cooper

London’s community of mindfulness practitioners lost a guiding light this year with the death in March of Cindy Cooper. Cindy was my teacher and sometime supervisor for about ten years. During that time, I frequently reflected on my good fortune to have encountered her. She combined the integrity and wisdom evident among the best practitioners in her field, with a warmth which made people feel they had a deep connection with her. In this, she embodied the value we gain from working with a teacher and learning in groups. She helped generate a depth of understanding that could never arise simply by practising alone.

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The politics of being apolitical

Some years ago, I attended a meeting on whether executive coaching could help make society better. I mentioned a Marxist critique of the crisis in capitalism that I had recently read. Before I even managed to share any insights that I’d found relevant, one of my associates brushed aside my contribution – asserting something along the lines that we didn’t want the Stasi in the UK (a sentiment with which I naturally concur). He seemed to want to restrict the conversation to the role of business in promoting environmental sustainability. The episode defined for me a sensibility in working life that holds to faux-apoliticism as a badge of professionalism. In this view of the world, there’s a safe agenda of social change, which allows a degree of corporate virtue signalling around our shared interest in planetary survival, but forbids the potentially more divisive discussion of wealth and power and the role of organisations in sustaining them.

This distinction is increasingly hard to sustain. The backlash against a capitalism that consigns whole communities to the backwaters is recognised as a factor in both Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. This year, the Grenfell Tower fire gave us a grotesque demonstration of where apolitical collusion with the apparently natural workings of the economy can lead. Not just the circumstances that led to the fire but the local authority’s inability to respond to the disaster revealed a hollowed out state, in which an over-financialised approach to management overwhelms the ability of organisations to meet basic human needs.

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