Friday 14 December 2018

Tango and Coaching

I have blogged before about Tango and Leadership, after a session run in 2017 by Sue Cox for Cumbria Coaching Network. Today, she led our CPD session once again, and it was as enjoyable and thought-provoking as last time.

This time, however, I was focusing more on how the lessons applied to coaching, rather than leadership. And there were many.

One of the points that Sue emphasises is that dance - or at least the type of dance she is interested in - is not about the steps, but about co-creation and relationship.  Whilst knowing some steps (or coaching models) is useful, what really works is the moment by moment interaction between two people, in the service of the dance.

Then there's the preparation: turning on your core. As well as the obvious physical meaning of that (and being physically ready for coaching is worth attending to) the metaphorical meaning - connecting with your values and intentions as part of your preparation for a coaching conversation - is also powerful.

Likewise, we attended to being grounded. That combination of being led by your core and being grounded enable authentic movement - both for the coach and the coachee.

At the heart of this style of dance is co-creation: invitation and response, attention to the other, to the context (other dancers, for example) and the ever-changing environment (the music....) Such co-creation requires real engagement with each other, and a shared intent.

The role of the one leading the dance (though that word and many of its implications don't sit happily with this type of tango - see my previous post) is to create the space for the other to shine: what a wonderful perspective for the coach! Indeed, when the dance is going well, it is often impossible to say who is leading and who following: the roles interchange, the dialogue is on equal terms. 

So an excellent, practical and thought-provoking session by Sue, leaving me with lots to think about and seek to apply in my coaching practice.

Saturday 8 December 2018

Scars not wounds

I read somewhere recently (I thought it was in Behind Closed Doors, but can't find it there now) that when a coach decides to share some personal experience with a client, the coach should be clear to choose 'scars, not wounds.'

That made intuitive sense to me: both the temptation to, and the risks of, talking about something that is still emotionally charged and live for the coach seemed evident; whilst sharing an experience that had been properly processed was likely to be a more considered decision, and also not to risk turning into a therapy session for the coach.

I think the phrase caught my eye in particular because it touched a raw nerve.  Just the day before, in a coaching session with Steve (not his real name, of course), I had shared something quite difficult that is current and unresolved. My belief was that it was an interesting example of the kind of thing Steve was talking about, and I could illustrate a different approach, by outlining how I was dealing with it, but without claiming that was the 'right' way, as the outcome remains unknown.

However, on reflection, I wonder if the reason it came into my mind is precisely because - being unfinished business and rather difficult - it was not far from my mind all the time: a wound rather than a scar. 

On the other hand, Steve did find it a useful and interesting example to discuss, that opened up more options for him.

So I took it to supervision as a question to explore. And of course, although that was a rich and thought-provoking discussion, the question remains open - worthy of further exploration.

On the one hand, there are risks as I had identified; it is important to make a conscious decision that such an intervention really is in the interests of the coachee, not the coach.  On the other hand, we discussed how much more live and authentic an unresolved current issue is, than an old war story.

So my interim position, whilst I think further about this (and will doubtless raise it again at supervision, as and when it arises again) is that I will be cautious with wounds. I will add it to my pre-coaching preparation, to remind myself to be aware of what is emotionally charged or challenging for me personally at the moment, and be on guard against it simply popping out of my mouth during a session.  On the other hand, I won't have an absolute rule against sharing such issues; if I have considered, and decided that it really is for the coachee's, rather than my, benefit, then I will disclose in this way.

And afterwards I will certainly discuss the decision in supervision and see what further learning I can glean.

Saturday 1 December 2018

Models as lenses

Last week, I blogged about my Idiot's Guide - a sort of vade mecum or reminder list of various models, theories etc that I have used over the years.

Chatting about this with the ever-perceptive Jane, we discussed how experience, reading, good supervision and reflection, etc help one to choose, almost intuitively,  the right model or theory to apply to a particular situation. Then, more interestingly, we discussed the value of applying the wrong model.

