Friday 17 December 2021

Finding Freedom through Discipline...

There is something of a paradox about freedom and discipline, that I am reflecting on as the year comes to a close. It seems to me, that the more I stick to certain disciplines that I have chosen (around exercise, meditation, structuring my work and others), the more freedom I experience.

This morning's view...
Thus the discipline of getting out on my bike first thing every morning and cycling up the fells, come rain or shine, frees me in unexpected ways. At one level it is the obvious thing: being fitter makes me less prone to bugs, and being physically tired means I sleep well at night, free of insomnia. But it also frees me from rumination: I process a lot of thinking as I cycle.

Likewise, the discipline of meditation frees me from worry and stress in significant ways; and the discipline of structuring my coaching sessions (and various other 'sandwiches' about which I have blogged previously) frees me to be emergent in a lot of my work, whilst knowing that I am doing a good job. 

In the same way, the freedom to follow my inclinations (to laziness, to one more glass of wine, to... well I don't want to get too confessional here) clearly limits my freedom to do what I truly want to do. This of course links to my previous musings about artificial authenticity; and to the research about delayed gratification which I refer to in this post about what I really want to do.

So I offer these as some reflections, as we approach that time of year when we start to think about New Year's Resolutions (and if you want some help formulating those so that they work, I blogged about this at the start of the year, here).

This will (almost certainly) be my last post of the year, so I wish all my clients, colleagues, friends, and any other readers every blessing for a restful and restorative Christmas break, and a rich and stimulating New Year.


With thanks to Mona Miller for sharing her photographs on Unsplash

Friday 10 December 2021

In a crisis...

I heard a great anecdote this week about some experts on Crisis Management from (I think) Harvard. They begin their presentation with a series of slides: 

1    In a crisis...
2    Either the crisis manages you...
3    Or...

.... and then ask the participants to respond.  Apparently, wherever and whenever they do this, they always get the same response; '... or you manage the crisis.'

Which, they then go on to say, is the wrong answer.  (In passing, it interests me that the structure of the question so reliably prompts that response: are we so conditioned to think in clichés?... but that is not my main point).

The correct answer, according to them, is '... or you manage you.'  Their point being that it is of the nature of a crisis that it is unmanageable: that is almost a definition of a crisis. But what we can manage is our response to it.

And that makes perfect sense to me. It also accords with the insights of Viktor Frankl (qv)  and his observation (hard-won in the concentration camps) that 'Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.' 

Which is all well and good: but how does one manage oneself in a crisis?

One part of an answer is all the work on resilience, about which I have blogged before a few times (here for example).

Another aspect is to do with awareness: so that we understand our particular, and predictable, responses if we are starting to lose control of ourselves; that is, if we are not moderating our thinking and behaviour as well as we usually do. And that is precisely what the Hogan Development Survey (or Dark Side as it is popularly known) looks at.

So it is no coincidence that the Dark Side behaviours that the tool explores are grouped in fight (moving against) and flight (moving away) categories, with an additional two that are about ingratiating (moving towards).

Thus the fight behaviours are those labeled bold, mischievous, colourful and imaginative; the flight behaviours are excitable, sceptical, cautious, reserved, and leisurely; and the ingratiating behaviours are diligent and dutiful. It is worth saying that these labels are not always helpful, and often looking at the subscales in each category sheds more light on what it encompasses. Thus leisurely is a combination of passive aggressive, unappreciated and irritated.

So it is helpful for me to know, via the Dark Side tool, that the warning signs I need to look out for,  that suggest I am losing control, are those associated with colourful, reserved, and imaginative. Thus if I feel inclined to start to show off (colourful), withdraw (reserved) or suggest ever more, and ever more bizarre, ideas (imaginative), it is likely that I am not self-moderating as well as I usually do.

That knowledge no only acts as an early warning system, as it were; but also provides me with a longer term strategy to work to address these tendencies, should I wish to do so.

And if I put all these disciplines in place, and then, in a crisis, simply pause, breathe, count to ten, and then access all this understanding, I may just be better placed to manage my response to it.

Friday 3 December 2021

Blighter's Rock

 I thought this morning that I would not have time to write a blog post today.  But things change.

And now I can't think what to blog about.  That feeling, of course, instantly brings to mind the wonderful scene in Shakespeare in Love, when Will is consulting his soothsayer about his writer's block. And that brings to mind the superstition of writers in even naming the phenomenon. Russell Hoban used the phrase Blighter's Rock (but then he would, wouldn't he).

The difference (one of the differences, to be more accurate) is that I am not a writer in the sense that either Shakespeare or Hoban was. And whilst I don't subscribe to Johnson's view that No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money, I do recognise the difference between serious professional writers and casual bloggers. And when considering Shakespeare or Hoban, that quality of genius also springs to mind as a differentiator.

All of which raises the question, why do I write blog posts? The question is simple enough, but the answer is quite complex. I think there are several contributory factors.  

