Friday 21 June 2024

That bloody pendulum...

My late father was both wise and acerbic. He used the phrase 'that bloody pendulum' to describe the tendency in society, in cultures, in organisations, and in individuals (and on reflection I think within himself) to swing from one extreme to another.

Until relatively recently, the pendulum in educated British circles was swung rather too far to the side of self-adulation: the Empire, the White Man's Burden, all that kind of stuff. It was certainly in need of a corrective. But now, it seems to me, that bloody pendulum is swinging rather a long way in the other direction. The mere fact of being white is seen as problematic, in some circles.

Likewise, I think that conformity to social norms was over-emphasised, to the extent of ostracising anyone who deviated (or was perceived to deviate) from them. But again, that bloody pendulum... the very idea of normal, which is in the first place a statistical fact exemplified by the bell curve of standard deviation, is seen as problematic. Whilst I am all in favour of Diversity, Inclusion and Equality (and also of motherhood and apple pie, of course) they are not absolute values as I have written previously; and I think there are risks to normalising the abnormal and abhorring the normal. 

And I find it interesting that those who denigrate whiteness and extol the virtues of indigenous cultures where skin colour is a bit darker, seem somewhat selective in which virtues they extol. For it is very common, in such cultures, to venerate ancestors; whilst the modern trend in our culture is to denigrate them and apologise for them. 

Of course they weren't perfect; but if we think either that we are better than them, or that all of their wisdom is disposable because they weren't wise in all things, then we risk throwing out several babies with the admittedly dirty bathwater. 

I'm thinking of things like: innocent until proven guilty, or even just war theory. It's not that these are perfect solutions to human problems, but they are the best we have found so far. Consider the alternatives that seem to be rearing their heads. In the first case, we seem to have innocent until someone has decided that you are offensive, at one extreme, and innocent despite courts having found you guilty (if you are powerful enough...), at the other; and in the second case, passivity when the innocent are attacked, on one hand; or unlimited use of deadly force on the other.


Image from Mark Ross Studios via Scientific American

Wednesday 12 June 2024

Thinking Partnership Programme

So this Thinking Environment… It springs from the work of Nancy Kline and is founded on a profound belief in the capacity of the human mind to think outstandingly well - given the right conditions.

This seems to me to be a core skill for a coach: to enable the person we are working with to think independently at his or her very best. Thinking independently is thinking as ourselves and for ourselves.

Kline's thesis is that we do this primarily by paying the person being coached a level of attention that is rare in daily life; and that such attention is generative of good thinking. The idea is, the quality of the individual’s thinking,  is (at least in part) a product of the quality of attention that we give them.

In Time to Think, and its successor, More Time to Think, Kline describes ten components of a Thinking Environment. 

The first, and the most important, of the components is attention. Attention of the quality we mean here is simple, but difficult - and rare. It consists of giving your whole attention to the person that you are listening to.

That means, amongst other things:
  • removing all distractions (eg electronic devices with alerts…),
  • refraining from taking notes whilst the individual is thinking,
  • keeping a 'soft gaze' (of interest and encouragement) on the person’s face (though the person thinking may, of course, look wherever he or she chooses), 
  • not thinking about how you will respond or what wise question you will ask next, 
  • and above all, not interrupting.
In fact, even when someone stops talking, we refrain from interrupting the silence, as he or she may still be thinking. Thinking comes in waves, and the freshest thinking often arises after a pause. Such attention is so rare that it may feel like a luxury, or even feel uncomfortable; but it does seem to support really good thinking. 

The other nine components are equally rich, but I will not describe them all here, as it would make this a very long post. 

Coaching in this way is very different from many approaches. It takes seriously the assumption that the individual is more likely to come up with good solutions than the coach; the coach's role is to provide the environment - the Thinking Environment - in which that is most likely to happen.  I have blogged before about a specific example of this.

If you want to explore this further, I have a few places left on my next Thinking Partnership Programme (5/6 Sept and 11 Oct) here in the glorious Lake District.  Don't hesitate to get in touch if you want to know more, or have a look at my website, here.

Disclosure Remorse (again)

I have blogged previously about disclosure remorse, and  I mentioned my supervisor's excellent advice about discussing this explicitly with the client, in a pre-emptive way.

It came up again in conversation with a colleague the other day, and as we are both Thinking Environment practitioners, we were naturally considering it in the light of the ten components.

