Thursday 15 December 2022

A Mistaken Attribution

It happened again, the other day. Someone was drawing the threads together at the end of a coaching conversation, and said that one of the things she was taking away, was my contribution X.

Which was interesting, in that I had not said X. Neither had she.  Indeed, it was clear to me that X was an insight that had arisen for her, in conversation with me, that was both important and useful; but that she had not actually articulated it at the time.

And yet now, reflecting on the session, she recognised it as one of the key take-aways that she was going to act on and think further about.  And possibly because she knew that she had not said it, she assumed that I had.

And as I indicated at the start of this post, that is not the first time that this has happened. It is quite frequent for me to listen to someone work through a difficult issue, with my offering a Thinking Environment (qv) to help the person take their thinking further than before; and for that person to reach some insight or revelation, or develop a plan of action; and then to close the session by thanking me for my advice, which is always so valuable - even though I have given none.

When that happens, I sometimes accept the thanks, assuming that what they really mean is thank you for creating the space in which I gave myself such good advice; and sometimes I laugh and point out that I haven't given them any, but I am glad that they have found the session useful.

But this case was a little different, in that she attributed directly to me a very specific insight. And partly because she did this in the middle of a paragraph, as it were, and went on to list other important ideas and actions that had arisen, I did not comment. I strive not to interrupt people, and sometimes that means that the moment passes. However, I suspect there were other reasons for my silence, not least of which was surprise, and not being sure what to do. 

An interesting pattern...
On the one hand, I didn't want to distract her from the useful activity she was engaged with - planning her actions and continuing learning - by reopening the session, discussing who had said what. But on the other hand, I was uncomfortable with the attribution to me of a thought that wasn't mine - and that applies whether it proves valuable or disastrous!

Reflecting on all that, I think what I will do is watch out to see if it happens in a future session, and if it does, draw her attention to it as an interesting pattern.  And if it does not - well the moment has passed now; I'll just have to hope that it isn't, in fact, a disaster.


With thanks to Lesli Whitecotton for sharing this photo on Unsplash

Friday 9 December 2022

Don't worry...

Don't worry is another of those useful pieces of advice: easier to say than to implement. 

But what struck me this week is the very different approaches to this suggested by Mindfulness, on the one hand, and Gestalt, on the other.

When practicing mindful meditation, as I understand it, one notices if a worry presents itself to one's mind, but then one simply releases it and allows it to float away.

Whereas in Gestalt, if a worry emerges as significant - a figure emerging from the ground, in Gestalt terms - then one holds it in attention, and engages with full contact and awareness of it, in order to reach some resolution. 

Yet, as opposed as these two approaches may appear, it seems to me that there is an underlying unity: that is, each is based on a conscious decision about how to use the mind.  And that, I think, is the opposite of worrying, which is often an involuntary process, that leaves us feeling devoid of agency.

So next time you find yourself worrying about something, instead of that somewhat sterile process of rumination that we sometimes indulge in, make a conscious choice: do I wish to engage with this seriously at this time or not?

If you do, then full attention is the way to go. If you do not, then deliberately releasing it (if necessary with a promise to your brain about when you will address it), might be the way forward.  At the very least, such a deliberate mental action is an exercise of agency, and therefore of power, and may mitigate any risk of feeling over-powered or disempowered by the worry.


With thanks to  Molnár Bálint for sharing this photo on Unsplash

Thursday 1 December 2022

Unhelpful advice?

Time and again, when people are talking about the importance of listening (a proposition I have a lot of time for) they say that we should also listen for what is not being said.

I have always found that to be very unhelpful advice: because the answer is practically infinite. I stored it with other unhelpful injunctions, such as 'Never point a gun' (how will you ever hit a target?) and 'keep a straight bat' (as if you could bend a cricket bat...). 

On reflection, I realise that my misunderstanding of each of these bits of wisdom is of a slightly different order. 'Never point a gun' is simply a contraction of the very good advice never to point a gun at a person (unless you intend to shoot him); whereas 'keep a straight bat' is a slightly inaccurate way of saying 'keep your bat vertical' - also good advice in its own place.

But where was I going wrong with 'listen for what is not being said'? I think it was again being over-literal in my treatment of the actual words, and insufficiently curious about what people meant by them. What I suspect people are getting at is a few different things, all of which may be worthy of attention.

One is 'what category of thing is not being discussed (that one might reasonably expect to be discussed in this context)?' For example, is someone only talking about facts, and logic, in a context where one might expect emotions to be mentioned? Is someone only talking about problems, and the past, when it might be appropriate to think about solutions, and the future? Is someone only talking about other people's responsibility for an issue, when it might be reasonable to consider their own?

A second aspect of this, is what is being communicated but not said out loud. That is, what messages are being transmitted by body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, levels of energy and so on, over and above the words that the person is saying. (Don't get me started on that more that 90% of communication is non-verbal rubbish, though!...). 

And a third thing to consider is what an individual's behaviour says, over time. Consider someone who assumes a cynical stance in dialogue, but in practice is very caring and compassionate; or conversely, someone who declares their commitment, but consistently turns up late and under-delivers.

