How the concept of “Gentle Action“ started intriguing me

It was one of these long evenings up in the Sierra Nevada after another day of hard work in the olive garden in Spanish February – warm during the day, cold at night. We gathered around the fire place of the cosy farm house with a glass of Spanish Rioja when our friend Augusto Shantena Sabbadini told us about his friend David Peat, a holistic physicist who came up with the concept of “Gentle Action”:

This approach, as envisaged by Peat, emphasizes a certain manner of action that is aimed at creating change in an effective manner.

The more complex and overwhelming a situation, the gentler the action needs to be

Peat’s gentle action has been cited together with Otto Scharmer‘s Theory U and Arnold Mindell‘s worldwork as approaches by which individuals, groups, organisations and communities can deal with complex issues:

  • The approach calls for tolerating uncertainty yet suspending action at its onset in order to allow an overall view to emerge.
  • It emphasizes the value of small-scale, iterative actions compared to large, single-step interventions.[8] 
  • Peat points out connections of his approach to earlier concepts, emphasizing the importance of active listening and a similarity to the concept of Wu wei.

This concept is in contradiction to our common-sense linear thinking that goes like this: the deeper the transformation the more radical and dramatic the action.

In consulting this can go as far as applying psychological violence, threat, pressure and fear. Change or Die! Given the fact, that a lot of well-meant transformation activities are neither effective nor sustainable, yet in some cases even harmful thinking about counter-productive development assistance – it is time to radically rethink our approach to transformation.

Putting the concept into practice

When we were called to help a client in a transformation project last year we found the project in a heavy turmoil: communication was interrupted, conflicts within the project team had come to a point of non-communication between parties, the leader of the Union was outraged and in a truly toxic non-relationship with the CEO. The process so far was perceived rather intransparent and consultant-driven, top-management was only partly involved and no-one seemed to have the full picture. Trust between the parties was impaired at best and an explicit atmosphere of blaming and hunting created a very dangerous and unsafe context. Actually a rather typical situation that can be encountered in many organizations manoeuvring themselves into a dead-end instead of taking off.

We were expected to come up with concepts and solutions before we even had started and in no-time we ourselves were under fire. The situation was confusing, complex and opaque. It was rather challenging for us to do change management and culture work in a situation that was calling for immediate action on one side and gentle action on the other side

Allowing an overall view to emerge while taking emergency actions

What we did was both: at one side we started to help fire-fighting with immediate workshop facilitation, emergency-communications and crisis meetings. Being in the midst of it and experiencing the reality of our clients ourselves gave us first-hand information about what was going on. It takes courage to stay in that state and take the time in the face of impatient clients in need who need immediate relief. Emergency activities create space for emergence and gentle action.

This points already to the first of 5 key sources of information:

  1. Experiencing

Creating information out of our own experience is a key source to an emergent overall view: what do we feel? What do we think about how we feel? How does our body react to a certain environment and situation? Do we feel safe? Do we feel scared? In this specific client situation I could observe myself with the following sensations: a sense of anger, anxiety, frustration, helplessness, overwhelmedness, mistrust and defensiveness arose in myself, while trying to cover up and appear clear, helpful and resourceful for my clients.

2. Listening

The second source of course is deep listening and opening the space for deeper conversations. Listening to what people do tell us, but also to what they don’t tell us but express with other means, body language, energy in the room, facial expressions, where they are positioning themselves in a room, all of the is part of listening. We don’t listen with our ears, we listen with our whole body. Signals we received where the ones of people holding back.

3. Observing

Observing has to do with what we see and all we notice in an organization. The tone of e-mails, the forms of communication, the atmosphere in the buildings, the relationships between people, in addition to self-observation. All the materials produced. How the offices are furbished, office and building design, marketing materials, communication means. All of that. What is the story it tells us? What we observe is the manifestation of a mind-set, of an imagination.. what does the building tell us about the architect and the builder? In our case we observed a lot of bureaucratic and hierarchical thinking, power plays, posing and status.

4. Knowing

The 4th source of information is our own knowing that I would like to distinct into:

Personal knowing: past experiences, what I know from the past, everything I have learned, studied, developed, pre-thought etc.

Universal Knowing: Information that is not private but universal and enters in form of “Intuition”: it is a way of knowing things that are unknowable from explicit sources of information.

5. Timing

I am adding Time as an ingredient as we live in a world of @Instantomania – I wrote about it in another story. When we work with the idea of “Emergence” we have to give it time until the overall view wants to emerge. The grass doesn’t grow faster if you pull on it.

In our case it took around 2 months until we felt we had a sense of having encompassed the situation in a first “mental prototype”.

2. Sharing our views with clients

The next step of gentle action still is no action but the gentle sharing of our views with our clients. This needs to be done in a very respectful way, to not upset them too much or create resistance – we still have to consider the environment we are in: every critical remark is perceived as an offense and threat and results into immediate defensive action.

Creating a safe environment for ourselves is also important, as consultants we have to take care of our own personal integrity as well. We share “our findings” in a clear, respectful and calm way and wait what resonates with our clients. We don’t confront them, we don’t blame them, we don’t convince them, we give the time to see how things land with them and take it from there. Some typical and helpful reactions sounded like this: “Now I know where my uncomfortable gut feeling comes from..” or “I didn’t have the language for this, now I can clearly see it..” .. “Oh, good you say that, this was my impression too..”

What we do is create conditions for our clients to have their own insights, and give them a language to distinct overlapping phenomena that makes it difficult for them to address issues. Suddenly the fog clears up into signs and a landscape making it easier for them to navigate.

3. Gentle Action

Next step is to think about specific ideas and steps to take together in order to sort out the situation and improve the overall context.

Gentle action doesn’t mean handling a situation with kid gloves, but it can be also clear, fierce and determined action, once you know what you do, why and how. I could compare it to the concept of tough love, that involves unpleasant and uncomfortable feedback and conversations while staying in a state of empathy.

Sometimes a situation needs clarity up to a point that is painful, sometimes it is necessary to cut things off: projects, behaviors, even people. You need to be ready to do the unpleasant work too.

In our case we came to the conclusion to reorganize the project, and reset some of the topics, intervene and adjust the governance structure of the organization and involve the organization and stakeholders in a new way. These interventions are rather invasive, but they were based on a shared understanding that could emerge over months and a deeper awareness of all of us – clients and consulting staff.

Some of these steps were obvious steps to do but if we had entered in the first place with these recommendations it wouldn’t have landed too well. Now we feel we are on a level of deeper impact with less action and this is what makes consulting work meaningful, powerful and useful.

I can’t emphasize the importance of the timing enough: you need to create space and enough safety for clients to be able and open to hear and listen and observe and feel themselves what is going on. We cannot enforce insights to emerge, we cannot force organizations into a state they are not open and ready for.

The biggest Challenge: Suspension

The biggest challenge of this approach is the practice of “suspension”: to stay in a state of “not-yet-knowing” and resisting the call for immediate feedback and action. Especially for experienced consultants it can be very hard to stay in a state of “beginners mind” and not creating stories from the past around triggers and pieces of information.

Sometimes we have the intuition to encompass and organization quickly, but some situations are too complex and opaque to grasp from a few interviews and observations. Looking deeply needs this open and clear and non-judgmental presence, otherwise our assumptions, experiences, expectations and education will get in the way and blur our view and at worst increase the level of confusion for our clients by imposing our world view on them in addition to all the other stuff.

David Peat: Gentle Action For A Harmonious World