Tuesday 19 December 2023

Time to Reflect

There is something about the end of the year that prompts reflection. In part it is that natural cyclic thing: the pause before plunging into the new year of activity.  That is helped by the shorter days, leaving longer hours in the evening when outdoor activities are less practical, and sitting by the stove is more appealing. And as we approach Christmas, my work has eased off, again allowing more time to sit and think. 

So, perhaps for these reasons, I have found myself re-reading a few of my old blog posts, and (to be quite honest) enjoying them. In particular, though, I have been struck by how much I have known that has receded in my mind.  It is not precisely that I have forgotten it, but more that it is not in my working memory: not knowledge that I am accessing regularly - and therefore (I think) less likely to inform my intuition as I go about my work. So it is not a waste of time to re-visit it.

I also have a more formal discipline, at this time of the year, to re-read my notes from my supervision.  I meet my coaching supervisor, the excellent Ruth Leggett, every couple of months for half a day at a time; and these are all occasions of rich learning. It is valuable to look back on the notes, periodically for two principal reasons. One is to recognise that I have indeed learned and have implemented some improvements to my professional practice, that have added real value. The other, of course, is to recognise what I have forgotten from those sessions, and bring that back into awareness, and deciding what , if anything, to do with it.

So I am in a reflective mood at the moment; before taking a complete break from work and immersing myself in Christmas celebrations with my family, after which I will, I hope, be ready to engage with the new challenges and opportunities of the new year.

And this rhythm is important, it seems to me, both in terms of my famous sandwiches, and because it seems to work with, rather than against, the grain of human well-being. 

So I hope that you, too, find time to reflect at the end of the year; and to take a complete break that is both restful and restorative. 

Saturday 9 December 2023

Goodies and Baddies

This week we saw the unedifying sight of the presidents of two Ivy League Universities (Harvard and Pennsylvania) and MIT, saying that calling for the genocide of Jews was not necessarily against their bullying and harassment codes of conduct.

How did we get here, less than a century after the Holocaust?

Oddly enough, I was already thinking about writing about Goodies and Baddies this week, following another thought-provoking exchange. This one was in a private conversation with an academic, who had discovered, to his shock, that an industrialist with whom he is collaborating on a grant, does not share his left-wing view of the world. So great was his shock that he was wondering whether he would, in fact, be able to work with this person, whom he had previously thought of as a friend as much as a collaborator. But it was when he said: 'I mean, if he doesn't even want to try to be a decent human being...' that I was brought up short (mentally) and had to work hard to stay in listening mode.

As it happens, I did; and in fact, as he thought further about the issue, he realised that he was making rather a large assumption, and that holding socially conservative views didn't necessarily mean that his collaborator 'doesn't even want to try to be a decent human being.' (see my previous post on why we listen to bad ideas if you are interested in what happened here and why I didn't immediately confront this sloppy thinking). 

But I think in both cases, the issue arose because of Goodies and Baddies thinking. The presidents of the Ivy League Universities, I suspect, have decided that the Palestinians are the Goodies in the current conflict. Therefore (and it is precisely that link that is so problematic) the Jews are the Baddies.

Likewise, my academic client clearly knows that he (and all his left-leaning friends - the only people, as he pointed out - with whom he normally mixes professionally, as he works in a University) are Goodies. They work (very hard) for the betterment of humanity, and support left wing politics as they believe that they will best deliver social goods. Therefore (that dangerous link again) those who disagree are the Baddies.

Of course, it isn't articulated like that. That's the problem. The assumption seems to be operating at an instinctive, rather than an intellectual, level; and as my academic client experienced, when submitted to serious reflection, it rather crumbles. And the joke is that I am sure that the three presidents, and my academic client, would all see themselves as liberal and inclusive people.

For myself, I only have to look at myself to see that I am a bit of mix. I have good intentions (most of the time) and try to do good (at least some of the time). However, I can find that I have mixed or even shameful motivations at times (pride, selfishness and competitiveness amongst others) and I behave badly at times (I will not go into full confessional mode here, however). 

It was of course that towering figure, Solzhenitsyn, who put it most powerfully:

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts.

But Goodies and Baddies is such a compelling narrative: it is, after all, at the heart of most fiction - and that with good reason! So it is extremely easy to fall prey to it. And from there it is a short step to de-humanising the Baddies, to misrepresent them, rather than seek to understand what validity, if any, their views may have, or (more importantly perhaps) what good values they are seeking to pursue. And we end up with the kind of polarisation that is bedevilling so much political and indeed civic and academic discourse at present. It is lazy and childish.