So yes, it is important to attend to what is not being said, but is being communicated; and in the context of coaching, for example, it can be valuable to raise that as a topic for consideration.  We do need to be careful, however, that we are not projecting our stuff onto the person we are coaching: so owning it as ours is important. 

In a Gestalt-style of session we might mention what we are noticing in ourself in response to what they are saying (self-as-tool); or in a Thinking Environment session, we might offer a reflection under the general heading of Information (once people have thought as far as they can by themselves, of course).

But in all cases, we should explore these as issues to be curious (and open-minded) about, rather than assume that we have seen the truth that the other is (deliberately or inadvertently) not discussing.  As ever, humility is a very good starting point!


With thanks to Joel Moysuh and Yogendra Singh  for sharing their photos on Unsplash

Friday 25 November 2022

Wilful Blindness

At a recent Time to Think Collegiate meeting, we were joined by Margaret Heffernan, the academic, coach and author who wrote Wilful Blindness ( a book I'd already found fascinating and enlightening). She gave a fascinating insight into her work, with particular reference to how it relates to the Thinking Environment. Needless to say, my summary notes here do not reflect the richness (and in particular the research and the examples) or Margaret's talk. But the price of Wilful Blindness is very high: just ask BP...

The first point she made is that we are naturally attracted to people like us. So we are likely to recruit people like us, not just formally to positions, but also informally into project teams, or simply the people we turn to for advice and ideas. The risk being, of course, that people like us will not only share our particular view of the world, but also our blindspots. This is one of the reasons why Difference is one of the ten Components of the Thinking Environment.

Secondly, we can only focus on one thing at a time. We (and in particular some of our senior clients) may believe we can multi-task, but that is largely an illusion. For serious thinking tasks, we need to stay focused: and interruptions kill focus. Which is why Attention, with its attendant veto on interrupting, is another of the Components. 

Thirdly, we all operate with mental models: our understanding of how the world works.  These are valuable, as they save us form having to start from scratch each time we think about anything. But they are also risky, as they may rely on embedded assumptions, which may be inaccurate; and also because we are so prone to confirmation bias: noticing and attaching meaning to what conforms to our mental models, and ignoring, discounting, or even failing to notice, anything that contradicts them. That is why Incisive Questions that seek out and replace untrue assumptions are another Component.

Fourthly, our behaviour changes when we are in an organisational context. In particular, there is an interesting phenomenon of organisational silence. We might imagine that if someone sees that something is going wrong, he or she will speak out. But research and experience demonstrate that is simply not the case; and is, in fact, a very dangerous operating premise.  In fact, Margaret quoted research that suggests that 85% of executives have issues or concerns that they don't raise (which is a stunning, and frightening, figure!)  The reasons for that being both fear of retribution, and concerns about utility (ie it won't actually make a difference). Which is why Equality is so important in a Thinking Environment.

Margaret went on to explain how her attention had shifted from how do we eliminate Wilful Blindness, to at least understanding the contexts and cultures in which it is most likely to flourish.  Some of the key characteristics are:

•     Steep hierarchies (which inhibit dialogue between people who know what's going on at the sharp end, and people who make decisions)

•     Bureaucracies (particularly because they define what is important [eg via KPIs] therefore causing lots of other things to be overlooked)

•     Scale - not least because large organisations are more likely to have steep hierarchies and bureaucracy; (unless they work hard to prevent it, for example by organising into small operating groups).

There was lots more, and all of it good; not least her client examples, some of which resonated uncannily with issues that are live for some of my clients.  But that's enough for now!  Maybe I will write further on this another day.

Wednesday 23 November 2022

The Gestalt Cycle as a structure for coaching.

I have been continuing to read and think about Gestalt, and in Nevis' Organisational Consulting, A Gestalt Approach I found him suggesting The Gestalt Cycle as a map of the consultancy process. Which prompted me to think of it as a possible structure for a coaching session.  

So here are my first thoughts:

Sensation: one might start by inviting clients to attend to their physical sensations in the here and now, as a way of arriving fully at the session; such an invitation also does something to establish the coach’s presence.

Awareness: one might then invite them to consider what comes to mind as the issue(s) to explore at the session.  It may be that many figures emerge from the ground; the coach will then encourage the client to increase awareness and contact with these figures to see which become salient. This can take time as the client processes the possibilities, and also as the client gains the confidence to talk about the serious stuff  Again, the coach’s presence may be key here.

Mobilisation: when the client decides what the most salient figure is, there is likely to be an increase of energy in both client and coach. It may be helpful to comment on this (self as mirror), to help the client to channel energy towards the salient figure. 

Action: at this stage, the coach and the client work together to address the issue, which may take many forms.  In Gestalt, the aim is always to help the client to increase awareness and maintain contact, in the here and now, with both the issue and the coach. This may involve heightening the client’s awareness of ways in which contact is being blocked (by retroflection, introjection etc).

Contact: this is the moment at which learning occurs: the moment when what is desired and what is possible are brought together. Bothe Perls and Nevis suggest that there is the need for an ‘aggressive’ contact with the figure of interest: it needs to be chewed before digestion, as it were, rather than simply swallowed whole. Thus the coach might want to ensure that a client doesn’t  reach to quick or simplistic a sense of resolution, but has really engaged with the figure with sustained attention.

