Saturday, 17 February 2018

Insights from Transactional Analysis

It has been a while since I did much with Transactional Analysis, though it remains on my radar as Keri Phillips, who has supervised our Coaching Supervision Group, is an expert in the field. 

However, it was on the agenda to discuss with some university Deans attending a leadership programme in Cardiff, so I brushed up my thinking, and led a brief conversation, touching on Games People Play, but really focusing on Ego States and the famous PAC (Parent, Adult, Child) model.

They found it very interesting and it provoked a lot of insight - a useful way to analyse some conversations (both real and virtual) that had not gone as expected.

As they were talking, I too, had an insight. Recently, I had received an email from a senior person at another university about a day we were co-facilitating. He was saying his diary had been filled and asking if it was OK if he joined the programme at lunch time.

I looked at the morning programme, reckoned I could run it solo, and started to draft an email back to him to say of course I could make that work.

And then I caught myself: was that really what I wanted? Was that really best for the participants' learning?  The answers to both questions were 'No.'  So I ditched that email, and wrote another, explaining what I wanted, and why I thought it would be better for participants. He graciously agreed, rearranged his diary, and attended the morning session too, as originally planned.

What I want to be very clear about is that his original email to me was absolutely Adult - Adult.  Yet I was on the verge of sending a Child - Parent response. And that was my stuff: my relations with figures whom I see as authoritative.  

I've been aware of that for many years, and in my coaching and other practice have, by and large, managed to overcome the habit of being 'courteously deferential.'  But in an unreflective moment, it was still there: the desire to please (and a misplaced desire, at that: I am sure that the individual concerned would far rather have received what he did: an honest email outlining what I really felt and thought, so he could make a better-informed decision).  And the PAC model was helpful as a way of provoking and framing that insight.  I should revisit it more often. 

Friday, 9 February 2018

Sauce for the goose...

Some colleagues and I were discussing coaching supervision, and someone raised the question: Do Coaching Supervisors Need to be Coaches?  We didn't address the question there and then, but we have it on the agenda for future discussion.

But in the meantime, I was interested in my own response. Firstly, I was surprised by the question (which is often the sign of a good question, in my view). And I was surprised, I think, because it seemed so obvious what the answer was: Of course supervisors need to be coaches. How else could they understand the work we do and the supervision we need.

And then I started to reflect a little more. I remembered being irritated at the claim in Blakey and Day's book which I am reading at the moment, that coaches to executives need to have had similar business experience. I, for example, coach senior academic leaders, and senior professional practitioners, and have no such experience in my work history. And I would (and do) make a strong case that coaches can work effectively in that way.

So the whole question of sauce for the goose arises...

Which made me reflect: what do we need from a good coaching supervisor?

In broad terms, we need someone who is skilled to listen to and understand the issues we are addressing in supervision, and to ask challenging questions; who has good knowledge of the coaching profession, to provide both the quality assurance and developmental role that are part of the supervisory process, as well as notice any blind spots etc; and also who has high levels of empathy to provide the support that is also part of the deal.

And, I realise, people may come from other backgrounds and have all of those requirements. I could imagine people from many of the helping professions, having most of them, and acquiring the necessary coaching-specific knowledge by study and experience of supervising.

So I have done a volte-face on this question, and now believe that a coaching supervisor need not necessarily be a practicing coach.

It will be interesting to learn what the others think when we return to the discussion.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Person Centred Coaching and the Risk of Collusion

As my regular readers (if such there be) will remember, I am a big fan of Nancy Kline's work - the Thinking Environment and how valuable that is in (inter alia) a coaching context. Click here for examples of my posts on the topic...)

Indeed, having done the Thinking Partnership Programme with Nancy a couple of years ago, I am now booked on to the Time to Think Coaching Course in a few weeks, with her colleague, Shirley Wardell. 

However, as I recently mentioned, I am currently reading Blakey and Day's Challenging Coaching, and one of the issues they raise is the assumptions we work with when we are coaching. 