As ever, it is far easier to spot this in someone else's thinking - and far more important to spot it in our own.

Sunday 3 December 2023

A bit of theology

Over the years, I have reflected on my work in the context of my Catholic Faith. The work has always seemed a good thing to be doing, but, beyond feeding the family ( a good in itself, and at the service of my primary vocation), I wanted to understand why (and indeed if...)

As usual, I use blogging as a way of thinking out loud, so this may not be the finished articulation of my thinking, but it is where I am up to at present.

My initial thinking was simply that my work helped people to do their work better, and sometimes eased the pain. And both of those seem good things to do (assuming their work to have some intrinsic value, or at least not be harmful). 

But I have gone a bit deeper in recent years, not least as I have had more time to read and reflect. And now I see my work as having its foundation in my understanding of what it is to be human, and ultimately in the Holy Trinity.

To be human, it seems to me, is firstly to be. That is, being is better than not-being. We have an intuitive (at least) sense of that which is why murder and suicide are typically outlawed by almost all civilisations of which we have any detailed knowledge. (Yes, I know there are exceptions, but nonetheless, I think the point stands).

Secondly, to be human is to know. One of the things that distinguishes us even from the most intelligent of the higher animals is the ability to gain, store, transmit, and use knowledge.

Thirdly, to be human is to love; that is, to be able to choose the good from the bad, and to will the good of others as well as our own good.

Reflecting on this, I noticed, of course, that it has three elements; and as I was reading Sheed's wonderful Theology and Sanity at the time, I noticed how closely they related to the qualities appropriated to the three Persons of the Trinity. (To understand appropriation in this context, read Sheed!)

Thus the primary characteristic of the Father is to be. He identifies himself in that way: 'I am who I am.' And when Christ teaches his disciples to pray, the very first words are: Our Father, who art...'

The Son is the Logos: the eternal Word of the Father, made flesh. God's knowledge through whom all things were made, as St John says in the wonderful prologue to his Gospel.

The Holy Spirit is the Love Divine, who proceeds eternally from the Father and the Son by way of love (notwithstanding the filioque controversy...).

All of which leads me to conclude that insofar as my work helps my clients to be more truly themselves, to deepen their knowledge (of self, of others, of their work) and to choose the good, as an exercise of love, then it is worthwhile; indeed it is one of the ways in which I can fulfil my own vocation to be, to know, to love and to serve. 

That last, service, is not, of course inherent in the Trinity. But in the Incarnation, Christ was very clear that it is at the heart of the Christian vocation: The Son of Man came to serve... and he explicitly says that we are to follow that example. 

And now my attention has turned to that wonderful phrase in Nancy Kline's Thinking Environment approach, Generative Attention, and I am considering the theological resonances of that concept, But that can wait for another blog post.

Friday 1 December 2023

A Defining Question

Trisha Lord
It was one of those moments that just stopped me short and really made me think... The wonderful Trisha Lord, one of my supervisors for my next Thinking Environment qualification, said:

"Why do we ask questions?  We ask questions, not to get the answer, but to get the next thinking."

And that is a defining statement, when considering the Thinking Environment.

It is also a helpful thing to think about when we are teaching coaches, or participants in Action Learning Sets, for example: why are you asking that question? 

Very often it reveals a desire to generate a solution for the other person, which of course is not the job of a coach or an Action Learning Set colleague. And often, people don;t even realise that is what they are doing: but when they pause and reflect on the question they have just asked - typically for more information about the presenting problem - it becomes clear that that is what is going on.

If we keep in mind that our purpose in asking questions is to get the next wave of thinking going, then we will ask different, more non-directive, and more stimulating questions.

Friday 24 November 2023

Reflect or don't look back?...

Yesterday evening I was singing Vespers with the Schola Cantorum (Gregorian Chant choir) that I lead. Vespers, for those few of my readers who may not have been recently, consists largely of five psalms, a hymn and the Magnificat. The psalms are deceptively difficult: chanted largely on one note, each half line has a lightly decorated ending - each with the same pattern, but with the precise notes varying according to the number of syllables in the final words of the phrase, thus:

The bottom line is that you really need to pay attention (particularly if slightly under-rehearsed as we were last night) or you come a cropper.

And if you do trip over your words and notes, the very worst thing you can do is allow that to occupy your attention, or you will surely trip over the next line ending, too.  (Guess who did this last night...)  So don't look back is the order of the day: stay absolutely focused on the present moment.

I think that applies to all music-making; certainly at the level I practice it. Which, in part, is why it is of such tremendous value, akin to meditation in that way.

