Monday, 22 June 2020

Pushing Myself and Pushing Them

I have been growing increasingly confident with my online workshops, and today took that to a new level. Previously, my online workshops had involved lots of discussion, and practicing using models and structures, to think about difficult topics; but in the last couple with professors from Cardiff University, I have been getting them to practice skills, which feels like a big step up, in terms of remote delivery.

To be quite honest, I wasn't confident how well this would work.  It was clear to me that I would have to get a few things right for this to work - and then trust the participants to work well together without me eavesdropping (as I usually do when we are working together in the same place).

So I had to be very clear in my own mind, both what they needed to know before the exercise, and precisely how I was going to instruct them to do it.

Today's session was particularly challenging.  We were looking influencing skills. I had to send them much longer pre-reading than I usually do, covering the major styles and the specific behaviours; and I also included the exercise brief as the final page. That was because there was simply too much information for me to explain it all from cold, and still have time for them to practice.

In the event, the session went very well. It was slightly unnerving to put them into groups and then simply wait, trusting them to make good use of the time. But I had decided not to go around the rooms, as I thought that would be disruptive and distracting.

So it was a great relief when they came back to the plenary session, and told me how valuable the exercise had been, and what they had learned from it. It is a great credit to the professors concerned that they were able to practice what is essentially a face-to-face skill in a virtual environment, give each other feedback, polish their skill, and generate and share learning.  I think that was a lot to expect of them, and they rose to the challenge really well.
I still think that this is not the same as spending the time together, not least because it is far harder to have the informal coffee-break conversations.  But I have to admit that it is a far better substitute than I had foreseen, and that it also has some advantages that mean I may well continue to work in this way (although not exclusively) even when it isn't the only option.

Now that I know that we can do serious skills practice, the benefits of relatively short (2 hour) modular sessions that people can do from their own office or home, and which I can facilitate without needing to travel and be put up in hotels, are very clear.  So not quite a complete Zoom convert, but at least a believer in richer approach to mixed delivery.

(images courtesy Chris Mongomery, Austin Distel and Bruno Cervera, respectively, from Unsplash)

Friday, 5 June 2020

CPD during my Sabbatical...

One of the ways in which I am using my self-declared sabbatical is investing time in my own development. That includes a Leadership Team Coaching Programme, with Peter Hawkins and David Clutterbuck, a further Time to Think programme, with Laura Williams, and a Transformational Narrative Coaching programme, with Nick Isbister. And in addition to all that, I have also been working to improve my understanding of Trauma, in support of another project I am involved in.

All of these, of course, build on existing areas of interest and are intended to help me to work to an even higher standard with my clients.

The Leadership Team Coaching programme is proving very interesting. Hawkins and Clutterbuck are major figures in the coaching world, and have a wealth of experience as well as knowledge to share. Whilst the format (600+ people on a 90' webinar) was initially hard work, they have responded well to feedback and made the third (and most recent session) very much better. These webinars are supported by smaller online practicum sessions, as well as handout material etc.  I've also agreed to meet a colleague, who is also going through the programme, after each webinar to share insights and challenge each other to find ways to apply the learning, which has really helped to bring it alive.

People who know me will understand the appeal of doing a further Time to Think programme. Nancy Kline's Thinking Environment has proved very valuable in improving my practice over the last few years. So far, the training programmes I have attended with Nancy and with Shirley Wardell have focused very much on the one-to-one applications of the Thinking Environment. This programme, the Foundation Course, focuses on group applications, and is the precursor to the Facilitation Course, which I intend to do next. It will be particularly interesting to do this programme online, as that poses particular challenges to the Thinking Environment approach, particularly as it applies to groups. But, of course, at present, pushing the boundaries of what we can do remotely is particularly important, and I am confident that I will learn a lot from Laura, another expert in the field.

