Friday 21 June 2024

That bloody pendulum...

My late father was both wise and acerbic. He used the phrase 'that bloody pendulum' to describe the tendency in society, in cultures, in organisations, and in individuals (and on reflection I think within himself) to swing from one extreme to another.

Until relatively recently, the pendulum in educated British circles was swung rather too far to the side of self-adulation: the Empire, the White Man's Burden, all that kind of stuff. It was certainly in need of a corrective. But now, it seems to me, that bloody pendulum is swinging rather a long way in the other direction. The mere fact of being white is seen as problematic, in some circles.

Likewise, I think that conformity to social norms was over-emphasised, to the extent of ostracising anyone who deviated (or was perceived to deviate) from them. But again, that bloody pendulum... the very idea of normal, which is in the first place a statistical fact exemplified by the bell curve of standard deviation, is seen as problematic. Whilst I am all in favour of Diversity, Inclusion and Equality (and also of motherhood and apple pie, of course) they are not absolute values as I have written previously; and I think there are risks to normalising the abnormal and abhorring the normal. 

And I find it interesting that those who denigrate whiteness and extol the virtues of indigenous cultures where skin colour is a bit darker, seem somewhat selective in which virtues they extol. For it is very common, in such cultures, to venerate ancestors; whilst the modern trend in our culture is to denigrate them and apologise for them. 

Of course they weren't perfect; but if we think either that we are better than them, or that all of their wisdom is disposable because they weren't wise in all things, then we risk throwing out several babies with the admittedly dirty bathwater. 

I'm thinking of things like: innocent until proven guilty, or even just war theory. It's not that these are perfect solutions to human problems, but they are the best we have found so far. Consider the alternatives that seem to be rearing their heads. In the first case, we seem to have innocent until someone has decided that you are offensive, at one extreme, and innocent despite courts having found you guilty (if you are powerful enough...), at the other; and in the second case, passivity when the innocent are attacked, on one hand; or unlimited use of deadly force on the other.


Image from Mark Ross Studios via Scientific American

Wednesday 12 June 2024

Thinking Partnership Programme

So this Thinking Environment… It springs from the work of Nancy Kline and is founded on a profound belief in the capacity of the human mind to think outstandingly well - given the right conditions.

This seems to me to be a core skill for a coach: to enable the person we are working with to think independently at his or her very best. Thinking independently is thinking as ourselves and for ourselves.

Kline's thesis is that we do this primarily by paying the person being coached a level of attention that is rare in daily life; and that such attention is generative of good thinking. The idea is, the quality of the individual’s thinking,  is (at least in part) a product of the quality of attention that we give them.

In Time to Think, and its successor, More Time to Think, Kline describes ten components of a Thinking Environment. 

The first, and the most important, of the components is attention. Attention of the quality we mean here is simple, but difficult - and rare. It consists of giving your whole attention to the person that you are listening to.

That means, amongst other things:
  • removing all distractions (eg electronic devices with alerts…),
  • refraining from taking notes whilst the individual is thinking,
  • keeping a 'soft gaze' (of interest and encouragement) on the person’s face (though the person thinking may, of course, look wherever he or she chooses), 
  • not thinking about how you will respond or what wise question you will ask next, 
  • and above all, not interrupting.
In fact, even when someone stops talking, we refrain from interrupting the silence, as he or she may still be thinking. Thinking comes in waves, and the freshest thinking often arises after a pause. Such attention is so rare that it may feel like a luxury, or even feel uncomfortable; but it does seem to support really good thinking. 

The other nine components are equally rich, but I will not describe them all here, as it would make this a very long post. 

Coaching in this way is very different from many approaches. It takes seriously the assumption that the individual is more likely to come up with good solutions than the coach; the coach's role is to provide the environment - the Thinking Environment - in which that is most likely to happen.  I have blogged before about a specific example of this.

If you want to explore this further, I have a few places left on my next Thinking Partnership Programme (5/6 Sept and 11 Oct) here in the glorious Lake District.  Don't hesitate to get in touch if you want to know more, or have a look at my website, here.

Disclosure Remorse (again)

I have blogged previously about disclosure remorse, and  I mentioned my supervisor's excellent advice about discussing this explicitly with the client, in a pre-emptive way.

It came up again in conversation with a colleague the other day, and as we are both Thinking Environment practitioners, we were naturally considering it in the light of the ten components.

Which raised the interesting question of Equality. One of the reasons, we suspect, for disclosure remorse may well be inequality. The client may have shared so much with the coach, and yet the coach has disclosed nothing in return - which may leave the client feeling vulnerable.

That might imply that it is appropriate, in terms of establishing the relationship on a basis of equality, for us to share some vulnerability in our turn (always being mindful, perhaps, of the other cautionary advice, about scars, not wounds...)

So, how do we share a bit of vulnerability with the client at that stage, without making the conversation about us, rather than the client? 

That was the question that we arrived at, and then time ran out.  If we, (or indeed I alone) find an answer to it, I'l certainly blog about that, too.  And if you know an answer, please tell me.

Tuesday 4 June 2024

Learning from my grandson

One of the things people often say to me when learning new skills (you know, the really difficult things, like listening without interrupting...) is that it doesn't feel natural. The implication underlying this, I think, is that it therefore isn't very authentic.  And we all know that being authentic is (rightly) seen as an important trait for effective leadership and good interpersonal relations. (Though I think that needs a little unpacking, as I have written previously). 

However, I think that the description that new behaviour (such as refraining from interrupting) doesn't feel natural is, in fact, inaccurate. And that brings me to the title of this post: Learning from my grandson

Nate is not quite one year old, and has been learning to walk. At first, he was, understandably, not very good at it - he fell over a lot, and waddled in a rather unbalanced way. It didn't look (or, I dare guess feel) 'natural' in the sense used above.  But over the last few weeks he has got a lot better and charges around after his big brother quite easily, and only falls over occasionally.

