Wednesday, 28 December 2016

The Year in Review

2016 feels to have been quite a momentous year. I won't re-visit the large political events here; but at a local level it has been very positive.

Finishing and publishing Shifting Stories released a lot of energy for new learning: I also completed my post-graduate diploma in Executive Coaching and Mentoring, trained with Nancy Kline on her Thinking Partnerships programme, and organised the training for a number of colleagues and qualified in the Hogan assessment tools.  I have blogged variously about these throughout the year, so will not say more about them here, except to say that they have all added considerably to my repertoire as a coach, facilitator and consultant; and I have more development planned for next year (not least more work with Nancy Kline, and a Post-graduate Coaching Supervision diploma). 

I also read a large number of really helpful books, and have bought many more to keep me stimulated an learning, as well as attended a number of very valuable cpd events with Cumbria Coaching Network and the EMCC.

On the professional front, it has been gratifying to see a number of my coaching clients achieve great things, survive tough times, inspire others...  and many of the training events and awaydays I have facilitated have elicited similar feedback.  Moreover, the client base is growing, and the diary for 2017 is already very strong indeed.

Likewise, it has been particularly nice to read positive reviews of the book (both on Amazon, and also, somewhat less credibly, here); but even more pleasing to read reports of people putting the ideas into practice, with positive results (see here).

On the domestic front, we had a lovely holiday with our Outlaws (our daughter's husband's parents) sailing around Corfu on a catamaran; as well as a lovely family holiday in Scotland. And of course the major event of the year was the birth of our first grandson, James, who is with us for Christmas and the New Year.

And I notice that it is almost exactly a year since someone pointed out Charity Miles to me. I thought I might raise $250 for Charity Water over the year, just by my normal walking and running habits. In fact it has been more than $300, which is very satisfying. I started doing Donate a Photo more recently, but have contributed $190 worth of photos to Operation Smile. We have also developed substantial Kiva portfolios for the children; giving them Kiva vouchers as presents at Christmas etc. (If you don't know about Kiva, take a look - a fabulous scheme to help those in the developing world with micro-loans: encouraging agency, respecting dignity...)

All in all, despite the turmoil in the larger world, a positive year for us here...

So may I take this opportunity to wish all my clients, collaborators, colleagues and friends every blessing for a happy and successful 2017.



Thursday, 15 December 2016

The Value of Iteration

The last few weeks have been very interesting. I am busy working with a client on the development of a significant leadership programme to launch next year.  Based on an initial conversation with the head of the organisation about some interesting work I have been doing elsewhere, we agreed that I should speak with senior people in the organisation, as well as the managers of potential participants, and some of the potential participants themselves.

The fundamental model includes a large element of participant involvement in the design: ie on day 1 of the programme (which is modular over several months) they say what they would most value working on during subsequent days.

However, in order to invite people to the programme and give them some information to help them decide whether it is for them, and also to give some shape to the day 1 co-design exercise, it is necessary to have a high-level outline and structure; and some ideas of the types of content they can choose between. A completely blank sheet of paper would not be helpful (at least, in this particular organisational culture - I can imagine trying that elsewhere!)

So I started by asking a number of senior people for their ideas, and based on a structure which one of them proposed, and others endorsed, I then had focus groups with potential participants, and their managers. These radically re-designed the draft programme in a number of significant ways; and to their credit the senior managers are accepting that even though there were benefits of the original proposed programme which are now being lost (but other benefits, of higher perceived value to the participants, are being gained). In fact the final revision is closer to the model I have used elsewhere than our first draft here…

And of course if we are to launch next spring, which is the ambition, we really need to get invitations out before Christmas, so that people can plan their diaries accordingly. So we are having to get final agreement in something of a rush, and, for reasons of geography, mainly by remote communications.

But I think we are almost there. And although it has felt a somewhat messy process, and almost as though we were going in circles at times, I am convinced it was worth it.


In the first place, it is essential to ensure the relevance of the programme to the participants as well as to the organisation. Likewise, it is important that the relevance is recognised: involving people in the process gives them more of a stake in the outcome. That is equally true of the line managers, who will be encouraging people to make time for the programme.  But also, we are learning a lot about the organisation by the mere fact of doing this: the different ways in which people in different roles conceive of the issues is itself very useful information. Further, there is something about getting the conversation - and the thinking - going about leadership before we even start that programme that may well prove helpful.