Resolution and Closure: the learning from the moment of Contact is interpreted; and the figure is no longer salient: it has, in some way, been resolved. Again, the presence of the coach, including an acknowledgement of what has occurred and reflections on what has been observed and experienced by the coach may be valuable here. 

Withdrawal: attention is then withdrawn from the figure, the learning is assimilated into the ground, where it is available for future use.

 I should stress that this is purely theoretical at this stage.  I have not (or not consciously) sought to structure a session in this way; but as I wrote it out, it seemed strangely familiar...

Saturday 12 November 2022

More Thoughts on Gestalt and the Thinking Environment

 I blogged recently on Gestalt and the Thinking Environment. That post attracted quite a lot of interest and comments on Linked In, and I have been thinking further about the subject.

One of my lines of thought is that the concepts of contact in Gestalt, and Attention, in the Thinking Environment, are clearly closely related. 

In Gestalt, the practitioner both encourages individuals to stay in contact with themselves, and with the figure which they are addressing; and also strives to establish and maintain contact between the practitioner and the individual.

In the Thinking Environment, it is axiomatic that the practitioner gives complete and unqualified attention to the thinker.

Which led me to reflect that the classic blocks to contact, in Gestalt, may also be at least some of the things that a Thinking Partner needs to avoid, in order to sustain that extraordinary quality of attention that is the core of this approach.

Those blocks are:

Desensitisation: blocks sensation - often a result of trauma.

Deflection:  eg rather than acknowledging one's true sensation, one makes a little joke…

Introjection: all the shoulds and shouldn'ts one has swallowed over the years.

Projection:  where one guesses what others might be thinking or feeling based on one's own thoughts or feelings.

Retroflection: where one avoids taking action for fear of (eg) failure  - and suffers worse consequences.

Confluence: acting on someone else's needs or desires rather than one's own. 

Egotism: (self-explanatory).

William Coulson

And even as I type them out, I am aware (in a very Gestalty way) of a sensation of unease around Introjection. I think that we have to be very careful here. According to William Coulson, who was Carl Rogers' right-hand man for many years, one of the problems Carl had when training others in his work, was that many of them bathed in the heady warmth of unconditional positive regard so luxuriously, and treated all moral injunctions as introjections, with the result that many ended up having casual sexual relationships with multiple clients.

In conversation with a colleague recently, I noticed an aversion in her to any sense of 'rules' about this work. Yet when I mentioned the need for 'boundaries' she was in whole-hearted agreement.

And of course, most professional coaches consider themselves bound by the global code of ethics drawn up by the EMCC  and AC (or a similar professional code). 

So whether you consider them boundaries, ethics, or rules, don't be misled by the idea of Introjection to consider yourself free of them.  Introjection really applies to the kinds of rules that we may have learned as children and be bound by out of our conscious awareness. In Gestalt terms, the key issue is to become aware of them, and then to evaluate them and their applicability (or not) to the issue at hand - not simply to discard them!

Monday 7 November 2022

Gestalt and the Thinking Environment

 I have long been interested in Gestalt, especially as it applies to learning and development, and coaching. This interest was initiated by two of the colleagues whose work I have most admired, and with whom I have particularly enjoyed working. Both work with Gestalt a lot, though in very different ways.

More recently, I have re-engaged with the theoretical base of Gestalt, as i was running a development day on the use of Gestalt in coaching supervision for my friends and colleagues in the Coaching Supervision Partnership.

One of the key concepts in Gestalt is the Gestalt Cycle of Contact. This suggests a cycle of Sensation: Awareness: Mobilisation: Action: Contact: Resolution and Closure: Withdrawal; in which we are all engaged all the time that we are conscious. Different practitioners use slightly different labels for the different stages of the cycle.  The idea is that when something becomes salient for us (emerges as a 'figure' from the 'ground' of all the things we could attend to), we engage in this cycle, and if we reach resolution, closure and withdrawal, that is a healthy, completed cycle. The figure then returns to the ground, and something else may emerge as salient, as a new figure. However, if the cycle is not completed, we are left with that unsatisfied sensation of unfinished business.

Some of the blocks, which impede 'contact' and completion of the cycle, are:

  • Desensitisation: (blocks sensation - often a result of trauma)
  • Deflection: eg rather than acknowledging your true sensation, you make a little joke...
  • Introjection: all the shoulds and shouldn'ts we have swallowed over the years.
  • Projection: where we guess what others might be thinking or feeling based on our own thoughts or feelings
  • Retroflection: where we avoid taking action for fear of (eg) failure and suffer worse consequences.
  • Confluence: acting on someone else's needs or desires rather than one's own
  • Egotism.

Another interesting observation is the paradoxical theory of change: Change occurs in the process of becoming more fully what is rather than in trying to become other. This is an aspect of awareness - full attention and contact with how things are has the result that change naturally arises.  Along with this is the paradox of resistance: if we support resistance, we encounter less of it.

