Thursday 30 July 2015

Shakespeare and Coaching

I went to a fascinating workshop yesterday evening hosted by EMCC at Manchester. It was run by Mary Holmes and was exploring the relevance of her passion for Shakespeare to her work as a coach.

Along the way she scattered many gems: the idea that Lear had two coaches, Kent and the Fool, really struck me; and as she pointed out, the Fool had that particularly valuable coaching skill: knowing when to end the coaching relationship.

She shared a little of her own autobiography to explain where the passion for Shakespeare came from, and the many aspects of his life and work that she draws inspiration from. But she was equally interested in inviting us to explore what inspired us, and what difference it made to our coaching clients if we were inspired.

This prompted wide-ranging and stimulating discussion, not least as I found myself working with Keri Phillips, whom I have met a couple of times, both a very long time ago, and who proved as thought-provoking as ever.

And of course the evening was peppered with Shakespearian quotations that take on a whole new resonance when applied to the world of coaching.

Another fascinating reflection was Mary’s discussion of the scene in Henry IV part 1, in which Prince Hal and Falstaff play act Hal’s forthcoming meeting with his father, with Falstaff as the king; and then reverse roles, and the effect that change of perspective has on Prince Harry. This is classic coaching stuff (eg three-chair work, or perceptual position work, or however you frame it) and I had never seen it as such before.

We also discussed inspiration further, and noted its relationship with other concepts, such as aspiration, respiration, perspiration, and expiring…

And the whole business of theatre is rich with learning for coaches, from consideration of scripts and rehearsal, through to the role of the Director, and the relationship of the audience to the work, and the whole business of story, ambiguity, and where you choose to shine a light (and where you don’t).

So a completely fascinating evening, which I will continue to reflect on for some time.

Tuesday 21 July 2015

Change Fest Cumbria

I have mentioned last year's Change Fest, Cumbria in a previous post, and am delighted to be involved in organising this year's.

I twill take place on on 19 September 2015 at Brathay, near Ambleside.  The full programme is available on the CCNet website.

The basic idea is that several change practitioners - mainly but not exclusively, members of the Cumbria Coaching Network - get together to offer a rich variety of sessions at a very modest price (£25 in advance, £30 on the day).

Here's the blurb: 

Practical workshops to help you bring about change in yourself and others with opportunities to work on your own real issues. 

Who is it for?  

  • Anyone experiencing change at a personal level. 
  • Leaders & managers of change, eg HR professionals, team leaders and managers. 
  • Those supporting others through change eg counsellors, teachers, health professionals. 

What’s on offer? 

Workshops will run throughout the day - you can attend 3 workshops as well as plenaries.

Feedback from last year was very positive, and included comments such as:
'Lovely, positive friendly atmosphere''The workshop leaders all really knew their stuff!'
And as if that isn't enough inducement, I will be running a session on Stories for Change, similar to the one I ran when I made a Rare Public Appearance at the Change Camp in Gosforth in March, which (with all due modesty) I can declare to have been a smash hit. 

So rush on over to the CCNet Website, have a look at the full programme, and book yourself on!

Saturday 18 July 2015

Habits of mind

I have just finished reading Neuropsychology for Coaches, by Brown and Brown. I found it a very interesting and enjoyable read, as it explained the lightest theories and hypotheses emerging from the ever-expanding understanding of how the brain actually works, and discussed the implications for coaches.

In many ways, it confirmed things I already knew, and also offered fresh understandings of why some of the things I know work are actually effective - not least the story approach about which I have written my own book.

One of the key things for me was reaffirming the power of established neural pathways: the way in which every time we follow a particular pathway, we strengthen it and increase the likelihood of using it again.

That is phenomenally useful in terms of learning: indeed that is how rote learning of things like times tables works. But it also informs how we make sense of the world: the stories we construct, which is what I explore in my book. (Incidentally, when this is disrupted, it has very grave consequences for the individual: see for example this article in today's Guardian). And, as Brown and Brown make clear, these strengthened neural pathways largely determine how we act. The more we behave in a particular way, the more inclined we are to do so in the future. This is the force of habit.

So some of the things a coach is seeking to do when helping someone to make desired changes are to help them to:

1  remember to avoid telling someone what not to do, as the brain has no capacity for that;

2  discover where the new thinking or behaviour already exists in their repertoire (since, with adults, it is far easier to strengthen neural pathways that already exist than to create new ones though that is possible)

3  rehearse the new thinking or behaviour frequently, both in the coaching sessions and outwith them.

That is the premise not only of my (exceedingly new and original) work with shifting stories, and the more widely-known use of affirmations, but also of the ancient wisdom of the Greeks (Plato and Aristotle in particular) with regard to virtues.

Virtues were regarded as habitual ways of behaving. As a teenager, I rebelled against that notion: surely to be virtuous one should be choosing on each occasion to do the virtuous behaviour. Now, however, I am more inclined to agree with the Greek (and subsequent Christian) understanding of virtue as habitual.

The merit in virtuous behaviour, in this understanding, springs from two things: one is the effort that has gone into establishing the habitual good behaviour in the first place; and the second is the effort required to exercise that behaviour when other influences (self interest, the natural appetites, external duress etc) are pushing one in another direction.

