Friday, 15 May 2020

Job Club

I mentioned in my blog last week, in passing, that one of the things that was causing me some stress was the fact that three of my children are on the job market at a time when jobs are scarce.

One of the antidotes to feeling stressed, of course, is to address the stressors, as best one can. So I have instituted Job Club for Clare, Mike and Lizzie.  

They are, of course, all in different situations: Clare is employed but furloughed, and looking to move North to get married; Mike is employed, but part time, and wanting to develop his career; Lizzie graduates from Durham this year with a 1st (pretty much guaranteed, as I understand it) in Archaeology.

The idea of Job Club is that we get together every Wednesday afternoon to talk about where they are up to in their respective job hunting activities and what they are going to do this week. 

It has been fascinating for me, trying to facilitate the meetings. I am keenly aware of the difference between working as a coach or facilitator for others, when one can be truly disinterested; and working with one's own family, when one cannot. And of course, three children in their twenties know how to push their Father's buttons...

Nonetheless, and despite their natural sarcastic humour at my endeavours, it’s actually working really well, as they are much tougher in holding each other to account - and saying when they think one of them isn’t committing to do enough - than I would be. So at least each of them is building his or her sense of agency rather than that being depleted; and is using lockdown time to some good purpose.  They are doing training online, developing clarity about their strengths and aspirations, polishing their CVs and so on.  But as for actual jobs to apply for - those are few and far between…

So if you know anyone who needs a volunteer manager, a lighting and sound design technician (or failing that, a
graphic designer with a strong interest in typography) or an archaeologist with an interest in museum curatorship, don't hesitate to get in touch.

Monday, 11 May 2020

Put your own mask on first...

Anyone who has flown will be familiar with the safety briefing and its instruction about what to do should the cabin lose pressure. We are told that oxygen masks will drop from the panel above our head, and that we should put our own mask on, before helping others to do so.

That, of course, is sound advice. We are better able to help others if we put our own mask on first; and also, we are less likely to need help ourselves (and thus become an additional problem).

I have heard this quoted a number of times in recent weeks, in the context of resilience during these extraordinary times, and have indeed used the metaphor myself.

Both halves of the admonition are important: looking after yourself first is not selfish. If you fail to do so, you may well end up being an additional problem, just at the time when we (your family, your community, your colleagues, the NHS...) really don't need additional problems.

But the second half is equally important: before helping others... That is to say, we should not only look out for our own well-being, but contribute to others' too. Apart from the obvious reasons - the dictates of charity, or altruism, or community solidarity, or whatever frame you want to put around that universally recognised value of beneficence - there is an interesting feedback loop. Helping others is key to our own social and psychological well-being.

And both of these imply a third aspect to attend to: being prepared to ask for and accept help. That is important, both as a part of looking after yourself, and also in order to permit others to help you, which is good for them, too.

All of which is obvious, just like the things we all know about our physical wellbeing (the importance of hydration, a balanced diet, rest, exercise and so on). Yet knowledge is not always enough. Sometimes, and particularly in periods of extended (or acute) stress, we adopt maladaptive strategies.  On the physical level, we may cut down on exercise, and rest, to make time to get more done: and keep going on caffeine, and perhaps console ourselves with alcohol. All of which have a short term benefit (or we wouldn't do them) but with a long term cost attached.

Returning to the theme of looking after yourself, we may do similar: tough it out (because we are tough) for example, or martyr ourselves in the service of others, or simply not notice that we need to ask for, and accept help.

Reflective practices and feedback are valuable here: which is, indeed, why I am writing this blog post.  I realised, when I started to make some simple errors, that I was more out of shape than I had thought. When I reflected on that, it was obvious: we had had a death in the family, 80% of my work had been cancelled, three of my children are looking for jobs at a time when they are hard to come by... and I had given no thought to the fact that I might need additional support at this time.

Fortunately, I am well-supported, both personally and professionally, and the minute I realised this, I was able to draw on that support, take a little time, put a few self-care measures in place, and I am the better for it.

But I thought it might be helpful to share the experience and the reflections it prompted. Hence, as I say, this post...

Thursday, 2 April 2020

That "What more" question...

Yesterday, I ran a series of virtual workshops, for people who are going to be mentors in the Inclusion Matters - Northern Power research project. One of the things we practiced was using Nancy Kline's Thinking Environment principles as part of the mentoring skill set.

As participants included successful academics and senior business leaders, we had some interesting reflections on all aspects of the training.

One was on the power of the question: what more do you think, or feel, or want to say? which is core to Nancy's approach. It is used when someone has said all they can think of in answer to an initial open question and is beautifully designed. It is completely open and non-leading, allowing the person being listened to follow his or her thinking wherever it wants to go.