One is that I do see myself, in part, as a writer. As well as the book I have published, I have written some radio plays (all wisely rejected by the BBC, though I was a near finalist in their playwriting competition many years ago), and I write a lot professionally: handout material, video scripts, reports for clients on consultancy projects and so forth.

Another is, I suppose, marketing; in that broadest sense of keeping in touch with some of my client base in a way that I hope is engaging, and reminds them of who I am; and for potential clients giving them some flavour of that.

A third is the adulation. At least a couple of people, over the last few decades, have said that they enjoy reading my blogs, and I as am susceptible to such praise as most people.

A fourth is that it is one of my disciplines; that is to say, one of those practices to which I have made a commitment, as part of my regular routine. (I can't quite remember why, but probably for all of the reasons I am rehearsing now). So it has become totemic, for me, of honouring a promise I have made to myself.

A fifth is that my writing often entertains me (sad, perhaps, but true) and sometimes others.

But perhaps the most significant is something that I have alluded to occasionally in previous posts: I write my blog posts to think out loud: to explore my thinking about whatever is on my mind - and this week, that happens to be, why do I write blog posts. 

The real mystery, of course, is why anyone reads them.

Saturday 20 November 2021

Performance Management

The other day, over dinner and a glass or two, I was asked by a senior academic what I thought was the biggest issue that Universities needed to address, in the context of management and leadership.  I said performance management; and he - and the other members of the University at dinner (both academics and professional services staff) agreed with an enthusiasm that slightly took me aback. (It wasn't as though I was paying for the wine, either...).

Whether it is the most important or not is clearly debatable; but it is certainly important. And I think the context in which we think about it needs re-examining.

Too often, we treat performance management as the unpleasant business of dealing with poor performance; which is a bureaucratic, as well as an emotional, nightmare.

However, I think it is better conceived of as a leadership task, and a positive one, at that.  For if we take performance management seriously, it is surely about the leader's responsibility to create the environment (context, culture, systems, structures) in which people are most likely to be both willing and able to give of their best. 

That is likely to include maximising autonomy, where ever possible; offering clarity about context and desirable outcomes; modelling the positive values that the institution aspires to; noticing and honouring both effort and results; encouraging and enabling teamwork and collaboration; and so on.  

It also means casting a critical eye over all the other good, but perhaps slightly peripheral, things we aspire to do, and considering whether pursuing them (or pursuing them at this time, or in this way) will have deleterious effect on on people's willingness and desire to give of their best; and when necessary, fighting off some of the well-intentioned but burdensome initiatives that bureaucracies have a peculiar gift for imposing.

It will also include addressing poor performance; not least because one of the things that people find really disheartening is to work their socks off, and then see others, apparently, getting away with doing little or nothing. But addressing poor performance is only a small, albeit crucial, element in a genuine performance management approach: there is so much more to it than that!


With thanks to  Lefteris kallergis and Prince Akachi for sharing their photos on Unsplash

Thursday 11 November 2021

The Cleverness of Me

Occasionally, I meet someone who mentions that they read and like my blog. Typically, they say that is because I don't spend all my time talking about how wonderful I am and what clever things I am just doing (and, by the way, buy now!).

So based on that haphazard approach to understanding my readers' interests, I have decided to write a blog post about how wonderful I am and a clever thing I have just done (though still lacking that incisive sales pitch, alas). 

Having said which, it did take me some time...  

So, to start at the beginning: when the children were smaller (they are now all in their 20s and have moved out) I was from time to time frustrated to find that all the pencils in the house were blunt. So I bought one of those rather good pencil sharpeners - you know, the kind you remember from junior school (at least, if you are of my generation). But the problem was, where to mount it? Because you cannot use it without screwing it down: otherwise you would need one hand to hold it, one to hold the pencil, and a third to turn the handle.

My dilemma was that the old dining table that I use as a desk is rather nice beech, and I was reluctant to drive screws into it. So I had the bright idea of fastening it to the shelves above my desk: but allowing for the handle and the length of a pencil, that would have taken the best part of a foot (30 cm for you youngsters) of available shelf space out of use: and we never have enough shelf space.

And then, the other day, with that flair for genius that is my stock-in-trade, and a mere 20 years or so after first buying the thing, I realised that I could screw it to the bottom of a shelf - for it works just as well upside down!

And I have been as happy as can be ever since: and all of our pencils have been sharpened. 


With thanks to Marcus Spiske for sharing his photo on Unsplash

Friday 5 November 2021

Ease and discomfort

One of the components of Nancy Kline's Thinking Environment (qv passim) is Ease. Kline sees this primarily as a freedom from urgency. Her thesis is that people think better in our presence if they know that we have time for them and that we are happy for them to take their time in developing and articulating their thinking.  And I think that she is right.  I would also add a freedom from being judged, as a contributor to that sense of ease.