But I have to admit to a certain relief that we are nearly at the end of (the first part of) the seemingly endless iteration...

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Conversational Intelligence?

I listened to an online presentation about Conversational Intelligence, the other day. It was largely a sales pitch by Judith Glaser for a very expensive programme, run by her, and based on her book of the same title.

It was very interesting, if somewhat tantalising: interesting enough for me to order the book, but not to sign up to the (heavily discounted if you book now!) training programme for $$$$ - despite her earnest desire that I should join her 'dream team.'

The one thing I gleaned that really captured my attention was the notion of the impact of conversations - and in particular the opening moments of conversations - on the brain of the person with whom one is talking.

Glaser was suggesting that the opening moments are likely either to produce a response based on a release of cortisol, testosterone and norepinephrine - which will take the conversation in a difficult direction and leave the other person (and possibly you, given what we know about emotional contagion) in a bad place; or conversely, a response based on a release of oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin, which is more likely to lead to a creative confident conversation, leaving both parties euphoric.


And whilst I might be overstating it for effect, I think she may be onto something.  Particularly if one is in a leadership (or other powerful) role, I suggest it is easier than one might realise to prompt people to be nervous or defensive.  As Daniel Nettle points out in Personality (about which I have already blogged here) we are typically over-calibrated for worry. And if that is the case, and leaders are frequently, inadvertently, provoking cortisol dumps, we can deduce that that will have an impact on the emotional state, and ultimately the culture, of the organisation. For the worried or stressed individual that results from such interactions is likely to have further interactions with others, with similar effect; and the long-lasting residual effect of a cortisol dump adds to the problems.

Conversely, a leader (and I have witnessed this recently) who takes care to have positive conversations that leave people happier than when she started talking to them (the person I have in mind has been radical enough to talk about 'kindness' as a desirable organisational behaviour) can have a significant and highly beneficial effect on the culture of her organisation. And as I say, I have witnessed that recently, and Glaser's hypothesis suggests a plausible explanation.

But I have yet to read the book, so cannot really judge her ideas: I will blog further when I have done so.


Friday, 2 December 2016

Personality - what makes you the way you are

I have just finished reading Daniel Nettle's book: Personality - What makes you the way you are. The first thing to say is that it is fascinating - engagingly written, so that it is easy and enjoyable to read, and also well-founded on a very broad reading of the relevant research (and some interesting by-ways) and properly referenced: a book (and an author) you can trust.

Daniel (full disclosure - I know him) starts by explaining why personality traits matter, and what the Big Five are. Then he considers the evolutionary context: why is there such variance in each of the Big Five in all human populations. This is all fascinating context, enlivened by vivid examples and anecdotes - such as the variance in the Beak of the Finch (which is the title of the second chapter).

The next five chapters look at each of the Big Five in turn, considering the nature of the trait, how it has been researched, the benefits and risks associated with high or low scores, and so on. Each chapter has a title exemplifying. or rather personifying, the trait under consideration. Thus the chapter on Extraversion is Wanderers, that on Neuroticism is Worriers; Conscientiousness, Controllers; Agreeableness, Empathisers; and that on Openness, Poets.

In each case, I finished the chapter with a far deeper and richer understanding of the trait than I had had previously; and I am not starting from a zero base-line. 

In passing, it also becomes clear why typologies such as the MBTI, whilst they may have some utility as a useful fiction, and a way of enabling some self-awareness and some interesting discussions, are not really adequate in representing where the state of scientific knowledge now stands with regard to personality. The Hogan tools fare rather better, as the HPI is based on the Big Five, and also uses scales rather than the binary approach of MBTI.

The penultimate chapter then looks at the nature/nurture debate, particularly drawing on twin studies, which are, of course, crucial in this context. The startling and counter-intuitive conclusion is that parental influence (excepting extremes of abuse etc) has no influence on the personality of their children. There is more work to be done on environmental influence, but that finding is clear and conclusive. Other candidates for influence (such as birth order) are also considered and, by and large, discarded. But, as I say, there is more work to be done here.
Daniel Nettle (centre) expressing some extraversion:
chairing a post-play discussion with the cast of
Hitting the Wall at Northern Stage on 30 November 2016

All this can leave one feeling somewhat fatalistic: if so much of my behaviour is driven by my personality, and my personality is largely inherited and influenced post-birth by factors we can't fully describe, still less control, where do I stand in terms of individuality, agency and responsibility.  Daniel addresses this in the final chapter, and in particular, the key question: can I change? Here he makes valuable distinctions between personality traits and how one might express them (including working against them, as well as finding benign rather than harmful expressions); but he also emphasises the importance of the personal life story - the meanings an individual constructs to make sense of his or her experiences, and the malleability of those.  This of course is a perfect fit with my work in Shifting Stories, so I was both pleased and relieved to find it here.