It is clearly a much better question than the one people find it easier to ask (I picked up on this with a few yesterday): is there anything else...? For that risks communicating that enough is enough, and also makes it easy for the person to say no; whereas the What more...? question suggests that more is expected and will be welcomed - and also prompts (I nearly said, forces) the thinker to consider... well to consider what more?...

All that I had known, but participants' reflections yesterday took my understanding further. The initial answer was often what they knew they thought about the topic - and therefore did not give them any real insight, interesting though it may have been to the listener.  But answering the What more...? question prompted them to think out loud in live time, and their answers were often clarifying, sometimes revelatory, and occasionally surprising to themselves. People mentioned how it led to a higher order of thinking, how it took them deeper very quickly, and how, despite both its apparent artificiality (especially when repeated several times) and its simplicity, it was a hugely powerful and catalytic question.

It was the single issue in the training that was most frequently commented on by participants as being particularly helpful and something they will resolve to take forward into their mentoring, and more broadly into their practice as leaders, academics and teachers.

And on a personal note, having, as I do, my own share of Imposter Syndrome, I found it was reassuring to hear from some very skilled and experienced senior academics and business leaders that they had learned valuable things about mentoring, when they have already been taught how to do it, and how to listen and so forth, many times over their careers. So a veritable win:win - I learned something of real value, and so did they!

Monday, 23 March 2020

A Sabbatical

For obvious and thoroughly appropriate, if sad, reasons, all my booked group work for the next few months has been cancelled or postponed. One-to-one coaching , supervision etc that can be conducted remotely (via skype/zoom/phone) is going ahead; and I am investigating the practicality of online facilitated workshops.

Nonetheless, that means that I have a lot of time suddenly free in my diary, and have been giving some thought to the question of how best to use that.

As a base line, there is something about wellbeing for me and my family (my 95 year old mother in law lives with us, so we have been taking social distancing very seriously). Wellbeing or resilience in these difficult times involves putting in place suitable routines to keep us healthy physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

But I don't want merely to survive the current crisis; I want to make it as positive a time as I can for myself and others.  There's not a huge amount I can to for others, for obvious reasons; though we are clearly participating in the local village mutual support scheme, and I have also joined the EMCC's 4*4 offer of free support to people professionally; and am working on some more specific offers for my client base.

But this is clearly an opportunity to invest time in ways that are normally not easy; so I have decided to treat the next few months as largely a sabbatical, and set myself some aspirational targets, both work related and beyond work.

So, for example, I had already signed up to David Clutterbuck and Peter Hawkins' virtual course on Leadership Team Coaching which is running over the summer.  This is an opportunity to invest much more significant time in that to make the absolute most of the learning available.  So in advance of the programme's start, I am re-reading Hawkins' book on the subject and making more detailed notes.

Likewise, our garden will never be the same again!  And I have a number of other goals, spanning the various roles in my life.

So I recommend giving some thought to that question: when this extraordinary crisis is over, what will I need to have done, so that I know that I have used the time - both the challenge and the opportunity inherent in it, in the most positive way that I can?

Thursday, 12 March 2020


One of my coaching clients was asking about empathy, the other day. Which set me thinking... and one of the things I thought was that Gerry Egan is bound to have wise words on this, and likewise Carl Rogers.  Which set me reading...

Egan, as ever, is very good. His book, is a foundational text for all those in the helping professions, and has a couple of chapters on empathy.

In the first he focuses on reflecting and checking what you have heard as the core of the other person’s communication; a typical structure would be: ‘you feel…. because….’ in a tone of voice that suggests enquiry rather than judgement.  That is designed both to demonstrate that you have been listening and are trying to understand (in particular) the emotional weight of the communication; and also to invite the other person to amplify, modify (or if necessary correct) the impression that you are forming. It is also an invitation to the other person to talk further - a signal that this is discussable stuff and that you are open to that discussion.

In a later chapter, he discusses ‘advanced empathy’ and specifically:
  • Helping clients to make the implied explicit
  • Helping clients to identify themes
  • Helping clients to make connections
  • Helper self-disclosure
These are all valuable approaches, of course, and regular tools in the coach's kitbag. But it useful to have them listed in that way, and to do a mental audit of how frequently, and how well, one uses them.

Rogers, in Client Centred Therapy, focuses more on the tonality of the exchange: how important it is that the way in which the helper (coach, in my case, though therapist in his language) is heard by the client to be on the client's wavelength; and above all not judging the client.

