Sunday, 28 February 2021

Building Learning Networks Online

 Some while ago, when describing how I was a convert to online workshops, even including skills development, I wrote:  I was clear that some of the key skills I see myself bringing to that process, such as the creation of a safe but rigorously challenging atmosphere, rely on physical presence; likewise, some of the benefits of the workshops I run, such as building connections and networks (and to some extent, I stand by that).

And now, perhaps, I am standing a little back from that.

We had a review session this week, following the first of the online version of my Negotiating Skills Workshop.  It was an opportunity for participants to get together again, to compare notes on what they had done and learned since the workshop, by trying the learning out in the workplace, and to re-commit to continuing to learn.

It was heartening to hear how enthusiastic people were about the learning, but what really impressed me was that they concluded the review by committing to keep working together as a learning community. So they are all going to read Getting to Yes, and get back together to talk about their learning (and how they have further applied it) in a month's time.  And then decide what next to read (I have given them a few suggestions) and so on.

That strikes me as very significant, not least as the feedback from many programmes that we have evaluated over the longer term is that the building of networks has proved to be one of the most valuable aspects.  Indeed, quite by chance, I heard from someone who had left the University where she did a leadership programme, but still continues to meet with her cohort regularly - ten years on!

It is not just chance that this happens. The Thinking Environment approach to facilitation (follow the tag if you want to know more) will reliably engage people in ways that create high levels of trust and therefore the likelihood of a continuing relationship.  But what is interesting to me, and what I had not expected, is that this works even online.


With thanks to  Chris Montgomery and Nicolas Picard for sharing their photos on Unsplash

Sunday, 21 February 2021

On Contracting

Sometimes a particular issue arises again and again over a short period of time: it is almost as if the universe is trying to tell you something.  For me, that has happened over the last few weeks with the business of contracting. In a number of supervisory conversations, I have found myself thinking 'How did you even get into that situation?' and in each case, the answer was poor contracting. Likewise, in another conversation, a colleague had had a consultancy project terminated because the CEO's expectations were different from hers - not about the work to be done or the importance of it, but how it was to be undertaken. He was expecting her to have done stuff, whilst she was still awaiting his more detailed brief. Poor contracting! And again, I have had an intake session with a new potential coaching client, at which we got to know each other, and discussed his expectations and mine; but also what I needed from him for the coaching to be a success: not just chemistry, in other words, but also, and importantly, contracting.

Strangely this doesn't seem to be well covered in the coaching and supervision literature, or training, that I have encountered. Instead, I go to Peter Block's great book, Flawless Consulting, (about which I have blogged before, on more than one occasion: see here, for example).

Block states that a contract is an explicit agreement of what the consultant and client expect from each other, and how they are going to work together. So this is not so much about the legal aspects of contracting (though they are important) as about all the other aspects.

And Block provides a lot of clarity, as ever. The business of the contracting phase, as he sees it is:

  • Negotiating wants 
  • Coping with mixed motivation 
  • Surfacing concerns about exposure and loss of control 
  • Triangular and rectangular contracting 
Clearly, this is a conversation, and agreement and an understanding to develop, not simply a document to sign. Negotiating wants is perhaps obvious; though in my experience many consultants and coaches focus only on client wants and not their own.  That sets things off on the wrong foot, as it implies that the client is the superior in the relationship, rather than a colleague on a joint endeavour.  It also risks the consultant or coach failing to articulate those things that he or she knows are critical to success, such as the client's full engagement with the work.

Coping with mixed motivation is also interesting: the client both wants help, but may also want you not to be able to help; as if you can sort this out, when they couldn't, what does that say about them?

Resistance, in Block's understanding, normally springs from concerns about exposure and loss of control: so surfacing those concerns early is extremely valuable.

And, of course, there may be several parties to to the contract, not all of them obvious; so clarifying and addressing that is also vital.

And then (and this is why I really like his work) Block gets very practical:

The specific skills involved in contracting are to be able to: 

  • Ask direct questions about who the less visible parties to the contract are 
  • Elicit the client’s expectations of you 
  • State clearly and simply what you want from the client 
  • Say no, or postpone a project that in your judgement has less than a 50/50 chance of success 
  • Probe directly for the client’s underlying concerns about exposure and vulnerability
  • Discuss directly with the client why the contracting meeting is not going well, when it isn’t. 