So I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in deepening his or her understanding of personality, and in particular the big five. And now I need to go through it again, this time making notes...





Friday, 18 November 2016

On becoming a grandfather

Despite a very rich week, work-wise, I can't think of anything to write about this week.  I attribute that to the birth of my first grandchild, James.

He was born on Wednesday, and I was lucky to be able to call in at the hospital before travelling down to Winchester University, to run a two-day event with the inspirational VC, Joy Carter.

James' arrival, though long-expected, was still a momentous event in the life of our family. Naturally his mother and father are delighted - and besotted. It has been lovely to see, too, how our other children have been equally delighted  in their new roles as aunts and uncle.

Jane and I, too, are excited at the new role we have as grandparents, and I feel I ought to write something profound and inspiring about that. But the truth is, it is too soon to do so. Euphoria - and perhaps exhaustion - mean that I can't move beyond the simple feeling of joy. So that will have to suffice for this week's post.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Inside Out: Emotions in Hollywood and Science

On Monday I went to an excellent event run by the School of Psychology at Cardiff University, as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science.

The event involved a screening of Inside Out, followed by presentations by Profs Tony Manstead, Stephanie van Goozen and Andrew Lawrence, with Dr Job van der Schalk as ringmaster.

Inside Out was excellent. If you have not seen it, here is one of the scenes I like, which really demonstrates emotional contagion in action:



Following the film, the talks covered a wide range of areas. A number of points struck me.

I was interested in Tony Manstead's points about the functions of emotions, and the distinction between the intrapersonal and the interpersonal functions. At the intrapersonal level, emotions are often a signal that we need to act, often preparing us for an emergency response: fight or flight. At the interpersonal level, they enable learning, links to other people and communication. A particularly interesting example was the 'is it safe to cross?' experiment with toddlers. The toddler is on a surface that appears to disappear, and is invited to crawl towards his or her mother. When the mother's face communicated fear, none of the toddlers ventured to cross. When the mother's face communicated joy, 74% of them did so.

Stephanie van Goozen talked about the development of emotional problems in children. These can range from being rejected by peers to aggressive behaviour. She pointed out that these may arise from difficulty in recognising emotions in others, and difficulty in controlling one's own emotions. This, of course, resonates with some of the underpinning ideas of the Emotional Intelligence movement (as does the idea of emotional contagion, already mentioned). She highlighted two phases in the developing child's life when problems may develop: early childhood and puberty/adolescence.


Andrew Lawrence introduced us to some of the neuroscience that sits behind all this, including explaining how to parse fear in a human being (fmri scans and tarantulas are involved...). In particular he highlighted the key role of the amygdala, which is central in the processing of emotions, and how well connected it is to many other areas of the brain, which are related to many other important processes. So emotional responses to stimuli have wide ranging effects on perception, memory, interpretation, and so on.  All of that, of course, resonates particularly with the issues I look at in Shifting Stories.

So a very rich afternoon - much richer than this brief summary suggests - with plenty of food for thought, as well as a lot of confirmation of the underpinnings of various aspects of my work.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Table d'hôte, A la carte or Open Space?

I am considering the merits of different approaches to training workshops in different contexts. Some of my workshops are table d'hote: I run a workshop according to an agenda that works, with input, exercises, discussions etc in a pre-determined order to meet defined learning objectives. Workshops on specific skills, such as my Influencing and Negotiating Skills workshop are very much in that mould.

Other programmes are more à la carte: we offer learners a choice of topics, speakers, and approaches at the start of the programme, and construct the programme according to their expressed needs. The programmes I run for Professors at various universities follow this model. The idea is that they are better placed to decide what they would value discussing than I am. And that approach, of course, also ensures a high degree of relevance and ownership

And I am also a fan of Open Space approaches, where the participants generate the agenda. I have blogged about Open Space before (eg here, and see the tag Open Space for other posts). This approach seems to work particularly well when the topic is large, and the agenda is about exploring possibilities, sharing expertise, and generating ideas for collective action, rather than learning pre-identified knowledge or skills.