And then, by one of those leaps of insight that mark me out as a man of exceptional something or other (one client referred to my interventions as a 'blinding flash of the obvious,' which I take as a compliment...) I reflected on how much Nancy Kline's work (in which I am particularly interested) serves to create the conditions for empathy.  Indeed one might say that her ten components of a Thinking Environment offer an excellent blueprint for creating the conditions for empathy.

The ten components are: Attention, Ease, Equality, Diversity, Appreciation, Information, Encouragement, Feelings, Incisive Questions and Place. 

So these three perspectives, I think, offer a very useful way of triangulating our thinking and self-reflection on empathy. As ever, I am indebted to my coaching clients for provoking my learning: mine is a truly privileged job!

Friday, 21 February 2020


I have long been interested in Intuition, and in particular, the intuition of coaches during coaching sessions with their clients; and likewise the intuitions of supervisors during sessions with coaches.

It happened again the other day, in a supervision. The coach I was working with had asked me, as her supervisor, to share some of the interventions I frequently use in coaching, so we spent a few minutes towards the end of our session on that, and it was a useful and interesting conversation. And we moved on and talked about other things. 

And then, I was struck by... well let's call it an intuition, for want of a better word: another tool that I thought it would be helpful to share. And this one really caught her attention - as I was describing it I could see her engagement and she only just managed to stop herself from interrupting my explanation to tell me about a situation that she faced (and which she had not previously mentioned) in which this particular tool would be invaluable.

As I reflected on this, wondering where the intuition had come from, it became clear to me. Although she had not discussed the specific situation with me, she had discussed that client with me; and I think at some barely-conscious level I was noticing a pattern in their interactions, as she described them, that this tool would helpfully disrupt. So perhaps it was no surprise that she should see its relevance and apply it immediately - in the same context, albeit to a different specific situation, to the one that had prompted me to think about it.

I suspect that is often the case; and that intuition is a name that we give to a process that includes:

  • listening, observing and noticing with a high degree of attention and accuracy; 
  • processing that in a part of our mind that is not under our direct observation (barely-conscious, or unconscious are words I often find myself using in that context) 
  • discovering (as if form nowhere) an idea that is highly relevant (drawing from a huge range of our previous knowledge and experience those elements that are most appropriate) 

And as I have mentioned before, my supervisor, Jan Allon-Smith has pointed out that such intuitions are actually co-created by the two parties involved and the process that they are working through, so again, it should be no surprise that the insight I mention above was so readily recognised as valuable by the coach with whom I was working.

Friday, 31 January 2020

Coaching Supervision (revisited)

Yesterday, I finished the last assignment for my ILM 7 qualification in Coaching Supervision. I have blogged previously about a question that arose early in the programme about the difference between supervision and coaching a coach.  That difference has become ever clearer as we progressed through our joint exploration, and in particular through the experience of practicing supervising.

But one of the things that most clarified it, was reading the excellent book Reflective Practice in Supervision (about which I have also blogged previously, here and here). Along the way, and almost in passing, Hewson and Carroll remark that one of the key purposes of supervision is to help the practitioner to review and revise their practice framework.  A practice framework, they further explain (and this is from memory - the book is upstairs - so don't assume this is verbatim...), is a set of values, skills, habits, behaviours and attitudes that inform our practice. More often than not (like the engine of a car) it is under the bonnet, as it were, and we don't attend to it. We merely drive (to push the analogy about as far as it will go) and it all works.  

But to become better coaches, we need to look under the bonnet; to tune it up, replace components that no longer work etc. So the supervisor's job (inter alia) is to help the coach to make explicit all those implicit aspects of the work, to examine them, improve or replace them, and so on. This is the formative, or developmental, aspect of supervision.

That's not the only role, of course.  The supervisor has two other key functions. One is the normative function, which is about ethical and professional standards. This is actually an area to which I think I need to pay more attention in my supervision. The ethical aspect is one I am interested in and typically attend to: I love that kind of discussion.  But professional standards, including things like checking a coach has appropriate insurance, discussing membership of appropriate professional bodies etc, is something I can easily forget to raise.  The third function is restorative, which is about helping the coach to process and deal with the emotional weight of his or her coaching client relationships and the issues discussed. I am better at that one.  Attentive readers will have made the links between these and the coaching rooms described in the Hewson and Carroll book, which I blogged about a mere three months ago.

So plenty to think about as I move ahead (and there's a lot more, of course) but for the moment , I think it's time to sit back and put my feet up, and enjoy the feeling of having smashed the (self-imposed) deadline of finishing my work on this qualification before the end of January.