Yet, in so much of my work I am an advocate of reflective practice. Obviously, as in my famous sandwich analogy, there is value in reflection after the event, to learn for next time; and that applies as much to music as to anything else. 

But I also strive to practice - and to teach - reflection-in-action. Thus in facilitation, for example, I think it is valuable to work rapidly through a set of considerations before doing or saying anything as a facilitator. 

My current working set is: 

That first question is clearly a moment of reflection; and I think an important one.  If I do not take stock of the fact that something has changed in the group dynamic, my next intervention is likely to be (at best) sub-optimal.

And yet, as Nancy Kline would insist, I think that offering my generative attention to the group is also essential at every moment; keeping my focus on the here and now, just as when singing or playing an instrument. 

Nancy talks of giving 100% of our attention to listening, and 100% to managing the process, and 100% to our response, all of the time. She calls that a paradox, and I think it an impossible ideal.

So how do I make sense of all that?  I am still wrestling with it. (As my more perceptive readers will have realised, my blog posts are often my way of musing on topics that stimulate my curiosity). But perhaps there is something valuable in the idea of waves and pauses that may help here. 

During a wave (singing a psalm, listening to a thought being developed) the focus must be on the here and now, with no looking back (or forward). But there are pauses: between psalms, at the end of someone's utterance; and it is at those moments that one can do a lightning reflection, in order to surf the next wave with complete attention.

And, it occurs to me as I write, that this is where intuition has a role, when understood as the practical wisdom that springs from cumulative experience that has been reflected on and polished so that it is near-habitual. It offers us a very rapid hypothesis in answer to (at least) the fourth question, meaning that we can move through the considerations to a practical outcome very quickly and reasonably reliably.

At least, that's what i think right now - but I feel the need to go away and reflect on it...

Wednesday 22 November 2023

Equality in Coaching

When I started coaching, I was courteously deferential. It was, after all, how I had been brought up. And it was not as lame as perhaps it sounds. I established very good working relationships with clients, and that is one of the foundations of an effective coaching relationship.

Nonetheless, as I got more experienced, read more, and did more CPD I understood how important challenge and confrontation can be in the coaching relationship, and worked to develop my skills in those areas, to good effect. In particular, I got good at the challenging question and the long silence; and again that proved useful.

Now, having adopted Nancy Kline's Thinking Environment as a primary approach in most of my coaching, I see my role somewhat differently. I strive to create the conditions in which individuals challenge and confront themselves, their own thinking and emotions, and their assumptions. 

One of the components of the Thinking Environment is Equality. Bearing that in mind, one might criticise my initial style (deferential) as risking putting me in a one-down relationship vis-à-vis my clients.  Likewise my second style (confrontative) might risk my assuming a one-up position (that is also the problem of the wise coach who offers advice, another role that I can find very tempting).

But that also raises the question of whether coaching in a Thinking Environment is really a partnership of equals. Nancy Kline is very clear (eg in More Time to Think) that the purest version of the Thinking Environment is the Thinking Partnership, when each person gives the other a chance to think. And in developing the Mentoring Process, she learned that she needed to include a thinking session for the Mentor, in order for Mentees to feel equal. But in coaching we clearly don't do that.

And then I had one of those flashes of brilliance, for which I am rightly renowned: a blinding flash of the obvious.  Equality need not mean sameness. In this context the equality is in service of clients' learning. So the clients' role is to bring their expertise to bear on the issues they face, knowing themselves, their context and so on far better than the coach can; whilst my role as a coach is to bring my expertise to bear on the process: creating and sustaining the Thinking Environment that will stimulate and support my clients to do their own very best thinking.

Both roles and associated skills are equally important to the success of the session.

So that's all right.

Friday 10 November 2023

Why are rounds so effective at creating psychological safety?

On my recent Thinking Environment Facilitation Skills programme, I was thinking, with the participants, about the reasons that we normally start any group meeting in Thinking Environment with a series of rounds.

One reason is simply that a round is a quick and efficient way of getting everyone to introduce themselves early on, and indeed to speak early on (there's some truth in the idea that you haven't really arrived at a meeting until you have spoken - or possibly  until you have been listened to).

Secondly, rounds are very illustrative of some foundational Thinking Environment components. We always introduce them by inviting people to pay attention to whoever is speaking, and to refrain from interrupting (both the person speaking, and the round itself: nobody speaks a second time until everyone has spoken once). As well as Attention, rounds emphasise Equality in the very practical sense of giving everyone an equal opportunity to contribute. We also encourage people not to tail-gate, to start to introduce that sense of Ease - freedom from urgency - that is another component.