If one is dealing with a difficult negotiation, for example, it is hard to better the Harvard Model. But perhaps it would also be useful to look at it in the light of, say, the Drama Triangle, or the Conscious Competence Model.  Either of these might prove very enlightening, suddenly - enabling one to consider quite different aspects of the situation.

The metaphor that we quite liked for this was a lens. Looking at a problem through the correct lens can bring it into sharp focus, and that is really useful. But perhaps looking through a different lens - say a coloured one, or even one that blurs the focus, might enable us to see something new and fresh, that is of real value.

And the other thing that the lens metaphor highlights, of course, is that we are almost always using lenses, or models, to structure our thinking; and it is valuable to be explicit with ourselves about that, or we risk not noticing the interpretations we are putting on reality, and falling prey to unconscious bias, confirmation bias and all the risks that they imply.

Saturday 24 November 2018

The Idiot's Guide...

Many years ago, before the days of the internet, I compiled a set of notes for myself which I kept in my filofax (remember those) which were essentially an aide memoire of all the various models and theories to which I referred in my training (again, this was before I was coaching... dim and distant days...).  The idea was that occasionally I would say something like 'remember Maslow's hierarchy' and then my mind would go blank and I'd forget one of the levels; or similarly, 'there are four key points in Harvard's model of negotiation' and then I'd struggle to remember one of them; in which case I could flip to the guide and relieve my distress.  I jokingly titled these notes 'An idiot's guide to training jargon' - self-deprecation being the house style at that time. And I was fascinated to find that other trainers, seeing me use the Idiot's Guide, were keen to own a copy.  For a short while, I produced and sold a few hundred.

After last week's session on Ikigai, Jane and I found ourselves talking about it on a long walk over the weekend, and reflected on the way in which having a new model to think about provoked new and interesting insights on old and well-worn themes. That then led us to talk about the value of re-visiting old (but not-recently-contemplated) models in search of similar stimulation - and that reminded me of the existence of my old Idiot's Guide. It was fascinating to re-visit it, and remind myself of theories and models that clearly seemed important to me twenty years ago, but which I have not re-visited for a long time (when did I last think about Vroom's Expectancy Theory, for example?)  So we are currently putting all this into electronic format, so that it is readily available on the phone that has replaced my filofax as the lodestar of my business life.  

And of course it is fascinating to see what I want to add: there are so many things that I have learned since then, and which seem to me to have more utility and more accuracy than many of the models I used to use. Out goes NLP, in comes the Thinking Environment; out goes MBTI, in come the Big Five and the Hogan Assessments; and so on.

And of course, reflecting on utility and accuracy reminded me of that four-box model I devised about stories, and blogged about on the Shifting Stories blog a while ago. So I decided to develop a four box model to categorise all these models, as follows:

All fairly self-explanatory (though I leave it to you to decide which models fit where) with the possible exception of the label 'Bohr's Horseshoe.' That refers to an anecdote I often use when introducing a useful but perhaps not robustly-researched model to academics.  The story goes that the great physicist, Niels Bohr, had a horseshoe over his back door for good luck.  When challenged by his friends, 'Niels, surely you, of all people, don't believe in that superstitious rubbish!' the great rationalist replied: 'No, of course not! But I'm told that it works, even if you don't believe in it...'

Saturday 17 November 2018

Coaching on Purpose

Karen Mason
Today's CPD event at the Cumbria Coaching Network was led by Karen Mason.  Intriguingly, it was called Coaching on Purpose, and I went therefore, to shed my habit of accidental coaching...

What Karen really wanted to explore with us, of course, was how we coach clients who are wanting to clarify or define their sense of purpose; and for this she introduced us to a model apprently drawn from the Japanese understanding of Ikigai (which may best be translated as raison d'être... or what Viktor Frankl might term meaning, in its most profound sense)

The model is very simple, and similar to one I have used for career transition coaching for years.  However, it has one additional circle.  My model considers Aspirations, Strengths and Opportunities. The Ikigai model shared by Karen has What you Love, What you're Good At, and What you Can be Paid For, which are closely analogous. But it has an additional circle: What the World Needs.