Which raised the interesting question of Equality. One of the reasons, we suspect, for disclosure remorse may well be inequality. The client may have shared so much with the coach, and yet the coach has disclosed nothing in return - which may leave the client feeling vulnerable.

That might imply that it is appropriate, in terms of establishing the relationship on a basis of equality, for us to share some vulnerability in our turn (always being mindful, perhaps, of the other cautionary advice, about scars, not wounds...)

So, how do we share a bit of vulnerability with the client at that stage, without making the conversation about us, rather than the client? 

That was the question that we arrived at, and then time ran out.  If we, (or indeed I alone) find an answer to it, I'l certainly blog about that, too.  And if you know an answer, please tell me.

Tuesday 4 June 2024

Learning from my grandson

One of the things people often say to me when learning new skills (you know, the really difficult things, like listening without interrupting...) is that it doesn't feel natural. The implication underlying this, I think, is that it therefore isn't very authentic.  And we all know that being authentic is (rightly) seen as an important trait for effective leadership and good interpersonal relations. (Though I think that needs a little unpacking, as I have written previously). 

However, I think that the description that new behaviour (such as refraining from interrupting) doesn't feel natural is, in fact, inaccurate. And that brings me to the title of this post: Learning from my grandson

Nate is not quite one year old, and has been learning to walk. At first, he was, understandably, not very good at it - he fell over a lot, and waddled in a rather unbalanced way. It didn't look (or, I dare guess feel) 'natural' in the sense used above.  But over the last few weeks he has got a lot better and charges around after his big brother quite easily, and only falls over occasionally.

And I dare guess that most of my readers regard walking as quite natural to them - you may well stroll from one side of the room to the other without falling over, or even hike over the fells, or wander down to the pub...

The point being, of course, that it is a learned behaviour; as indeed are almost all those behaviours which feel natural to us. For natural here is really a mis-label for habitual (or at least familiar). So when people tell me that it doesn't feel natural for them to refrain from interrupting (or whatever the new behaviour is) I refer to Nate and his learning to walk.  It takes practice, but with time they will get good at it, incorporate it into their repertoire of familiar (or even habitual) behaviours, and then it will indeed feel natural.


With thanks to DICSON for sharing this photo on Unsplash (Nate's parents prefer that we don't share his photo online).

Friday 17 May 2024

A Sounding Board?

One of the things that people (particularly people in senior roles) often say, when reflecting on their experience of coaching, is that they have valued me as a sounding board.

I find that interesting, as I don't often pass judgement on what they are thinking. When they ask what I think, my first reaction is normally to treat that as a courtesy: they think they've been going on too long, and it's my turn to speak.  So I reassure them that I am still interested in what they think and encourage them to continue thinking. They nearly always do (and it is nearly always fruitful).

However, occasionally someone persists and asks for my view. Even then I don't act as a sounding board, according to the dictionary definition: a person or group whose reactions to suggested ideas are used as a test of their validity or likely success before they are made public. I am more likely to share some further way of thinking about the issue at hand: some theoretical model, or questions it raises in my mind, or some such. 

And reflecting on this, it made me wonder what a sounding board actually is.  Insofar as I had given it any thought, I was conflating it with the soundboard of a piano: which amplifies the resonance of the strings.

Which is not far wrong, but a sounding board (as opposed to a sound board) is apparently 'a structure placed above and sometimes also behind a pulpit or other speaking platform that helps to project the sound of the speaker. It is usually made of wood.'

Passing swiftly over the fact that this excuses me from seeming somewhat wooden at times (though I hope that I am never sounding bored...), this gave me pause for thought. I am not sure that the metaphor quite works; and I am sure that the other meaning, concerning testing the validity of ideas, is the one the people have in mind when they use the term.

But there is something there, I think, and perhaps it is to do with the notions of projection and resonance. I have blogged before about why it is particularly helpful to think out loud in someone else's presence, rather than merely on one's own (valuable though that is). 

And pondering the sounding board metaphor makes me want to add to that: there is something about thinking out loud that helps us to project our thinking into the world in a way that enables us to check how well it resonates with us. That is, when we hear ourselves say it out loud, it sounds different and clearer, and that allows us to evaluate how well it is attuned to what we really think, believe, and value.  

