Chris Van Tighem – Tried, Tested and Authentic
Mr. Van Tighem Charts His Way Through
Respectful Inquiry


Ready, set and…before you can say go, Chris Van Tighem is inclined to be out the door, starting the task at hand. Accustomed to taking responsibility at home as the eldest of three children and experienced in the rigors of working with various groups, Mr. Van Tighem likes to take charge. However, he is also a thoughtful person who aspires to authentic and respectful relationships with his clients and colleagues. So, he is grateful that his training in Active Engagement (the Practice of Contemplative Dialogue – PCD) has encouraged him to slow down and be more mindful of his interactions with others.

Mr. Van Tighem found Active Engagement skills especially helpful in establishing the guidelines for his new assignment, on secondment, as Project Coordinator of the Alberta  Junior Forest Warden Association. He set aside several hours with Association President Al Wardale to scope out plans for the year ahead. “I was very intentionally using the skills, so it might have sounded a little off to Al, but I noticed a couple of things happening,” he says. “We uncovered a lot of assumptions that we were both holding and, although Al is not an Active Engagement practitioner, his language became more thoughtful as we went through the afternoon.

“Al and I have many similarities in areas such as age, education and experience. I am aware that this might pose a hazard because when a person’s background seems familiar to me, I might be inclined to assume that we are like minded. That could be wrong and lead to misunderstandings.”

The two men did discover that they had differing assumptions about an important area  of Mr. Van Tighem’s work. “One of the things that I had offered to do was to help the association better understand how to interface with public policy makers such as politicians and senior government officials,” Mr. Van Tighem says.  “Al resisted this initiative because he thought it was at cross purposes to the responsibilities of the association’s fund development coordinator. I was able to clarify that I was not referring to fund development but rather speaking to the association’s need to better understand how government works in order to be effective. Some of its key partners are government. I saw this as an opportunity for me to help the association build capacity.

We had to work through that one to see what was going on. I needed to check Al’s underlying assumptions because I could only see this aspect of my work as a good thing and I couldn’t understand his resistance. Since Mr. Wardale is based in Manning and Mr. Van Tighem will be working in Edmonton, it was especially important that the two were able to take the time to clarify their assumptions about how they would be working together. Their conversation helped them ensure that they have a shared understanding to convey to the association’s board members and committee teams. Had the two started out at cross-purposes, the misunderstandings could well have affected the value of the secondment.

Mr. Van Tighem notes that the Active Engagement approach also helps him in his personal life. He wanted to express some concerns he had about a new business venture his friend was starting. “I assumed that it was ‘none of my business’ but, as a friend, I felt I wanted to speak up. I wanted to approach him in a non-threatening way,” he says.

By speaking to his intentions and assumptions, Mr. Van Tighem was able to clarify that his thoughts were not meant as criticism. He invited his friend to let him know if they weren’t helpful and to tell him to “back off”. “It could have been a really tense conversation,” he says “but instead I believe it was positive and helpful to him.”

The Defended and Nondefended theories of action discussed in the AE coursework have particularly influenced Mr. Van Tighem’s approach to his work. Harvard University social and organizational psychologist Chris Argyris developed the theories based on studies he and his colleagues undertook to examine the defensive behaviors that prevent organizations from solving problems despite having the best education, support and motivation to do so. The researchers identified two basic, universally learned strategies people rely on when faced with potentially threatening or embarrassing situations. The first strategy is to attempt to control or dominate the situation and people involved (termed Strong Defended model); the second is to dodge addressing issues directly in an attempt to avoid hurting feelings and maintain harmony (termed Nice Defended). Both tend to be manipulative, self-serving and dishonest, because the leader withholds valid information and preclude the opportunity for people to make free and informed choices.

To avoid the binds of the Strong or Nice Defended models, Argyris proposes choosing a Nondefended approach, committed to collective learning and honesty. The guiding values of this theory of action are:

•   Sharing valid information. Telling the truth with compassion.
•   Supporting free and informed choice.
•   Maintaining an internal commit- ment to choice within the group.

A Nondefended approach creates environments in which members are supported to authentically engage the issues. Leaders combine advocacy and inquiry to encourage the group to surface conflicting viewpoints and openly explore and test them.

Says Mr. Van Tighem, “The whole practice was an ‘aha’ for me. One of the things I aspire to is to lead an authentic life. I want to make sure that I’m treating people with respect so I need to have the tools to do that. The exploration of Defended and Nondefended approaches gave me insight into how this might be accomplished. It raised the question of how are you getting results from the people who work for you or that you work for?

Are you pushing them around…are you manipulating them or is this a genuine ‘we’re in this together and we’re having a dialogue’ where you’re giving them the tools, you’re giving them the supports and you’re giving them the respect they deserve in order to get the job done?

“I had never thought of myself as controlling but I realized I can pull out the Strong Defended approach quite readily.  To try to reframe that was a big thing. The language around assumptions and noticing is still a challenge to me. I find it really hard to make it natural but it’s definitely something that changes the stance of the conversation as soon as you start using it. It doesn’t change the dynamic in a controlling way – ‘now I’ve got the upper hand because I have this trick up my sleeve’. No, it changes it so you are getting a much more genuine and authentic response from people. Their response may be, ‘I don’t want to have a conversation with you’ and that’s entirely valid; that’s something that you have to deal with but it makes it a lot clearer. You’re not walking away scratching your head as often.

“One of best values the PCD has provided me is to let go of the need to be right and to be certain all of the time. Typically, we don’t give ourselves permission to make mistakes and test things. We aren’t a testing culture. We think we need to know the right path at the outset and just affirm as we go along. It may look like testing but you’re not really testing. You’re just putting out enough information so that you can confirm direction. I believe that what I’ve learned through the PCD gives me permission to be wrong and to look at a situation and say I’m not sure this is the right path and I need to ask some questions to get a better sense of where I need to go from here. The response has been, for the most part, quite positive. People seem open to questions that are posed to genuinely seek understanding.”

In pursuing his PCD training, Mr. Van Tighem discovered that not testing assumptions can also imprison us in limiting notions of what is possible. After taking a two-day PCD session facilitated by Phyllis Woolley and Jules LeBoeuf with his SRD colleagues, Mr. Van Tighem was eager to take the four day residential Mindful Leadership PCD program.

However, he assumed that his supervisor would not consider the learning worthwhile and that it would interfere with the timeline for his new secondment. However, after testing his assumptions with others he learned that the timing for starting his new job was not as critical as he assumed and that his supervisor indeed valued the learnings available through the Mindful Leadership work.

Mr. Van Tighem attended the four-day program with the blessings of his bosses and said that it was worth it just in what he learned about “giving up responsibility for others’ feelings”. He says, “If you’re in a position of authority and that’s the way you think, you can never turn it off. And it wears you down. I am grateful that I can feel free to say something – put it out there and not have a string attached to it. Not to feel that I must throw it out there and have you hooked and that I have to get a sense of what you’re feeling through that line. I now realize that I have very little control over how others are going to react to some- thing I say or do.

On the other hand, I can be mindful of the impact that my behavior has on others’ feelings. There are times when we do have an impact on people. We can mindlessly go through saying, ‘that’s their problem’. However, it’s my problem because if I want to nurture a relationship, there are certain things I need to commit to and I need to be conscious of — actions, behavior, patterns – that I create.” The discernment comes in not being afraid to speak the truth but being mindful of how our behavior might infringe on others’ ability to engage with us.

By Deborah Witwicki