All of which reminds me of John Heron's model of facilitation, where he identifies three decision-making styles (Hierarchical, co-operative and autonomous). Here I have applied them, I realise, to what Heron calls the Planning dimension of facilitating an event: who decides what is going to happen.

He also identifies five other key dimensions, and any one of those three styles can be used in any of the five dimensions.  The five are: meaning, confronting, feeling, structuring and valuing. The six dimensions (these five, plus planning, as mentioned previously) address six key questions:

  • How shall the group acquire its objectives and programme?
  • How shall meaning be given to and found in the experiences and actions of the group?
  • How shall the group's consciousness be raised about resistance and avoidance?
  • How shall the life of feeling within the group be handled?
  • How shall the the group's learning experiences be structured?
  • How shall a climate of personal value, integrity and respect be created?
All of which makes me reflect that whilst I am aware of making conscious decisions about the table d'hôte, à la carte or Open Space options, I am more likely to act out of habit in some of the other dimensions.

So a memo to myself: re-read Heron's book, and deliberately experiment with some different combinations of style and dimension...



Friday, 28 October 2016

Shifting Stories

After a long gestation,  Shifting Stories (by Andrew Scott, ISBN 9781785893551) is now available to order from your local bookshop, on Amazon (also as an ebook, but without the wonderful graphics), and directly from me (If you would like a signed copy) via the website (see below)


I would ask that you consider buying from your local bookshop, rather than Amazon, for a few reasons: bookshops struggle for business, but we would miss them if they disappeared - and they pay a much better margin to authors than Amazon does (so this is also a self-interested request!)  

If you want to know more about the book, there are a few Youtube videos (between 4 and 6 minutes long), and a lot more detail on the  website.

The Youtube videos are 
  • a (mock)TV interview, here: 

  • a (mock) radio interview here: 


  • and a presentation including a case study here (this was produced as a reminder video for people who have been on my workshop):



The website is at www.shiftingstories.uk  

If you like the book, please tell everyone, and write a glowing review on Amazon.

If you dislike the book, please tell me, and tell me why.

If you want to discuss anything in the book, please go to the website (www.shiftingstories.uk)  where I hope lively discussion will take place, to develop my own understanding, and other peoples’ too.

I hope you buy the book, enjoy it, and find it useful; but above all I hope that you engage in the discussion. I think this is a fascinating approach, and am keen to learn more - and hope that you will be part of that process.

I would like to record particular thanks to the many people interviewed for the book, all those years ago (you should have received your complimentary copy a while back: if it did not reach you, please let me know.) And especial thanks to Andrew Derrington, who coached me into writing a readable book, Mike P-S who did the cover and all the graphic work, and Jane P-S who did all the practical editorial work, and built the website.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Continuing to explore The Dark Side

I am always interested in the theoretical underpinnings of the tools I use, so have been reading up on the Hogan Development Survey instrument.  I have blogged about this tool a few times already (see the tag Hogan for the other posts).

So, where do the scales used by Hogan come from? The HDS Manual states that each scale is designed to describe various personality disorders as they may manifest in working adults:

Excitable - borderline
Sceptical - paranoid
Cautious - avoidant
Reserved - schizoid
Leisurely - passive aggressive
Bold - narcissistic
Mischievous - antisocial
Colourful - histrionic
Imaginative - schizotypal
Diligent - obsessive compulsive 
Dutiful - dependent

I recognise that it may not always be helpful to make that explicit when working with the tool: if my feedback had started with: you have a high risk of displaying Schizoid, Schizotypal and Histrionic behaviours, it might have been a bit of a distraction from the learning...  

Moreover, I think it would have been inaccurate; for what the Hogan tool is doing, if I am correct, is exploring how these tendencies might manifest in healthy functional people under stress (or when over-relaxed) and not at the extremes suggested by the label 'personality disorder.'

I find it helpful to know the link, however; and not least because the Hogan labels are not always perfect: Leisurely has quite different connotations for me than the passive aggressive meaning implicit in the Hogan scale. The Hogan sub-scales are helpful here, of course: the sub-scales for Leisurely are Passive Aggressive, Unappreciated and Irritated. 