So a few questions arise, of course.  One is whether the labels I have used are more or less useful than the different, but analagous Ikigai labels. A second is whether the additional consideration of What the World Needs is valuable.

In our discussions at CCNet this morning, some felt that last consideration was too daunting: what the world needs is no Donald Trump or Kim Jong-un, someone suggested; but that is beyond our capacity to influence.  Others suggested that we might re-formulate it to be What Our World Needs, but others felt that was losing something of the meaning of the model.

For myself, I think one can choose to focus on the question in ways that are helpful rather than unhelpful - and indeed one could have an interesting conversation with a coaching client about whether they are choosing to answer the question in ways that are within (or potentially within) another circle - the one Covey refers to as the circle of influence. Focusing our attention obsessively on things that distress us that are outside our circle of influence is a great way to disempower ourselves.

For me, the overlaps of three circles, omitting a fourth, and their descriptors, were suggestive: these could almost serve as a diagnostic tool in some contexts: what is lacking from your Ikigai that is making you less fulfilled than you could be?

In the practical session, co-coaching using the model as a starting point, my co-coach and I both found the model stimulated interesting and thought-provoking conversations, though we took some licence with how closely we stuck to the content of the circles.  So I will play with this a bit more, think further on it, and possibly, in due course, unleash it on a client...

Sunday 11 November 2018

It's About Time

Our clock was in trouble: the second hand was rubbing against the minute hand, causing the hands to stop moving (though the pendulum was still ticking). So I had to bend the second hand up a little, and the minute hand down, and then wait a minute to see if the second hand could move past the minute hand freely; and in the event had to do that a few times (I was anxious not to over-do the bending, of course). 

And each of those minutes, waiting for the second hand to go all the way round, in order to see if it was now clear, felt like a long wait. Just 60 seconds - a long wait. But it was 60 seconds of forced inactivity. Think how long today's two minutes' silence for the dead felt.

And yet, when distracted by an article in a journal, or social media, I can easily find that twenty minutes have gone by.

This is not a new reflection, of course: that our experience of time is very variable. But it struck me anew today, and got me thinking about various aspects of my work and life.

One was the value of stopping; making time to slow down, get off the helter-skelter of busy-ness, and focus on one thing at a time.  I have blogged before about meditation (see tag...); and that is certainly valuable in this context: if you really want to slow time down, try twenty minutes of contemplative meditation! But what is interesting to me, is that when I am in that more reflective mode, it carries forward into other contexts, and they seem less frenetic, and calmer, too.

I am also reflecting on the number of coaching clients who say that one of the real benefits of coaching is being forced to stop (or at least, slow down) and take the time to think about the important issues. Perhaps that is one of the most important things I do as a coach: give permission for that, legitimise that, impose that...

And of course, those words 'time to think' take us back to Nancy Kline's work that has had such an impact on my coaching and facilitation practice.

The militant approach to listening that Nancy champions is always in service to helping the other (and oneself) to think.  But time is a major requirement for that, and that seems such a big ask in many organisational cultures - which is one of the reasons (I think) that truly making time to listen has such a big impact.  We all know what it means when somebody has no time for us; this approach communicates just the opposite.

And one more thought comes to mind: E F Schumacher (of Small is Beautiful fame) observed the paradox of labour-saving devices: the more such devices are prevalent in a culture, the more everyone rushes around...  So things like turning off the mobile (or at least the alerts!) walking where possible, rather than driving etc, putting space in our diaries between meetings, having a proper lunch break with a colleague or two... all these are ways we may be able to slow the pace a little, and possible improve the quality of our thinking, our relationships, and our lives.

Saturday 3 November 2018

On Self-Disclosure

I am currently reading Behind Closed Doors: Stories from the coaching room. It is a collection of essays introduced by Eric de Haan, and as its title suggests, reflecting on the experiences of coaches working with their clients.

