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.

Friday 7 September 2018

A Walk in the Lakes

Yesterday, a coaching client (let's call him Pete, as that's not his name...)  and I went for a walk. We started at the bottom of Haweswater, walked up the Riggindale Ridge onto High Street summit, with wonderful views of the Hellvelyn range, and Scafell and Crinkle Crags beyond; and then over Ill Bell, down to Nan Bield Pass, over Harter fell to Gatescarth Pass, and then back down to Haweswater: about 9 miles, and with over 2000 feet of height gain. It took most of the day and we then retired to the Haweswater Hotel for a coffee.
And Pete talked, and I listened, and we enjoyed the silence and the views. I started the conversation by reminding Pete of the pre-work he had done for the day, and that today was an opportunity for him to think out loud about the issues he wished to consider; and then I asked him where he wanted to start…

 The conversation was often very discursive: going off at tangents; but I trusted that Pete was talking about what was important to him.  I made some interventions: questions to clarify, reminders of where we were up to after we had distracted ourselves by commenting on the view or the wildlife, a couple of challenges; but relatively few.

And at the end of the day, Pete sat down and wrote some notes: an action plan and some reflections.  From all the discursive conversation, he had made substantial progress in his thinking about, and planning for, some complex and difficult issues and decisions that he faces. I asked whether he had got everything from the day that he had hoped to, and he raised one issue on which  he had hoped to make more progress.  I reflected that I thought we had discussed it in passing, and made a few observations on what I thought he had said. He agreed: we had indeed discussed it – and although we had not quite drawn that part of the conversation to its conclusion, we were quickly able to do so.

All of which made me reflect on the power of walking and coaching at the same time – which has always, in my experience, delivered great outcomes for the client.  Where does that power come from?  My hunch is that it is a combination of a number of factors: 

Thinking in advance - because he knew he was coming to discuss these issues for a whole day (and because I send him a series of questions) Pete had done a lot of thinking prior to the walk, and came full of questions and also half-formed (at least) insights; 

Time – to be silent and reflect, to allow for digression, for the brain to do its almost miraculous background processing;

Silence - merits a mention of its own. When you are walking together, long silences are fine, in a way that would be most uncomfortable in a normal coaching session.  I mean silences of 5 minutes or more.  And that allows for a lot of reflection and processing.

Walking side by side - in most coaching, eye contact plays an important role; but in walking coaching, eye contact is minimised; instead you look out at the world together, and that feels a very different dynamic (especially, I suspect, for introverts, as Pete is);

Perspective - it is a truism that one of the aims of coaching is to generate fresh perspectives; and there is something about the outdoors - particularly in the mountains, with the vast landscapes that we walked through, that really enables that;

Exercise and oxygenation - I think that these have a stimulating effect on the whole system, brain as well as body;

The different location - we had a very different conversation than we would have had in an office; indeed, it is hard to imagine having a day long 1-1 meeting indoors that would not be entirely dreadful!

The stimulus of the natural environment - the beauty of the fells, and also the danger (more apparent than real, perhaps) of the ridge walk all added to the experience.

And inevitably, the journey as a metaphor - there was one point when we were most of the way up the ridge (which has some sharp falls to either side, and Pete has vertigo...) when that was particularly acute…

Of course, this is not the first time I have done this: if you are interested in a previous client's reflections on the process, you can read them here; and there is a brief clip on YouTube of me being interviewed about walking coaching here.