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)