It is fascinating and thought provoking. The essay I have just finished reading is Does Self-Disclosure By Me Help My Clients? It describes the journey of a coach from being very client-focused (and non-self-disclosing) through experimenting with slightly clunky self-disclosure (sharing commonalities etc), and then progressing to a rather more sophisticated 'self-as-tool' style of self-disclosure - reflecting to the client what is going on for her in the session in live-time.

The coach is clear that this is proving very beneficial; and (not surprisingly, for someone who has been studying with De Haan) sees the relational aspect of coaching as extremely important.

I can relate to all of that, and I can think of occasions when I have used 'self-as-tool' types of disclosure in ways that have seemed very beneficial to the client (and also gratifying to me: the client typically valuing my insight and occasionally my courage on such occasions).

That, of course, sits in marked contrast to the Time to Think approach to coaching, in which I have recently qualified, and with which I have been experimenting for some time now. In that model, the goal always is to keep the client doing his or her own independent thinking. Self-disclosure would be a wholly inappropriate intervention in that model (unless explicitly invited by the client, and even then, only after the client had got as far as he or she possibly could on his or her own.)

The question, then, is whether the self-as-tool disclosure is more useful for the client than interventions designed to keep the client thinking for him- or herself. And finally, the answer is that we don't know: it's a philosophical decision - what is one's coaching philosophy?

So as I muse on this, I reflect that there are many considerations. In the first place, it is about contracting: what kind of coaching have I contracted to deliver to this client? Beyond that, there is a judgement in the moment (or on reflection pre- or post-session) about what will be most valuable. And that is based on that difficult-to-pin-down quality of intuition. 

And even as I write this, I remember my earlier concerns about collusion in the Time to Think model, and the fact that the criterion of Information in the Thinking Environment not only gives permission, but also places an obligation, on the coach to provide necessary information; is self-as-tool disclosure such information?  But perhaps that is just to re-state the problem in other words. 

For the moment, then, I will hold this as a question under consideration; notice when (if) it arises in my coaching practice, and discuss it with my coaching supervisor.  And I may report back on this blog in due course.

And in the meantime, I will continue to read Behind Closed Doors: the next chapter is on humour, which is the reason I bought the book in the first place.

Friday 26 October 2018

Sticking to the Process

I am reflecting this week on a very difficult project that is just coming towards a successful conclusion: helping a team address a long-running and toxic conflict.  For a brief description of how we used an implicit ManyStory approach, see my post on the Shifting Stories blog.

In this post I want to reflect on something else: how having good frameworks or maps of the process, and then sticking to them, has been instrumental in addressing this complex issue.  

The first problem was that the client (the senior manager who called us in) seemed to want a magic solution. ‘Just get them together and sort it out.’ That rang alarm bells, because this conflict had been running for over a year, and if it had been that simple, I am sure that the client could have done this for himself.

So I picked up my copy of Flawless Consulting, and reminded myself of some of Peter Block’s wise advice.  And having the confidence that engenders (and not just because it makes sense, but because whenever I’ve used his approach in the past, it has always delivered) and also the confidence of being at a stage in my business life when I am quite happy to say no to a client who refuses to allow me work in a way that will get the best result, I was fairly robust. That is, I insisted on proper diagnostic work before proceeding. 

The client was not happy: his (understandable) concern was that by asking people about the issue, we would be bringing it to their attention, when they might not have been aware of it. However, my instinct was that if it had been running for as long as he told us, and with the toxicity he’d also mentioned, then there was nobody in contact with the team who would be unaware of it.  And so it proved.
Then we had the report-writing to do. Again, I was very mindful of Peter Block, and we wrote a report designed to tell the truth (as we had understood it from the diagnostic interviews and meetings) and present a clear and simple picture of what was happening.