On the other hand, I am also keenly aware of the importance of discomfort. If we go to the leading edge of our thinking, and explore the unknown, that may be uncomfortable.  Further, the Thinking Environment process itself is uncomfortable for some people: it is so contrary to their habits and expectations (eg the complete absence of interruption) that it can feel odd. So I often reassure people that I am quite comfortable with their being uncomfortable...

So how do I reconcile those two? And do I need to?  I quite like paradox - it often takes us to interesting places.

And as so often, this blog post is my thinking out loud about the subject, as it were.  It is work in progress, not a settled position.

My current thinking is this: if we look at why Ease is so important, I think it is for a few reasons.  One is that if people feel some urgency, the risk is that they go by the most direct route from Problem A to Solution B.  But that most direct route is the well-trodden path in their mind (or the strongest links in the neural network, if you prefer). Which means that they are likely to think what they always think, when addressing such questions under time pressure. And that in turn means that new insights are less likely.  Whereas, if they take a more rambling route, if they allow their mind to play with ideas, to explore some of the by-ways, they may see things from a different perspective, see new links and new possible pathways: and that may be where insight arises.

The second reason is that urgency risks stimulating the sympathetic nervous system: that fight/flight response, when our amygdala releases adrenaline etc into our system to respond to a (perceived) threat. Whereas ease allows us to operate out of our rational, pro-social mind, focused more on long term goals than short term survival, enabling a more expansive and humane consideration of the issues we are addressing.

So perhaps my role is to create sufficient ease that the thinker is able to go to the uncomfortable non-habitual or even dangerous places, and experience the discomfort of doing so, in such a psychologically safe space that the fight/flight response is not stimulated. 


With thanks to Ian Stauffer, Kai Bossom and Lionello DelPiccolo for sharing their photos on Unsplash

Friday 29 October 2021


 Reflecting on the Practice Framework I've been developing, I recognise that one of my weaker areas (or development areas, as I suppose I should label it) is Evaluation. It is all too easy, at the end of the assignment, to accept the thanks fo the coachee, and move on to the next thing.   But that is scarcely the way to excellence...

One of the things that my framework makes explicit is the link between contracting and evaluation.  That is, I think that the contracting, at the start of the assignment should include an agreement about how we will evaluate it at the end; which will clearly include the coachee's evaluation as well as the coach's, of course; but might also include other stakeholders. 

Naturally, that may develop over the time of the coaching, as new goals emerge; but that is simply another reason to keep re-contracting periodically during the relationship.

One of the challenges I have found in evaluating coaching, is that sometimes the coachee is truly delighted, and yet I feel that it could have gone better.  Perhaps that is not surprising: if it is the coachee's first experience of coaching and it has delivered value, then that is good. But having some experience and expertise in the matter may mean that I have higher standards.

And that leads to another reflection: perhaps the emphasis in what we evaluate should be different.  The coachee is best placed to evaluate the content of the coaching: the learning, its application, and the difference that has made. He or she may well have comments about the coaching process, of course, and these are often valuable too.  But they are naturally made from a less informed position.

Whereas I have some expertise about process: I know what I have decided good coaching looks like (for me): hence this practice framework. Whereas I am actually less well-placed to judge the learning and the impact of the coaching; though of course, I will have a view.

So, as so often with my blogging, this is work in progress: I will continue to work on Evaluation as part of my professional practice, and see if these reflections are helpful.  And in due course, I may report back in another blog post.


No images this week, as Blogger seems to be playing up!

Friday 22 October 2021

Towards a practice framework

 I have been thinking further about the notion of a practice framework for my coaching work (a phrase I found in Hewson & Carroll's book about which I have blogged previously.

This is linked to my reflections on Sandwiches (in another, more recent blog).

In essence, I am trying to map what I believe the essential elements of good coaching are, at least as I see them. The point of this, of course, is to keep learning and improving; as well as to prevent back-sliding from how I am when working at my best.  It informs my reflective practice and my conversations with my supervisor.

And of course, that is the other use for it: when supervising other coaches. My ideal would be for them to articulate their practice framework for themselves; but having mine as a starting point may facilitate that.  And the point is to ensure that over a series of supervisory conversations, as well as addressing whatever arises from the specific issues they bring to supervision, we also review all aspects of their practice in a comprehensive way. Much of that will be done in response to the issues that they bring to supervision; but it may be that something like evaluation never arises in that context.  So I think that there is real value in  having a map somewhere that we can re-visit from time to time, to check if there is anything we have not talked about.

This is, of course, a work in progress: and I'll be interested in any suggestions others may have to improve it.


I've added something about stakeholder and system understanding to the 'supported by' list...  (always a bit of a blindspot for me...)

Friday 15 October 2021

Coaching in a Thinking Environment - and the power of not interrupting

 I have blogged a lot, over the years, about the Thinking Environment and my musings on it. I thought, this week, it might be interesting to reflect on a particular coaching session, and how conducting it in a Thinking Environment, as opposed to 'normal' coaching was different - both for me and for the individual I was coaching.

