Friday, 21 July 2017

Caxton Kafka

Some years ago, my wife organised a Caxton card for Mike, our son, to use on his travels. She also put my name on it, so that I, too, could use it.

We haven't used it for a while, and a replacement card arrived recently; which posed a problem. The problem arose because since last using the card, we have changed various email addresses, forgotten the passwords, and forgotten in whose details (d.o.b. mother's maiden name etc) the card was originally registered.

I know, I know, we should have had records of all of these, but we didn't. To register the new card (and transfer the balance from the old card to the new) we had to log in. For that, we needed to enter the correct email address, and the password. Forgotten password: no problem - they'll email it. But as we had also changed email addresses...

Clearly the thing to do was to call the helpline. I explained the situation, and the young woman at Caxton asked for my date of birth and my mother's maiden name, which I gave.

Caxton: Sorry, that is incorrect.

Me: I see. But those are in fact my date of birth and mother's maiden name. Perhaps we used my son's date of birth and mother's maiden name when we opened the account: 9/5/96 and Plasom.

Caxton: Sorry, that is incorrect.

Me: Oh. What should we do then?

Caxton: I cannot continue this call, as you have failed to identify yourself.

Me: I understand that. But given I can identify myself by other means (I could send you a copy of my passport for example) I am wondering what we have to do to move this forward.

Caxton: I cannot continue this call, as you have failed to identify yourself.

Me: So do I have to write to Caxton, or what?

Caxton: I cannot continue this call, as you have failed to identify yourself. You could phone back, if you can remember the details you may have given when you registered the card.

Me: So I should keep phoning with different combinations of my own, my son's and my wife's details until I hit the right one? Is that what you are saying?

Caxton: I cannot continue this call, as you have failed to identify yourself.

Me: Yes, I understand that; but I want to know what I should do next, to establish my identity.

Caxton: I cannot continue this call, as you have failed to identify yourself (and hangs up).

This is a shortened transcript: I tried various tacks and questions; she was almost unvarying in her response. It really was like something from Kafka - or possibly Vaclav Havel - that almost overwhelming despair of banging your head against a bureaucracy that isn't even malevolent, simply stupidly unmoving...


I conferred with my wife and tried again later. I got a much more amenable young man, who asked me several identifying questions, and told me that I had got one wrong, but the rest were all correct, so on that basis he was happy to accept my identity. The one I had got wrong was my mother's maiden name. It transpired that my wife, in setting up the account had used all my details (date of birth etc) but given her mother's maiden name... I could have phoned many many times before hitting on precisely that combination, so was grateful that the second Caxton employee was less Kafkaesque than the first...

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Intuition or co-creation?

One of the discussions I often re-visit with my coaching supervisor, Jan, is the issue of non-directionality versus making suggestions for how to think (differently) about an issue or sharing new insights about it, when one is coaching. 

Some of our purist friends would argue that the minute coaches make a suggestion, they are taking autonomy away from the client and thus working against the primary goal of coaching: increasing client agency.

Interestingly, and although I am sure they would deny it, I think that understanding springs from a view of the client as 'broken' - as necessarily lacking in autonomy or agency. That is not a view I share.

However, I do recognise that offering suggestions is not the first thing to do; that encouraging people to think through their own issues in depth is generally more productive (cf my frequent blogs on Nancy Kline's work for example) certainly as a starting point.

But I also think that where I have a piece of theoretical knowledge (eg the research on Negotiating) or specific experience, it would be a failure, as a coach, not to share that appropriately. And it is rather over-optimistic to imagine that skilled questioning will help an individual to come up with the fruits of twenty years' worth of research, or pluck from the air the idea that reading Getting to Yes might be helpful.

Perhaps it is the nature of the people I coach, who are mainly academics or senior professional people, but I don't find that they swallow my ideas whole, or that there is a huge power imbalance whereby they credit me with some spurious authority. On the contrary, they are typically highly autonomous and characteristically intellectually critical. So the danger of my imposing my thinking on them seems relatively minor. Of course I take care to make sure that I pose things as suggestions or options to consider, and the feedback I get from my clients is that this is a helpful part of the process.