Again, the client was surprised, and was concerned that our truth-telling would serve only to exacerbate the problem, by inflaming the passions of some of those involved. To some extent he was right: some of the protagonists were upset and angered by what we reported. But we spoke with them – and equally importantly listened to them. And what we gained through this was that all involved recognised that we were being honest: right or wrong, we were telling it how we saw it, and were neither blaming nor excusing; and above all not concealing or denying anything.  I believe that was critical in winning their trust, which was essential for the next stage.

Me with Nancy
on the occasion of my qualifying as a
Time to Think Coach
For the meetings, I had two frameworks in mind. One was Nancy Kline's Thinking Environment, and in particular her ten components: 
  • Attention
  • Equality
  • Ease
  • Appreciation
  • Encouragement
  • Feelings
  • Information
  • Diversity
  • Incisive Questions
  • Place

--> (See here for a fuller explanation of these). We used these as the ground rules for our meetings/workshops with the protagonists in the conflict. Our clear presentation of these, and the reason we thought that they were important, and then our consistency in running the workshops in accordance with them, using structures (rounds, paired thinking etc) that supported them, and holding all participants to them, helped create the safety needed for some honest conversations and reflections. And of course, it was the honesty of the conversations, and the fact that all were committed to listening with full attention to everybody else's contributions, that really started to shift things.

The other framework I had in mind was the ManyStory approach, as described in my book Shifting Stories. I have written how that implicitly shaped the whole process on the Shifting Stories blog. Here I will simply note that having the framework in mind provided me with an overall route map to follow, whilst still allowing the conversations during the workshops to flow where they needed to.

So the conclusion I am drawing (and as so often with blogging, it is really about writing a memo to myself) is the value and importance of (well-chosen, appropriate) frameworks to help us to navigate complexity, deal with challenges, and deliver results, whilst maintaining a high level of openness and responsiveness, which is a sine qua non of this type of work.

Monday 15 October 2018

On Retreat

If I believed in coincidence, I would think it a particularly rich one that the weekend after we were considering the promise not to interrupt, I should have been booked into a retreat at Pluscarden Benedictine Abbey, in the north of Scotland.

The link may not be immediately apparent; but this was a silent retreat. I went to spend a long weekend free of all the demands of daily life, in order to have time to think (ah, there’s a link) and to immerse myself in the ancient Benedictine rhythm of time, marked by the Offices sung throughout the day in Gregorian Chant (those who know me well will understand the appeal already).

Between the Offices, time is free. And I had decided not to engage with the outside world, beyond one brief phone call home each day. I wanted to use the time to stop: to reduce the demands on my mind, and free myself to meditate on what is truly important.

And if you have been paying attention, the relevance will have leapt out at you. With no external distractions and ample time, what do you imagine happened when I tried to think about something – anything – that I decided to turn my attention to?  Yes,  you’re right: I interrupted myself.

And interestingly, the longest periods of non-interruption were those when I was following the Office (chanted in Latin, of course, so requiring quite active attention) or praying that ancient and repetitive prayer, the Rosary (again, I found praying it in Latin helped – a little less easy to drift onto auto-pilot).  It is almost as though the ancients had discovered some wisdom we would do well to re-discover.

And by the end of a long weekend, I was getting better at it: longer periods of sustained attention with less effort required.

Perhaps the most valuable learning was what I choose to interrupt myself with... but that, as they say would be Too Much Information in the public sphere.

And it was little things: like turning my phone off… I was slightly shocked to find how often I got it out, walking from the abbey to my room for example, without consciously deciding to do so, just to check…. To check what, precisely? Why, whether there were any interruptions I could indulge in, to excuse me from the harder work of focusing on one thing at a time.  Of course, having the phone switched off reminded me that I didn’t want to do that – and indeed that was something of a relief; but I hadn’t realised how strong the habit (I had almost written ‘addiction’) was.

So a rich weekend (and in many other ways, which I will not share publicly); but the challenge, as ever, is how to return to the world and keep the learning and practices alive.  And if you ring me but get straight through to my answerphone… well, I’m sorry, but it’s a necessary price to pay from time to time.