I started the session by reminding the coachee that the purpose of the session was to give him the time, space, support and challenge to think further than he usually had the chance to do, about anything (relevant to the coaching) that he chose. I mentioned that we would reserve the last 15 minutes or so to pull together the threads, recognise any learning or insights, catch any actions planned etc.  And apart from that, I would listen, and only ask questions when he told me that he had come to the end of a wave of thinking; and that whilst I would be happy to share any perspectives of my own, if he wanted me to do so, that would only happen after he had taken his own thinking as far as he could.  

This was a first session with this individual, so I made it clear we would run this as an experiment: if it worked, we could do something similar next time; if not, we could do something different. That was a way of giving him permission to give honest feedback about the process at the end of the session; and also helping him recognise that it might feel unusual: it was an experiment, after all! I checked he was OK with that, and then I invited him to think: 'What do you want to think about; and what are your thoughts.' And he thought.

As ever, it was really interesting; and as ever, it sparked off numerous thoughts in my own head - questions I could ask, models that might shed light on his experience, similar situations I had encountered with others, and so on.

In fact, I noticed seven times when I was on the verge of offering my contribution, as he paused between waves of thought.  And each time, I decided not to, in order to honour our initial agreement. So instead, I remained silent and he started to think again.  A couple of times, he asked me for another question ('What more do you think, or feel, or want to say?...') to get his thinking going again. 

After about an hour and ten minutes, he stopped, having resolved one substantial issue, and also a second, not-quite-so-weighty, one. He then asked for my reflections. I mentioned that a few things had gone through my head, but there were just two that I wanted to share with him at that stage. So I shared those, and he found them useful.

We then reviewed the learning and what actions he was going to take, and finally reviewed the process. He was surprised at how effective it had been, but had some lingering curiosity over what I had thought but not said. So after the session, I emailed him a list of the things that had gone through my head.  Somehow it looked less desperately urgent (and dare I say it, less impressive) than when I had been feeling that strong urge to interrupt.  He came back to me for more detail on a couple of the points that had particularly resonated or interested him.

So that is how (or at least one way) to coach in a Thinking Environment. It is interesting for me to reflect on how strong the urge to interrupt can be. After all, what benefit is he getting from me as a coach if I withhold my wisdom. And I am sure that I was right not to do so, as he reached his own resolution without me; and moreover, was able to have the benefit of my thinking in addition, after the session. 


With thanks to Girl with red hat  and Laurenz Kleinheider for sharing their photos on Unsplash

Friday 8 October 2021

Adrenaline or peace?...

A few conversations this week have got me asking myself questions about the role of adrenaline in our lives, and our response to it.

One was a discussion about the component of ease in a Thinking Environment.  A colleague said that adrenaline is always detrimental to good thinking. 

I nodded along: that seemed sensible to me. I have experienced many times the powerful effect of a Thinking Environment, not least that component of ease, in helping me to think deeply and (of course) wisely about difficult or complex issues.

But on reflection I am not so sure. It's that word always that bothers me.  I tend to be wary of absolute statements, as I actually believe in absolutes...  

So I am wondering about the role of adrenaline in the context of physical emergencies or crises. I think firefighters, soldiers etc may well need the advantages that adrenaline offers as they go into action, and wonder if it is true that the price they pay for that is cognitive impairment.

Other conversations included issues like needing to be busy to feel as though you are accomplishing anything, or to keep the demons of rumination at bay. 

Here I reflect on the Eisenhower (Urgency/Importance) grid, and how many people spend a lot of time dealing with urgent issues (almost regardless of importance) at the expense of important issues that are not (or not yet) urgent.  In my thinking (and indeed experience) dealing with Important issues before they are urgent, by deliberate planning and choice, is a route to peace.  

Which raises the interesting question, are some people uneasy with peace? Is it too boring? Whereas adrenaline-stimulating crises are certainly interesting.  Which reminds me of something I wrote some years ago: working to a tight deadline triggers a release of adrenaline, (the fight or flight response), followed shortly afterwards by cortisol (which focuses us on the immediate crisis and therefore inhibits serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine). That results in us feeling lack-lustre, so we need more adrenaline to feel alive again.

I will continue to reflect on this (though not, I trust, ruminate) as I think I still have unanswered questions.  Fortunately, my job as coach doesn't require me to have the answers, just some great questions to get people thinking.


With thanks to Fabian Jones for sharing this photo on Unsplash

Sunday 3 October 2021


The latest attempt to de-criminalise assisted dying is making its way through the parliamentary process, with a Second Reading in the House of Lords later this month.

Whilst I recognise the very real issues that it seeks to address, I think that here, as in other arenas, hard cases make bad law.

My objections to changing the law in this way are many, both theoretical and practical.  At a theoretical level, I think it problematic as it is based on an assumption that we can know the future: and in fact, we cannot. In this case, the law presumes that we can know that someone is going to die within six months ('is reasonably expected to die within six months.') Further, it assumes that we (and in particular the individual concerned) knows that their condition will only get more unendurable over that period. 