One other thing I noticed with interest is that the way the Hogan groups these is different from the way the NHS does:

I do not think that is problematic, as they are focusing on different issues, in their groupings; and, as already mentioned, the HDS is meant to be (I think) the non-pathological manifestations of the traits (‘working adults’), rather than the more extreme manifestations implied by ‘personality disorders’ in the NHS categorisation.

But it is interesting - not least to me; my high scores for Reserved and Imaginative (Schizoid and Schizotypal) now sit together in Cluster A, Odd; it is now Colourful (Histrionic) that is the outlier, in Cluster B, Dramatic… Food for thought.

--
Incidentally (and perhaps manifesting some of my tendency to go off on tangents that may leave people behind) Stoppard's Dark Side is a great radio play....

Friday, 14 October 2016

More Learning From my Dark Side

I have blogged a few times about the Hogan tools, and my learning from them. In particular, here I talked about the insight into myself generated by the famous Dark Side tool, and the fact that my dark side high-risk factors are an odd mix: high Reserve along with high Colourful and high Imaginative.

Well, Hogan is the gift that keeps giving. Yesterday, in a supervisory session with the excellent Jan Allon-Smith, another light came on. We were discussing my coaching (as you might expect in a coaching supervision session) and some particular questions I had about it, and Jan asked how the Hogan tools might inform my thinking.

It proved to be a very rich question, and I realised that my coaching, when I am not at my best, could be reasonably characterised as Reserved (in the ways meant by the Hogan use of the term). That led to a great discussion about what more Colourful or more Imaginative coaching might look like - and the recognition that sometimes my coaching does look like that, and I think it is the better for it. That is to say, it can be more fun, and more risky; and I allow more of myself to show through. 

That is not always appropriate, of course; and further, my Reserve is necessary to stop the Colourful or the Imaginative approaches from moving the focus from the coachee onto me, or from intimidating the coachee and failing to create that learning environment which is a sine qua non of coaching.  

So I am not going to jettison some of my Reserved behaviours: they go very well with a highly attentive approach to listening, as Nancy Kline's model (of which I am a big fan) advocates. But I think I had allowed them to dominate some of the more Colourful and Imaginative behaviours in my coaching (and to a lesser extent in my facilitation) and that had reduced the range of my repertoire.

I found this a very energising, exciting and slightly scary conversation - what de Haan would call a critical incident in our coaching supervision meeting.  Now the challenge is to integrate the insights gained in conversation with Jan to my practice: so if you have a coaching meeting booked with me, you may want to see if you see me as more Imaginative (though not, I hope eccentric, which is the risk) or more Colourful (though not I hope too dramatic, which is the associated risk with Colourful).

Friday, 7 October 2016

A World Without Down's?

I was very moved by Sally Phillips' documentary on Down's Syndrome and pre-natal screening this week: A World Without Down's

In the first instance, I was shocked by my own prejudice. I like to think of myself (who doesn't?) as without prejudice, but I noticed a small but discernible visceral reaction to the physical appearance of Olly, Sally's son, who has Down's. 

I was quickly won over, of course, by his infectious personality; and it made me reflect that I know nobody with Down's, and that my life is the poorer as a result. I know some people - including family members - with varying degrees of autism, and am aware how that has resulted in my being fully comfortable with such people.  But, as I say, I was shocked by my own visceral prejudice, based purely on unfamiliarity.

I was also profoundly moved by the interview with the young mother who had terminated her pregnancy at 25 weeks on learning that her baby (probably) had Down's. Her description of the moment when she could feel her baby moving within her, then it was injected in its heart, and then it stopped moving was terribly upsetting - not least for her.

To me, it seemed to cut through some of the easy rhetoric about 'My body, my choice.' For it was clearly not only her body that was at issue here: the heart that was injected and stopped was not her heart. Perhaps that was compounded by the fact that my daughter is currently expecting a baby.

But this notion of autonomous choice is very dear to us as a society. Sarah Ditum's review of the programme in the New Statesman exemplifies this. To say that Sally Phillips' programme was 'anti-choice' is enough to damn it, in Ditum's view.