Further, if you get your initial question right, people often share something that is personal to themself; and that starts to enable human connection to be made between people, and the possibility of some Appreciation.

But then I found myself thinking further - that's the risk of all this Thinking Environment stuff. Experience suggests that having several rounds, inviting ever more disclosure (and Attention, Ease and Equality) quickly establishes a high level of psychological safety. And my new hypothesis is that it may be something to do with the Gestalt Cycle of Contact (about which I have blogged previously here).

The obvious similarity between a round and a cycle was what got me started, and my theory is now that there is something psychologically satisfying about a completed Gestalt cycle. So a series of rounds offers particpants that psychological satisfaction repeatedly and reliably, contributing to that sense of safety. Further, the facilitator who facilitates that demonstrates that he or she is competent: saying what we'll do, doing it, and that resulting in a satisfying outcome; and doing that repeatedly.

As I say, this is a new hypothesis I am thinking about, so I'll be interested in others' thoughts.

Monday 6 November 2023

Posts about the Thinking Environment

Over the last few years, I have written a number of posts about the Thinking Environment.

This post is an index, so that a relevant post may be easily found.  I will update it as I write future posts, so that it will remain the easiest way to locate anything I have written on this topic.


Where do we stand?


Reflecting on Meditating

Generative Attention 


Listening, Difference and Psychological Safety (how listening can dissolve conflict)


Coaching in a Thinking Environment

Coaching in a Thinking Environment

The Power of Not Interrupting

Person-centred coaching and the risk of collusion

Coaching and the Risk of Collusion (Re-visited)  

More Time to Think (reflections on initial coaching conversations/contracting)

Equality in Coaching 

          DIY? (Why it is helpful to have someone else there while you think) 

Joe, Harry and Nancy (The Johari Window and the Thinking Partnership)


Another Day at the Collegiate 


Diversity Workshop 


Ease and Discomfort

Adrenaline or Peace? 

 Doing and Being 

Emotional Intelligence and the Thinking Environment:

The Genos Model

David Rock's SCARF model 


Equality in Coaching 

Eye Movement

The Eyes Have It!

Facilitation in a Thinking Environment

Invisible Facilitation

Listening and Power 

Still Playing with the Kline Approach

That 'What more?" Question 

Learning from Failure 

Sticking to the Process

Human Connection 

Flip Me!

Why are Rounds so Effective at Creating Psychological Safety? 

 The Foundation Programme - Facilitating Groups Brilliantly (a plug for, and brief description of, the Foundation Programme)

Doing and Being 




Gestalt and the Thinking Environment

Gestalt and the Thinking Environment (commonalities and differences)

More thoughts on Gestalt and the Thinking Environment (contact, attention, and blocks)

A(nother) blinding flash of the obvious (Waves of thinking and the Gestalt Cycle of Contact)

Why are Rounds so Effective at Creating Psychological Safety?  


Humour in the Thinking Environment 



Introductory posts

The Thinking Partnership Programme 

How do you help others to think outstandingly well?    

 On the Receiving End... 


Listening in a Thinking Environment

Listening beyond... 

Interrupting myself 

From the Other End... 

Listening and Power  


That 'What more?" Question 

How Open is that Question? 

A Mistaken Attribution

The Power of Listening 

Pedagogy of the Heart 

How Does That Help? ('That' being listening...) 

Listening, Difference and Psychological Safety (how listening can dissolve conflict)


The Importance of Place 

Thinking about Place - and Humility

Questions in the Thinking Environment

A Defining Question


Questioning (and questions about...) the Thinking Environment

Person-centred coaching and the risk of collusion

Coaching and the Risk of Collusion (Re-visited) 

 Thinking about the Thinking Environment (in the light of Kahneman, and the assumption that people will act on their thinking...)

Thinking Fast and Slow (the challenges of Kahneman, and the component of Information) 

Is Understanding Over-rated? (Comparing Nancy Kline's approach to listening with Kathryn Mannix's approach)

NeuroDiversity and the Thinking Environment  

On Self-Disclosure

          DIY? (Why it is helpful to have someone else there while you think) 


Supervision in a Thinking Environment (coaching)

PhD Supervision in a Thinking Environment  

Thinking Council

The Thinking Council

Understanding in a Thinking Environment 

On the Value of Not Understanding

Is Understanding Over-rated? (Comparing Nancy Kline's approach to listening with Kathryn Mannix's approach)

Seeking to Understand (1)  (what if we are never going to agree?...)