What we were discussing at my last supervision, and which I found particularly interesting, was the sudden insight one sometimes has, as the person one is coaching describes their issues in depth.  There are several risks attached to these: they can be a distraction ('when will she shut up, so I can share my brilliant insight?' or 'I'd better remember that, so I can contribute it at the right time...'); or they may not be so wonderful or relevant an insight as one thinks. And, of course, they are the nearest one gets to imposing one's own ideas on the coachee. 

In discussion with Jan, we agreed that sometimes these are very valuable; indeed the discussion arose because I had had that experience in a session we were reviewing as part of my supervision. But we also agreed a few other things. One is that it is very valuable to wait before offering them; to put them aside mentally and continue to listen exquisitely to the other person. If they are good insights, they will still be relevant later; and if not, they are better not shared prematurely (or at all!) Likewise, if they are as good as I think, I won't forget them - rather than worry about that, I should trust my memory: if I forget them, that's probably a sign that they weren't as brilliant as they seemed.

But the most interesting part of my discussion with Jan was her insight (which I am truly grateful that she shared!) that these are not so much flashes of brilliant thinking by the coach, as ideas co-created by the coachee and the coach, and the process they are working through together. Insofar as they are accurate and perceptive, it is because they are grounded in the coachee's analysis of his or her issues. It is the coachee who has done 90% of the thinking, and perhaps all the coach does is articulate back to the coachee a fresh perspective on that thinking. But as Jan pointed out, the credit belongs largely to the coachee - and making that explicit also helps avoid the concern about undermining agency.

And of course, that realisation means that I can take some of the credit for Jan's brilliant insight!

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Vulnerability and Control

I have long been a fan of the work of Peter Block, particularly his book Flawless Consulting (indeed I have blogged about it before, most recently here).  One of the points he makes is that most resistance to change, or to consultants' recommendations, spring from concerns about control and vulnerability.

I have often found that to be the case, and when I get an unexpected reaction from someone to a suggested action, I often find that considering issues of control and vulnerability is helpful to understand it.

This week, I have noticed these two issues cropping up in a number of other situations, and I am now wondering how universal they are, in relation to a range of difficulties we face. 

For example, in a recent episode of The Why Factor on the BBC World Service, they were discussing Self Harm. And guess what: vulnerability and control emerged as key issues. Vulnerability, perhaps predictably; but control? Yet what come through is that when a young person is cutting himself or herself, being in control of the pain, and then of the response to that pain (and indeed switching from enduring pain to looking after oneself) are a very important part of the satisfaction that some report from the process.

And then I reflected on something much closer to home: the degree of mental and emotional energy I have expended thanks to one of my clients deciding (contra all my other clients) that I fall under the IR35 regulations. I won't bore you with the details, but it is clearly a wrong decision, and one that is very much against my interests (and I think, finally, we are making progress towards a potential better decision). But the features of the process that caused me to expend so much energy were precisely those: I felt a decision was being taken that was both wrong and very damaging of my interests without my having any say in the matter: I was losing control. And the damage to my interests (if all my clients took the same approach, I would have to close my business...) made me feel very vulnerable.

So it has been an interesting week, and I will continue to consider other issues that I and others find difficult and explore the degree to which vulnerability and control are major factors.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Increasing the dose

I have blogged before about meditation, several times, in fact: the theory and my own developing practice. I have recently returned from my annual pilgrimage walking from Notre Dame de Paris to Notre Dame de Chartres (about which I have also blogged previously: here for example.)

It is a serious walk, as the miles recorded on my phone reveal, and gives plenty of time for both meditation and reflection.  And of course one of the things about a pilgrimage is what one brings home with one: the insights, the resolutions...