However I want to think a little more about this notion of choice.  On the one hand, it seems very atomised. Each individual mother making a choice to terminate a Down's baby has a cumulative effect that reaches beyond them: that was the thrust of Phillips' concerns, though she herself was careful not to actually contradict the choice mantra, in the programme.  But the programme raised the question: who do we think is worthy to live in our society?  And it is not just about people with Down's but also autism (as pre-natal screening for autism is also nearly with us).

I think that the world would be a poorer place if we eliminate all those who are markedly different, or different in ways that 'we' find uncomfortable to deal with. Yet that is the foreseeable consequence of the sum of the individual choices that mothers are likely to make (as Iceland demonstrates). And there are other consequences too: as one mother put it on Twitter: 'We try so hard for inclusion/acceptance & NIPT makes it harder. That our kids are only here b/c tests failed?'

There is another aspect of choice that I think worthy of reflection, too. We talk of 'informed' choice; but as Sally made clear, no amount of information can tell you the reality of having a child with Down's; and still less how you will in fact respond to that reality. So the choice is inevitably made on the basis of assumptions, and as we heard very clearly in the programme, fears and prejudices.

Further, thinking of Kubler-Ross' research, and the transition curve, we are compelling women to make that choice at a particular moment, when they are going through the emotionally charged experience of learning that their child has Down's. But we know that the way she will react will change over time - but the nature of the choice demands a quick decision. Such a decision may well not be the one she would make given more time and more support.

That is why we do not offer people who are attempting suicide the choice of a quick and easy way to do so: we recognise that the choice to commit suicide is very often one that is made at a particular moment, and that with help and support the individual will be glad not to have been able to act on that choice. For, as with abortion, it is an irreversible one.

So am I anti-choice?  Well, I am anti- some choices. As we all are. We don't say of (say) bullying behaviour that 'it may be wrong for you, but you can't judge other people.'  We recognise that bullying behaviour is wrong, not just for me, but for everyone. The degree of subjective responsibility may of course be mitigated by particular circumstances, but the behaviour is still wrong and harmful.

Further, I believe that choices made from fear and based on partial knowledge and prejudice are likely to be less positive and life-affirming than choices that spring from love and courage.

So, of course, we cannot and should not pass judgment on the woman who shared her story of terminating her pregnancy at 25 weeks.  But I believe that objectively, that was a wrong thing to do - and a wrong choice for her to be offered.

This is a complex and fraught area: but I am grateful for Sally Phillips' powerful and thought-provoking programme for making me reflect more on it.

And I, for one, don't want to see a World Without Down's.

Friday, 30 September 2016

Open Space and Graphic Recording

The inspirational new head of the HASS Faculty and Newcastle University has launched a Faculty-wide discussion about the values of the Faculty. She is pursuing this in various ways, and in conversation with her a while ago, we agreed that an Open Space event might be a valuable part of the process.

We held the event last week, at St James' Park (home of NUFC)  and around a hundred academics and professional support staff came along for the day.  As ever, I was slightly apprehensive at the start of the day: a hundred people and no agenda...  But as ever, people were full of ideas about the important questions to discuss, and quickly generated a large number of options.

Then there was the slightly messy business of constructing the agenda: people signing up for the questions they personally wished to discuss and then arranging the timings of the sessions so that as many as possible could get to all the topics they had chosen. Some people find this stage of the process uncomfortable,as it is somewhat chaotic and, finally, arbitrary. I always enjoy it: seeing order emerge from the chaos.  And in my experience, the group always manages to produce an agenda that works very well.


We had also invited John Ashton along - a graphic facilitator, recommended by Eleanor Beer, with whom I have worked before. John started with a blank sheet of paper, which mirrored our process of course, and over the day built up a comprehensive record of all the many discussions that had taken place. A number of participants were intrigued to watch this process, and the resultant poster (and electronic copies of it) will be very helpful both in reminding attendees and informing others who were unable to attend, of the range and key themes of the many rich discussion.

What I particularly enjoyed about the day was the huge, and unexpected, range of topics discussed: from how to have fun to how better to engage with the city and region.  But you can see the full range of the discussion in John's graphic poster, below. 


Friday, 23 September 2016

Learning to finger whistle

I nearly called this post 'What I learned on my holidays,' but reflected that I had learned other things, too, and also that title sounded a little like a junior school essay.

But what I want to reflect on is how I learned to produce that shrill loud, piercing whistle that one produces with one's fingers between one's lips.