Seeking to Understand (2) 

Seeking to Understand (3) 

Seeking to Understand (4) 

Wilful Blindness and the Thinking Environment  (Margaret Heffernan joined us for a meeting)


Friday 27 October 2023

On the provisionality - and knowability - of truth...

This morning as I approached the summit of Heughscar Hill in the mist and pre-dawn semi-darkness, I noticed a shape where no shape normally was.

'Ah, a tent,' I thought. People do occasionally camp near the summit, where there is a fine view down Ullswater towards Helvellyn. Strictly speaking, I don't think they are meant to, but who could blame them? And they normally leave no trace behind.

Then the shape moved: a head appeared upwards from it, and I realised it was one of the fell ponies. It's not that usual to find them on the summit in the early morning, but not unknown.  A second head emerged, and I revised that: not one of the fell ponies, but at least two.

Then, as I cycled closer, and the image became clearer, I realised it was, after all, a tent, and two people had emerged from it.  I bade them a cheery good morning as I cycled by, and down off the hill.

As I cycled home, I reflected. There are several tracks off the summit. Had I taken the first, I would have thought I'd probably seen a tent in the distance.  Had I taken the second, I would have been pretty sure I had seen something that had initially looked like a tent, but had, in fact, been a few of the ponies.

Indeed, had I done that, and then met someone who said "I see some people were camping on the hill this morning" I should probably have replied; "No, actually, I thought it was a tent at first, but as I got closer, I saw it was actually the ponies."  And I would have been confident that my information was better than theirs, unless they had said: "You're mistaken: I went right past, and I spoke to them!"

All of which made me think on how provisional our knowledge can be. We think that we know something, but we may often be mistaken, and be convinced that we are right. But also, that the truth is knowable: finally, it is true to say that there were people camping on Heughscar this morning and the ponies were not on the summit of the hill.

And it's that balance, recognising that truth is knowable, and also that we need to be cautious in our assumption that what we believe to be true is in fact true, that I find so fascinating.


It was (possibly) Aeschylus who said, some 500 years before the time of Christ: In war, truth is the first casualty.  Plus ça change...

Tuesday 17 October 2023

PhD Supervision in a Thinking Environment

Some years ago I introduced the Thinking Environment (qv) to a group of university professors on a leadership programme. We used it as a way of working on the course, and many said that it had proved very enriching. A couple of them surprised me by saying they had also taken the principles into their supervisory meetings with their PhD students, and were very pleased with the results. 

Since then, I have been looking for an opportunity to do that in a more structured and systematic way, and at last that is happening, thanks to a professor who came on a recent Thinking Partnership Programme.

So we have run a workshop with some supervisors and students, introducing the Thinking Environment and then running an experimental supervision meeting, with great results.

We have adapted the Thinking Environment Mentoring process for PhD Supervision, thus:

1: The Student's thinking session: the supervisor asks the student 'With regard to your PhD, what do you want to think about, and what are your thoughts?' and then listens, for up to 20' while the student thinks out loud about his or her PhD.

2: The Interview: the student asks the supervisor any questions he or she may have, and the supervisor answers them, briefly. (say 10')

3: The Supervisor's thinking session:
the student asks the supervisor 'What do you want to think about, and what are your thoughts?' and then listens, for up to 15' while the supervisor thinks out loud about whatever he or she chooses.

4: Closure: the supervisor adds in anything essential for the student to know, that has not already been covered, and both agree what needs to happen next, and when they will next meet. The session closes with each offering the other some appreciation for a quality they admire in the other. 

This worked remarkably well in practice.

The most radical aspects are, firstly the supervisor listening to the student thinking without any interruption whatsoever: no clarifying, guiding etc; and secondly, the student offering the supervisor a thinking session. 

The first (the supervisor listening without interrupting) is to ensure that the student is encouraged to think, and to follow his or her thinking wherever it goes. This is in service of the fundamental aim of a PhD which is to develop the student as an independent thinker. There is plenty of time later for the supervisor to interject his or her wisdom or corrections. 

The second (the supervisor's thinking session) was the subject of a lot of discussion. Clearly, it supports the notion of equality, which is one of the components of a Thinking Environment. Also, it is likely to be very educative of the student. The supervisor may think about the PhD subject (or the student's approach to it), or about the supervisor's own research, or about University issues that demand attention. Any of these would be of great interest to the student,

It does, of course, require a certain vulnerability in the supervisor; but we concluded that was good, both in terms of contributing to equality, in a context where the supervisor has a lot of power and seniority, and also as a way of modelling, and thus giving permission for the student to be vulnerable. Needless to say, there may be some topics that it would be inappropriate for the supervisor to think about in the presence of a student, so prudence is required.

