We know that it is important to understand and take into account the way the situation a person is in has an effect on them, and we have words like system, field, culture and environment to represent this wider context. So, for example, we might account for someone’s behaviour by saying they are part of the system, or the culture, of an organisation. At the same time, it’s often hard to pin down exactly how the individual is so affected. By what ways and means is the system influencing the person? The system seems to be a kind of entity which shapes those within it, but the way it does this has a kind of elusive quality, such that it can be hard to spot what’s going on. This elusive quality is caught nicely in the title of a book on systems, Invisible Dynamics; Systemic Constellations in Organisations and Business (Horn and Brick 2009). We tend to nod in agreement that the system has an effect, and is important to address this when, for example, coaching someone, but how this happens does seem ‘invisible’, something asserted rather than concretely demonstrated and understood. In this paper, I’m going to explore how this ‘invisibility’ is intrinsic to the situation, and then ways of making visible what is usually invisible as we seek to help people become aware of, and, if needs be, change their situation.
The Two Kinds of Knowing
The position I’m going to take here is rooted in an existential-phenomenological approach, drawing upon the philosophies of Heidegger (1962) and Merleau-Ponty (2013). A fundamental proposition of this position is that our understanding of the world is rooted in ‘know-how’, that is skilled, embodied, involvement with the world. I’m going to call this way of understanding Mode One knowing and it develops from birth as we are socialised into the culture, and start to find our way around. Our body become synched-in to the world, developing the ‘know-how to get around and do what’s needed. Our familiarity with the world enables us to go onto ‘automatic pilot, so as to efficiently and effectively pursue our goals, mostly without explicitly thinking about what we are doing. For example, consider waking up and getting to work in the morning. You’re mostly on automatic pilot as you get out of bed, get dressed, have breakfast, do your teeth, and get in the car (or bicycle, train, bus). You may drive to work and it’s likely you’ll have no clear idea upon arrival about the journey itself. Indeed, if asked to explicitly to explain to a novice how to drive you wouldn’t be able to do it – you’d have to show them, as the knowledge is in your body – your muscles, rather than in your mind. Another way of putting this is that we develop habits; habitual ways of dealing with the minutia of everyday living, which do not require thought, indeed, may have developed without thought as we absorb the culture with which we are involved.
As such these habits are not the idiosyncratic creation of a particular individual, rather they are shared cultural practices, that is, the ways a culture has organised itself to carry out its everyday activities. Therefore, as a participant of the same culture, I understand the activities of others in that same tacit way – I know that people drive on the left in the UK and the distance apart we should all stand in a lift, shuffling about as people enter and leave. I understand that people are celebrating Christmas or Eid, and someone who has something in her hand which is pressed against her ear which she is talking into it (behaviour that might have created some bewilderment and concern thirty years ago). And I know all this, and the other myriad of cultural practices, without having to think about it; I immediately ‘get’ what people are doing and this allows me to coordinate my behaviour with theirs mostly without having to think about what I’m doing.
The significance of Mode One knowing becomes apparent when travelling to a country with an unfamiliar culture. Upon arrival, I’m unsure how to find my way around. I don’t understand what people are saying and cannot read the signs or instructions. I need to use the train, or tram but cannot figure out what I’m supposed to do, how to do it, and haven’t got the language to ask. I’m having to stop and figure out every move. I’m similarly disorientated as I arrive in the city, unsure of exactly where I am and how to get to my destination. I don’t know what is ‘customary’ in how people greet each other, queue or not queue, and so on. I don’t know the cultural practices. Such unknowing and disorientation can be experienced when starting work in a new organisation, which has its own language, policies and procedures and customary ways. After some time in the new culture, and mostly without deliberately trying to figure it out, I start to become familiar with the place, get a feel for it, understand the language, embody its practices, and start to settle in. The tacit, embodied Mode One knowing is developing and as I shift more and more to automatic pilot, the place itself recedes, withdraws into the background, becomes less visible as I simply get on with whatever I need to do.
Mode One knowing is the bedrock of everyday living, but has not received much attention in Western traditions of how we know about the world. We are much more familiar with Mode Two knowing – rational, cognitive, thinking. Mode Two is highly prized, indeed it is often taken to be the quintessentially human attribute. Hence Descartes defining people as ‘thinking things’. In striking contrast to Mode One, Mode Two knowing is, at its best, disembodied, uninvolved and explicit. Clear thinking, a rational approach, requires a stepping back from the situation, a dispassionate attitude and the development of concepts and theories that explain. Whereas Mode One is ‘knowing-how’, Mode Two is ‘knowing-what’.