They point out that the coaching profession derives much of its theoretical stance from the related counselling and therapeutic professions, and particularly from the work of figures like Carl Rogers and Gerry Egan. The question is whether all the rich legacy we inherit from them is equally appropriate in the context of coaching.

A key issue here is the person-centred approach. In this style, a style which many coaches see as a sine qua non, the coach's job is to work on the agenda set by the coachee, and to facilitate growth and development by establishing extremely high levels of rapport and empathy, providing an environment in which it is safe for the coachee to pursue his or her thinking to new, risky and possibly fruitful places. Whitmore's GROW model is one example of this approach: focused on the coachee's goals as the context for the discussion; and Nancy Kline's approach is, at least in part, a more sophisticated version.

Nancy is fond of talking about helping them go beyond what they normally think, and beyond that; and the assumption is that most people have the solutions to their problems available to them, if they are suitable supported (and challenged - eg by challenging the assumptions that they are making).  

However, the risk of such an approach, as I was discussing in supervision last week, when reflecting on a particular coaching session, is that one can end up colluding with a client who, consciously or subconsciously, doesn't want to talk about a particular issues, or even has a massive blind spot about it.

An example might be someone who seems unaware that his style of interactions is quite intimidating to other people, and who is looking to improve his effectiveness by addressing other, more trivial issues. If the coach is aware of the impact of the individual's style, but is bound by a person-centred approach, and feels unable to raise it unless the client does first, then it may never be addressed; and that would seem to me to be a failure on the part of the coach. This is particularly likely to be a problem if the coach believes that rapport and empathy are so vital, that saying or doing anything that jeopardises them is unthinkable.

So that is one of the questions I will take to the Coaching Course next month: it may be that I am missing something in (or some understanding of) the Time to Think model. I will doubtless blog further about this in due course.


Incidentally, and à propos absolutely nothing at all (except, possibly, the reflection that this, and all my posts, might reasonably be dismissed as first world problems) I was re-visiting The Gulag Archipelago recently, and was struck forcibly by this passage:

I just turned my handle and thought to myself: How quickly a zek gets cheeky - or, putting it in literary language, how quickly a man’s requirements grow! I was dissatisfied because they had torn me away from the play I was writing in my dark hovel; dissatisfied because they had not given me a job in a school; dissatisfied because they had forced me - to what? to dig in frozen soil? to mix mud for bricks with my bare feet in icy water? No, they had forcibly put me at a clean desk to turn the handle of a calculating machine and enter the figures in columns. At the beginning of my time in the camps, if they had ordered me to do this blissful work twelve hours a day, without pay, for as long as I was inside, I should have been beside myself with joy! As it was, they were paying me 450 roubles for it, I should be able to drink a litre of milk every day, and I was turning my nose up and wanting more.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago,  
Part 6: Exile, Chapter 6: The Good Life In Exile. 
Translated by Harry Willetts

Saturday, 27 January 2018

What am I reading?

You know that feeling when you really ought to write a blog post (target: one a week; last one a fortnight ago…) and you have no ideas whatsoever?... it happens to all of us, of course…

And then I thought it might conceivably be of some interest to someone, somewhere, to know what I am currently reading (by way of CPD, I mean, not the Damon Runyon short stories that I am reading for pleasure at the moment, admirably entertaining though they undoubtedly are).

So here goes. I am in the middle of two books at present. The first is Richard Olivier’s Inspirational Leadership: Timeless Lessons for Leaders from Shakespeare's Henry V.

I love the idea of this, and I imagine that the workshops that he runs, using Shakespeare’s text as a stimulus, are exciting and provoke real insight. But somehow there is a difference between that and Olivier taking us through the lessons of each Act.  All worthy stuff, but it just feels a bit platitudinous: ‘Be ready to confront your traitors, internal as well as external.’ That kind of stuff.  I can well believe that when one is working on the text, and suddenly sees the parallels between Richard’s situation and treachery of Cambridge, say, and one’s own experience with the head of another department, it is a valuable revelation. But to have the lesson spelt out in the abstract doesn’t quite cut it.