Friday 12 October 2018

Promising Conversations

At a meeting of coaches and facilitators interested in Nancy Kline’s Time to Think approach, we discussed the difference it makes when people promise not to interrupt each other (or, in coaching, when the coach promises not to interrupt the person being coached). I normally talk about the fact that I won’t interrupt, when we discuss the coaching process at an initial meeting with each coaching client; but I haven’t previously expressed it as a promise; and following yesterday’s conversations, I will now do so.  I suspect it will make a difference…

We then thought in pairs about ‘our interruptive lives’ and then discussed the Risk Analysis of interruptions.

Any excuse for a picture of Magdalen...

In a very rich day (which also involved meeting an old friend whom I hadn’t seen since leaving Magdalen in 1982…) this was one of the waves of thinking that has particularly resonated with me.

What is it about interruptions that is so destructive? And what can we do about that?

The essence, of course, is that when we interrupt somebody, what we are saying is that our thinking is more important than theirs.

The risk analysis sheds further light on that.  The positive reasons to interrupt, stated at their strongest, might be these:

  • I have a great idea on this topic, and if I don’t say it now, it may be lost forever.
  • Further, if I do say it now, it may save a great deal of time, as you clearly don’t have such good ideas.
  • Also, my good idea may stimulate further good ideas in you; there is a buzz in sparking ideas off each other at speed that generates more good ideas.

But the risks should not be overlooked. The biggest risk is that you may have been on the verge of having a great idea, and that may now be lost for ever… and we will never know. Further, if we are in a position of any kind of authority, every interruption is an assertion of power, an example of how authority may be wielded to dominate the conversation, and risks infantilising those subject to it and reducing their willingness (or even capacity) to express great ideas in the future.  If we are not in a position of authority, interruptions are potentially read as power plays or insubordination: all of which reduce the likelihood of good idea generation in the future.

But the talks about our interruptive lives revealed a lot more; how our lives can be structured around interruptions; how we can teach ourselves (and others) that interruptions are the normal modus operandi, or even modus vivendi. It goes without saying (but I will say it anyway, for the record) that electronic communications play a significant role in that.

But going deeper still, it is salutary to think about the ways in which we interrupt ourselves: how we can interrupt our attending to someone else by paying attention to our reaction to what he or she is saying; how we interrupt our own thinking by… well in my case, by almost anything…
So what can we do?  I think that starting with oneself is often the most productive strategy. And the evidence seems clear, from personal experience, from the wisdom of ancient traditions, and now from a growing body of research: the regular practice of meditation helps us to attend; to keep our attention on the chosen focus of attention.
Further,  if we promise not to interrupt, that changes everything.  Indeed, in the spirit of the day, I took no notes while anyone was talking, so as to be able fully to attend. But at the end of this session, before going for a much-needed coffee, I wrote these two words on a piece of paper: Promising Conversations. I think there is more to explore here, in theory and practice…

And one of the most interesting aspects of this, which we aim to explore at future meetings, is how the promise not to interrupt might affect conversations between people who have polarised opinions. Polarisation seems a particular problem at present (think Brexit, GOP/Democrats, abortion…). It is often characterised by interruption, a refusal to listen, still less to understand the other’s beliefs or opinions, and the misrepresentation of those beliefs and opinions in subsequent discourse.  We want to experiment with that, and see to what extent the promise not to interrupt changes that.  We are not expecting convergence or agreement; but at least the reduction of the de-humanising of the ‘other’ and better mutual understanding. And those seem to me like worthy goals. 

I will report back in due course.

Sunday 30 September 2018

Humour and coaching

For some reason, an event from a few years ago (OK, about twenty, but don't rub it in) came back to me very vividly this morning.

It is one of those moments which I still cringe to remember.  I was coaching a very senior person, retiring from a large corporate organisation. We were talking about managing the transition from his big job to being a retired person, and the various things which he might do with his new-found spare time.