In practice, both the supervisors and the students on our workshop agreed that this was a very valuable part of the process; and that the process overall was a very valuable approach to supervision. 

It's worth noting, of course, that each student has (at least) two supervisors, so this framework can be adapted to that reality; in fact for our practice session, both the supervisors were present. One took a lead role, and it was that one who had the thinking session: we envisage that alternating over time (and it is worth recording that the co-supervisor also learned a lot from listening to a colleague think in this way).

So the supervisors and students committed to experiment with this, going forward, and intend to write up their experiences and learning for publication in due course.  I, for one, look forward to their reflections!

Tuesday 10 October 2023

Further reflections on the EDI Agenda

In a previous post I commented on the ill thought through guidance on Trans inclusion, published by the CIPD. My point was that their naive approach didn't work, as it wasn't - indeed couldn't be - reciprocal across all the different groups with protected characteristics under the Equality Act (these are: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation).

I have been reflecting further on this, and think that the EDI challenge is profound, if not intractable.

It has been brought into sharp, and tragic, relief by the events of the weekend. How do we (and indeed should we) create an organisational culture that includes the most radical supporter of Hamas and the most radical Zionist?

Will the CIPD be publishing inclusivity guides?  Based on their recent track record, they should say:  authenticity – empowering Hamas militants to express their authentic self in the workplace, and showing outward acceptance when they do. and likewise, of course: authenticity – empowering Zionists to express their authentic self in the workplace, and showing outward acceptance when they do.

One problem I have with the EDI agenda is that I don't think anyone really believes it: not all the way through. Would anyone argue for equality and inclusion for the sake of diversity extending to those we believe to be advocating evil, or supporting genocide?

And it is an intellectual cop-out, I think, to say that it doesn't extend to those who express themselves outside what is legally permissible. We cannot outsource our consciences to the law; nor can we assume that the law is always just, as even the most cursory look in a history book - or indeed survey of current legal systems around the world - will confirm.

Or do we really mean, EDI (for those whose opinions I value)?

Because I am interested, too, in whom we seek to shame. It's a useful barometer of the moral atmosphere. People often talk as if shame is some evil that enlightened people have left behind. It is deemed quite wrong to fat-shame or to slut-shame, for example. But in fact, what has happened is that the targets of shame have changed. All the vogue words that end in -phobe (for example) seem to me designed to shame those who hold views that we now deem shameful (and possibly rightly so). Shame is, in fact, a useful and important moderator of undesirable behaviour. It would be a good thing if politicians were ashamed to lie, or celebrities ashamed to indulge in sexual exploitation. But we seem incapable of being honest about this; or even talking about it openly and clearly.

So where am I on all this?

My current thinking, and it is somewhat provisional, is that Equality, Diversity and Inclusion are not absolute goods (though we are invited to reverence them as though they are) but rather that they are, in reality, useful indicators. Where one or other of them is lacking, it should cause us to stop and take notice. And what we should take notice of, I think, are justice and truth and compassion.

That is, we shouldn't unjustly (or dishonestly, or cruelly) exclude someone; or unjustly (etc) demand that they conform, or unjustly treat them as less than equal.  But there may be occasions when it is indeed just to do so. Men are justly excluded from women-only spaces; students are justly required to conform to intellectual rules (such as not plagiarising) and children are justly placed under the authority of responsible adults for their own protection. 

Justice and truth, then, I see as absolutes to which we can - and should - commit; and compassion a default operating system. They are not, of course always easy (or even possible) to attain, but we should commit to striving for them. And I find it interesting that the pursuit of truth is so out of fashion in some intellectual circles; and further, I wonder if it is the search for a value-base to replace the gap left by its absence that has led EDI to be promoted to the first rank, when it should, by my reckoning, be in the second.

And it is with wry amusement that I notice that it is often those who refute the notion of truth who make strident truth-claims for their own particular dogmas; and occasionally do so with a pronounced lack of compassion. 

Sunday 1 October 2023

Problems with the EDI Agenda

The CIPD is the leading professional body for those who work in Personnel/Human Resources/People Development (or whatever we are calling it this week). It publishes best practice guidance, as one might expect.

I have been reading its recently published (September) guide: Transgender and non-binary inclusion at work (Fletcher, L., & Marvell, R. (2023) Transgender and Non-Binary Inclusion at Work Guide. London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) Doi: 10.15125/ BATHRO-271384630).

