The Merits of Metaphor
A conversation with Erin Randall, PCC, MA, CPCC, ICE-AC, CSM, ORSCC
How does the study of medieval literature translate into a career as a relationship systems coach? For Erin Randall, it begins with seeing metaphor as a doorway to changing perspectives. Erin's path to coaching has been a wandering one, from her early days in Outer Mongolia as part of the Peace Corps to stints in academia, technical writing, and Agile coaching.
Erin is a CRR Global faculty member certified in Organization and Relationship Systems Coaching (ORSC™), and she holds a master’s degree in writing from DePaul University. She is a Professional Certified Coach (PCC), a certified Co-Active Coach (CPCC), an ICAgile Expert in Agile Coaching (ICE-AC), and a Certified Scrum Master (CSM). Erin partners with leaders, executive teams, and boards at organizations and universities including Roche, Texas A&M University, and Charles Schwab.
In this RSI Concepts in Action interview, Erin reflects on why her penchant for metaphor and poetry serves her as a systems coach, the link between civility and better relationship, and how she has learned to listen for the question that wants to be asked.
On how Erin came to coaching and ORSC
So don't laugh too hard, but I was in the Peace Corps right out of university. Then I spent time in academia before I started working for the University of Chicago on the Journal of Political Economy. Nobel Prize winners edited the journal itself - groundbreaking thinking that shaped the economy and how people think about it around the world.
For a long time, I was a technical writer. I took gruesome enterprise-level platforms, experimented with configurations, and showed administrators how to use them. From there, I moved to serving teams as a scrum master and then as an Agile coach. In fact, my first roots in coaching were as an Agile coach. I honor those roots because they've allowed me to help teams and systems get themselves unstuck in so many ways. In Co-Active, I did the deep one-on-one work. I wanted the practice of being a very good coach and being on the right side of the ethical line without tipping over into therapy. It was there that my coach told me about ORSC. I think her exact words were, “Erin, you should take a look at ORSC. Those are your people over there.” And she was right.
When I started taking the ORSC training, I realized that yes, this was what I'd been missing. Finally I could work at another level and see the whole, one where systems start to open up and relax and want to listen. I knew immediately how I would have worked differently with systems in the past. I wish I had a rewind button to be able to step back in time.
ORSC has allowed me to breathe more expansively and be comfortable in systems, even as they are going through change, trauma, and uncertainty. It's okay--this is just where we're at. People are curious and want to do the work. They just haven't had the language for it.
It's been a complicated journey. I don't think anyone ever sets out and says, "You know what, I'm going to be an organizational coach." We try on other shoes, we walk different paths, we pull on different threads and start to see a different way appear. We wear the shoes that are too tight for a while, but eventually, we find our way.
You know, we use metaphor four to six times every minute. I learned that from James Geary. A shocking amount of our language and how we speak with others is metaphor.
I think anybody who does this work is best friends with metaphor. It's a very easy world to dip in and out of, and one of my more powerful tools. In work with teams, I often use a child's toy called Rory’s Story Cubes - dice with pictures on the side. I even have the digital version. I ask teams to tell me a story using metaphor. You'd be surprised what comes up. It gives that nice reflection piece and insight into what is happening.
On when she is most on purpose
I feel very on purpose when I'm helping a system to be heard for the first time. So often, they're ignored or relegated to a back corner. When that voice starts to come forward, it's magic. Helping that voice to gain strength, helping systems to listen to that voice, trust that voice, and then find ways to work with one another ... that for me is where it's at.
On her superpower
My superpower is probably around questions - transformational questions, transactional questions, clean questions, blank access questions - and using metaphor as well. I have a background in literature, so it's a field I'm very comfortable in. People always look at me like I'm nuts when I tell them that I use poetry with teams and organizations. They think it's insane, but actually that's where they respond the most.
Many coaches ask me about how to land better questions or how I know what questions to ask. It’s experience and practice, but it's also learning how to listen for the question the system needs me to ask. How to leave space, so that a person or a system or a team can respond. There's a real art to just sitting back and letting a question land.
Blank access questions are incredibly powerful. What I love is that they remove judgment. You're simply standing in curiosity. They're small, so people don't have to parse what you are asking of them. They're also very clean. I'm not inserting my metaphor or my language in them.
When I was first going through certification, the feedback I received was about developing more curiosity and less judgment. It was like a gut kick. I took it to heart and began noticing where I was doing that. The more mature in my craft I became, the cleaner my questions become and the more I can leave space for the response.
Clean can be hard for me because I love metaphor and play in that world easily and well, and I have ideas on metaphor coming up all the time. I need to honor that, but also say “not now.” I need to listen to what the metaphors are for that system and keep my own out of it. (Isn’t self-management fun?)
On her favorite ORSC tools
Third Entity work opens the concept of voice of a system. You watch new practitioners learn to listen, "Oh, I hadn't thought about it that way." I've seen remarkable things happen just in having people stand in a different perspective. The comfort of knowing that the system is there, and that it can tell you what it wants if you know how to listen.