So perhaps it is not I who am the sounding board, but rather the thinker.  I am merely the reason (I nearly wrote excuse) for their saying out loud what otherwise might go round and round in their head.

I would be interested to know if this resonates with you...


Piano Diagram from Blackham, 1965 (apparently) via  Antoine Chaigne on ResearchGate; Sounding Board photo from The Accidental Atheist blog though where he got it from, I don't know...

Friday 10 May 2024

Attitudes and Behaviour

Something that often arises in my discussions with leaders and managers is how to address a team member who has a bad or negative attitude.

And whilst I generally take a fairly low-intervention approach to my coaching (see my posts about the Thinking Environment, passim), I do tend to intervene at that point. 

And the point that I make is that we generally have far more success if we focus on behaviour rather than attitude.  There are several reasons for that.

One is that we can't see an attitude: it is always our interpretation of behaviours that we can see (whether that is shouting, or simply a curled lip...). 

Allied to that is the fact that if we start to talk about someone's negative attitude, we risk provoking a very defensive response. On the one hand, our interpretation may be inaccurate, so they feel unjustly criticised; and on the other hand, even if we are accurate, people may feel that what they think is not our business.

Moreover,  people often believe that they can't directly affect their attitude, anyway.

Whereas if we focus on behaviours, there are several advantages.

One is that it is tangible and observable: we can see the curled lip, or hear the shouting. That means we are also able to evaluate and give feedback on any improvement - or the lack thereof.

Secondly, it is much clearer to the individual precisely what we are talking about and also what they need to do to change it.

And further, if someone does consistently change their behaviour in a more positive direction (staying calm when upset, or asking curious questions rather than curling a lip when unsure of another's proposition...) then that also has an impact on their attitude.

And yet, and yet, and yet... what if it really is his attitude I want to change?  That question almost always recurs.  And I refer you to the above answer...

Monday 29 April 2024

Doing and Being

Reflecting on my post last week, about 
Listening, Difference and Psychological Safety, I think that - whilst I stand by every word of if - it may be a bit misleading.  It reads as though, if one does all the things I mention, that will necessarily create psychological safety.  And I do not believe that to be the case. 

In fact, if one approaches the activity with that attitude, I think it probably won't work.One of the things that Nancy Kline is fond of saying to teachers of the Thinking Environment is 'What you are teaching is you!' 

That is to say, the Thinking Environment is about the Environment we create for others when they are thinking in our presence. So whilst understanding and striving to create the 10 Components is essential, even more essential is trying to be and live the 10 Components: to embody them in the way we are, and the way we relate to people.

That is one of the reasons that a condition of accreditation in this work is a commitment to have regular Thinking Partnership sessions with another skilled practitioner.  It is also the reason that one of the key aspects of training in this work is what I call 'total immersion.' That is why I choose not to run training online. The feedback I get from participants on my programmes in the Lake District is that they have a quality something like a retreat.  And that, I think, is something about being, not just doing.

Friday 19 April 2024

Listening, Difference and Psychological Safety

This week I ran a session at the AHUA (Association of Heads of University Administration) conference in Leeds.  It was called Listening, Difference and Psychological Safety and was about facilitating conversations about topics where the discourse has become so toxic on campus that it seems people are determined not to listen to those with other views (the trans/GC issue, and the conflict in the Middle East are two current examples). 

I started, very deliberately, with a few processes and activities designed to generate and strengthen a sense of psychological safety in the room, including a series of Rounds at the small tables around which participants were gathered (See here for some reflections on why Rounds are so effective at creating Psychological Safety).

I then pointed out what I had done and why: how my introduction, use of rounds (and the questions I'd chosen to ask them) and use of humour were all designed to calm the amygdala, and invite them to engage their pro-social (rather than fight-or-flight) operating systems (if this is new to you, see here).

That led us onto why I was running the session: the problem I was seeking to address (and one which they all recognised: they had, after all, chosen to attend this session rather than the others on offer at the same time).  I shared some experiences of being told by academics and professional staff in universities of topics that were not safe to discuss, and my unease at that, and my belief that Nancy Kline's work had something to offer here.