All of which are pretty self-explanatory, but many of which, I find, people don't do - and that mainly because they haven't been offered such a clear framework and understanding. 

And that's all for now, as I have a conversation booked about some new work with a new potential client in a few minutes - so I may be able to put all this wisdom into practice, once more.


With thanks to  Cytonn Photography and Christina @ for sharing their photography on Unsplash

Friday, 12 February 2021

Experimenting with Journaling

As I mentioned in my post a couple of weeks ago, I have been experimenting with the Genos Journalling App.  I have now done that daily for a fortnight, so (as promised, fearsome Reader) I am now reporting back.  (And for those following this saga attentively, I did find an old blank hard covered book in my stationery cupboard, and my handwriting isn't quite as illegible as I pretend).

It has been a useful and interesting experience.  I chose Self Awareness as my focus for the fortnight (the other options on the app are Personal Vision and Gratitude).  The various 'prompts' to which I responded include: I need to ask for help when... I am at my happiest when... I tend to sabotage myself when... I enjoy myself best when... and so on.

The discipline is then to write for the chosen length of time (3, 5 or 10 minutes, without stopping, and with no self-censorship, until the buzzer on the app goes.  In many ways, it is similar to working with a Thinking Partner using Nancy Kline's Thinking Partnership process (regular readers will know I'm a fan.

As to what I wrote, that will remain between the covers of my journal: that is rather the point. But the interesting bits are always when you write something that surprises you, or that you have always known but somehow lost track of, and so on.

One thing that is valuable is to go back over what you have written a while later and mark up what is particularly important

There was one prompt that I rejected (you always have the option to choose another prompt, if you don't like the one offered). The one I rejected (twice) was: One compliment I know that I deserve is... You may speculate and draw your own conclusions about what that says about me, should you wish to do so.

With regard to the Genos tool, it works well, apart from a few typos (particularly in the Gratitude prompts), and I would recommend it as a starting point. It's weakness, of course, is that it only has the three topic areas (and a finite number of prompts, of course).

For myself, however, I am now going to choose my own prompts, focusing on some different areas of my life that particularly want to attend to over the coming months.  I may report back further in due course.


With thanks to Aaron Burden for sharing his photography on Unsplash

Thursday, 4 February 2021

A Little Poetry

 This lockdown has been grimmer, in some ways, than previous ones.  Maybe it's the winter; maybe it was that we were just getting hopeful again...  Whatever the reason, it seemed to hit harder. So my younger children decided that it would be a good idea to learn a poem a week, and to swap poems every Saturday morning via Whatsapp.  And they recruited me, too.

So for the past several weeks, I have been learning a poem off by heart every week, and enjoying Mike's and Lizzie's recitations of their poems. And we have covered a lot of ground already: Shakespeare, Hardy, Eliot, Elizabeth Jennings, Stevie Smith, and even Geoffrey Bache-Smith, whom I hadn't come across before.

There are some obvious benefits, of course: exercising the old cerebellum as Bertie would say, and refreshing the soul. And also, for me at least, addressing that feeling that I really ought to know more poetry (by the end of the year, I should know a lot more than I do now!) 

But one that I hadn't foreseen was how pleasant it is to have access to all this different verse in my head for those moments - out walking, or waking in the night for example - when one might otherwise drift into unhelpful rumination or worry. I'm not especially prone to these, but as I say, this lockdown has been grimmer...

I'm particularly keen to remember all the poems I learn this year, so I try to say them through to myself most days at some stage: often when returning from a walk on the fells.  By the end of the year, of course, I'll have to go for much longer walks, if I am to sustain that habit.  And that, too, would be no bad thing...

Friday, 29 January 2021

What shall I blog about this week?

 Hmm... What shall I blog about this week?  What shall I blog about this week? Ah I know.  I have recently come across the Genos app for Journaling: the Mindful Leader Journaling App.

It offers both an introduction to journaling, including the many benefits, and some tips. For example, once you start writing, keep going, even if you don't know what to write: something will come.  (See the start of this blog post, where I took that advice. It worked this time!)