I bought the book with high expectations, as I really love the concept, but I have to say I am reading it slowly and without either huge enjoyment or huge learning.

The other book I am immersed in at the moment is Challenging Coaching, by Blakey and Day. Again, I like the idea – moving beyond empathy, rapport and listening, important as those are, and the rather simplistic GROW model so beloved of those who train coaches…

This time, however, I am not disappointed. I think that Blakey and Day are really onto something, even though I think there is a certain naivety and over-simplification in their critique of what they see as normal coaching heretofore. The idea that contracting is important, for example, doesn’t seem to be a new discovery…

The heart of the book is based on the acronym FACTS, which stands for Feedback, Accountability, Challenging goals, Tension, and Systems Thinking; and although I haven’t read the detailed chapters on each of these, yet, the acronym alone has provoked some interesting thoughts and indeed experiments in my coaching practice.

I expect to write more about this one, once I have finished it (not least because I have committed to run a session on it for Cumbria Coaching Network in a few months, so need to think further and experiment with it in real life, so that I have some basis for the workshop!)

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Unrepentant About Ice Breakers

 On Twitter this morning, I saw a stream of comments from teachers about their hostility to ice breakers.  Many referred to their discomfort, and their frustration at these pointless activities; they felt patronised by being 'required to have fun' and by being given childish activities to do when they all have degrees; and so on...

This touched a raw nerve, as I often use ice breakers at the start of programmes, including some aspects of the things derided in this thread (getting people to move, for example...). Indeed, on Friday, I had run a morning session that had been largely a 'getting to know people' session; with an introduction by the sponsoring senior leader, an icebreaker, and two other introductory-type exercises. And I am unrepentant.

So how do I square my approach with the evident, and indeed virulent, hostility of (some) professional teachers (at least on Twitter)? 'Ice breakers are pointless. I don’t start teaching by getting them to share some pointless factoid or get to (sic) close for comfort. Get attention, get going.' And likewise 'must be some research that actively refutes ice breakers as a useful activity.'

I think there are various things to consider. One crucial aspect is context. Various comments from the teachers indicated that icebreakers were being used when they were pretty pointless: eg at the start of meetings of staff, where they all work together and know each other really well. I am not sure why one would do that. Likewise, at the start of a conference session, when there is no requirement or benefit in them getting to know each other well.  Again, I am not sure why one would do that, either.

The context for my icebreaker yesterday was the first day of a year-long programme, in which academics who did not previously know each other will be working closely together on a one-day-a-month basis.  The programme directors had asked me to run a morning to get them to know each other, to discuss their goals for the year, and so on.

In that context, investing 20 minutes in a light-hearted but reasonably challenging activity in small groups seemed a useful way to start.

I made sure to follow it up with a more didactive session (in fact, a brief presentation of Nancy Kline's Thinking Environment components), and we then used that model as a framework for the more formal participant introductions: each was given five minutes to think out loud about their role and why they were on the programme, with all others listening with exquisite attention. As there were thirteen participants, that took over an hour,

Again, that exercise might fall foul of the twitter teachers, as being made to talk in front of others is uncomfortable (especially for introverts) , and also, as one put it:
'Today’s about learning from each other..’ so what are we paying you for??!
Both are fair comments; but I am still unrepentant.  Some participants did find it uncomfortable to talk about themselves for five minutes: but that discomfort itself became a useful source of reflection and learning. One of the participants, for example, said that hearing others talk about the discomfort made her realise that it was not just her, and that had increased her confidence in talking in that group. A number said they feared that they would be boring, but all acknowledged that they had not found anyone else's introduction boring, and so that helped lay that particular worry to rest.

It is also worth saying (as indeed I said to the participants) that I don't mind people being uncomfortable: it is not my job to keep them happy all the time, as long as they are learning.

This is not one of mine:
no balloons were involved!

