Saturday, 28 January 2017

Listening Beyond...

I have been working with Nancy Kline's Thinking Environment model again this week; specifically with a number of professors at Lancaster University. One of the things that struck me afresh was Nancy's notion of 'Let's see how much further your thinking can take you... and how much further than that.... and how much further than that..."

For what seemed to happen in the practice sessions was that highly intelligent people surprised themselves, discovering how far their thinking could go, when they were listened to with exquisite attention by a colleague.

They were thinking about topics they had thought about before, but made real breakthroughs in their thinking, and in the way in which they were thinking, with minimal intervention (though maximum attention) from their listening partners.

One found, for example, that she suddenly identified a number of assumptions that she had been making; and by re-considering these, and abandoning the false ones, she made significant progress. That was without the thinking partner asking about assumptions (Nancy's hypothesis is that the brain normally does that naturally, when the right conditions are in place; just occasionally, we have to help it with the appropriate questions).

The hardest part of these conversations, for the listening partners, was resisting the urge to interrupt, to contribute, to ask questions. But (under strict instructions from me) they managed to do so, and listened beyond the obvious, to some new and fascinating ideas.

In the plenary conversation afterwards, when we were discussing the application of the same principles to meetings, one professor also spoke very articulately about the fact that in meetings he would listen, but would need time to go away and think before delivering thought-conclusions. Yet, here he was in a meeting, delivering a thought-conclusion. When I pointed that out, he agreed that it was due to the different way in which this particular meeting was being run - that is, in accordance with the ten Thinking Environment components. 

So yet again, I am persuaded of the practical power of this seemingly simple approach.

So for the record, here are the ten components, with a bit of a gloss on them; drawn from Nancy's work in Time to Think and More Time to Think (both highly recommended, of course).

Hypothesis: Attention is an act of creation, and the quality of our attention determines the quality of the other’s thinking.

In almost any setting the best help we can be is to create the conditions for people to generate their own finest thinking. And when someone is thinking around us, much of the quality of what we are hearing is our effect on them; and that requires that we are sufficiently humble to refrain from even thinking about all our wise ideas while we are listening. In fact, the quality of our attention determines the quality of other people’s thinking. Attention, driven by deep respect and genuine interest, and without interruption, is the key to a Thinking Environment. Attention is that powerful. It generates thinking. It is an act of creation.

Hypothesis: Even in a hierarchy people can be equal as thinkers, and that equality helps them to give of their best.

If we seek to treat everyone equally as a thinker, everyone must get a turn to think out loud and a turn to give attention. To know you will get your turn to speak makes your attention more genuine and relaxed. It also makes your speaking more succinct. Equality keeps the talkative people from silencing the quiet ones. But it also requires the quiet ones to contribute their own thinking. The result is high quality ideas and decisions.

Hypothesis: Ease creates; urgency destroys.

Ease is an internal state free from rush or urgency which creates the best conditions for thinking.
But Ease, particularly in organisations and through the 'push' aspect of social networking, is being systematically bred out of our lives. We need to face the fact that if we want people to think well in the increasingly demanding and target-driven academic environment, we must cultivate internal ease. This implies a preference for quality over the rush of adrenaline.

Hypothesis: The human mind works best in the presence of appreciation

Society (and perhaps particularly academia) teaches us that to be appreciative is to be naïve, whereas to be critical is to be astute. And so, in discussions we often focus first, and sometimes only, on the things that are not working. The consequence is that our thinking is often specious. A skilled listener generates a balanced ratio of appreciation to challenge so that individuals and groups can think at their best.

Hypothesis: To be 'better than' is not necessarily to be ‘good.’ Mutual encouragement will produce better results than competition.

Competition between people ensures only one thing: if you win, you will have done a better job than the other person did. That does not mean, however, that you will have done anything good. To compete does not ensure certain excellence. It merely ensures comparative success, and can feed unproductive ego-driven behaviours. Competition between thinkers is especially dangerous. It keeps their attention on each other as rivals, not on the huge potential for each to think courageously for themselves. A Thinking Environment prevents internal competition among colleagues, replacing it with a wholehearted, unthreatened search for good ideas.

Hypothesis: Unexpressed feelings can inhibit good thinking.

Me (r), with Nancy Kline (centre) and other participants
on the Thinking Partnership programme
Thinking stops when we are upset. But if we express feelings just enough, thinking re-starts. Unfortunately, we have this backwards in our society. We think that when feelings start, thinking stops. When we assume this, we interfere with exactly the process that helps a person to think clearly again. If instead, when people start to express feelings, we relax and welcome that, good thinking will resume.

Hypothesis: Withholding or denying information results in intellectual vandalism. Facing what you have been denying leads to better thinking.

We base our decisions on information, accurate or not, all of the time. When the information is incorrect, the quality of our decisions suffers. Starting with accurate information is essential, therefore, if good independent thinking is our aim. The importance of information also pertains to the pernicious phenomenon of denial, the assumption that what is happening is not happening. Learning how to formulate questions that dismantle denial is a powerful feature of Thinking Environment expertise.

Hypothesis: The greater the diversity of the group, and the greater the welcoming of diverse points of view, the greater the chance of accurate, cutting-edge thinking

Reality is diverse. Therefore, to think well we need to be in as real, as diverse, a setting as possible. We need to be surrounded by people from many identity groups, and we need to know that there will be no reprisal for thinking differently from the rest of the group.

Incisive Questions
Hypothesis: A wellspring of good ideas lies just beneath an untrue limiting assumption. An Incisive Question will remove it, freeing the mind to think afresh.