The appeal of Nick Isbister's programme should be equally clear. My own interest in narrative approaches goes back many years - Shifting Stories was in gestation (and procrastination) for many years before I published it in 2016. So when I found out that Nick was doing something similar but distinctively different, I was naturally intrigued.  So I bought his book, and booked a call. We had a fascinating chat, and I booked on to his programme. It's early days yet (I've only completed the first part of the programme, which has been very much about taking stock of my story (or stories) so far, and what I make of myself, as Actor, Agent and Author. But it has already proved a very rich and thought-provoking process, and I am looking forward to crafting my future story with Nick's help. Given how much the world is changing at the moment, this seems a particularly appropriate time to be investing in such thinking.

With regard to trauma, I have been reading Gordon Turnbull's account of his career: discovering the reality of post traumatic stress, and then pioneering approaches to help people to address it. I have also been reading some slightly more technical and academic books on the subject, recommended by colleagues. For me, this is not about developing the skills to work with those suffering from trauma - that would be crossing the line from coaching into therapy - but rather to understand better what the indicators are, so that I can make appropriate referrals, and be clearer about that boundary; and to support me in my work as a coaching supervisor, so that I can help the coaches I supervise to be equally clear about those boundaries and the limits of their appropriate support.

Friday, 29 May 2020

Facilitating online workshops

I was not a fan of the idea of running the kinds of workshops that I normally facilitate online. However, I have been pleasantly surprised by how effective they can be - and somewhat moved by how valuable some have found them to be in these extraordinary times.

So I thought I would record a few of the things that I have learned, that seem to make them run rather more effectively than I had imagined; and also a few things I have learned by attending online events that have worked rather less well...  I also have an unresolved question, which I'll get to later.

The first thing is to recognise that this is a different type of engagement and plan accordingly - don't simply do online what you would have done face-to-face.

One of the limitations is people's attention span in listening to one person. I can hold an audience for a good while when face to face; but don't attempt to do so online (I have sat through some poor presentations that involved hours of lecturing - which would probably have worked well live, as the presenters are experts and have interesting material, but really doesn't work online.)

Therefore, I prepare even more assiduously: I work out what I can send in advance for people to read (and make that as brief and clear as possible). I don't, however, assume that everyone will have read it... Also, I decide what questions it will be most helpful for people to discuss in smaller groups, to engage with the material of the session and apply it to their own situation.

Then I start the session by getting everyone to check in and talk, early on. A question about why the topic is important to them is one good way. With a very large group, I may put people into separate online rooms in smaller groups for this.

I try to be particularly clear about the agenda, and the structure of the session, including the questions that they will be asked to discuss in groups. I may also have circulated this in advance. I also tell them about the protocols of online sessions, particularly that all should be muted in the main sessions except when they are talking. I also mention that it is helpful if they post any questions in the chat, or use the 'raise hand' icon, rather than simply interrupt the session

Next, I give a quick introduction to the topic, recapitulating the advance reading, (sometimes by sharing a couple of slides) and then put them into groups quite quickly, with a clear question, or set of questions, to discuss. I make sure to tell them how long they have in the groups, and tend to message the groups at the halfway point, and again towards the end of each small group session, to give them a time-check. One thing I learned the hard way, is that once in groups, they can't see any slides I may be showing: and my questions were on my slides...  So now, I have taken to posting the questions into the chat box.

I tend not to drop into groups, as arriving in the middle of a discussion invariably causes everyone to stop talking; so I trust people to have sensible conversations without me having to check on them.

When people re-convene in plenary, I either ask to hear briefly from each individual (in a smaller meeting) or from each group (in a larger meeting). I then try to summarise the main themes that emerge.

Normally, I will then have another topic and another question: so I follow the same pattern: a brief intro, group work, and feedback. And I close the session by checking if there are any unanswered questions, concerns etc, thanking them for their participation, and telling them what happens next.

And now, here's the unresolved question.

If you want someone to feel that you are really listening to them, it is most helpful to look directly at the camera on your machine: then they will experience you looking directly at them; however, if you do that, you actually see them slightly peripherally - so may miss some of the subtleties of their non-verbal cues.  So what is the best option?...  I continue to ponder (and experiment)...



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?