It also invites you to choose between Personal Vision, Self Awareness, and Gratitude as the subject for your journaling, and then to choose a time for the exercise: 3, 5, or 10 minutes, or unlimited. Then it offers you a prompt sentence (or half sentence to be more accurate) to get you started.  For example: 'When I see my ideal future it looks like...' and off you go - and keep your pen on the paper, keep writing, until the timer tells you that your time is up.  If you don't like the prompt you can choose another, of course; it has hundreds in each category. 

The benefits claimed - and referenced - are many, including reducing stress, increasing self awareness and so on. 

It is best done with pen and paper, of course. In fact Genos advocate buying a nice quality Journal to make the whole process more pleasurable.

So now we get to that part of the blog post where I should share my personal experience, evaluate the pros and cons, say what I have learned both through journaling and about journaling, and so on.

And yet, I can't. For the truth is I haven't got started.  There are a few reasons for that. Until yesterday, I had forgotten about the app, and I only downloaded it yesterday afternoon. Also, I am embarrassed about my handwriting, which is lamentable. Further, I am trying to go paperless, so have no ready supply of nice books to write in. And so on. 

So, knowing what I do about myself, and how to turn intention into reality, I hereby commit to you, my readers (both of you) that I will try journaling on a regular, daily basis, using this app, for the next few weeks, and I will then report back to you, my accountability buddies, on my learning.  And if I don't I expect you to be very severe with me.


With thanks to Eugene Chystiakov and Andrey Zvyagintsev for sharing their photos on Unsplash

Friday, 22 January 2021

Some Neuro (though not, I hope, neurotic) reflections

The other day I attended a fascinating webinar on the neuropsychology of resilience, put on by the Association for Coaching. Having read quite a lot about neuropsychology and coaching for my ILM 7, I found there was

not a lot that was new to me; but there was a lot I had known and forgotten, so it was a very valuable refresher.  And later, by coincidence (if one believes in coincidence) I saw this flowchart posted by @nathanfiler on Twitter, along with the description: I've been interviewing some of the world's leading experts on the neuroscience and psychology of emotion. I've distilled their main findings into this handy flowchart. You're welcome.  That made me laugh.

And I laughed because of recognition: for myself, this rings true. And also because of the puncturing of the overblown nature of some of the stuff out there that labels itself neuro- this that and the other. (Another twitter feed I enjoy is @Neuro_Skeptic).

And before everyone tells me, of course the flowchart is inadequate - that's part of the joke. But that raises another question: should we joke about such matters? My temptation is to say an unequivocal yes; I am a strong believer in the value of humour, not least with regard to resilience. At the cognitive level, humour offers us a change of perspective (that is almost a definition of how it works) that is often very healthy; at a social level, it can strengthen connections between people; and at a neuropsychological level, it is said to cause a release of endorphins (as explained by David Brent, memorably...). All of these are valuable in the context of resilience. 

But of course, a more nuanced answer is: it depends. If one has reason to believe that the joke will not strengthen connections, but rather irritate, alienate and so on, then it is better left untold. 

But given that the flowchart is inadequate, what else did I learn, or re-learn, on my recent webinar?  One of the things that came home to me most forcibly, and has had me reflecting since, is the instantaneous (or as near as makes no difference) reaction of the amygdala to any stimulus. The evaluation: Threat? Yes/no? and in the event of Yes, the stimulation of the fight/flight/freeze response. 

Yet I have long been a great believer in Frankl's work, and his observation (hard-won in the concentration camps) that 'Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.' How does one (how do I) reconcile that with this over-riding of the conscious will by the amygdala, that pumps the system full of aderenaline, and partially shuts down the pre-frontal cortex in order to divert energy for the predicted fight or flight?

My current tentative answer lies in a few other things that we know about resilience and stress. Stress is sometimes defined as our reaction when the perceived challenge is greater than our perceived ability to cope. The issue of perception is key here: and that is something we can work on. By managing that, we can reduce the likelihood of the amygdala hijack, as Goleman calls it. 