I have wanted to be able to do that whistle for years, in a vague kind of way; but never enough to take any actual steps to learn the skill. However, as my dog grows older, harder of hearing and more confused (and you can keep your jokes about dogs growing more like their masters to yourself) it has suddenly become a more pressing need. I love to walk her on the fells, and let her roam freely - but I do need to be able to call her back, and increasingly my old-style whistle just wasn't loud enough.

Mike (my son) can do it, of course, so I asked him to teach me. He told me what to do, (something like this) and demonstrated it; and then I tried - and nothing. 'Now it's just about practice,' he assured me.

So I kept practicing. And eventually, some semblance of a whistle emerged from between my fingers.  

I had thought that once I had found that sweet spot, I would be able to replicate it, and increase volume, pitch and so on by further trial and error. But it has proved to be a more complicated business than that. Four weeks on, and I am still finding that sometimes I put my fingers to my mouth, and no noise emerges. Further, I don't know what to do when that happens. I don't know what makes the noise that does (unreliably) emerge higher or lower pitched. In fact, I don't really have any understanding of the skill I am practicing.

But nonetheless, practice works. The frequency of getting no noise at all is reducing; and the frequency of getting a really good noise is increasing (I'm up to about 90% of the time, now).

Which raises the fascinating question, for those interested in learning: how does that work? Why does practice work, when I don't know what is making the difference?  Clearly, I am gaining feedback each time I practice: either sound emerges or it doesn't.  But my inability to recognise what is making the difference means that I can't (consciously) try to to it better next time. Yet, nonetheless, over time, the more I practice, the better I get.

It seems to me that this experience raises serious questions for our models of learning: I am approaching unconscious competence without going through conscious competence: is that even allowed? And does it make (for example) sports coaching redundant?  

 Maybe the best way to learn a forehand smash at tennis is just to try lots and lots of them, without a coach telling you what to do differently each time. Perhaps your body will learn the skill more quickly like that?  I'd like to think not: I prefer to believe that some guidance and instruction really do add value. But I'd be even more interested to know what evidence there is to believe that, and what theory can be built around these different routes to acquiring skill. 'Muscle memory' is a label for this - a potentially misleading one, as no memory resides in the muscles; but even when not misleading, it seems to me to describe rather than explain...

Thursday, 15 September 2016

The Daring Way

Back in July, we had a great CPD session run by Jacqui Sjenitzer (about which I reflected here)
Jacqui has been in touch to tell us that she is planning to run two workshops -  the Daring Way programme - in Penrith, on 11/12 November and again on 20/21 January. The details are at the link below.
If you are interested in Brené Brown's work on Shame and Vulnerability, or keen to step up to the mark in your own professional or personal life, these could be a great starting point.

Friday, 9 September 2016

Archetypes in Coaching Supervision

We had a very interesting exploration of archetypes in coaching supervision today.

The three archetypes we were exploring were Guardian, Teacher and Healer. Of course there are other archetypes one could identify and explore but we limited ourselves to these (which map well onto other coaching supervision models).

The Guardian is concerned with standards, ethical concerns, appropriateness of interventions in relation to the contract and so forth.


The Teacher is concerned with continuing development: what still needs to be learned, what theories or models might be helpful, and what development opportunities might be appropriate.

The Healer is concerned with offering emotional support and keeping the other safe.

All of these are appropriate concerns in coaching supervision (and coaching, of course); but it is useful to recognise to which one is more drawn, and which one neglects; or whether there are patterns such as starting with the intention of teaching, but then moving into healing (eg habitual rescuing).

And then the conversation got even more interesting as we discussed the shadows...


The shadow associated with the Guardian is the Omnipotent; thus one may feel he or she has the right (indeed the duty) to correct every perceived fault in others.

The shadow associated with the Teacher is the Omnisicient; thus one may feel he or she has  superior knowledge which has to be used to enlighten all.

The shadow associated with the Healer is the Panacea; thus one may feel he or she iss predestined to provide the perfect cure at any time.

Again, spotting preferences, habits and patterns is valuable.

I am not a great fan of Jung, and don't attach huge significance to his ideas about archetypes and shadows; but I found this a rich metaphor to provoke some different conversations and insights about both coaching and coaching supervision.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Vulnerability and Shame

Last week we had a very interesting CPD session at Cumbria Coaching Network. Our guest speaker was Jacqui Sjenitzer, who introduced us (by both word and experience) to the work of Brené Brown on shame and vulnerability.