Also, the presence of the practitioner (therapist, coach, supervisor) is an essential aspect of this work; and the practitioner's awareness of, and naming of, what is going on for him or herself is very valuable: 'self as tool.'   Likewise, there is an emphasis on working with the here and now: if a coach wants to think about a particular coaching incident, for instance, a Gestalt perspective is to focus on what the coach is feeling about that incident right now, rather than at the time it took place.  Exploring that is often very rich and provocative of insight. Gestalt questions are generally about the present, not the past or the future.

And because I continue to be a keen advocate, and practitioner, of Nancy Kline's Thinking Environment, I have been thinking about the points of commonality, and the differences, with Gestalt.

Some of the commonalities are the focus on the present moment, including a recognition of the importance of sensations and feelings; the importance of the presence of the practitioner, and an assumption that change will arise from increased understanding or awareness. Both approaches are marked by a very high level of listening, and giving a very large proportion of the time to the individual to explore his or her thoughts and feelings.

However, there are also marked differences: Gestalt practitioners are likely to have much more content in their interventions (compared to the largely content-free approach that characterises a Thinking Environment).  For example, they may draw attention to anything that they notice that is blocking contact. Likewise, they are likely to give feedback about their own feelings here-and-now as a key part of the process. 

Having said which, I find that in practice the two approaches are very consonant, and it is relatively easy for me - and sometimes seems helpful for my client - to move between the two.

I'll be particularly interested in any comments from other practitioners who are engaged in both approaches: as ever, this post is very much my thinking aloud about something that has become salient for me (a figure that has emerged from the ground), and is my early musings: I am sure there is much more for me to learn here.


With thanks to LinkedIn Sales Solutions for sharing their photo on Unsplash

Friday 4 November 2022

Humour and tears

I have blogged about humour a few times, but keep coming back to it. This time it is the result of a few conversations with a coach who I am supervising.

At the end of a session a while back, she said something about humour, and having been discouraged to use it professionally; and was interested in my take.  

I explained why I thought it could be beneficial, and mentioned C W Metcalf; and after the session I sent her the link to this video:

The next time we met, she said what an impact that had had on her coaching work; and how there was now much more laughter, but also, interestingly, many more tears.

Her view of this was that once people have laughed, they find it safer to go to the darker and more dangerous places, as they know that there is a way back - via laughter. It is as though they have let themselves down into the pit via the safety rope of humour and know that they can climb back up that rope at any time.

I found that intriguing; not least as my initial thoughts were different. I thought that by laughing together in a session, she and her client were expanding the emotional bandwidth, as it were, of the session. It clearly marked this out as a space that was different from many work contexts; and that gave permission for other emotions to be expressed, including grief and distress.

Chatting about the link between laughter and tears with Jane, my ever-perceptive wife, she had another perspective. She suggested that laughing together promotes an intimacy, and thus trust, that makes it easier to go to the difficult places.

I suspect we are all right, and that all these aspects are relevant. And I am quite sure, based both in theory and experience, that enabling the expression of grief and distress in a coaching session can be very helpful.  People often think better after they have cried: tears serve a purpose, and whilst it might not be appropriate to cry in the Board Room, having a place where that is safe, private, accepted and understood, is hugely valuable.


With thanks to Denis Agati and Tom Pumford for sharing their photos on Unsplash

Wednesday 19 October 2022

I remember... (or do I?)

As I was cycling up the fell this morning, I was passed by a Land Rover.  There's not much traffic up there in the early morning, and I know most of the regulars and their vehicles, so registered this as a stranger. When I got to the top, the open fell, I glanced around, wondering whether it was parked up somewhere, for the driver to go for a walk, or whether it had, perhaps, gone on to the farm where the road ends.  I couldn't see it, so assumed it was either ahead of me in a dip, or at the farm.

And I cycled on, up the fell and  back.  And as I was coming back towards the road, I met one of our neighbours, Charles, who lives half way up the hill, on his quad bike, leading the Land Rover, off-road, over the fell.  Doubtless there was some farming related activity they were engaged in.

So I thought 'Ah, the Land Rover must have been looking for Charles, gone past his house, and had to turn back to find him.' And then I realised: the Land Rover had passed me before I had passed Charles' house.  There was no reason to think that it had not gone straight there. I had only assumed that, because I had previously assumed that it was ahead of me on the road, when I got to the top of the fell. 

And this interested me, because I could see that I had nearly laid down a false memory. Had I not recalled that the Land Rover could have gone straight to Charles', and retained the idea that it must have been ahead of me and therefore had to turn round to go to find Charles, that would have been the truth as I remembered it. 

Why this interested me in particular is because I have recently been involved in a couple of situations where people's account of what transpired were very different, and serious allegations of bad behaviour ensued. 

In one case, the person on receiving end of allegations commented that she was the victim of someone putting words into her mouth that were never even contemplated let alone uttered.

In another, someone was accused of standing by when someone else was being bullied, when what he had observed was an awkward conversation between a socially unskilled manager and a team member. 

It is very easy to assume in such cases either that a complainant is exaggerating, or even vexatious; or that we should believe the victim. But I wonder if in at least some cases, the problems with memory that I mentioned above, may apply.