Here I reflect on the relatively recent death of my mother-in-law. Some years ago, she was bed-ridden, and her continuing pain, allied to the ineffectiveness of drugs, and her mental state of misery, made me really think hard about this issue. Was it fair that people like her should suffer because people like me had doubts about euthanasia? 

But what happened over the last few years of her life was astonishing, and unpredictable. She decided to forego the drugs, and to manage her pain as best she could, on her own terms, by relaxing etc. It was astonishing. She found a peace and sense of tranquility in her last years that had eluded her for (at least) the last few decades. Had she had the choice to end her life earlier, she might well have taken it (not least as she hated the thought that she was a burden on her daughter). But had she done so, she would never have found that final peace.

Of course, that is only one story: but it is a story that illustrates that we don't know what the future holds and we are rash to presume that we do.

And there are other concerns, too, of course. These issues are always framed in terms of the individual - understandably enough, for it is the individual who is suffering. But it is not the individual alone whom such a change in our legal system would affect. Doctors, in particular, would be changed by this. That fundamental orientation to looking after the life and well-being of their patients would be undercut, and so would patient trust, I suspect. Elizabeth Jennings' poem, which I quote below, picks up this theme.

There is also the issue of the patient's family. What pressures might they be under, what pressures might they put the patient under, what regrets might they experience?...

And there's the broader societal impact. At present, we see life as precious. Nobody can take another's life, and we work hard to stop people from taking their own. We know, for example, that in the vast majority of cases, people who are prevented from committing suicide, or rescued from suicide attempts, do not go on to kill themselves later: they realise they are better off alive. But not in every case, of course; the trouble is we (and they) cannot know in advance which are the exceptions. 

We have even decided as a society that we will not take the lives of the most dreadful criminals. The finality of taking someone's life is so absolute, the instinct against it so strong, and the consequences of error are so terrible. But introducing Euthanasia breaks that compact: no longer is life so sacred as all that...

There is also the real risk of a slippery slope. Of course the way the initial legislation is drafted is very tight. Of course, it is only for a small number of extreme cases.  And so on.  Yet we heard all that in 1967 when the Abortion Bill was being debated: now we have virtual abortion on demand. And if we look around the world, at those countries that have already legalised assisted dying, we see exactly that: the criteria are relaxed, the practice is extended. In the Netherlands, a 1994 study revealed that in 1 in 5 cases, doctors prescribed drugs with the explicit goal of shortening the patient's life without the explicit request of the patient.

Also, it seems to me to be an agenda driven by fear, and that in itself is not a good thing. It is easy to stir up fear, but that is a very unhealthy basis on which to run a society. For myself, I hold hope to be a higher value, and to that end, I would counsel anyone interested in this issue to read Kathryn Mannix's book, With the End in Mind: Dying, Death and Wisdom in an Age of Denial. 

Mannix is a palliative care professional of many years' experience, working with the dying and their families. In this book, she tells of many experiences: her main point being that we are in denial about death, and correspondingly ignorant and fearful. If we educate ourselves, by reading her accounts and others, we will find that there is a lot less to fear.   But introduce euthanasia and the work (and funding) that goes in to palliative care are likely to reduce: such has been the experience elsewhere in the world, and we would be naive to assume that we are different.

I return to my earlier question:  is it fair that people should suffer because people like me have doubts about euthanasia? That does seem a fair question; but the opposite question should also be asked: is it right to risk all the harms that people like me envisage, to individuals, families and society at large, by breaching that fundamental principal: thou shalt not kill?


The law's been passed and I am lying low
Hoping to hide from those who think they are
Kindly, compassionate. My step is slow.
I hurry. Will the executioner
Be watching how I go?

Others about me clearly feel the same.
The deafest one pretends that she can hear.
The blindest hides her white stick while the lame
Attempt to stride. Life has become so dear.
Last time the doctor came,

All who could speak said they felt very well.
Did we imagine he was watching with
A new deep scrutiny? We could not tell.
Each minute now we think the stranger Death
Will take us from each cell

For that is what our little rooms now seem
To be. We are prepared to bear much pain,
Terror attacks us wakeful, every dream
Is now a nightmare. Doctor's due again.
We hold on to the gleam

Of sight, a word to hear. We act, we act,
And doing so we wear our weak selves out.
We said "We want to die" once when we lacked
The chance of it. We wait in fear and doubt.
O life, you are so packed

With possibility. Old age seems good.
The ache, the anguish - we could bear them we
Declare. The ones who pray plead with their God
To turn the murdering ministers away,
But they come softly shod.

Elizabeth Jennings

Friday 24 September 2021

Supervising Mentors

I have been asked by the EMCC UK to facilitate their first Let's Talk session for mentors on International Mentoring Day (which, as I'm sure you know, is 27 October). The session is to be a mix of CPD and supervision, which has set me thinking about the differences (if any) between supervision for coaches and for mentors.