The interplay between Mode One and Mode Two knowing is apparent in our account of travelling to a new culture. Precisely because, and to the extent, that I am dealing with something unfamiliar I have to stop, step back, and think about how things work around here and what to do. Once I’ve figured out what’s what and get involved with things I gradually shift from Mode Two to Mode One, from thinking how to do it, to just doing it (buying my tram ticket; getting on the tram and registering my ticket on the card reader; just getting off at the right stop, and so on).
It was Heidegger, and also Wittgenstein (2009), who were the first to draw attention to the two Modes of Knowing (though they didn’t use those names) and argued that Mode One is the primal, foundational form of knowing, the form of knowing that is the bedrock of everyday living. In this view Mode Two thinking is founded upon Mode One, a stepping back from everyday involvement, a process of stopping the action to reflect upon the situation. They argued that in Western culture, Mode One knowing, perhaps precisely because it ‘withdraws’ (habitual, embodied, tacit) has been overlooked and Mode Two knowing installed as the taken-for-granted way in which we know things. And I think it’s fair to say that most theories and approaches to understanding people and their behaviour has thinking, cognition, rationality as the starting point, perhaps encouraging us to ‘change our minds’, perhaps by changing the assumptions we have, the way we think, the values we hold, and so forth. In most of these approaches, embodied Mode One knowing remains withdrawn, invisible, has little or no place.
The two modes of knowing has been recognised by other writers in other disciplines. Michael Polanyi in his book ‘The Tacit Dimension’ (2009), put it very well: “we can know more than we can tell”. Theories of child development have the distinction between ‘procedural’ and ‘declarative’, with procedural knowledge as ‘knowing how’ and declarative knowledge ‘knowing what’. Similar distinctions are made in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow (2012), Malcolm Gladwell Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2006), and Charles Duhigg The Power of Habit; Why We Do What We Do and How to Change (2013). This account also resonates with Gallwey’s (1986) account of the inner and outer game. He gives a great phenomenological account of the movement back and forth between skilful absorbed coping and thinking. His ‘Self Two’ is the routine habits of practice that enable us to skilfully deal with whatever we are involved in (tennis, golf, etc.). ‘Self One’ is what happens when we stand back and start thinking about what we are doing. Gallwey focuses upon how Self One (thinking) can step in and override and interfere with developing skilful habits of practice (Self Two), and in doing so disrupt performance.
The Two Modes of Knowing and System
With an understanding of the two modes of knowing it becomes clear why the ‘system’ is so hard to see and its functioning virtually invisible. Our everyday lives are lived in Mode One – absorbed, involved, cultural practices, skilful dealing with whatever we need to do. We know the system because we live it, in that embodied, tacit, inarticulate way. We shift to Mode Two when we step back from involvement and seek to understand the system in a theoretical way, and in doing so generate concepts which are our best attempts to grasp what it ‘is’, and its structure and dynamics.
Words like system, field, environment structure, dynamics are attempts to articulate the wider whole. The danger, however, is that because Mode One, the foundation, is ‘invisible’, there is the tendency to reify these concepts, i.e. make them into real entities, as if, for example, the ‘system’ is a real thing, which has a structure and functions, which we should be able to see, diagnose, fix, etc. This danger is reinforced because, as said above, Mode One knowing has remained mostly invisible in the Western tradition, where thinking, cognition, rationality, theory, has been taken as the defining features of what it means to be human, and the fruits of thinking taken to be the representation of real things in the world.
Starting from Mode One
If the account above has any merit, then to get a grasp of the significance of the situation (whether we call this system, field, environment etc.) requires us to attend more closely to Mode One, the tacit, embodied, inarticulate knowing. I’m sure you’ll see the challenge; seeking to articulate that which by its very nature is inarticulate. Phenomenology is the tradition that has taken on this challenge, with its rallying cry of “back to the things themselves” (Husserl 2001), and it was Heidegger’s phenomenological approach that brought to the fore what I’ve called Mode One knowing as the bedrock of our existence. The phenomenological method is to attend more closely, and raise awareness of ‘what is’. This chimes very closely with the gestalt approach (which explicitly aligns itself with phenomenology), and the gestalt theory of perception, of the figure/ground structure of perception, provides a valuable resource, particularly the importance of attending to the mostly unnoticed ‘ground’ of perception.