I can readily see that if I have felt upset, discriminated against or bullied (on the one hand) or if I have had a difficult conversation with someone who visibly got upset (on the other) my memory of the incident may not be 100% accurate. I might even remember as verbalised what I actually thought the other was (clearly, obviously...) thinking. And so I might, with no bad faith at all, give an account that was both subjectively honest and objectively incorrect; and further be very indignant when anyone challenged my account. 

At a personal level, that clearly suggests proceeding with a degree of humility and a somewhat tentative approach to making truth-claims about the past based on my recollection. And if engaging with others about such incidents, I think that an approach that explores the differing stories that people have about the incident is valuable. Which reminds me, Shifting Stories was recently re-printed: so consider this a plug! (as well, I hope, as a thought provoking post).


With thanks to  Jordan McGee  and  jean wimmerlin for sharing their photos on Unsplash

Sunday 16 October 2022

Neurodiversity and the Thinking Environment

Some time ago, I was introducing the idea of listening without interruption to a group of professors on a Professorial Leadership course.  I invited them to spend a few minutes at their tables taking turns to listen to each other think out loud about the questions: Who am I? and What do I want these colleagues to understand about me? - and to listen without interrupting or asking questions, but rather with real attention dedicated to the person speaking.

Overall, it worked well; most reported that it was a much better way of getting to know each other at the start of the programme than their usual experience; however, one professor told me that it didn't work well for her and wouldn't for other neurodiverse people. But time was against me having a further conversation with that professor at the time, and to my shame, I didn't follow it up later, so never knew precisely what she meant.

However, more recently,  I have been working more closely with someone who identifies as neurodiverse, and specifically as having ADHD; and I have also been talking with other Thinking Environment practitioners about their experience, and have some initial findings, which I share as much to provoke comment (and further learning for me) as to offer some clues to other practitioners with regard to some issues to consider.  These relate specifically to people with ADHD, not other neurodiverse people who will have a range of other issues worthy of consideration.

The first thing is that two of our favourite questions can be overwhelming; and in both cases that is because they are multiple questions.  Of course, when that was pointed out to me, I remembered from my early days of being trained in sales, and then working as a sales trainer myself, that we always tried to avoid multiple questions. Yet in a Thinking Environment, these two are often very productive:

What do you want to think about, and what are your thoughts?

What more do you think... or feel... or want to say?

I understand why we use these questions and why they often work; but it is worth considering if we should - at least for some people - separate them out.

Another question that can be overwhelming is: What might you be assuming that is stopping you from achieving your goal? (and all its variants).  In that case, it is the range of possibilities that is overwhelming; so whilst the question remains a good one, it can be helpful to preface it with permission to find it difficult: 'the next question I am going to ask you may feel a bit overwhelming; so take your time, and relax into it, and then answer when you are ready...'

For the role of Thinking Partner, the requirement to memorise the thinker's exact words (in order to build an Incisive Question, using  the further session goal and the limiting assumption) can be very challenging too, for some people with ADHD. It may be appropriate to flex our usual expectation of no note-taking in that very specific circumstance.

Further, some people with ADHD have felt excluded and marginalised by their previous experience of meetings and interviews, which may undermine their confidence and make them particularly worried that they may be starting with a deficit, so appreciation and self-appreciation are valuable.  

The good news is that some people with ADHD have reported the experience of the Thinking Environment as being very positive indeed. 'I felt smart, and welcomed, for practically the first time!'

I continue to think and enquire about this: if you have any relevant thoughts, feelings or experiences, please get in touch.  You can leave a comment here, email me, or use any of the contact details on my website.

Sunday 9 October 2022

What is it about, then?...

 This blog post is about the Youtube video: It's not about the nail.  If you have not seen it, watch it now (it's less than two minutes long), or the rest of this post won't make sense - and you will miss a work of genius (the video, I mean, not this blog post...)

I showed it to a colleague a while back, and she laughed, as everyone does, and said how true it was.

I remarked that I imagine that different people see it so differently. And she looked askance. Clearly in her (at least initial, instinctive) view, there was only one way to understand it.  And I suspect many people see it like that; but that there is more than one 'only one way.'

That is whichever interpretation people put on it, they see that as the obvious (and implicitly only) interpretation.

In broad terms some of the interpretations I have heard are these.  Some people see it as illustrating how idiotic some people can be: so wrapped up in their inner world, in self-reflexivity and a need to be understood and validated, that they cannot see, let alone address, simple and obvious problems, the solving of which would cause them and others great relief.

On the other hand, others see it as illustrating the obvious truth that there is simply no point trying to fix someone else's problem; at the very least, without listening to them thoroughly first, and even then, only by invitation.

And then some get into the sex stereotyping conversations: women, as the nurturers, need to receive empathy and form emotional connection before moving onto pragmatic problem-solving. Whereas men, as the hunter-gatherers need to take action and prove their worth, before engaging in the softer business of relationship-building. 

