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.

Friday 18 June 2021

Sandwiches and Firefighting


I have been reflecting on the importance of sandwiches this week. Not, as you may imagine, because the fine weather has been tempting me to go on many picnics; rather I am thinking of the sandwich structure of so much effective work.

It started in a supervision session, when I was talking about my coaching practice, and how important I find it to start and end coaching sessions well; with that in place, the middle works well, as does the whole process.  And then I reflected on a second-level sandwich: the importance of preparing well before a session, and reflecting and note-taking afterwards.  With that in place too, I know that I am doing a good job in each session. And of course there's a third sandwich to consider: the initial contracting at the start of the coaching relationship, and the close of the assignment, with consolidation, evaluation and so on. 

And it seems to me that many of my clients would also benefit from such sandwiches: planning before a meeting - and not just what they want to get out of it, but how (and indeed who) they want to be in the meeting. Likewise, after meetings, it is really valuable to reflect and review: did I accomplish what I wanted to; and did I do that in a way congruent with who I want to be? And if so, celebrate and record that, and build on it; and if not, what do I learn from that?

Yet for many of my clients, that feels like an impossible luxury: particularly in these days of Zoom, they zoom from meeting to meeting with little respite; and when asked, talk about the constant firefighting that they have to attend to.

Firefighting: an interesting and vivid metaphor; and not a subject I claim much expertise in. However, I am pretty sure that when firefighters turn up at a fire, they do a little planning before rushing in. One wouldn't want to pour water on an electrical fire; nor enter a structure about to collapse.  And likewise, once the flames are dowsed, I am pretty sure that they check that the temperature has been sufficiently lowered, to leave the site safely. We all know that all it takes is high temperature, fuel and oxygen (and possibly a source of ignition) to allow the fire to break out again.

So I find myself challenging some of my clients quite hard about this; and for some, that is helpful.  But what I know to be truly helpful is to hold myself to my sandwich disciplines: including, it occurs to me as I write this on a Friday afternoon, that other sandwich of ending the week with a review of how it has gone, and what I have learned, and using that to inform my planning of the following week.


With thanks to Eaters Collective and Daniel Tausis for sharing their photos on Unsplash

Friday 11 June 2021


As you may remember, if you are (as you should of course be) a regular reader of my posts, I have been learning a poem a week for the last few months. It has been an interesting and fruitful exercise in many ways: not least remembering how we learn things by heart - and how satisfying that can be.

This week, I learned Rupert Brooke's sonnet: The Soldier. You know, the one that begins: 
    If I should die, think only this of me:
        That there’s some corner of a foreign field
    That is for ever England.

It is, of course, very out of fashion these days - we are much more in sympathy with Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon of course, and with good reason.  So it is fair to say that I started with a degree of antipathy towards it.  But I decided to learn it anyway.

And as so often happens, as I learned it, I grew to like it rather more. It is easy to be critical, and to talk of his naivety and so forth. But there is a genuine poignancy to it; and more than that, there is something important, I think, in being able to enter the imaginative and emotional world of someone who is starting from a very different viewpoint than we do ourselves. 

In fact, in terms of valuing difference, or diversity, I think that is an essential skill, and (it occurs to me) not one that all those who champion EDI always demonstrate.

I think it was CS Lewis (someone else rather out of fashion, I think) who wrote in one of his essays that, if forced to choose between reading only old books, or only new ones, he would choose the old. His point was not that the old books were likely to be better than the new; but rather that if they did contain errors or assumptions that were incorrect, those would be far more obvious to a modern reader; whereas the errors and assumptions in new books might be nearly invisible, as we breathe a more similar cultural air to the writers.

And in Brooke's poem, of course, there is a terrible naivety about the horrors of war; and a degree of sentimentality about his love of England. But there is no jingoism.  And that made me think about patriotism: something else that is very unfashionable. Of course jingoism and xenophobia are dreadful; but then so is anything at the extreme. And I think some risk going to the opposite extreme at the moment of hating our own country and our heritage, with as blind a prejudice as the xenophobe hates other people's. 

Which leads me (as so often) to think how wise Aristotle was in his formulation of the notion of virtue, as a mid-point between excesses.  So we should love our family - not because it is better than other families, but because it is ours; and in due moderation; and likewise our home town, our football team, our country, and so on. In each of these there is something loveable, and it is, perhaps, ingratitude to fail to recognise that - and that would take us to one of the extremes Aristotle would counsel against. But always, that love should be tempered by an appropriate humility and criticality, lest we go to the other extreme.

And for all its sentimentality, I am enjoying Brooke's poem more than I thought I should:

            And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
                        In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.


Friday 4 June 2021

A Pointless Review?...

My avid readers will doubtless remember that some while ago, I was 
harbouring doubts about my online workshops.  So I was delighted to receive some excellent feedback from a recent online, modular time management programme.

However, I then ran a review session for a recent Negotiating Skills programme, which had been very well received (at the time). The idea of the review session is to get participants back together, a few weeks after the workshop, to compare notes on how they have applied the learning, and what further learning (and, of course, questions) have arisen as a result.

Part of the point, of course, is the accountability: on leaving the workshop, they know that they will be reporting back on their action plans: and that helps increase the likelihood of their actually acting on them, not forgetting when overwhelmed by business (in accordance with Cialdini's principle of Commitment and Consistency).

But on this occasion, one after another, the participants said that they had not had the opportunity to practice the skills, as no occasions to negotiate had arisen. They reported one or two other benefits and applications: some were being more assertive and less apologetic in their emails, for example. But overall, their aspirations had not been fulfilled.

As I listened to all this, I began to wonder if the review meetings were such a good idea after all: if it was just people reporting that they hadn't had the chance to apply the learning, what was the point?  However, I then reflected that the other point of the review meetings was to re-commit.  And when they hadn't yet found (or created) opportunities to apply their learning, that was particularly important.

So I got them working in small groups to consider what they could do to ensure that they didn't forget what they had learned, and how they could find (or recognise) opportunities to practice their new understandings and skills. 

So perhaps this review was even more valuable than the ones where they show up full of what they have done since the workshop - even if a little less flattering to my ego.


With thanks to Nicolas Lobos for sharing his photography on Unsplash