I am more used to supervising coaches than mentors, so it seemed important to give this some serious thought, to ensure the session is as valuable as it can be.  Mentoring and coaching, though closely related, are different in a number of ways, and having been involved in training both mentors and coaches, I am fairly clear about the differences.

Reflecting on this with colleagues, I have concluded that the main functions of supervision, the formative, normative and restorative (which I have summarised here), all apply equally in the context of mentoring. Likewise, the different types of conversations that might be appropriate, characterised by the rooms in Hewson and Carroll's Coaching House, are also relevant (I have blogged about these previously, here).

So I was beginning to wonder if there was any difference at all in the supervision of mentors as opposed to coaches. But there was something niggling at the back of my mind, and it was another colleague who helped me to articulate it. It was to do with context. 

In broad terms, coaches are probably more likely to have more training, and more of a professional identity as coaches, than mentors do. Mentors are typically doing the mentoring alongside other roles, often as a favour; and whilst they may have had some mentoring training, it may well be less than coaches. In the coaching profession, supervision is widely discussed; and most coaches are aware that having supervision is best practice, even if they don't actually avail themselves of it. Whereas I think it is much more likely that mentors may not be aware of supervision and its role.  And of course, in mentoring there are often power issues at play in different ways than in coaching: a mentor is frequently a senior member of the organisation in which the mentee is more junior, and clearly there are supervisory questions arising from that.

So I concluded that there is more context-setting that may be appropriate for mentors, with regard to supervision, and that there are some specific issues, for example in the normative area (contracting etc) that may need particular attention in the supervision of mentors.

And then, checking my assumptions with the EMCC, I learned that in this particular context, the mentors I'll be working with are also all coaches, so some of these considerations may not apply after all.

But nonetheless, it was interesting and useful to chase my thinking down here, and I am sure it will helpfully inform future work.

Friday 17 September 2021

A short break...

It is a while since I blogged, as I took August off, as is my usual practice, and then came back to rather a lot to get through in early September.

When I say I took August off, do not imagine me sat with my feet up. It was a very busy period. I acquired two new grandchildren (Charlie on 1st, and Matthew on 13th) in Manchester and Durham, respectively. Needless to say, they needed visiting, and their mothers needed encouraging (and flattering, of course). So we were on the road a lot.  And then they all came here, as the girls wanted to see each others' babies, naturally enough. 

So it was something of a relief when September came around and I could return to the tranquility of my work life...  And Jane and I took the opportunity of some work in Wales either side of a weekend to have a weekend break, and visited the wonderful Gloucester cathedral.  It is remarkable, Norman overlaid with the very first experiments in Perpendicular - and that magnificent east window!  We also heard a fascinating lecture by Dr Janina Ramirez on the Gloucester candlestick (of which they have just printed a 3-D replica).  And of course Tewkesbury Abbey, another fine example of Norman architecture.

Perhaps by next week, I'll be sufficiently back in work mode to have something relevant to blog about: this post (as the more perceptive of you will have realised) was really just an excuse to show off my grandchildren...

Friday 30 July 2021

Artificial Authenticity

Authenticity is a bit like motherhood and apple pie. One can't exactly be against it. Much of the literature on leadership talks about the importance of authenticity, and I think that is right. It is quite clear that people are unlikely to trust and follow a leader who is duplicitous, and inconsistent in words and actions.*  

But I think that the issue of authenticity bears some scrutiny. To take a simple, domestic, example, there are times when my wife (to whom I have been happily married for nearly forty years) can press my buttons, as it were, with such uncanny accuracy that I would gladly biff her on the head with a frying pan.**

Yet I don't. Would it be more authentic to do so, if that is what I am truly feeling at that moment?  I don't think so.  And the reason I don't think so is that we are complex beings, and our true self (our authentic self) is not merely the expression of the transient emotions that we experience at a moment in time. 

So what is authentic behaviour in that context?  I think it is about aligning our behaviour with our best version of ourself. The reason I don't biff Jane with a frying pan (or at least, one of the reasons) is that it is not true to who I am striving to be, or to become.  And by consistently not biffing her with a frying pan for forty years, I have now so developed my character, that I think I can fairly say that I am a non-violent husband, and I think that is a good thing - and indeed an authentic thing - for me to be. 

However, in a sense that authenticity is artificial: it is a learned behaviour - a discipline to refrain from acting on my immediate, and doubtless authentic, emotional response.

But where I think it differs from a problematic inauthenticity lies in the realm of intention. I am genuinely, and consistently, trying to be a loving husband. It is when that genuine and consistent intention is lacking, that someone's behaviour is more likely to be inauthentic in the problematic way.  And the problem with that understanding is that we cannot see another person's intention; we can only deduce it.

However, for myself, I can be clear: it is not inauthentic to aspire to be better than I am; indeed that is, for me, an essential part of becoming ever more authentic.