And whilst it is easy to denigrate such stereotypes, it is also true that stereotypes often have some foundation; but are then over-generalised. In this case, it is interesting that Myers Briggs report that, across cultures and countries, on the Thinking/Feeling scale, the responses from females are 60:40 in favour of Feeling; and from males, 60:40 in favour of Thinking.  So maybe women are a bit more likely to address the relational aspect of the situation first, and men more likely to try to fix - on average.  But that still leaves 40% of each sex with the minority preference - which is one reason why stereotypes are so problematic.

And why I find peoples' response to this video so interesting is for that reason too: it can be very revealing of their stereotypes, and discussing others'  differing responses is often both entertaining and enlightening.

Tuesday 20 September 2022


Children's piano exam certificates
Being a parent is a lesson in humility, of course. This was forcibly brought home to me when Annie, then 7, I think, started piano lessons, and I decided to have some too, as I had always wanted to learn the piano.  I started with an advantage: I had both sung and played other instruments, so knew how to read music. However, she soon overtook me, as did Clare, and then Mike and finally Lizzie, over time.

Fast forward twenty years, and I see Annie and Clare as parents, and doing a better job of it than I did.  It is of course, something to be proud of, as well as humbling. 

And just this weekend, I saw it in action: one of the grandchildren was struggling to climb onto a large boulder on the fells. I was ready to reach out and lend him a hand; but his mother just watched patiently, as he made the effort and got there unaided.

Cover shot of Nancy Kline's book
Perhaps because I had just been running a programme on Nancy Kline's Thinking Environment (qv), I was quick to see how my instinct had been to infantilise - to assume that he needed help and that my helping him to climb would be the best thing I could do. 

But his mother, wiser than her father, recognised that she would better help him by allowing him to develop his skills, courage and confidence by struggling to climb unaided, and have the buzz that comes from success.  That isn't to say she did nothing: she stood there, attentive, encouraging and believing in him - and, of course, ready to help (in terms of intervention) if it truly became necessary.

As with children, so with adults: it is so easy to assume that the best way to help is to... well, help.  But frequently, and particularly if people seem to need help to think, the most valuable thing, as Nancy Kline points out, is to stay with them, attentive, encouraging and believing in them - and, of course, ready to help (in terms of intervention) if it truly becomes necessary - but only then.

Monday 5 September 2022

The Art of Living Generously

Over the summer, I have been reading Give: Charity and the art of living generously, by Magnus Macfarlane-Burrow.  Who is he? He is the founder of Mary's Meals, a charity that provides one hot meal a day, at school, for some 2 million children who otherwise would not eat, and probably would not attend school either. This is a wonderful way to attend both to the giving a fish and the teaching to fish aspects of help.

Give is his reflections on what he is doing, and why; and the philosophy that he is developing around the work of charities, including reflections on what has gone wrong, so spectacularly, with some of the larger NGOs, and been exploited by politicians and the press to give overseas aid a bad name. 

I was particularly struck by his insistence that the minute we think of ourselves as better than those who are less fortunate, we are on the wrong path. And one of the dangers is that we then prioritise the efficiency and the effectiveness of our operation over compassion and companionship with actual people.

Working as I do with many Universities, I started to apply that to University administration: how easy it is to focus on recruitment targets, on ref results, and so on, with the risk of forgetting the individual student, or the individual researcher, or the people whom the research is designed to benefit.

And then I realised the trap I had walked into: it is always easy to spot the mote in someone else's eye: what about the beam in my own? And that led to a more sobering reflection about how easy it is for me to be focused on meeting my needs through my work - whether ego-needs, financial targets, or reputational needs - and take my eye off the true work that I aspire to do.

An example of that is the Thinking Partnership programme I am running this autumn.  Open programmes are notoriously difficult for small providers to fill; and I have been focused on gathering a rich group for this programme, for the benefit of all.  That has been made more difficult by people postponing on to the Spring course, leaving gaps in the cohort, so I have had to work hard on filling the places - and have done so.  But I realise I have been so focused on that, that I have not (yet) really thought about the individuals in any depth, and how best I can meet and exceed their expectations and needs from the programme.

I know from experience that once I am in the room with them, they will have my full attention (I am good at that bit), but nonetheless at this stage of the process it is easy to see them as numbers on a sheet I am trying to fill, rather than individuals worthy of my full attention even at this stage of the process.  

So some valuable learning there, which I will strive to apply.  And more broadly a good reminder at the start of a new cycle after the summer break, to keep my focus on my real work; that is to challenge and support the people with whom I work in ways that enable them to learn and to grow more fully into the person they are capable of being, and so be not only more effective, but also ever more human in their work with others. 


Image: Domenico Fetti: The Parable of the Mote and the Beam, from Wikipedia Commons (Creative Commmons licence)

Friday 1 July 2022


One of the things that disturbs me, particularly when I waste too much time on social media, is the problem of conflation.

This arose this week when I was accused of hatred because I disagreed with someone, for example; and that seems to me to be a very common form of the problem. It contributes significantly to the polarisation and tribal hostility that is a feature of the culture wars. 