And what were they paying me for, if they were largely learning from each other?  Again, this might infuriate some teachers, but my role really was that of a facilitator; I was being paid to design, structure, and deliver a process that would enable the objectives of the morning to be met; that included some learning from me, but the majority was learning from (and about) each other.

But I come back to context: the reason that this was a worthwhile use of these intelligent peoples' time is that they did not previously know each other, and the rest of the programme relies on them being comfortable to work together, taking risks in their thinking and supporting each other in doing so.

Incidentally, the feedback from the Programme Directors was that it seemed to them that the group was much more cohesive as a group after the morning, and had got to a stage it had taken a number of sessions to reach with last year's cohort (which is why they had asked me to work with them on the first morning). Likewise, the programme participants were very positive about the morning, talking in particular about the value of looking once again at the fundamental skills of good listening, and immediately having a couple of chances to practice that (we did a paired exercise after the big group one).

I may be deluding myself in taking this feedback at face value - maybe they are just being polite. But I don't think so; not least because previous people whom I have subjected to such cruel and unnatural practices have not only sought me out later to tell me how they have valued my approach, but also engaged me to do further work with them and their people; and longer term evaluation (by other people) of programmes I have been involved with has also supplied very positive feedback.

And so I remain unrepentant...

Friday, 1 December 2017

More reflections on Time Management

Since installing Toggl (see previous post, here) and despite being very busy (as Toggle reveals: I will put some analysis on this blog in due course) I have been reflecting further on Time Management.

When I run workshops on the topic, I often start by joking that if ever business is slow, I can always sell a time management workshop; and there is some truth in that. It is a perennial problem for many people in many organisations. 

But this week's insight (or was it just remembering or bringing to the surface something I have long known?) was that time management is really about two quite different , but in practice inter-related, questions.

One is How do I allocate my time? and the second is, How do I manage myself?

I say the two are inter-related, because in my experience (and thinking not just about myself, but about the many people with whom I have worked on this vexed issue), the decision on how to allocate time is profoundly impacted by one's self-management skills (or lack thereof...)

By this I mean that it is relatively easy to block out time in the diary every week to work on important activities before they become urgent. But then something arises: an interruption, a a distraction, a more urgent task; and it is in the management of one's responses to these issues that success in time management lies.

I should add that I am not an advocate of 'stick to the plan, no matter what!' If the building is on fire, then leaving it seems to be a better idea! 

However, what one should do is, firstly, notice that one has a choice, rather than react out of habit; and secondly make that choice by a genuine consideration of the relative importance (s well as urgency) of the distracting activity.  More often than not, the right course of action is indeed to stick to the plan.

So developing the self-management strategies to enable one to notice the moment of choice, to make the choice based on the right criteria, and then to implement the choice, becomes a key focus for those determined to improve the way in which they use their time.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017


One of my coaching clients had set himself the task of finding a light-touch way of tracking how he actually uses his time, as a first step to reviewing his time management practices.

He came up with Toggl, which I hadn't previously known. So I thought that I would give it a try. It is a long while since I last tracked my time this precisely (so long ago that it was before people had developed packages like this) and some benefits are obvious - as long as it doesn't become too time consuming or a distraction in itself.

So I started to do so today, and I have to say that Toggl seems easy to use and useful. One can either click start as one starts a task, and then end when on stops, for automatic time recording; or one can create an entry by typing in the start and finish time.

That generates a task list, showing each task undertaken and how long was spent on it; and also, on the dashboard, some nice summary information.  Here is today:

This is the summary view: there is more detail available (who I was coaching, and all the items that were tagged Admin or other).

But the most interesting immediate effect that I noticed was that once I had clicked 'start' I did tend to stick with the task until it was done (or until my available time was used up) rather than interrupt myself with other tasks. I am sure Deming would have had something to say about that (what gets measured gets done, or something of the sort).

So I will play with Toggl for a few weeks, see what I learn, and if there is anything of interest, report back here in due course.