* I leave aside the rather extraordinary state of our political systems from this discussion...

** Hyperbole, but I'm sure you recognise what I am describing.


With thanks to  Slava,  Aleksandra Tanasiienko, and Sammy Williams for sharing their photos on Unsplash

Friday 23 July 2021

The Temptation to Complacency

I had a supervision session booked with my excellent supervisor, Ann Bowen-Jones.  I use Ann specifically to supervise my work as a supervisor, and have other supervisory arrangements for my coaching. That is very deliberate, to make sure that my supervision is subject to regular oversight and reflection, and doesn't take second place, as it were, to my coaching in supervisory conversations.   So, as I say, I had a session booked; and as we talk regularly, and due to the way the diary fell, I had only conducted one supervision since our previous meeting. Moreover, that supervision had gone well: I had helped the coach I was working with to think more perceptively about the issue under discussion, to gain some insights, decide what to do, and generate some useful actions.  All in all, I was feeling pretty complacent about it.

But that raised the question of what to discuss at supervision with Ann. We could have looked more broadly at my supervision practice framework, but we have spent some time on that recently, and somehow that didn't feel the most productive thing to do. So I mentioned that I had only supervised once since we last spoke, that it had gone well, and that might be worth reviewing.

For my coaching clients, I rarely think that reviewing successes is a waste of time or self-indulgent (unless that is all that they want to do, ever...). But for myself, it felt different.

And yet this proved to be a very rich session indeed. And it wasn't because it is valuable to affirm strengths and build on them (though there was an element of that) but simply because there was so much more to think about than I had realised. Ann's skillful listening and questioning helped me to identify that there was something I was uneasy about, regarding my client's practice, and then to identify what that was and what I wanted to do about it. 

In turn, that led to consideration of my reflective practice after the session: why had I not identified that unease until now?

We also identified two or three other lines of enquiry, as it were, to explore with my client, none of which I had arrived at in my post-session review with myself. 

And I think that in least in part, that was a result of a certain complacency after the session. It had gone well; the client had made significant progress, and had been very appreciative of my supervision. And in that context, it was just too easy to engage in my private review of the session from a rather self-satisfied stance.   

I think I am not alone in this: that I learn well from my disasters; but my triumphs?... I should pay more heed to wisdom of Kipling, and treat those two imposters just the same.

Friday 16 July 2021

No, I'm not a tour guide...

The journey as a metaphor for coaching (or supervision, come to that) is a bit of a cliché. But that's for a reason: it is a very good metaphor. 

But in conversation with Jan, during our final supervision (about which I have already blogged) we developed an interesting twist. We were discussing our reluctance to be seen as the experts who know all the answers (and there's a good and grounded reason for that reluctance: we don't). Yet time and again, people seem to want and expect that, whether explicitly, or implicitly. Many seem to think that we start out with a plan for all of the coaching sessions.

But we are not tour guides. We do not know where the coaching journey will take us. We cannot lead you along a pre-defined path to 'better leadership' or whatever the objective is; visiting the important landmarks along the way in an orderly fashion (If it's Friday, this must be Emotional Intelligence...)

Rather, we are co-explorers. We don't know where we will be going. We don't know what we will encounter. But we are experienced explorers: we can read the terrain, we can use a compass, we have some good maps; so although we can't describe the journey in advance, we do bring value to the process.

And because I like to explore a metaphor, that opened up some further interesting insights. 

In terms of maps, it raised the interesting question of whose map do we use: ours or the coachees'? And the answer, I think, is both.  It is the coachees' world that we are exploring, so clearly their maps are essential. But in terms of the coaching journey we, as coaches, have maps built from our years of experience, so they too may come into play.  Indeed, they may be different types of maps: a coachee's map might be a very precise, detailed, local depiction of the terrain; the coach's might be more schematic, like a London tube map: this line is likely to connect these points...  Or it may be a larger systemic map, or it may be a map that says at the edge 'Here be dragons!' That is, there are places (eg psychotherapeutic territory) where I as a coach would be the wrong guide, and would risk exposing my coachee to danger.

I reached a similar conclusion about compasses, which are an obvious metaphor for the values and principles, or ethics, that guide our decision making. Clearly the coach's values are core to the coach's decision making; but equally clearly, I don't leave my ethics at the door. Like all professions, coaching has a code of ethics to which I subscribe; and my own values also inform my work.

And then, the landscape itself... What sort of journey are we on? Are we hacking through the jungle undergrowth, desperate to survive? Are we out in my beloved Lake District to gain perspective and stretch ourselves? Are we on a pilgrimage?

Thinking of walking in the Lakes also made me reflect on the right preparation. I would not take someone up Scafell without the right kit; so how well do I encourage clients to equip themselves for the coaching journey. I think I could do better here.