In the wake of the reversal of Roe v Wade, it has been very evident in discussions (or to be more accurate diatribes) about abortion; it is certainly a major feature of the continuing trans activist v gender critical disputes and so on. The claim is that if you don't accept my view of the situation, you must be motivated by hatred. This demonises the other, destroys any chance of meaningful dialogue and drives people further into their bunkers. 

I find this particularly odd, as I tend to like the company of, and conversation with, people who see the world differently from me. 

Many of my friends think that I am wrong to believe that the law should not sanction people killing unborn human beings; further they think that my formulation of the issue in that way is wrong too - and that my erroneous thinking will lead to great suffering and evil if enacted. But then, I think the same of their views: that to regard unborn human life as of less value, and therefore disposable, leads to great suffering and evil.  

But that doesn't mean that they have to attribute evil intention to me, nor that I have to attribute evil intention to them. In fact, no good purpose is served by such attribution. And it certainly doesn't mean that I have to dislike (or worse, hate) them; nor the other way around.

The conflation of disagreement and dislike is only one example, of course. With regard to the two topics mentioned, there is a tendency, on both sides of each debate, to muddy the waters by conflating lots of different things into one group. This is amplified, of course by sloganeering and the hashtag culture: which inevitably leads to over-simplification and conflation.

For example the more extreme end of the pro-choice lobby broadcasts that anyone opposed to abortions, wants to ban the treatment of ectopic pregnancy and thus kill women. This approach is designed more to fan the fuels of outrage on their own side of the argument, than to convince those who disagree with them (who, naturally enough, do not recognise themselves in such a mis-characterisation of their position).

And some of the nutters on the fringe of the pro-life lobby broadcast that pro-choicers want to kill children up to (and probably beyond) birth.

Likewise, some of the more militant trans rights activists say that opposing any man's ability to self-identify into (for example) a female rape crisis centre is to deny trans people's right to exist.

And on the other side of the debate, the more extreme gender critical feminists take the most egregious examples of bad behaviour by their opponents and attribute it to what they call trans ideology; and attribute that to all of their opponents.

And as I have mentioned, the result of this type of approach, practiced by those on all sides, is to drive people further into their bunkers, and to assure them of their own moral superiority and the idiocy or (more probably) malice of those who disagree with them. And we all pay a high price for such polarisation.  

The alternative, I suggest, is that we listen to each other, and try to represent what those we disagree with are actually saying; articulating the nuances and the details honestly, rather than seeking to stoke outrage by conflating them and overstating them. I have blogged before about one experiment in this regard, and the very positive outcomes. Harder work, and more boring, perhaps; but much more conducive of understanding, of generating possible ways forward, and of being able to live together with some good will.

Friday 24 June 2022


Recently, I read Coaching Behind Bars, by Clare McGregor.  It tells the story of the birth, learning and successes of CIAO

CIAO (Coaching Inside And Out) works in prisons and with people convicted of offences or at risk of offending in our communities, as well as with their parents or carers.

It's an extraordinary story of Clare's curiosity and concern leading her to explore whether the kind of coaching that worked so well for her executive clients might be equally valuable for this group of people. 

From that exploration, CIAO has grown into a respected organisation, working alongside, but entirely separate from, the Criminal Justice system, and helping people to work on whatever they choose to work on. 

The offer is simple and quick: a limited number of sessions, to address some simple, but important questions: What do you want to change? Who are you? and How are you holding yourself back.

Perhaps the greatest testimony to their work - apart from the many individuals who tell very positive stories about its impact - is that in an environment where one might reasonably expect a degree of disenchantedness, if not cynicism, and certainly suspicion, all the people who engage in coaching do so on a completely voluntary basis, and nearly always because a previous coaching client has recommended the process to them.

What prompted me to read the book is the fact that I have just been recruited to join their team of supervisors: offering support, guidance and oversight to the coaches who are doing the frontline work.  As with all my supervisory work, I am sure that I will learn as much from the coaches I work with as they do from me.  In due course (and always observing confidentiality etc) I will share some of the generic, high-level learning on this blog.  In the meantime, do have a look at their work, and if you are a coach, and interested in supporting them, do get in touch.

Friday 17 June 2022

Mixed Messages

I was at a special interest group virtual seminar, about Diversity and Inclusion, this week. It was a closed group, not public: you had to give your identity, credentials and reason for attending in order to get the link, to ensure that relevant people attended.

One of the themes was about the subtle messaging that we can send, either deliberately or inadvertently, that others may read, that signals that we are intending either to include or exclude.

And the meeting was set up so that not only the Q&A stream , but also the chat function, were only visible to the host and the panel speakers.

The host, opening the session, mentioned that he realised that he was 'preaching to the choir' in his opening remarks.

All of which had the effect of making me feel excluded.

It is not, of course, that I think that either Diversity or Inclusion are Bad Things; but I do like to engage critically with such topics, and there are certainly questions about the particular approach that was being championed on this seminar.  

In particular, I think that diversity and inclusion are indicators; if either or both are missing, then it may be that an injustice or a lack of charity is being committed.  But it is justice and charity that are the primary values, not diversity and inclusion per se. Sometimes a lack of diversity, and exclusion, may be both the just and the charitable state of affairs. To take a topical example, men are rightly excluded from women's sporting competitions.

