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

A Badger

Here's a badger, trying to get at the nuts we put out for the birds.

(There is a reason for my posting this to my work blog, but it is too long and boring to write out. Just trust me on this one.)

Incidentally, there are many great places you can do the Thinking Environment programmes, but very few where there's a good chance of seeing red squirrels, and an outside chance (if you stay late into the evening) of seeing a badger attacking nuts. 

Oh, and a hedgehog. 

And, of course, fabulous views...

(I'm still not sure I've got the hang of this marketing malarkey).

Monday 10 July 2023

The Importance of Closure

Closure has been on my mind a lot recently, for various reasons. One is that I have just finished the final Futures programme with Colin Riordan, who conceived the programme back in 2006, and with whom I have run it every year (bar Covid) since - in three different universities. As Colin retires from his role as VC at Cardiff this year, we will not be running it again.

Closure has also arisen in the context of supervision: one of the coaches I supervise works in an environment which means that people she coaches may be re-located at short notice; so sometimes the coaching is left hanging, with no possibility of closure.

And I was in an interesting conversation about coaching the other day with other coaches, discussing the merits of a fixed number of sessions versus open-ended coaching. I suggested that an agreed end-point was often useful, even if at that point it was agreed to carry on - precisely because I think that closure is important. 

So what do I mean by closure, and why is it important?

There are many ways of coming at this, and I will pick two of my favourite. One is to consider the Gestalt Cycle of Awareness (about which I have blogged previously, here in relation to Kline's Thinking Environment, and here as  a structure for coaching).

I think that the expression 'unfinished business' derives from this understanding: that if the cycle of awareness is not completed satisfactorily, (that is if resolution and closure are not accomplished, followed by withdrawal of attention from the issue under consideration) then it remains a drain on emotional energy. Too much unfinished business, and we risk being seriously depleted. 

So, considering the issues that made closure salient for me, I would observe that the Futures work was satisfactorily closed: indeed we had a celebratory event, and reflections and learnings were shared. But the coaching client who is re-located at short notice will lack closure, as will the coach. I can't do much about the client, but part of the job of supervision is to help coaches to reach closure in precisely such circumstances.  And the risk of the open-ended coaching approach is precisely that there is no closure: it just runs on, with accompanying risks of loss of purpose and possible client dependency.

Which raises the question again: what is closure and why is it important? Another way of thinking about this is to consider our need to make meaning out of our experience (my excellent book Shifting Stories is crucial reading here, of course!). A story has a beginning, a middle and an end; and it is at the end that we are best able to discern what meaning we can make. So a key aspect of closure, in my understanding, is to reflect, so as to derive the meaning from our experience. In an urgency-addicted culture, that may be difficult, leading again to lots of unfinished business and depleted people.

In coaching, for example, both coach and client benefit from reflecting on the work done together, the learning that has arisen, how that has translated into behavioural change, how it has been and will be sustained, and so on. That is why I think it is good to create end-points in long-term coaching relationships, where these are the focus of the conversation; even if then it is agreed that there is more work to be done together; in which case, re-contracting is appropriate. That minimises the risk of both drifting into general chat or developing a dependency between the coach and the client. 

In a sense, closure is artificial: at the end of a coaching relationship, the client (rightly) withdraws: and therefore may well never know what happens next for the client. Occasionally I meet someone whom I coached years ago, and they tell me about the enduring impact of the work; but that is the exception rather than the rule; normally I simply don't know.  But the very fact of its artificiality means that it can be constructed in unlikely circumstances: such as when a client is re-located without any chance of a final session. The point is for the coach to be supported, first in constructing what meaning she or he can from the situation and secondly in finding peace. So there is an emotional, as well as a rational, component to closure.  

And maybe that's as good a definition as any of effective closure: finding peace; so that the issue, relationship, conflict or whatever, can be laid to rest.

The ultimate closure, of course, is death. Which is why an unprepared death, though it may seem a mercy in some ways, is often very traumatising. Given that understanding, it is important to talk about death, and break our current taboo. But on that topic, I point you to a wisdom much better informed than mine, in Kathryn Mannix's book With the End in Mind (about which I have previously written on the Shifting Stories blog).

Which leaves me with one final problem: how do I close a blog post about closure? Perhaps with these questions:

What meaning are you making about Closure and its importance in your work and your life as you read this post?

And given that, how will you find a place of peace with the topic?