I was initially struck by the claim that it was evidence-based, followed quickly by the claim that sex is 'assigned at birth.' I may not be a biologist, but I am a father and a grandfather, and I know that the sex of all my children and grandchildren was observed well before they were born, and was not assigned at all. 

I admit to a degree of pedantry when it comes to language, but that is (at least in part) because I think that conveying meaning clearly and accurately is important. It struck me that the choice of language here was driven by political considerations, rather than truth. (If there is an evidence base for the assertion that sex is assigned at birth, please let me know!)

Akua Reindorf
Reading on, it struck me that the document was profoundly problematic. On the one hand, it takes a very partisan approach throughout: taking the Stonewall (and allies) perspective as the gold standard, when as Akua Reindorf's review of events at Essex University highlighted, that is an unsafe approach.

But more problematic still is the problem of Equality that is unaddressed (and indeed subverted) by this text.

The Guide says that one of the day-to-day actions managers could (and implicitly should) take is to encourage: authenticity – empowering transgender and non-binary workers to express their authentic self in the workplace, and showing outward acceptance when they do.

It also says: The Equality Act (2010) may also protect gender-critical views, as holding these views is not in itself unlawful discrimination. A number of recent cases (See Appendix A: List of employment tribunal and employment appeal tribunal cases) have collectively reasoned that gender-critical beliefs can meet the criteria to be a protected belief. For example, in Forstater v CDG Europe, Forstater’s belief was that sex correlates to reproductive biology and that it is impossible to change sex. A person cannot be treated less favourably at work due to holding these views, and holding these views does not amount to unacceptable behaviour. However, this does not give anyone the right to manifest any beliefs in a discriminatory way at work, and the manner of expression of these beliefs could amount to unlawful discrimination depending on the circumstances.

It seems clear to me that the treatment of those with gender-critical views is not in any sense equal to the treatment of trans and non-binary people. One group is to be accepted and celebrated, the other to be (at best) tolerated. 

In terms of equality, the document should (I would argue) also say (or at least allow for):  authenticity – empowering gender-critical workers to express their authentic self in the workplace, and showing outward acceptance when they do. Yet immediately, we see that it could not possibly do so.

Likewise, one might consider other workers with protected characteristics: say those with religious beliefs that conflict with the beliefs of those who identify as transgender or non-binary. Again, one would expect:  authenticity – empowering workers with religious beliefs to express their authentic self in the workplace, and showing outward acceptance when they do. Againwe see that the guide could not possibly say such a thing.

My point is: it doesn't work. This simplistic approach, which lacks any reciprocity, doesn't work.  What it does is prioritise one group of people over others: equality is out of the window, as is inclusion (imagine how you would feel if you were gender-critical, or a devout believer of a faith that doesn't accept the trans world view...), and thus diversity.  

We need to think - and talk - with much more sophistication and nuance about these difficult topics; but there is little appetite for doing so.  We deserve better from the CIPD; and Universities (my primary sphere of work) need to engage much more intelligently and courageously with the difficulties here. 

Indeed, one of the reasons I wrote this blog post is because I know many academics who self-censor: they don't say (or in some cases teach) what they believe to be true because they fear that the repercussions from those who preach inclusivity will be so terrible. And when I realised that I too was feeling some fear about broaching the subject, I knew that I had to do so.

Thursday 20 July 2023


One of the topics that often comes up in coaching is trust. Which means that I have heard many people reflecting on it, and have, therefore, developed a few thoughts myself - and indeed read around a bit.

The first thing to say is that it is very easy to see this in a binary fashion: either I trust someone or I don't. But a few moments of reflection make it very clear that here, such a binary approach is unhelpful.  It is much more helpful to see it as a gradation: I may trust someone a little - what would it take to enable me to trust a little bit more?

The second is that there are different component parts of trust. Imagine you are going for heart surgery and have the choice of two surgeons. One is a known liar, cheat at games and generally untrustworthy kind of chap - but very skilled with the scalpel.  The other is a genuinely virtuous person, but with rather shaky hands. Which would you trust to operate on you?

So we need to start to unpack that word trust a bit, and consider (say) intentions, competence and communication. For me to trust someone to the highest level, I must be able to trust all three of those. And if I feel mistrustful of someone, it is helpful to identify which of these (or some other aspect) is causing me concern; and then at least I can recognise the aspects I do trust, which is a good foundation to build on.

And then, there's the need to look in the mirror: to what extent am I trustworthy?  Do I trust myself, for example? Stephen Covey writes about the importance of this in his famous Seven Habits. He talks of the Personal Integrity Account: the extent to which we believe ourself when we make commitments to ourself, and the importance of investing in that account.