But the set-up of the event made me think that raising such questions would not be welcomed - it would be like the choir questioning the vicar mid-sermon, to use the host's analogy.

As a team I worked with many years ago used to say, if you can't walk the talk, at least try to stumble the mumble...


With thanks to Tim Mossholder and Eilis Garvey for sharing their photos on Unsplash

Friday 10 June 2022

How do you help others to think outstandingly well?

If your role involves helping, stimulating, supporting, challenging or provoking others to think at their very best, you may be familiar with Nancy Kline's work, published as Time to Think, More Time to Think, and The Promise that Changes Everything.  If you are not, these books are well worth reading and learning from.

At the heart of Nancy's approach, which she calls a Thinking Environment, is the belief that attention is generative; that is, the quality of someone's thinking, in my presence, is at least in part a product of the quality of attention that I give to them. (if you doubt this, consider the reverse: when you are trying to think about something and the person who is meant to be listening is clearly not attending... see what I mean?)

But in addition to a quality of attention that is in fact rare in most work contexts, there are nine other components of Thinking Environment; and there are various applications of these components that are suited to both group and one-to-one contexts.

Foundational is the Thinking Partnership: a precise but easeful approach to enabling someone else to think outstandingly well.  I have blogged previously about this many times, ranging from my initial exploration of the process with Nancy, through to its practical application in a coaching session. (Other posts may be found by clicking the tag Thinking Environment).

So I am delighted to be offering the Thinking Partnership Programme in the Lake District, this autumn and again next spring. This Programme teaches you the Thinking Partnership Session®, a uniquely powerful process for liberating the human mind. Through generative Attention and the building of Incisive Questions, this process produces breakthrough, independent thinking.

If you choose to join us, you will participate both as Thinker (considering topics of your choice), and as Thinking Partner (practicing this elegant expertise). Along the way you will explore all Ten Components of a Thinking Environment.

This course is a prerequisite for the Coach Qualifying Course, should you wish to take your practice to the next level.

More details are on my website, here; and of course if you wish to talk about the programme, or have any questions, I'd be delighted to hear from you.

Friday 27 May 2022

Flipping dilemma

I had a really interesting and thought-provoking conversation, the other week, with a participant at the end of an Influencing Skills workshop.  He was an academic, and was interested in - and challenging - the fact that the workshop was a training session, whereas he and his colleagues have all had to learn to be facilitators of learning.

I had to work hard on my listening skills, to overcome my initial defensiveness. After all, I had 'flipped the classroom' by providing all the theoretical material - the models of influencing that were the basis of the workshop - in advance, via videos, podcasts and written handouts.  The idea being that the online workshop could then be about exploring and practicing those models in a highly participative way.

But he was right: for example, I encouraged participants to pick one of the influential behaviours suggested by the model (one which they were less comfortable with using) and practice that in small groups and get feedback from colleagues. (It's quite a neat exercise, in fact: I get people just to practice one moment of behaviour, and stop - no role playing etc - and get immediate feedback both on the words, but also on the use of voice and non-verbals etc - and then try it again, get feedback and try it again.  People often report dramatic improvement in both themselves and colleagues). However, it is clearly a very directed process; and my participant's point was that it took no account of people's prior levels of knowledge and experience, nor of the questions or issues that they might want to explore and so on.

Reflecting on that, I realise that I could change that exercise, and have much more of a discussion-based task: sharing experiences, learnings, questions and so forth. But my reluctance is that I think that they would lose something: after all, the practice sessions are often very useful; and they are unlikely to do them elsewhere, whereas talking about this stuff is something they could easily do outwith the session; and further, such conversations are sometimes useful, but sometimes of little value.

So reflecting further, I thought, I could offer them a choice: it's as easy on Zoom as in real life to offer a choice of activities: if you wish to do the skills practice, go to Room A; if you want to discuss and share learning etc, go to Room B.  But I notice that I am reluctant to do that, too; and the reason is that I suspect people will always opt for Room B, as it is easier and less frightening in prospect; yet I remain convinced, from years of experience, that many people benefit if pushed a little out of their comfort zone so that they do in fact practice and get feedback on their behaviour. It is a skills session, after all.

So the dilemma remains - and I will continue to ponder it.  Is it my job to support learner autonomy etc and give them what they want? Or do I have a responsibility to, as I say, push them a little out of their comfort zone and do something which I know many have found extremely beneficial, but which they are unlikely to choose?  

I could of course offer them a choice, but seek to influence the choice by explaining my views; but again that doesn't feel as though it would be a neutral option, so I wonder if it's just a way of letting myself off the hook...

As so often, this post is my thinking-out-loud about the issue. I think I will ponder it further, and also have a further conversation with the commissioning clients about this issue and see what they think (though even as I write that, I am aware of thinking that I know more about the issue than they do, because of my experience etc... and wonder if that's just another way of letting myself off the hook...)

So I am grateful to the participant who raised this, as it is giving me lots to think about: and that work is clearly unfinished at this stage.


With thanks to Pizieno and Quang Nguyen vinh for sharing their images on Pixabay