This year one of the resolutions that I made was to increase the dose, as it were, of my meditations.  My practice for the last few years (since September 2014, in fact) has been to set aside 14 minutes a day for this. And as I have recorded (here for example), I have found the practice very beneficial. So as of this Pentecost, I have increased the time allocated to 20 minutes a day.

That does not sound a big increase: a mere 5 minutes extra, but the impact so far has been significant. Somehow 20 minutes feels a much more expansive stretch of time than 15; on the one hand it is slightly harder to find 20 minutes of uninterrupted time during the day. But on the other hand, it is a much more valuable practice.  It is hard to explain why, but it feels qualitatively different.  

I will keep reflecting on this (see here for the difference between reflecting and meditating...) and report further thoughts in due course. But in the meantime, I will just reflect on my running shoes, which carry the legend ASICS - anima sana in corpore sano (a healthy soul in a healthy body) -and remind me why I both run and meditate on a regular basis.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Memento mori

I was shocked to learn, on Sunday, of the sudden death of Patrick Johnston, VC at Queens University, Belfast. I met Paddy for the first time last year, when I ran an event for him and his senior team. Since then, we have met a number of times, as we discussed and then planned a further significant piece of work, which was just due to start next week.

He struck me as a leader of vision and integrity, and his humanity was always very much in evidence, as was his courage. 

His sudden death has clearly impacted others, family, friends and colleagues, far more than me; yet I have been struck by how distressed I have been. I had come to regard him as a friend as well as a colleague, and feel that the friendship ended just as it was beginning.

I feel privileged to have known him, and will long remember him.

His death feels particularly poignant as he was only a couple of years older than I am, and like me had four children and a new grandchild.

I found the homily preached at his funeral Mass, by a priest who was a family friend, very moving.

May he rest in peace.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

An unexamined life...

According to Plato, Socrates said at his trial that the unexamined life was not worth living. Socrates' approach, Socratic questioning, helping people to discover or make explicit the understandings that they already know implicitly, is foundational to any coach.

Yesterday, I was talking with a coaching client about the practice of meditation, and the benefits thereof. 

And that made me reflect, subsequently, on my own experience.  Some time ago I posted some reflections about meditation, here. That was after making a public commitment to a regular practice, back in 2014, here. I am in no doubt that this practice has made a substantial and positive difference to my life, particularly in my capacity to deal with disruptive emotions and distractions.

But in this post I want to draw a distinction between meditation and reflection. The meditative practice is focused on the present moment, and the conscious direction of one's attention in the present moment (in my case, practicing a Christian form of meditation, that is on a passage of the Gospel which I am meditating on).

Whereas reflection is focused on the past, and to some extent on the future. On the past, to learn what I can from my experiences, and on the future, to consider how to apply that learning. 

So they are two distinct practices, meditation and refection, but they also support each other. The regular practice of meditation means that when I assign time to reflection, I use it for reflection and do not get distracted; and the practice of reflection is a way of collecting any insights gained from meditation (and indeed checking that I am still dedicating time to it). And I find it important to record the results of my reflections in writing, and to review them from time to time.

The only other thing I'd say on this is: don't overdo it. There is always the risk of becoming so self-absorbed and self-centred, that it is frankly irritating to others and comes across as narcissistic. But to over-react to that perceived risk, and refrain from any self-examination... well, what Socrates said!

Sunday, 21 May 2017

An uncomfortable simile

It was the final day of the Professors' Programme at Lancaster, last week. The day went well, and the comments as participants reflected on the whole programme were very interesting. As so often, a lot of the value came from the new connections established with colleagues around the university, and the learning generated by discussions amongst participants. But the other aspect that was particularly well received was the whole Thinking Environment approach, and in particular, the co-coaching that was a regular feature of the programme, built on the work of Nancy Kline.

One of the professors said that the co-coaching was very uncomfortable, but highly valuable. In fact, he said, it was like having an enema when you are constipated: not pleasant but extremely worthwhile. 

I wonder if I should use that in my marketing...