And I dare guess that most of my readers regard walking as quite natural to them - you may well stroll from one side of the room to the other without falling over, or even hike over the fells, or wander down to the pub...

The point being, of course, that it is a learned behaviour; as indeed are almost all those behaviours which feel natural to us. For natural here is really a mis-label for habitual (or at least familiar). So when people tell me that it doesn't feel natural for them to refrain from interrupting (or whatever the new behaviour is) I refer to Nate and his learning to walk.  It takes practice, but with time they will get good at it, incorporate it into their repertoire of familiar (or even habitual) behaviours, and then it will indeed feel natural.


With thanks to DICSON for sharing this photo on Unsplash (Nate's parents prefer that we don't share his photo online).

Friday 17 May 2024

A Sounding Board?

One of the things that people (particularly people in senior roles) often say, when reflecting on their experience of coaching, is that they have valued me as a sounding board.

I find that interesting, as I don't often pass judgement on what they are thinking. When they ask what I think, my first reaction is normally to treat that as a courtesy: they think they've been going on too long, and it's my turn to speak.  So I reassure them that I am still interested in what they think and encourage them to continue thinking. They nearly always do (and it is nearly always fruitful).

However, occasionally someone persists and asks for my view. Even then I don't act as a sounding board, according to the dictionary definition: a person or group whose reactions to suggested ideas are used as a test of their validity or likely success before they are made public. I am more likely to share some further way of thinking about the issue at hand: some theoretical model, or questions it raises in my mind, or some such. 

And reflecting on this, it made me wonder what a sounding board actually is.  Insofar as I had given it any thought, I was conflating it with the soundboard of a piano: which amplifies the resonance of the strings.

Which is not far wrong, but a sounding board (as opposed to a sound board) is apparently 'a structure placed above and sometimes also behind a pulpit or other speaking platform that helps to project the sound of the speaker. It is usually made of wood.'

Passing swiftly over the fact that this excuses me from seeming somewhat wooden at times (though I hope that I am never sounding bored...), this gave me pause for thought. I am not sure that the metaphor quite works; and I am sure that the other meaning, concerning testing the validity of ideas, is the one the people have in mind when they use the term.

But there is something there, I think, and perhaps it is to do with the notions of projection and resonance. I have blogged before about why it is particularly helpful to think out loud in someone else's presence, rather than merely on one's own (valuable though that is). 

And pondering the sounding board metaphor makes me want to add to that: there is something about thinking out loud that helps us to project our thinking into the world in a way that enables us to check how well it resonates with us. That is, when we hear ourselves say it out loud, it sounds different and clearer, and that allows us to evaluate how well it is attuned to what we really think, believe, and value.  

So perhaps it is not I who am the sounding board, but rather the thinker.  I am merely the reason (I nearly wrote excuse) for their saying out loud what otherwise might go round and round in their head.

I would be interested to know if this resonates with you...


Piano Diagram from Blackham, 1965 (apparently) via  Antoine Chaigne on ResearchGate; Sounding Board photo from The Accidental Atheist blog though where he got it from, I don't know...

Friday 10 May 2024

Attitudes and Behaviour

Something that often arises in my discussions with leaders and managers is how to address a team member who has a bad or negative attitude.

And whilst I generally take a fairly low-intervention approach to my coaching (see my posts about the Thinking Environment, passim), I do tend to intervene at that point. 

And the point that I make is that we generally have far more success if we focus on behaviour rather than attitude.  There are several reasons for that.

One is that we can't see an attitude: it is always our interpretation of behaviours that we can see (whether that is shouting, or simply a curled lip...). 

Allied to that is the fact that if we start to talk about someone's negative attitude, we risk provoking a very defensive response. On the one hand, our interpretation may be inaccurate, so they feel unjustly criticised; and on the other hand, even if we are accurate, people may feel that what they think is not our business.

Moreover,  people often believe that they can't directly affect their attitude, anyway.

Whereas if we focus on behaviours, there are several advantages.

One is that it is tangible and observable: we can see the curled lip, or hear the shouting. That means we are also able to evaluate and give feedback on any improvement - or the lack thereof.

Secondly, it is much clearer to the individual precisely what we are talking about and also what they need to do to change it.

And further, if someone does consistently change their behaviour in a more positive direction (staying calm when upset, or asking curious questions rather than curling a lip when unsure of another's proposition...) then that also has an impact on their attitude.

And yet, and yet, and yet... what if it really is his attitude I want to change?  That question almost always recurs.  And I refer you to the above answer...

Monday 29 April 2024

Doing and Being

Reflecting on my post last week, about 
Listening, Difference and Psychological Safety, I think that - whilst I stand by every word of if - it may be a bit misleading.  It reads as though, if one does all the things I mention, that will necessarily create psychological safety.  And I do not believe that to be the case. 

In fact, if one approaches the activity with that attitude, I think it probably won't work.One of the things that Nancy Kline is fond of saying to teachers of the Thinking Environment is 'What you are teaching is you!' 

That is to say, the Thinking Environment is about the Environment we create for others when they are thinking in our presence. So whilst understanding and striving to create the 10 Components is essential, even more essential is trying to be and live the 10 Components: to embody them in the way we are, and the way we relate to people.

That is one of the reasons that a condition of accreditation in this work is a commitment to have regular Thinking Partnership sessions with another skilled practitioner.  It is also the reason that one of the key aspects of training in this work is what I call 'total immersion.' That is why I choose not to run training online. The feedback I get from participants on my programmes in the Lake District is that they have a quality something like a retreat.  And that, I think, is something about being, not just doing.