So, a very rich metaphor.  And as I was discussing this with another colleague and regular Thinking Partner, the excellent Helen Hatton, she pointed out that it wasn't so much a question of whose map or compass we might choose to use at any point in the journey, as raising awareness with our coachees that there are several available, and that we may usefully learn from many of them.

And one of the practical implications of this metaphor is that it helps clarify expectations with potential clients. For if they want someone to lead them by the hand and tell them where they should go and what they should do, I am not the coach for them.  But if they want someone to join in their exploration, then I am enthusiastic and have some skills to enrich the journey.


With thanks to Mukuko StudioJulentto PhotographyAli Kazal and LOGAN WEAVER for sharing their photography on Unsplash

Friday 9 July 2021

In my end is my beginning...

This week I had my final supervision session with Jan, with whom I have had a peer- co-supervisory relationship, focused on our respective coaching work, for six years.  It was, as ever, a very rich and fruitful session, and I reached some conclusions about questions that had been live for me for some time, about my coaching identity and my coaching philosophy, which felt particularly timely in a final session. And naturally, we included a retrospective, looking at what we had learned together, and how we had worked together.

That was all very positive; we were both able to identify for ourselves and each other, significant learning and development over the years, arising from our work together; and that included, of course, our supervisory, as well as our coaching, skills.  In part that was because we had both undertaken supervisory training a few years back, so had been particularly attending to that - reading the literature, discussing with colleagues at workshops, and so on. We wrote a blog post on some of our reflections on that learning on the CSP blog, here.

And as I wrote up my notes for the session for the last time, I went back to my notes from our very first session, back in 2015.  And guess what, some of the issues that were alive then have only just been resolved; and some that reared their head in this final session, and felt new, were also foreshadowed in that very first session. 

We shall not cease from exploration. 
And the end of all our exploring.  
Will be to arrive where we started. 
And know the place for the first time.  

T S Eliot knew a thing or two, didn't he...

Friday 25 June 2021

How does that help?

 How does that help? I was asked.  And it's a good question.  The that under discussion was being supported to think out loud - all that Nancy Kline stuff I keep going on about. And the challenge implicit in the question (which I elicited by listening...) was that if you simply say out loud what you are already thinking, that doesn't take your thinking any further forward.

David Rock, in his book The Brain at Work, which I have already blogged about, highlights our intuition that saying difficult stuff out loud is more likely to be unhelpful: solidifying the difficult stuff as something real (our intuition often tells us the same about writing it down, come to that - and we'll return to journalling in another post, another time). Yet, he says, the research suggests that the reverse is true; or at least, that it can be very helpful.

And that is my experience, too, both with regards to sharing my own difficult stuff, and hearing other peoples'. Why might that be?

I think that there are several reasons. Jordan Peterson, in 12 Rules for Life, talks about how helpful it is for the brain to be required to order and select, from the myriad bits of detail and noise surrounding an experience, those which we regard as important; and telling our story out loud makes us do that. That has a clarifying effect: rather than all the undifferentiated noise, we now have a narrative that we can examine.

And I am reminded, too, of Dumbledore's pensieve: a device into which he could place his thoughts and memories, to be examined, but also (presumably) to free up cognitive processing capacity in his brain. 

In my experience, there are a few other things that go on.  When one is listened to really well, one takes one's thinking further: it is not uncommon both for me and for those I am coaching, to surprise ourselves with what we say; and then to pause and wonder Do I really think that? Sometimes we expose our own inner hyperbole, our love of drama, our need to be the hero - or the victim. And once it is said out loud, that is easier to recognise and address.

Also, thinking out loud is often a good way to address rumination - that rather less helpful process of going over and over worries without progress or resolution. Somehow, the presence of a listener makes rumination seem too self-indulgent, and we tend to move forwards, rather than just round and round, in our thinking. 

There are also benefits in the very process of assigning words to our thoughts. Worries can be vague and all-encompassing; but naming them both makes them more specific, and therefore more limited.  Moreover, the very act of naming something gives us a feeling of power over it.  Children learning to deal with disruptive emotions are often told Name it to tame it! and that is very good advice. That, of course, relates to the naming of stories that is part of my Shifting Stories methodology.

I realise that I have written here particularly about the value of thinking about difficult stuff in this way; but I think this also applies to thinking about positive stuff.  Indeed, I would argue that there is a particular value in doing so. We often pass over the positive too quickly, for many reasons. One is that thinking about it with someone else may feel boastful or arrogant; another is that it doesn't need our attention in the same way - there is no problem to solve; and so on.  However, there are real benefits to reflecting on what has gone well, both for our mental well-being, and for our learning. 

So I will end with that challenge to you: find someone who is prepared to listen to you with exquisite attention, and then spend a few minutes (10?... 20?...  30, even?...) really unpacking some success that you have had to see what learning, and affirmation, there is for you in it.  And then, of course, do the same for the person who has been listening to you: and you will realise that neither role is a waste of time, nor dull, nor any of those other excuses our mind presents to us when we consider such an activity.