John Wenger Helps Others Cross the Threshold of Their Own Lives
John Wenger's passion is liberating people to handle the life situations they feel most challenge or block them. As a consultant and trainer with a background in educational counseling, he brings neuroscience and deep love for human beings to creating life-changing learning environments, ones where people truly experience personal breakthrough. Fascinated by work in groups, he is happiest, he says, when facing a room full of people with "divergent opinions and unpredictability." His New Zealand consulting firm, Quantum Shift, was founded in 2004 and is focused on leadership, careers, teams and communications.
John's work is broadly based on systems theory, influenced by a wide array of thinkers, including group theorist Wilfred Bion, inventor of psychodrama Jacob Moreno as well as management and motivational experts such as Douglas McGregor and Daniel Pink.
Find out more about John on his website, by reading his thought-provoking blog posts, following him on Twitter or by sending him an email.
Given John's work, I asked him to prepare some questions he would like to hear himself answer - and then we Skyped our conversation.
John, your first question of yourself is brilliant and basic: What gets you out of bed every morning?
It's clear that day-to-day work experience for a great many people is not very good and not very human. Workplaces are simply not healthy. People feel disengaged, depressed, and isolated. What gets me out of bed is the joy of helping a few come out of that isolation and depression, get to know each other in more genuine ways, and learn to genuinely cooperate. I love working with people as they learn to invest their energy in learning together, seeing that they have more in common than they thought they did, and give meaning to a basic principle of sociometry that the quality of outcomes in any project is directly related to the quality of relationships. When people see their learning as purposeful, that it's happening as a group, and that it's actually related to their everyday concerns, great things can happen. I absolutely love the moments when people wake up to a much bigger view of themselves as influencers and see new connections to themselves, others, and the world. They suddenly discover a catalyzed sense of their own personal agency - in a way like the character, Neo, in the movie, The Matrix.
I also love the fact that these shifts happen experientially. In learning sessions, we physically concretize the system so people get a visceral experience and use that as their basis for new understanding. For instance, we might do a role reversal. You play your manager, for example. To do that, you have to take a moment to give up your own attitudes and beliefs and really embody someone else's attitudes and feelings - which is an enormously brave thing to do. It's courageous because for a moment you must fully give yourself away. You have to give up who you are. And you find that's exactly the place where real discovery and change can occur.
I remember a manager who referred to one of her employees as a "bad egg." When she tried to reverse the role, play the "bad egg," and sit down in the "bad egg's" chair during a session, something suddenly happened to her body and face. After a moment all she could say was, "It's gone. I don't know what that was, but I don't see her as a bad egg anymore." It seems a bit mystical, but I believe it was the result of her courage to live outside her own system, if only for a few moments.
What do you think you have to add to the development of people and organizations?
In a word, spontaneity. Not impulsivity, which is very different, but spontaneity, meaning the ability to come up with a novel, appropriate response to a problem in the moment. It could be a new response to a familiar situation or an effective response to a brand new situation that a person has never faced before. The aim is to facilitate that novel response in a way that helps people become the main actors in their own stories, so that they are fully alive in their responses, not repeating something old or that they've been told to do. We don't give people a lot of jargon, try to change their values or ask people to pretend. Instead, we attempt to show them additional depth to the pool they are already standing in.
Generally speaking, we work in three phases: a warm-up phase that provides some theory, a dynamic phase of personal work, such as re-enactment, and then a reflective phase. The reflective phase is essential because it serves as the integrator. It's what builds awareness.
How do you show people "the depth of the pool they are already standing in," John?
Well, if a person presents a problem he or she wants to work on at a session, say a relationship with a co-worker or boss, the first thing I do is acknowledge the person's realities - realities that may be quite awkward. I let the person know I get them and that I'm on their side, though not colluding, and this helps a person begin to relax in the midst of their emotional charge. I then ask whether they'd like to make improving this relationship the focus of their work in the session. That becomes a contract, and we start by exploring the realities in more detail. Maybe the person wants to speak up at work but worries that they will find themselves in a potentially career limiting, very risky conversation. I don't try to placate or redirect the person or give advice. Instead, re-enactment -- re-living the situation in that moment -- becomes part of what we do together. So it isn't about learning this or that technique - such as, "here at the ten best steps for speaking up at work," for example. It's about how the person can be real, be authentic, alive and themselves. No one can tell another human being how to do that. It comes naturally out of the real context, the person's true values, their own sense of what it means to be alive - it's their own solution, not mine. And the discovery is not shallow, such as "here are the right words to say." Instead the discovery is that the thing that will ultimately get the person out of the stuckness is already inside them. In a way, the person has to genuinely and fully experience that stuckness in the moment as part of the re-enactment in order to get to their own answer.
Another of your self-questions was this one, John: These are challenging times for the planet. How are you doing your bit?
Yes, the world is in a difficult state. There's a lot of greed and mendacity, disconnection and isolation. And there's a profound lack of emotional, mental, and spiritual health. People ask me, "Why don't you go into politics, John?" And I answer, I already am! My work is a political act -- it's just not based on party politics. It's about the system. If people really see how thoroughly they are part of the system, they understand what W. Edwards Deming called, "forces of destruction." What I do is more like the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. It's just me acting, taking center stage in my own life. If I do that well, somebody else might be touched and moved. And then, when that person also steps up to become the central character in their own life story, that's fantastic.
In my work in organizations, this can happen on a large scale as "culture change." In one workplace, for instance, the norm was "friendliness" and people had a mindset that there could be only two ways of connecting -- through "friendliness" or through "performance." That's what our work with the organization really highlighted -- that people thought it was either one way or another -- and we showed them this was a false dichotomy, that you could have deeply honest conversations without ruining your relationships. So people started having those robust conversations. Managers started challenging their staff, and staff started challenging their managers. Before you knew it, lots of people were having lots of powerful interactions. The whole organization was stepping up, and we could only say, "Be careful what you wish for," because it's entirely possible to overturn those negative forces Deming was talking about.
John, you say you use a cutting edge human technology. What would you say to people who are working with you for the first time?
I'd say, "Prepare to be challenged. You will see yourself differently, and you will see systems differently. You say you want X, Y or Z from your life. Be prepared to get it."
I've been interested in personal development since my late teens, and I've had some exceptional teachers. It's still a great deal of fun for me, and I think one of the things that I've both enjoyed the most and encourage others to experience is the flow of their own growth and development. When I first went to India at 29 I recall looking out of my window to see a river of people. At first I was overwhelmed, but then I began to see how it worked. You just had to learn to go with the flow. Expect that, too.
So here's the last of your questions: Why do people come to you?
I think many have tried other kinds of training -- sometimes again and again -- and they come back with someone else's solutions to their problems. In truth, they may not have even asked themselves the right questions, so those solutions cannot help no matter how many times they've heard them. I've watched organizations do this -- send people to training and when nothing changes, send them to more training of the same kind over and over. I think those who find my work of value often have an inkling they are on a threshold, and that the real solutions have something to do with themselves. Too often people, including senior management, focus on what to do, but what to do is never enough. You also need to know how and that's much more about who you are and whether you are actually living your own life.
LEADERSHIP ODDS & ENDS
More Links to Foster Reflective Learning
* When Nothing Is Sure Everything Is Possible. Louise Altman draws on scientific and spiritual sources to explain the brain's distaste for insecurity and what we might do about that in "Anxiety and the Quest for Certainty -- Revisited."