That of course begs the question what is good behaviour: and again, I think the Greeks had some insights here, which were built on in the Christian tradition, giving us the classic formulation of Faith, Hope and Charity; Justice, Fortitude, Temperance and Prudence. As a set, these are hard to beat; I recognise that many who are not religious will raise an eyebrow at Faith, but would suggest that they consider it in the light of Viktor Frankl's work, and see it as referring to that sense of ultimate meaning which Frankl identified as so important. 

But the practical aspect of this with which I want to conclude is the question of how we develop such virtuous habits. Again the Greeks, and the Christian tradition, have some wisdom; wisdom subsequently rediscovered up by theorists like William James (Henry James' brother) and later by experimental researchers such as James Laird. This is the simple notion of 'as if' behaviour (and indeed 'as if' thinking). 

To become brave, for example, repeatedly behave as a brave person would behave, and you will establish that virtuous habit. To become more hopeful, deliberately think about situations as a hopeful person would, on a regular basis. In that way, you can strengthen those neural pathways, until they are simply part of who you are. Whilst the wisdom has indeed been around for centuries, Brown and Brown's book shows that the latest advances in neuropsychology help explain how and why that works.

Friday 10 July 2015

Conditioned Leaders?

I have been discussing leadership in universities with a few people recently, and a conversation with one earlier this week took my thinking a bit further.

He was lamenting the lack of academics on the senior leadership team of his Institution (of which he himself is a member). Some of his colleagues protested that, pointing out that a number of the other members of the team were also academics.

His response was that they weren't really, or at least did not behave like academics: they had 'gone over' as it were, to the managerial side.

So his proposal was to increase the number of academics, in the hope that they would argue the academic, as opposed to managerial, case (assuming there to be some distinction between the two) at the strategic level.

However, I was not convinced. Is there something about joining such a team, I wonder, that made 'going over' more likely? Because if so, then appointing more academics to the team would not achieve the result my academic friend wanted.

I have a few hypotheses I am tempted by, which might explain why that might be the case. 

One is extrapolated from the famous Stanford Prison experiment. Don't push the analogy too far (I am not suggesting that all senior leadership teams in academia are brutal to those over whom they exercise authority); but is there something about being put in the position of a senior manager that makes one think and behave more like a senior manager? 

A second hypothesis is that the type of academic who might be attracted (or even persuaded) to join the senior leadership time is the type of academic who is interested in managerial type thinking, and therefore is bound to go native once in that environment.

A third hypothesis is informed by Barry Oshry's excellent book, Seeing Systems, about which I have blogged before. That would suggest that the thinking and behaviour of those in senior leadership teams is a function of their role in the social system: they are, in Oshry's terms, 'Tops' and tend to think and behave as Tops always do.

All of which raise interesting questions, as they suggest that increasing the academic representation on the senior team might simply increase the number of 'academics behaving like managers' on the senior team; rather than increasing the number who see their role primarily as advocating the interests of academics against 'creeping managerialism.'

I am not discussing, here, whether that is a fair characterisation. My own view, for what it's worth is that a degree of centralisation and standardisation are important, to maintain health and safety, meet legal and quality requirements, and so on; beyond that I am a great believer in subsidiarity. 

But what interests me particularly is the view of many academics I speak to that those who lead their institution seem, to them, to have left behind their understanding of what it is really like to write bids, win grants, lead research groups, and recruit and educate students on a day to day basis;  I am not sure that is true, but I can see why it might seem like that, and would like to help rectify that. But I think it is more complex than increasing the number of academics on the senior team.

Saturday 4 July 2015

Tempting Providence

I have blogged before about the value of meditation: here about the theoretical benefits and my struggle to maintain a commitment to it, and here with something of a progress report as I got the practice better established as part of my routine.

This last couple of weeks have been challenging ones in a number of ways, and on Friday I was reflecting with my coach how relaxed I have felt throughout it all, and how differently I have responded to the way I would have done even just two or three years ago.

The challenges have been many and varied, and I don't want to go into all of them now, but they range from a number of difficult client interactions to the timing belt on my car snapping, which means the engine will need to be re-built or replaced.

Being an introverted sort of chap, there is always the risk that I bottle these things up, until they blow (as my wife and children will quickly tell you, should you ask...)

But I have been much more serene though this bumpy patch and able to maintain a more detached perspective; and that has had a number of benefits. Thanks, at least in part, to good conversations with my coach, I handled some of the situations with more grace and ease, and as a result did not project my own anxieties into them so that they were not difficult after all.  Others remained difficult, but they did not get to me, and thus did not contaminate my other work nor disrupt my relaxation, recreation or sleep. (Though again, a quick conversation with my family might, of course, yield another perspective!)

And I do attribute this to the discipline of meditation which I now have reasonably well established as part of my daily routine. Those 15 minutes each day of prayerful calm are having a huge impact. On top of that, was the wonderful break I gave myself by taking three days off to walk from Paris to Chartres with three of my children (and many other pilgrims). That had the quality of a retreat in many ways: complete withdrawal from all the business of life (no mobile phone or emails...) and three days of simply, walking, talking, thinking, praying, eating and sleeping.

However, I clearly am not wholly without worries yet: for I have a nasty anxiety that blogging about this is tantamount to tempting Providence, and that pride cometh before destruction and all that...

So the next blog post you read here may conceivably be about a complete meltdown in the face of something trivial. But at present, that feels very unlikely.