Raising Awareness: making the implicit explicit
The basic premise we are working on is that people have a detailed and extensive understanding of their situation which they ‘live’ every moment, but this understanding is embodied, tacit and inarticulate (Mode One knowing). This premise makes sense of the fundamental belief of coaching that people are the ‘experts’ on their own lives. To repeat Polanyi’s apt phrase “we can know more than we can tell”. The challenge is to make explicit what is implicit; to find “the words to say it’ (Cardinal 1993). How do we do this? Here are a few suggestions:
Eugene Gendlin’s ‘felt sense’
Gendlin (2003) has the notion of ‘felt sense’ at the heart of his approach. The felt sense is a bodily sensation that is a physical resonance to the whole situation a person is in, as described in his book ‘Focusing’:
“A felt sense is the wholistic, implicit bodily sense of a complex situation” (Gendlin p.58).
“Your body feels the complexity of each situation, and enacts much of what you do all day without your needing to think about each move. What you think is of course important, but you can think only a few things at one time. It’s your body that totals up the whole situation and comes up with appropriate actions most of the time. Human bodies live immediately and directly in each situation” (ibid p. 181).
Gendlin’s words seem to me a precise and exact description of the two modes of knowing and the kind of awareness raising we are interested in here. His focusing approach is a way of symbolising this tacit felt sense into words, images, metaphors etc. and in this way making its meaning explicitly available. You’ll find the notion of felt sense is being used by practitioners in various approaches, either directly attributed to Gendlin or integrated into other models. For example, the popular systemic constellations approach puts the felt bodily sense at the heart of its methodology and there is a range of body focused and embodied approaches that are rooted in making meaningful what the body knows.
Empathy: If you ask for definitions of empathy people usually say something like ‘it’s standing in the shoes of the other person”, and this is a very apt description. It really means just that; being with the person and helping them dig deeper into their awareness of their situation, and as you do so the complex web of issues, events, people, conflicts, hopes, fears, becomes more explicit, more ‘visible’ in a feelingful way. Empathy enables what we know but cannot say to be said.
Mood and Emotion: Heidegger showed how moods and emotions are not just personal, subjective events, but also an attunement to the situations, a deep inter-connectiveness between the person and their world. (Pelham 2016 pp.78-86, and Pelham 2014).
The felt sense, empathy and mood catch a sense of the situation as a whole. As a practitioner you can help your client focus upon particular aspects of their situation by drawing attention to, and holding attention upon that aspect (or, in gestalt terms, making a particular aspect of the field ‘figural’). In doing so you can help to make explicit the implicit Mode 1 background. You might say, for example, something like: ”You said you don’t get on with your manager. How about we just stay with that a bit longer; say some more about what happens between you”.
There are a multitude of ways of raising awareness, and I’m sure you have your own favourite ways of doing this. The key thing is to be clear what you are initially doing is raising awareness of the tacit background, not leaping to invite the client into thinking as the first move.
What do we find as we raise awareness of Mode One knowing?
A number of important things become apparent as we raise awareness of ‘what is’. Firstly, everything is interconnected – everything. No matter the starting point, no matter where we focus initially, we’ll find the wider picture emerging and, like a light gradually illuminating a rich tapestry, we find each thread contributes to the whole pattern, and each thread only has meaning in terms of the whole pattern.
This inter-connectedness includes ourselves. Who we are is inseparably inscribed in the tapestry and as the patterns change we are changed too. Let me give a couple of examples to make this more concrete. Consider all the dimensions we usually put under the headings of difference and diversity. Each of them is fundamental to who we are; core to our sense of identity. Each of them is rooted in the tapestry, the culture, of which we are a part. And our sense of identity will shift in the face of social and political change. What it means to be a man, woman or transgender, is constantly shifting and with it our sense of self. Likewise, for sexuality, ethnicity, class and so forth. Or to take a different example, as you enter an organisation, your identity depends upon the role you are in, and what you do, and how others regard you, is rooted in that role, your place in the tapestry of the organisation.
Secondly, there is no meaningful separation between ‘inner’ and ’outer’, subject and objective, mental and physical. Phenomenologically experience is all of a piece, one tapestry. My hopes, fears, desires, conflicts, thinking and feeling are inseparable from the people, things and events with which I’m involved. To repeat. we only have one experience in any particular moment. The familiar cleavage of the world into an inner psychological and outer objective world is an artefact of traditional western philosophy, a habitual cognitive act of stepping back, reflecting, and imposing upon experience a separation between inner and outer, subject and object. If you stay close to the phenomena, with what is, then experience is all of a piece. To quote Gendlin again: “A felt sense is the wholistic, implicit bodily sense of a complex situation”. Quite so. I can choose to focus my attention, make figural, my embodied self, or I can choose to focus my attention on the situation I’m in, but in so choosing I’m simply making figural different aspects of the same experience, and as said above, and illustrated by Gendlin, wherever I start will lead me to the wider tapestry. I may focus ‘inward’ (to what is called the psychological) but in that felt sense I find the world I’m in. Or I may focus ‘outward’ on the world, and find there my hopes, ambitions, anxieties and concerns. It is the Western tradition that has prioritised Mode 2, our thinking, and in doing so cleaved the world apart into subject and object. To restate the main point, the experiential tapestry is all of a piece – I may choose to attend to (make figural) my bodily states (thinking; feeling) or the situation I’m in, but this is simply a choice of where to ‘look’. The mistake is to add the assumption that ‘inner and ‘outer’ are two radically different types of being – subjective/objective, mind/matter
The Existential ‘World of …..’
