Friday 26 March 2021

Working with metaphor

I am increasingly interested in the value of working with imagery and metaphor. In a recent supervision, for example, the coach I was supervising (let's say Sam as that was not the coach's name) was thinking about a particular client (whom we can call Alex, on the same basis). 

Sam wanted to think about how to support Alex's growth and development, following a very difficult time at work. Rather than get into the complexities of Alex's situation, I asked Sam to hold the questions she had in mind lightly, and think about a metaphor. Sam thought that might be difficult, but in fact one came quite quickly. It was of a chrysalis, with a butterfly struggling to emerge from it. The environment is adding to the difficulty; leaves or twigs or something making it all harder. And it has been pouring with rain, so everything is wet.  The sun needs to come out.

We played with this quite a lot and added the wind as another potential help in the environment, as it might dry things more quickly.  I invited Sam to consider the wind and the sun as elements over which Alex might have some agency, and that proved a helpful line of thought.

Finally I asked what new story might be coming to mind, and Sam answered: Even aware of the fragility and vulnerability of the butterfly, Alex takes off.   Sam said she was finished at this point so we moved on to review the process.

Sam had found it 'really lovely – refreshing.' Sam now had a much clearer sense of how she wanted to work with Alex in their next meeting, and was able to hold that lightly.  And Sam was clear that the metaphor, and the way we developed the story together, had brought all the salient elements to the fore, far more quickly than just talking about the situation would have done.

And that strikes me as fairly typical of how metaphors work. Sam's choice of metaphor, and then the consideration of how the environment might help or hinder, and where Alex's agency lay, all cut straight to the heart of her thinking about this relationship.

So now I am wondering how to take that further.  I mentioned in a previous post that I am currently learning a poem a week. And poetry, of course, is rich in metaphor. So I am considering how to use more poetry in my work. And in discussing that with my supervisor, she reminded me of the work of David Whyte, a poet who uses poetry in organisational contexts.

So I am not quite sure where this will take me: I am thinking of running a workshop on Poetry and Leadership, starting with some reflections by me on a couple of improbable poems that I think (by analogy) might stir up interesting and valuable insights in leaders (or coaches or leaders), and followed by a small group discussions of the possibilities of this idea.  Let me know if you are interested.

And in the meantime, here's David Whyte:


With thanks to Bankim Desai for sharing butterfly photos on Unsplash

Friday 19 March 2021

Emotional Intelligence and the Thinking Environment

I blogged recently about David Rock's SCARF model (which is one approach to Emotional Intelligence) and its links to Nancy Kline's Thinking Environment. In this post, I consider the Genos EI model  (about which I have also blogged previously) and its relationship to the Thinking Environment (about which I have blogged very frequently!)

The first of the six EI competencies (in the Genos model) is self awareness. It is fairly clear how a leader who is being coached in a Thinking Environment style, which involves ever deeper reflection and the questioning of assumptions, is likely to develop better self awareness. Not least, as one of the questions repeatedly asked in a Thinking Environment is 'What more do you think, or feel, or want to say?' That invitation to consider feelings as valid and important parts of the leader's data is both simple and powerful. Unacknowledged and unexpressed emotions are not only blocks to good thinking, they are also often significant blindspots. Bringing them into the conversation certainly enhances self awareness on many occasions.

However, it is less obvious that such coaching will support enhanced awareness of others (the second competency). It may do, of course, but equally, it may not.  And the same seems to apply when considering the other four competencies: authenticity, emotional reasoning, self management and positive influence.  Each of those may be developed in a Thinking Environment coaching relationship; but there is no guarantee that is the case.

I was thinking about this in a Thinking Partnership conversation with a colleague, and had got this far. So I was starting to conclude that the links between the Thinking Environment and Emotional Intelligence were rather less obvious and more tenuous than I intuitively imagined. Fortunately, I asked my colleague for her views as I got to the end of my thinking. She pointed out that I was thinking about only one way in which the Thinking Environment might apply.

If one considers leaders who are not only the beneficiaries of a Thinking Environment for their coaching, but also start to be practitioners, applying the principles and practice in their workplace, the picture changes dramatically.

Leaders who genuinely listen to others and help them to develop their thinking are certainly likely to enhance their awareness of others and their positive influence. The practice, if taken seriously, includes striving to embody all ten components of the Thinking Environment.  That certainly requires and develops self management: not least the need to refrain from interrupting. And such leaders, genuinely listening to others individually and in teams, is likely to become much better at emotional reasoning: that is, factoring in all those human dynamics when considering different possible courses of action. And I think the practice of self awareness and self management, informed by that enhanced awareness of others and emotional reasoning, is likely to develop a more genuine authenticity in Leaders. I think that last may be the weakest link, but I think it's a reasonable hypothesis.

So all in all, I think my intuition was well-founded: there is a strong link between Kline's Thinking Environment and Emotional Intelligence: it was merely my initial framing of my exploration that threw me off the track for a while.  I will, of course, continue to think about this (both on my own and with colleagues) and may post further musings in due course.


With thanks to Kelly Sikkema for sharing her photography on Unsplash

Wednesday 10 March 2021

Humour in a Thinking Environment

The other day I was running a workshop looking at the use of Nancy Kline's Thinking Environment (qv) in the context of meetings.  One of the participants asked a great question. (Actually several of them did, but there is one question I want to focus on in this blog post).