If I do trust myself, it is worth recognising that others may not do so quite as readily.  There are good reasons for that. One is the realisation that we judge ourself and others in different ways. When I am considering my behaviour, what is most salient to me is my intentions.  I know my intentions are good, so that inclines me to take a positive view of myself (on a good day, at any rate...) However, others can't see my intentions, and I can't see theirs. So we deduce each others' intentions from behaviours and outcomes.

That is partly why transparency and openness are so foundational to trust: they enable others to get a better sense of our intentions - and may enable us to hear why others read us differently from our self-image. Daniel Coyle, in The Culture Code, suggests that the three essentials for leaders in developing trust in teams are building safety, sharing vulnerability, and establishing purpose.

We also need to distinguish trust from agreement.  Peter Block (as ever) is very helpful here, in The Empowered Manager; indeed, he suggests that we can create a four box grid, with trust (from low to high) on one axis, and agreement (from low to high) on another, and plot key relationships on it, so as to develop authentic strategies for addressing each of the possible combinations. 

And as Patrick Lencioni points out (in his
 Five Dysfunctions) trust is foundational for teams. A lack of trust leads to a fear of necessary conflict, which leads to low commitment, which leads to the avoidance of accountability, which leads to an inattention to results. So in his model, leaders in particular need to attend to this. They do this by modelling vulnerability, welcoming and managing the conflict of ideas, asking for commitment, holding people accountable and encouraging mutual accountability, and reviewing progress towards results with courage and honesty, with the team.

Vulnerability is, of course, risky. The root of the word is the Latin vulnus, a wound. So if we are trying to build trust where it has been damaged, we expose ourselves to being wounded. Why would we do that? On the positive side, because it demonstrates a willingness to trust the other not to abuse the vulnerability, which is in itself an investment in trust and an invitation to reciprocate. And on the negative side, because we all know what it is like when people lock into a highly defensive mode: progress becomes nearly impossible.  But it is a risk, so don't go too far too fast - not only is that risky for you, but it is scary for others, too!

And of course, that vulnerability is why it is so devastating when someone feels that trust has been betrayed: but perhaps that's a topic for a future post.


With thanks to Ronda Dorsey for sharing this photo on Unsplash

Tuesday 11 July 2023

Perceptual Positions: Two Chair Work

One of the ways in which we can help people (not least ourselves) to think more intelligently is to understand perceptual positions.

Typically, when I am thinking about something, I am thinking about it from my point of view. Obviously, you might say, and you'd be right. 

I always like C W Metcalf's way of highlighting this:  he draws a quick map of the Universe on a flipchart, explaining solemnly that it is expanding in all directions.  He then marks a point in the middle and explains it is the Center of the Universe (sic: he is American, after all). He then marks another point, and says: 'That's you - and when you confuse the two, you have lost the plot!'  Yet we can't help but see the world from our point of view, unless we make an explicit effort. 

And that's where perceptual position work comes in: that simple act of stepping into someone else's shoes and seeing what it looks like from there, as Atticus points out to Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird.

So when I am working with someone who is thinking about a difficult relationship or interaction with a colleague, I sometimes produce an extra chair, and ask my client what he would say to this colleague if he or she were sat in the chair, and if my client had no fear of it being taken the wrong way.  That is first position.

I then invite my client to move to the other chair, and to imagine that he or she is now the colleague. How would the colleague respond? That is second position, and my clients often - indeed, I would say normally - surprise themselves by what they hear themselves say about themselves from that second position. It often sheds a lot of light on the relationship or the issue under discussion, that was previously not available to the individual.

And then I invite him or her to stand above the two chairs, and look down at these two characters, and consider the conversation that has just taken place, and observe whatever is interesting about it from above and outside. That is third position; and again it often opens up new insights for the client about himself or herself, about the colleague, about the relationship and about the situation.

The bizarre thing is, on the face of it, that clients invariably have more insight available to them than previously recognised. It is also true, of course, that the client does not know how the colleague would really respond. Nevertheless, the imaginative exercise of stepping away from first position, frees up thinking, not least by leaving issues of ego, sensitivity, self-putdowns and fear to one side (temporarily) and clients often see clearly the way forward when they had previously been blocked in their thinking.

As the old wisdom has it: Before picking a fight with someone, walk a mile in his shoes; because then you are a mile away: and you have got his shoes!


With thanks to Jason Grant for sharing this photo on Unsplash

Photo by Jason Grant on Unsplash