I'll also say that my favorite tool is the one that I'm using at the moment, because that's what we're going to lean into.
ORSC is a deep dive into craft. There's an elegance to the ORSC work. When I think of how I first did mediation with systems in conflict, it was pretty clunky. ORSC is the maturation of that process. The five principles of Relationship Systems Intelligence (RSI™) were a seismic shift in how I work. You can go and stand in any principle, and it will give you a different vantage point.
On different ways she is using ORSC
All ORSC coaches are likely exploring different applications and doing some kind of social justice work.
One of my longtime clients received a major foundational grant to study the efficacy of the Indian Child Welfare Act here in the United States. I've been working with and then through her with this system as a whole. We are literally talking about ghosts in the system - how to be with that, how to hold and honor what is coming up. What metaskills need to come forward there? How do you listen to those voices? I don't know if it's a novel application of any of the tools, but it's needed. It's being the change that we want to see in the world.
I'll do constellation work with Agile values if I'm working with a more Agile-minded team, reflecting back to them what's coming up in their system and offering it as a snapshot. The language and how we work is novel to them. We are sketching out doors that they may not have thought about yet.
In 2020, when we all basically went home for a year, I created Magnesium, a group coaching program for people that want to shift. You need to do the inner work before you can do the outer work. Magnesium is a way for people to reflect, get centered, rejoice in what they have, and think about how they want to go forward. This year, I'm including something called Integrity Check with it, which is really about how people are living their values. I've also asked another ORSC coach to come into Magnesium with me. How will we work with this system as it shifts and learns? There are bigger tools that I'm starting to play with, bringing in an ORSC approach that holds its arms around support or working with grief or joy. When you start looking at systems, that's when it starts getting amazing for people.
On ORSC Certification
For me, it was never a question. It was about just how quickly I could get into a certification pod. Not doing certification is kind of like going to medical school and then not getting board-certified. The training is excellent, but the actual practice of learning to do that in a cohort ... you're in relationship with other people that also want to deepen their work.
Certification was where I started to put the rubber to the road. It's where I started becoming a much better organizational coach. That practice part - we think we know something until we go do it. Certification gives you feedback. What do I need to do differently here? It also gives you practice partners. I'm big on accountability, and I'm still close with several of the people in my certification cohort.
I give certification two thumbs up.
On her heroes
There's very few individuals that I would say are my heroes. It's a collective of people who are willing to be daring, who are not afraid to put it all on the line and say, "Hey, these are the changes we want in the world." So many of our systems are about protecting institutionalized ways of thinking. I'm watching younger people exiting university and wanting to make change. They have a much different worldview and a willingness to put connection and relationship first.
On what’s lighting her up right now
I'm lit up by the coaches that I see coming in to do this work. We are coming together in relationship with each other to improve and to support others. Honestly, it gives me an incredible amount of hope. So many things aren't going well in the world. How do we have these conversations, and create the ground conditions for sustainable change? Like this. We just need to have enough people doing that work so that we can hold hands and scoop it all up.
Her recommended reading and listening
There are so many wonderful podcasts coming out. Radio had a golden age and shrank back as television came more to the forefront, but now there's so much coming out just on audio. Podcasts are also really wonderful at helping me with questions. How do I want to ask that? What's the question there?
If I really love a novel, I'll try listening to it as an audiobook. I encourage people to read widely, voraciously, and outside of their comfort zone. Find different ways to think. It's important to not just read technical books, but also novels that will help us stand in empathy. They give us different perspective and allow us to live someone else's life.
Civility is really around helping us to build better relationships. P.M. Forni, who taught at Johns Hopkins University, wrote a lot about civility. How can we bring the civility of listening, of caring, of connecting into our work as coaches?
Colm Tóibín, one of the (many) great Irish novelists, wrote a great book called House of Names. It's a retelling of Electra and Orestes, standing in those different perspectives and those stories and those old myths.
I use a lot of poetry in my work, including Mary Oliver. How could you not love Mary Oliver? I quote her quite often. Galway Kinnell has this line from Saint Francis and the Sow - “Sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness." That's what I think we are as systems coaches. We are helping to reteach a thing its loveliness.
On why systems coaching is important now
We've always needed it. Now, we're starting to be able to put language around it.
Systems coaching gives us ways of thinking. It's like opening the aperture of a camera--a way to look differently, to see differently, to hear differently. It's not just how information comes in. It also opens up how we process that in our own thinking, and the training to reflect back without diluting it with our own judgment and our own ideas. To hold that there for the system.
I want it for so many more people, not just a select few.
James Geary | I is an Other
P.M. Forni | Choosing Civility: The 25 Rules of Considerate Conduct
Anthony Marra | A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Colm Tóibín | House of Names
Galway Kinnell | Saint Francis and the Sow
Poetry Unbound | On Being
Want to connect with Erin? Get in touch via her LinkedIn profile.
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