We explored themes of emotional exposure, and how the flight from that is one of the things that prevents us from truly turning up and being ourselves. We talked abut armouring up (to protect ourselves from the risk of emotional exposure), and the three strategies for that: moving away, moving towards and moving against. I was interested in the relationship of these to the Hogan HDS, where the Dark Side behaviours fall into the same categories.

And we spent a lot of time talking about The Arena. This metaphor is drawn from the famous Roosevelt speech, Citizenship in a Republic, delivered at the Sorbonne in 1910:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. 
This is a powerful metaphor, and the idea of turning up (see above) is closely linked to it: unless we turn up in the Arena, we are not really being true to ourselves. But the steps of the Arena is when vulnerability is most likely to strike: just as we go into that meeting when we can tell a difficult truth (ie enter the Arena) or hold our peace (stay on the steps) etc.

Such vulnerability is fed by ideas of scarcity (not enough time, money, expertise, courage, experience...) comparison (someone else is .... than me) shame, and the idea is that we can overcome it by self-compassion and empathy.

There was lots here that resonated with me, both with regard to myself and many people I work with. But I do have reservations about the Arena as a metaphor: building a philosophy on the metaphor of fighting for survival seems to me to lead to a particular way of looking at things - a particular set of possible stories - that may not be the most helpful.

Nonetheless, I found this a very stimulating and thought-provoking session, and am keen to read more of Brené Brown's work, and reflect on her TED talks: which may be seen here (on the power of vulnerability) and here (listening to shame). 

Friday, 15 July 2016

Anyone Got A Nail?

 I have just finished my training to use the Hogan Psychometric tools (click here to see my previous musings about these). It was a fascinating couple of days, though I will need to do some further reading, discussion and reflection to get the full richness of the concepts, and also some practice in discussing them with clients, of course.

Part of the enjoyment came from the rich group who assembled for the course, which I organised (purely for my own convenience) and which was run at Lowther Castle - just over the valley from my house. We had a few independent coaches, some academics, an HR Assistant Director, a maths teacher - all good stimulating company.

There are three tools in the suite that we studied. The first is the Hogan Personality Inventory. This is known as the Bright Side, and looks at those strengths which others are likely to see in us when we are operating at our best. There are seven scales, and they map onto the Big Five psychological traits (the Five Factor Model). The Five Factor Model is the most widely-accepted personality trait model (though not above criticism, by a long way...) What the Hogan tool adds to the model is an emphasis on how others see you - your reputation. Behind the questionnaire sits a lot of research about how others perceive people who self-report in particular ways. I think that is particularly helpful in coaching conversations, especially with people who are quite self-aware, in terms of their internal self-image, but may not have such a clear understanding of how others read them, interpret them, and react to them.

 The Second of the tools is the Hogan Development Survey, popularly known as The Dark Side. This was the first of the tools I heard about, and anecdotally seems to be the one that people talk about the most. The 11 scales measure those strengths which may become career de-railers if over-used. Typically, that occurs when one's self-moderating habits are relaxed; so under pressure or stress, or (conversely) when very relaxed and at ease. This was also the first of the tools that I experienced on the receiving end, and I have blogged about the insight, and the impact, this tool previously (here and here). This is also the basis of the book Why CEOs fail (by Dotlich and Cairo), and we looked at some of the real-life case studies from the book on the workshop. It looks well worth a read. I think that all of us on the programme found this a particularly helpful tool, in terms of stimulating useful coaching conversations.

The third of the tools is the Motives, Values, Preferences Inventory. This is the tool that looks 'inside'  and looks at the core values, goals and interests that determine satisfaction and drive careers. I can see this being very helpful for people who are not sure why they are dissatisified with (apparently) successful careers, or who are considering a career change.

All of the tools struck me as useful. There are all of the usual caveats about validity, need for tentativity in discussing the reports with people, problematic language (some of the labels seem unhelpful) and so on. Nonetheless, I can see many situations in which these could be extremely helpful - and am already thinking of many individuals with whom to have that discussion.

And then, of course, I pause and reflect: here I am with a shiny new hammer: so the temptation is to see every problem as a nail... I will proceed with due diligence, and in discussion with my coaching supervisors (one of whom was on the programme, as was a member of my co-supervision group).  But if you are interested, don't hesitate to get in touch!