He asked whether the prohibition on interrupting in a Thinking Environment might risk stripping them of humour.  Often a joke arises 'in the moment' and is relevant and funny only if interjected in the conversation at that precise time. He added that stripping our meetings of humour and laughter was too high a price to pay, if that were the case.

I have been reflecting on this. I agree that humour is valuable and laughter even more so. There are many reasons for that, ranging from the effect they have on us individually, to the effect they have on us collectively, and including the tendency of good jokes to include a radical shift or collision of perspectives, which also promotes fresh thinking.

My initial thinking is that interrupting is still problematic: it always disrupts the thinker's thinking, and we will never know where he or she might have gone next, and what the value of that might have been. To interrupt is to say that we know that what we are thinking (eg our brilliant joke) is more important than what the person who is speaking is thinking, and is about to say: and we cannot know that. 

So, if we accept that hypothesis, what are our options?  We could hold on to the joke until it is our turn to speak - possibly even referring back to the comment that stimulated it.  But I accept that might fall a bit flat. However, if it offered genuine insight. presumably that is still valuable, even if the context that would have produced the laugh is gone.

And if it wasn't genuine insight, we might do well to examine why we wanted to interject with the joke anyway.  Were we attention-seeking?  Were we trying to lighten the atmosphere? And if the latter, why was that? One of the other components of the Thinking Environment is Feelings; and the idea there is that we enable and allow people to express their feelings, confident that once they have done so, good thinking will follow.  If we are seeking to alleviate our own discomfort with the emotional intensity of a conversation, that is another form of interruption.

As already suggested, there are several good ends served by humour and laughter; but the more I reflect on that, the more I think that many of these ends are served by other means in a Thinking Environment. For example, the need for emotional release is explicitly allowed for, with regard to the individual thinking at any one time. As a listener, you may have to wait your turn for that luxury: but you know that your turn will come. Likewise, the need for connection is actively addressed by many of the components: the quality of attention we give and receive is very valuable in this regard, as are the components of appreciation, equality, ease and encouragement. And in terms of stimulating the brain in positive ways, the Thinking Environment is excellent both at calming the amygdala (reducing the likelihood of entering a negative emotional state, such as fight or flight) and also at stimulating fresh thinking, by its use of inviting questions, supported by all the components already mentioned.

But does that mean that meetings in a Thinking Environment will be flat and devoid of humour?  I think not. And further, my experience is that in practice, they are not. There used to be plenty of laughter at Nancy Kline's Collegiate meetings when we were able to meet in person.  Obviously, when it is your turn to talk, you may be as humorous as you like (though flippancy and negative humour that attacks or belittles others has no place).  But more profoundly, I think, the fellowship that develops, and the depth of thinking that is stimulated, both give rise to the kind of good humour that arises from the context: not so much joke-telling (though a joke may be told, almost as an excuse to give expression to the good humour) - a laughter that is born of joy.


With thanks to Brooke Cagle, Priscilla Du Preez, and Christina @ for sharing their photography on Unsplash

Thursday 4 March 2021

How's Your Scarf?

 Over the last few weeks I've been thinking a lot about David Rock's work, and in particular his SCARF model. It has crossed my path a few times in recent months - different people recommending it - and it seems to dovetail well with my interest in Emotional Intelligence.  I've ordered the book (How the Brain Works) but have yet to read it, so these are my initial musings, based on friends' comments, my reflections, and a David Rock video or two.

Essentially, Rock says that he has developed this model by a meta-analysis of findings in neuroscience over twenty years or so, which he has simplified into five key elements.

What he's interested in is how the fight or flight response is stimulated; and conversely how the brains reward systems may be stimulated. So SCARF is an acronym for five factors in social situations (workplace or other) that, if they are threatened, stimulate a fight or flight response; whereas if they are enhanced stimulate the brain's reward systems.

The five factors are Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. Intuitively (though as I say I have not yet read the book, and seen the research underpinning this) that has high plausibility. And it serves as a useful reminder, particularly when entering a new or difficult situation, about what to pay attention to. 

For example, one of the stressors of the current COVID crisis has been the high level of uncertainty; and there was palpable relief when the Prime Minister revealed his tentative road map - even that was better than simply no idea how the country might move forward.

I'm particularly interested in how this relates to Kline's Thinking Environment. I have long thought that the Thinking Environment works, in part, because it calms the amygdala (that part of the brain that scans for danger and triggers the fight or flight response). Looking at Rock's model suggests some possible ways that may occur. The emphasis on equality as one of the components of a Thinking Environment serves to allay concerns about status. The explicit promise not to interrupt and to listen attentively provides some certainty about how the conversation will proceed. The premise of the approach, that it is designed to enable and encourage independent thinking, supports autonomy very strongly. The quality of attention that the approach requires, along with the other components of appreciation and encouragement, serve to develop relatedness. And fairness is also served by the component of equality.

So that's my initial top-of-the-head thinking. Now I'll read the book (as soon as it arrives) and will develop my thinking further as I do so.  In the meantime, here's David Rock:


With thanks to Zohre Nemati and Chris Sabor for sharing their work on Unsplash