Building ‘negative capability’

The first six months of my executive coaching training at the Tavistock Institute have been fascinating. I’ve learned a lot about the ways in which system and group dynamics shape the roles of individuals, and worked with clients to explore the motivations, emotions and formative experiences that influence the way they lead and work.

It has also been a welcome opportunity to dig into some of the theories that inform the systems-psychodynamic approach. A concept that has particularly resonated with me is that of negative capability. The term was coined by the poet John Keats in 1817, referring to situations when a person “is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”. Keats rejected the notion that there was a single, higher order ‘truth’ that could explain the mysteries of the natural world, suggesting instead that we should be receptive to a range of ways of feeling and knowing, and use this openness to transform doubts and uncertainties into art.

The idea has subsequently been taken up and repurposed by others, including in the field of psychoanalysis. Group relations theorist Wilfred Bion used it to describe an ability to tolerate and work with the “pain and confusion that accompanies not knowing”, rather than trying to impose pre-defined solutions on an emotionally challenging or ambiguous situation.

Modern organisational life offers challenge and ambiguity in abundance. While it may be comforting to think that the organisations we work in have logical structures and predictable processes, this is rarely the case. Think of a recent transition in your own workplace – a departmental reorganisation, a move from remote to hybrid working patterns, or your own promotion into a more senior role, for example. How much information did you have about what the change would involve? Did it play out in the way you expected? How well did you understand your own emotional reaction to the change, or the reactions of your colleagues? Was there any consideration of how it affected organisational dynamics?

In these turbulent times, when change is so fast-paced, we can feel great pressure to frame and “solve” problems as quickly as possible. But the first idea we come up with, based on our assumptions and certainties, is not necessarily the best. Getting comfortable with uncertainties, mysteries and doubts, and working with them to achieve positive outcomes, allows us to perceive a situation from different angles, understand the different ways it might play out, and identify new ways forward that may be better for ourselves and others. 

We can build negative capability in many ways, alone or in concert with others. Working with a coach can provide special benefits, as you partner with someone to explore your role and your wider organisational system. Psychodynamic coaching pays particular attention to the greatest uncertainties and mysteries of all – what is going on within and between us – and uses these valuable  ‘emotional data’ in service of your development as a leader.

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