Saturday 30 November 2019

The importance of Place

I had a final coaching session recently with a client whom I have been meeting for just over a year. It has been a very positive and successful piece of work - so much so that I have been reflecting on why it went so well.

One of the distinctive features of this coaching relationship is that we have been meeting at my office, in my house, rather than at the individual's workplace.

That made me reflect on the other clients whom I meet at my office, rather than their workplace; and the fact that all of these coaching relationships are going particularly well.  Could there be a link?

A few things occur to me. One is the obvious value of getting away from the workplace with all its distractions, and even associations.

A second is the quiet and the beauty that my location, in a hamlet in the Lake District, is able to offer. And we try to make the visit a bit special, too, with home-made cakes and biscuits - as Nancy Kline has observed, it helps if the place says 'You matter!'

But I am increasingly inclining to a third hypothesis: that the travel time is important. Because I live in the middle of nowhere, my clients have inevitably travelled some distance for their coaching appointments.  That gives them time to de-compress, as it were, from the immediacy of their urgent work stuff, and think about what they truly want to address in the coaching. Likewise, the return journey gives them further processing time, to consider what they have thought about in the coaching session, to reflect upon it and internalise it.

Which raises an interesting question: should I advise that coaching always takes place at my office, or even insist on it?  I strive to be client-focused, and so I often travel some distance myself to make it easier for my busy clients to fit coaching into their schedule.  But am I doing them a dis-service in doing so?

Part of me thinks, yes: I really do believe the benefits of travelling to a different location add significantly to the coaching experience; but then I worry that my experiment is flawed. Clearly people who are prepared to invest hours in travelling, on top of the coaching time itself, are highly committed to the process.  Maybe that is what accounts for the very high very positive success rate for that group of clients. And maybe people who are unable to take that much time away from their work have a greater need for coaching support, and denying it to them would work against the values of my business...  (and that's without even thinking of the phone or Skype coaching I  sometimes do: I can't really get my US client to fly over for a 2-hour session - should that mean I cease to work with her?... And likewise the people I coach in Belfast - I get there from time to time, but try to minimise flights, for all the obvious reasons - and remote coaching seems better than no coaching - and indeed, I think has a power all its own - but that's the subject of another post, I think.)

And so I vacillate.  I think what I'll do is raise the issue of Place more explicitly at the contracting phase of new coaching relationships; talk about the benefits of a venue away from the workplace - and one that allows some travel time for all the reasons I've mentioned, and see what creative ideas new coaching clients and I come up with, between us.

Sunday 24 November 2019

Through the Looking Glass

At last week's Staff Development Forum Conference in Gateshead, there was a very thought-provoking presentation by Chris Watt and Albina Shashyna, called Looking glass logic: Free your inner Alice.

It was clear from the start that this was to be no ordinary conference presentation. The presenters did not introduce themselves, nor the purpose of the session, but launched straight in with a dialogue from Alice: the dialogue between Alice and the White Queen:
"I'm just one hundred and one, five months and a day.""I can't believe that!" said Alice."Can't you?" the Queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes."Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "one can't believe impossible things.""I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
Chris went on to explain the link between the ability to believe impossible things and creativity, adaptability and flexibility etc.

The presentation continued in a somewhat unorthodox fashion: thought bubbles appeared on the screen showing what Chris was thinking when Albina was talking, and vice versa.  We played an interesting game in which we had to make up stories, using the Alice jigsaw pieces we were given (and Albina kindly gave a passing plug to Shifting Stories, mentioning that it was reading that which made them suggest naming our stories).

Chris mentioned that some of our own stories - the ones we tell about ourselves - were like the drink in Alice that makes one very small; whilst others are like the cake that makes us big and strong.  And yet, somehow, we continue to tell ourselves the stories that make us small.

They had a disconcerting slide that asserted that we were not going to learn anything from all this.

And they ended with a clip from the film of Alice, in which, in order to slay the Jabberwock, she has to belief six impossible things: including that she can kill it. There was no summary or conclusion, they didn't stick around for any applause (or questions) - they slipped out while we were watching the film clip.

And I have been thinking, since, about this unorthodox presentation.  On the one hand, it made me realise why it is helpful to start with the purpose, conclude with a conclusion etc. - it was discomforting not to do so.  But on the other hand, I have been thinking about, and remembering, this presentation more than many I have sat through...

And recognising, on reflection, the art that concealed art: for example the beautiful circularity of ending where we began, with the need to believe in six impossible things.

So if the purpose was to leave me thinking, reflecting, remembering... then it was certainly an effective (as well as enjoyable) presentation; and much more so than most more typical conference keynotes.

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Monday 18 November 2019

Prejudiced, me?...

Recently I was facilitating a senior staff conference at a University, and one of the sessions was on closing the BAME attainment gap.  I was asked to introduce it. This is (more or less) what I said:

Now we move on to the practical question: How do we address the BAME attainment gap?

And I’ve been asked to introduce this.

Believe me, the irony is not lost on me: here I stand: white, male, middle class, privileged…

So I am not very close to the experiences that we are seeking to understand and ameliorate.  But perhaps I am close, in terms of my background and culture, to many of you.

And so I want to draw a little on my experiences, and also share with you one person’s account of what it is like to be a black member of staff here in this University.

Where I want to start is somewhat self-confessional, so I offer it in a spirit of honesty and in the hope that you will find it thought provoking.

I am a mass of prejudices; we all are, perhaps. But it is instructive to look at how they work, to make them visible to ourselves.  So for example, when I hear the word ‘micro-aggression’ my immediate response (internally) is to wonder at the wisdom of teaching people to be so sensitised that they find offence in the tiniest thing. Does it not risk encouraging them to take a victim stance all the time?

That is, I think, a legitimate question.

However, it is not the only legitimate question.  And if every time the issue of micro-aggressions is raised, that is my response, I have to ask myself why.  Could it be that it is more comfortable for me to address (or to be more honest, simply to raise) that question, rather than address the rather more difficult one: are there things that I do or say, with no ill intent, that actually cause difficulties or distress to other people?

Or to give you another example: I was recently in a meeting where a senior person whom I respect said that she had to conclude that the institution she worked for was ‘institutionally racist.’ Again, the linguist in me objected to the term: what did it actually mean? And particularly, that word ‘racist’ – which is so toxic, and seems to me to imply some deliberation, or intent. And knowing the leadership of the institution concerned, and that they had no such noxious intent, I was inclined to challenge her statement.

And interrogating what Institutionally Racist actually means, is, I think, a legitimate question.

But again, it is not the only legitimate question.  And I have to ask myself if my instinct to ask it was an unconscious attempt to avoid the more difficult question: are there patterns of behaviour, ways of working, and cultural codes that are invisible to us as white British people, that inadvertently make life easier for us white British people and harder for some others?

And as we look at the data on the BAME attainment gap: we could query the data, the methodology, and so on. We all have the expertise to do that.

And indeed, that is a legitimate question. 

But I would challenge you to consider that it is not the only legitimate question, and the harder one that I ask you to engage with today, is what could this University do better or differently to address the very real challenges that do exist?

And to give you some idea of those challenges, I would like to read this account out, written by a member of staff here.  And I would ask you to attend to your internal responses.  You are probably better than me; but nonetheless, it might be salutary to notice if you have any tendency to address easier questions (such as How typical is this?) rather than the more challenging ones posed by this account.

(And here I read out a rather harrowing account written by a member of staff)

So now, we are going work together to address some of these serious and challenging questions. 

·       What are the particular challenges at this University?
·        How should the University address them?
·        What is our role as leaders to help bring about meaningful change?
·        What are our responsibilities as individuals?