Secondly, and related, there is growing evidence for the value of meditation in reducing stress responses. One of the reasons for that may be the calming of the amygdala; we know that when one is in a state of high arousal, a stress response is more likely, so it seems plausible that the reverse may also apply. Also, if one's meditation is not content-free, but rather on some transcendent truth or being (for myself, I am a Christian), then that will also work on the issue of perception.

We also know about the value of exercise in this context; both the physiological benefits, and the psychological ones (that when we exercise we feel better about ourselves and have a greater sense of agency).

And finally, we know the importance of human connection: and again that probably works on many levels. At the level of perception, we may be more likely to fall victim to catastrophising when we are on our own, particularly if we feel isolated; and also, spending time with those we love has positive effects on the mix of neurotransmitters sloshing around in our brain (oxytocin and all that...).

So my work-in-progress solution to the question I raised earlier in this post is that whilst one is not, in the instant, in control of the amygdala's response, there is a lot that one can do over time to reduce the frequency and the impact of it, by attending with some discipline to one's wellbeing with regard to all of the physical, mental, social/emotional, and spiritual/existential aspects.

And, of course, though one may be subject to an amygdala hijack, one need not be victim to it. Noticing what is going on for oneself, and then, as my late, wise mother counselled*, counting to ten, is a very valuable discipline, too.

* I am told she was not the only person to have divined this wisdom.


Photo by Spikeball on Unsplash

Friday, 15 January 2021

On the value of not understanding…

Oh Lord, Please don’t let me be misunderstood…  sang Nina Simone, and it’s a sentiment we all share, I think. (And what a great performance it is!)

It was brought home to me particularly forcefully this week, in a thinking session with a colleague.  She thought, throughout, in Hindi, a language I do not understand.

It was, amongst other things, an experiment. She wanted to see what difference it made to her thinking, if she were to think in the language of her childhood and home upbringing, though not her schooling and education (which were in English). 

It proved a very rich experiment.  She reported that she thought more freely in my presence, knowing that I could not understand; and there were several reasons for that. One was that there was no need to supply context, or to be careful that her sentences were clear.  Another was that there was no risk of my misunderstanding her (or, of course, judging her).  She also reported that the session was very valuable: that she had done good thinking.

It was also fascinating from my point of view.  I had been concerned about whether I would be able to give that full, generative attention that is at the heart of a Thinking Environment (see other posts tagged with that label for more context) for thirty minutes, when listening to a language I did not understand. But fascinatingly, I was able to follow her thinking journey remarkably well. I could tell - from her tone of voice, pace, intonation and facial expressions when she was struggling for ideas, when she was making new links, when she was surprising herself, when she was pleased or amused at her thoughts and so on. And periodically she would pause to write down (in English, she confided to me) particularly important insights. 

But that’s bonkers!, you may be thinking, as my estimable wife did when I described the experience. What were you doing if you couldn’t understand a word?

An understandable reaction, but, I think a misplaced one. I was striving to do what I always do on these occasions: hold the space, provide exquisite attention, and embody the other components of a Thinking Environment.  Also, I asked questions to help her to continue to think, when she reached the end of a wave of thinking. So occasionally she would come to a stop; and I’d wait to see if a new wave of thinking was coming; and sometimes it did, but on other times she asked me, in English, to ask her another question.

How did I know what to ask her?  The first couple of times, I simply asked ‘What more do you think or feel or want to say?’ a fabulous question crafted by Nancy Kline. And the third time I asked if that question was still the most helpful one, and she suggested a different question, so I asked that: and that was all it took.

When it was my turn to think, I was tempted to think in French, to try to replicate the experiment.  I did not, in fact do so, not least as I am not confident that I have enough French to keep it going for 30 minutes. But I think I will try that at some stage, possibly for a shorter thinking session. I’ll be interested to see both whether I find it more liberating when my thinking partner can’t understand; but also how working with a much more limited vocabulary affects my thinking: does it clarify or over-simplify it?  And are there other differences: will my background framework of cultural references be less Shakespeare and Stoppard, and more Racine and Anouilh?

If I conduct that experiment (and if I remember to do so) I shall report back here in due course.

And in the meantime, here's a treat...


With thanks to Kerensa Pickett for sharing her photo on Unsplash