Mode 2 thinking has provided words like system and field to understand the significance of the situation we are in. In line with this way of thinking they are concepts that imply we are dealing with some kind of thing or entity which we are ‘in’, but is somehow separate from us. Its influence on us is powerful but invisible, much like a gravity or magnetism affects things within their field, and this brings us back to the beginning of this paper and the elusive quality of such concepts. What’s needed is a way of grasping hold of experience that chimes with our existence, a way that catches hold of our embeddedness in the tapestry and does so in a way that does not separate us from it, or cleave it apart into subjective and objective.
In the existential literature, the expression ‘world of ….’ is commonly used, in the sense of ‘world of sport’, ‘world of music’, ‘world of politics’ and so forth. This ‘world of …’ invites us into the way of life of a particular group or community, with its conventional ways of doing things, the everyday practices, the usual familiar hopes and fears, what it means to be successful and to fail. We intuitively get a sense of the presence of the rich tapestry of the background, taken-for-granted, tacit, world of involvements of peoples’ lives.
I’m suggesting that when working with people to help them understand themselves and their situations the expression ‘world of’ immediately enables them to begin to speak about the rich tapestry in a way that does not separate the individual from the situation, or the subjective (psychological) from the objective. More concretely put, saying to a client something like “So tell me about what it’s like as Director of HR in the hospital trust” is likely to naturally lead into a conversation about that person’s living experience – their hopes, fears, challenges, frustrations, possibilities, people, events, policies, procedures, statutory bodies, inspection regimes, resources, equipment, and so forth. They’ll have that same tacit sense of the sites of power, how they are positioned in the complex web of power relations, and the effect of power on their way of being in the organisation. And as you help raise awareness, maybe in the ways discussed above, of the taken-for-granted, tacit background, the tapestry becomes richer, probably new patterns emerge along, with what is really important and deeply matters to the client.
In this paper I have just touched upon the significance of the ‘world of’ for every aspect of a person’s life. If you would like to explore this further I recommend a book by Jonathan Lear (2006), ‘Radical Hope, Ethics in the face of cultural devastation’. The book tells the story of the Crow Indians during the period when white settlers and the US Government encroached on their land, and eventually forced them into reservations. The central question of the book is what happens when the ‘way of life’ of a people comes to an end and how do they respond to such catastrophic events. In addressing this question Lear explores what being-in-their-world was for the Crow Indians and the inseparability of a Crow Indian from their world. Similar themes come to mind when we consider the ‘death of a way of life’ that are closer to home, such as when mining, steel-working and shipbuilding industries have closed down, and their ways of life have gone out of existence. What does it mean to be a miner when there are no more mines?
Cardinal, M. (1993) The Words To Say It. The Women’s Press Ltd
Duhigg, C. (2013) The Power of Habit; Why We Do What We Do and How to Change. Random House Books
Gallwey, T. (1986) The Inner Game of Tennis Pan
Gendlin, E. (2003) Focusing: How To Gain Direct Access To Your Body's Knowledge: How to Open Up Your Deeper Feelings and Intuition. Rider
Gladwell, M. (2006) Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Penguin
Heidegger, M. (1962) Being and Time Blackwell Publishing Ltd
Horn, K. and Brick, R. (2009) , Invisible Dynamics; Systemic Constellations in Organisations and Business. Carl-Auer-Systeme-Verlag und Verlangsbuchhandlung GmbH
Husserl, E. (2001) Logical Investigations Vol 1 Routledge
Kahneman, D. (2012) Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow. Penguin
Lear, J. (2006) Radical Hope, Ethics in the face of cultural devastation’ Harvard University Press
Merleau-Ponty, M. (2013) Phenomenology of Perception Routledge
Pelham, G. (2014) Meaning in the Mood: the Intelligence of Emotions Coaching Today, April 2014
Pelham, G. (2016) The Coaching Relationship in Practice Sage
Polanyi, M. (2009) The Tacit Dimension. The University of Chicago Press
Wittgenstein, L. (2009) Philosophical Investigations Wiley-Blackwell
Coach, Psychotherapist and Supervisior