Everything human beings do is driven by assumptions. We need to become aware of them, and by asking Incisive Questions, replace the untrue limiting ones with true, liberating ones. The building of Incisive Questions is at the very heart of generating fine independent thinking. These questions have been described as ‘a tool of unbelievable precision and power’.

Hypothesis: When the physical environment affirms our importance, we think more clearly and boldly. When our bodies are cared for and respected, our thinking improves.

Nancy Kline has found consistently that Thinking Environments are places that say back to people, ‘You matter.’ People think better when they can arrive and notice that the place reflects their value - to the people there and to the event. Place is a silent form of appreciation.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Shame and Guilt

Over the last couple of days, I have been at a Daring Way workshop, run by Jacqui Sjenitzer, and based on the work of Brené Brown (see here for an account of a previous workshop with Jacqui on this material).  I will blog more about the workshop overall (it was excellent) when I have had time to reflect on it further. In this post I want to pursue one particular line of thought. 

One of the many helpful distinctions that Brown makes is between guilt and shame. According to her understanding, guilt is 'I did something bad,' and shame is 'I am bad.' Further, she states that shame is positively correlated to addiction, depression, and many other problems; whilst guilt is inversely correlated to them: it leads to much better outcomes.

That led one of the participants on the programme to say: "People talk about Catholic guilt; but really it's Catholic shame..."

I understand that for many people, that may be their experience of Catholicism; and I am not going to argue with their lived reality. However, it is also my experience that the opposite is true, and that my Catholic upbringing, at least, has allowed me to deal appropriately with guilt and not be shackled by shame. We didn't get into that discussion on the workshop - it would have been a fairly major digression, and Jacqui wanted us to move on. So here are my reflections.

My thesis is that Catholicism is very powerful. And like anything that is powerful, when abused, it becomes very destructive. But used properly, it is a great force for good.

I was pleased that one of the other participants, at the end of the programme, chose to share a quotation attributed to Mother Teresa, which she felt summed up the spirit of the course:
People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway.
 What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway. 
The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway. 

You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God.  It was never between you and them anyway.
That, it seems to me, is an example of Catholicism done properly.

One of the things that interests me is how much of the new wisdom on how to live a healthy, happy and successful life is already embedded in the Catholicism in which I was raised.

From Viktor Frankl, we learn of the importance of meaning and purpose: from my upbringing, I know that my meaning and purpose are to love and be loved.

In a world that seems ever more bitterly divided, I hold fast to my Faith that all were created by love, in love, and for love.

To move on from difficult stuff, Brown (and others) teach us that we need to acknowledge it, learn from it, apologise or make amends when appropriate, and then leave it behind. Many use therapy to help with this. In my tradition, that need is met by a daily examination of conscience, prayers of contrition, a resolution to do better next time, confession, and absolution. The psychological benefits of this practice, alone, are extraordinary (when correctly practiced, of course).

The research on the benefits of meditation is convincing many people of the importance of this as a daily practice. We learned that from the Desert Fathers (and Christ himself, of course), and daily meditation is the cornerstone of a life of prayer.

Almost every book on leadership talks of the importance of integrity, based on clear values. I strive to run my business (and indeed life) according to the values of Faith, Hope and Charity; and informed by justice, prudence, temperance and fortitude. (Temperance is not a fashionable word, but it is vigilance against excess: and how much that is needed at present!). My favourite (and recurrent) feedback is that I help to re-kindle or strengthen hope.

We are learning more and more about the beneficial effects of the practice of gratitude. From my earliest years, I have been taught to give thanks for every day, for every meal on the table..., in fact for everything.

As I say, I recognise that others have had a dreadful experience of a Catholic upbringing, and that is truly tragic (and shameful for the Church). But I think that the other story also deserves to be told; the formation that inspired not only Mother Teresa, but also Maximilian Kolbe, the friar who volunteered to die in place of a stranger in Auschwitz, Lech Walesa, the leader of Solidarity, and countless others in every field of human endeavour.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Coaching Supervision

I have blogged before about coaching supervision and the value of multiple approaches to it. In this post, I want to reflect on one aspect of that: note-taking.

At our supervision group, we used to allocate the role of note-taker to one member (on a rotating basis) until we acknowledged that most of us never read the circulated notes, and tended to rely on our own notes taken at the time or written just after the meeting. So we stopped pretending.

However, my peer co-supervisor, Jan Allon-Smith, and I have developed a different approach - more by accident than design  - that is proving very fruitful.  Each of us writes up our own notes of our sessions; then we send them to each other, and we each comment on the other's notes, and return them.

Thus I see what Jan remembered as significant in a session, and she sees what I did; but further, we also have a commitment to read each others' notes, for a good reason - to offer feedback or commentary on them. And that makes us do it, which in turn means that we each see each others' reflections on our reflection.

This has proved very rich, Frequently we pick up on the same things as critical incidents; and of course that is informative. But we often interpret them in slightly different ways, and that is a rich source of learning.  Also, and almost as frequently, we select different moments or themes to comment on, and often that has provoked post-session critical incidents.

I realised quite how rich this learning from our supervisory conversations was, when I came to prepare for our first session of the New Year. I decided to review all the previous sessions' notes, looking for themes, and it was incredibly instructive; both to see the themes that recur for me, and also the ones that seem to have been resolved.

So for any coaches out there, I really recommend this practice. And Jan and I have started to wonder if our collective learning might, in due course, be worth sharing with other coaches. Perhaps another book is brewing (say in a decade or so...)