He came to our second or third meeting, and announced that he had booked on an Adult Education course.  I expected it to be about cameras and photography, as I knew this was an interest he wanted to invest more time in.  He announced its title: "Getting to know your sewing machine."  And I laughed.

To be quite honest, I can't even remember why I laughed: it was incongruous and unexpected, certainly.  And (but memory may be playing me false here) I think I thought he was cracking a joke. But what I do remember was his reaction: it was evident that I had broken rapport in a serious way, and it took a little while to recover it.

All of which set me thinking about humour in coaching (or maybe it was the other way around, and I was reflecting on that, which brought this incident back to consciousness).

A quick search on Google suggests that I should read Jude Elliman's chapter (What happens in moments of humour with my clients) in de Haan's Behind Closed Doors, so I have ordered that. But so far, none of the coaching literature that I have read has tackled the topic.

Which is odd.  For certainly in my coaching, (and judging by both individual and group supervision sessions, I think in the work of others) humour is a common feature.

I have blogged before about the benefits of laughter; but I think there are also other specific benefits of a humour perspective.

At the most fundamental level, of course, humour is a great rapport builder (when appropriately used); laughing together builds bonds and a shared humorous perspective also builds trust.

Another benefit is precisely in that word perspective. The mechanism of many jokes is a sudden and radical shift in perspective:

Two fish in a tank.  One says to the other - how do you drive this thing?

The humour is not so much in the word play, the pun on two meanings of the word tank; but on the sudden shift from the ordinary - two fish in an aquarium - to the extraordinary. The value of this in coaching, of course, is that shifting perspectives allows us to see things anew.

Another aspect of perspective is characterised by the expression good-humoured. This suggests that healthy optimism that enables people to be effective agents in their lives. Good humour in the coaching relationship can help recall that good humour in the coachee, at times when perhaps it has had to retreat.

Humour has its risks, too, of course. A clanger like the one I describe at the start of this post is one of them.  But there are others: laughing at a ridiculous situation is one thing - laughing at the people involved is something else; and just occasionally clients may try to get the coach to collude in that.  Likewise, some clients may have patterns of humour that are sarcastic, or passive aggressive: in such cases, the coach's role, in good humour, may be to name and invite discussion of such patterns - not to laugh and move on.

Self-put-downs are another interesting issue; occasional humour at one's own expense can be a great antidote to arrogance, and possibly open the door to learning and insight; but again, when they become a habitual mode of thinking, they are likely to have very adverse effects, and merit discussion.

Which brings me to my final point (at least until I read Elliman on the subject) which is that not all laughter is to do with humour. It is usually (unless faked or 'social') an emotional release; but the emotion may be embarrassment, or even distress: it is important as a coach to be sensitive to what is really going on, and to make that a topic of (always good-humoured) curiosity.

Friday 21 September 2018

mBraining: Neurobollocks, Ponzi Scheme or Profound Insight?...

The Cumbria Coaching Network meeting today was about mBraining.  What's that, you ask? 

Here's some of the blurb:
Recent neuroscience findings have uncovered that we have complex, functional neural networks or brains in our heart and gut. Called the cardiac and enteric nervous systems respectively, these adaptive neural networks display amazing levels of memory and ‘intelligence’ and there’s a growing array of evidence that these brains are deeply involved in the control and processing of numerous functions and core behavioural competencies. 
Well, call me sceptical, but I was somewhat... sceptical.

The three brains we have are the one you know about, and one in the heart, and one in the gut (we were told).

These are smaller (Gut: 100 million neurons; Heart 40,000 neurons, compared to 100 billion or so in the head brain) and in our Western culture badly neglected. But the idea seems to be that neurons = brain cells, so networks of neurons that interact are brains.

So we did an exercise identifying phrases that indicate that we already know this (gutless and having guts, hard hearted and follow your heart etc).  The thesis being that ancient wisdoms, both esoteric and religious, have all known this, and neuroscience is now catching up. (Though being me, I was irritated that on one of the slides, Shakespeare was misquoted to make a point: To thine own heart be true is not what Polonius said...)

And of course, there is something here; as Pascal said: Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point. (The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.)  

We were told that language is important, but the presenter said we could think of them as three brains, or three intelligences, or three neural networks (though this last he wouldn't use himself).  But it strikes me that these are three very different things.  I am happy to accept that there are three neural networks with some common characteristics: but to get from that to three brains seems a bit of a leap.

And then we were told that there is an optimal sequence of engaging with these different brains to get the best result - but we weren't allowed to know what that was without coming on the qualifying course: and guess what, there's one coming up...

So various alarm bells were ringing for me: when people appeal to neuroscience without references, I am always sceptical. When definitions are sliding around like hockey pucks on ice, I am more so. And when the actual usable knowledge is only available at a fee, that raises a whole other set of questions.

After the event, I did a little searching, and found this article, from the gurus themselves. One thing that struck me, reading this, was the move from 'brain'  at the start of the article, to brain by the end. (Also, they reveal the sequence we weren't allowed to be told, but that's another issue...)

So I think it is pretty dodgy as science (and I consulted Professor Chris Chambers, an academic researcher in the field, who confirmed my suspicions) and yet another example of the term 'neuroscience' being used to lend credibility to a set of ideas (for a full academic take on this, see Neuroscience in the Public Sphere)

However, I don't want to rubbish it totally: if one strips away all the neuroscience talk, and treats it as a metaphor, I think it may qualify as a Parable (a useful fiction). Considering how our heart (as the seat of emotions) and our gut (as the seat of courage and identity) view a potential decision, as well as the rational logic of the situation is clearly of value.

But why the need to create a whole new 'science' around this simple metaphor (which as our language game made clear, has been known for centuries...)?  That's where my suspicions of the Ponzi scheme come in - a bit similar to the NLP phenomenon about which I have blogged previously. And blow me down, today's presenter is also an NLP practitioner...

Friday 14 September 2018

Control and Trust

I have been thinking recently about control and trust. One of the organisations with which I work is keen to build more trust as part of its culture. That follows the retirement of a CEO who was very controlling.  He was highly competent, very knowledgeable, and normally had the good of the organisation at heart - but he ruled with a rod of iron, and that had some unfortunate side effects (as well as keeping things running very smoothly). One, it seems to me, is that many people were infantilised.  

Even senior people, with large personalities seem to struggle to take on responsibility. And managers throughout the organisation struggle to trust others (peers or subordinates) to do anything beyond the routine.  In a fast-changing industry, that is problematic.

Discussing this with some senior people, it became clear to me that part of the problem was a failure to distinguish between control and controls.

Jane in our GP14 on Ullswater
When I was challenging them to trust more, it kept coming back to a fear of losing control - and then disastrous things might happen. They accept that they need to be able to delegate more - and to trust more - but the c-word keeps coming up.

But if one thinks about controls, rather than control, things change. The analogy I like is sailing my dinghy on Ullswater. One of the joys of dinghy sailing is the immediacy and impact of feedback: get it wrong, and you are quickly in the water, wet, cold and spluttering.

If I am sailing with someone less skilled than I am (and that's a pretty low bar...) and want to be sure not to capsize, the easiest thing is to take control, and sail the boat myself.  But if I want to be free to do other things (take a few photos, perhaps), then I need to hand over control.  And to do that with confidence, I need to teach the other person how to use the controls. These are simple enough in a dinghy: the mainsheet, the tiller...  

James takes the controls...
But I think the analogy good for organisational life: if the right controls are in place, and the person to whom we are delegating understands both the requirements of the task, and the controls and their purpose, then we can afford to take the risk of trusting them with the tasks at hand.

So rather than focusing on control (which can really be a proxy for our own ego needs) it is more valuable to ensure that we really understand the necessary controls: and then we can hand over control - and free ourselves for more strategic leadership activities.