Then I described the experiment we had run at the Thinking Environment Collegiate. of getting people with strongly-held opposing views to have a dialogue, with the brief to understand the other and seek to be understood (but not to persuade or seek to persuade). This had the effect of changing neither party's beliefs, but (and this was the interesting and valuable bit) each person felt more positively about the other after the discussion than before - not the usual result of such exchanges.  (I have written about this more extensively here).

We then discussed the components of a Thinking Environment in a little more detail, and in particular the dialogue process. In this, two people agree on the question to be addressed. Then Person 1 asks Person 2 the question, and listens, with complete attention, and above all without interrupting, while Person 2 thinks out loud about the question. Person 2 has the discipline only to talk for 2 or 3 minutes, and then ask Person 1: What do you think?  Person 2 then listens, with complete attention, and above all without interrupting, while Person 1 thinks out loud about the question (which may or may not include picking up themes from Person 2's thoughts). Person 1 has the discipline only to talk for 2 or 3 minutes, and then ask Person 2: What do you think?  and so on. 

This process is extraordinary.  Each person, knowing that he or she will not be interrupted, is free to think, without urgency, and knowing that he or she will have a further turn also releases pressure. Paying heed to the other, by not talking  too long, and by inviting the other to think in turn, also transforms the conversation; and above all, genuinely listening to the other, seeking to understand, changes the whole emotional dynamic. 

So having described that, I got them to do it. And they found the results as powerful as I had promised.

Finally I got them to appreciate the person with whom they had had the dialogue, and share a key learning in a final round in plenary.

The feedback was very powerful: not least as people felt they had some practical techniques they could go away and implement with a high level of confidence.

And many committed to coming to the AHUA Diversity of Viewpoints Workshop which I will be running in London in September, to explore these ideas, and this approach, in more depth.

Tuesday 16 April 2024

The Foundation Programme; Facilitating Groups Brilliantly

Do you run team meetings, facilitate learning events, chair boards or executive groups, or in any other context,  get people together to think about important things?  Do you ever find that people don't contribute as well as you would hope, or that some dominate and others don't contribute?

If you wish to take your skills in running groups to the next level, and develop a set of approaches that increases participation, honest discussion and real engagement, then you will find it valuable to engage with the Thiniking Environment.

This is based on Nancy Kline's work, published as Time to Think, More Time to Think, and The Promise that Changes Everything.

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.

The Foundation Programme is an introduction to this work in the context of working with groups: a precise but easeful approach to enabling all present 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 here).

So I am delighted to be offering the Foundation Programme in the Lake District, this June (13/14). This Programme teaches you the ten components of the Thinking Environment, and a number of practical applications and findings that will transform your meetings.

If you choose to join us, you will be working as part of a small group of practitioners, jointly exploring the practice through practice!

This course is a prerequisite for the Thinking Environment Facilitator 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.

Saturday 13 April 2024

Joe, Harry and Nancy

I have long liked the Johari Window (so named after its inventors, Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham).

The essential idea is that there is stuff about me that I am aware of, and that is known to others with whom I work, that constitutes my work persona: the open area, or arena, as it is sometimes called. 

Then there are things that I know that I choose not to reveal to others, for whatever reason; I maintain a façade; moreover, there are things that are clear to those who work with me, but of which I am ignorant - my blind spots; and finally, there are things that are unknown both to me and those I work with - the unknown area.

The assumption is that for effective work with colleagues and in teams, the larger the arena, the better. Thus if I am holding out on people, by hiding my true thoughts, feelings, intentions etc behind a façade, it will be harder for others to work with me effectively. Likewise, if my behaviour is having an impact of which I am unaware, due to my blind spots, we will not work as well together.

So Joe and Harry recommend that one reduces the Façade, through disclosure; and reduces the Blind Spot, by seeking feedback. The result of that will be a larger Arena, and the Unknown area will also reduce.

(Incidentally, analysis based on the Johari Window is thought to be the origin of Rumsfeld's famous 'unknown unkowns.')

Enter Nancy. Or rather, here's my freshest thinking, arising from having just run a Coaching Programme focussing on Nancy Kline's Thinking Environment. When we think, in the presence of a skilled Thinking Partner, using the Thinking Environment approach, and are encouraged to keep exploring our thinking, as happens in the Thinking Environment, we often hear ourselves say things about ourselves that surprise us. That is, we uncover and explore Blind Spots. Further, we do this in the presence of, and normally aloud to, our Thinking Partner or Coach. That also reduces our Façade.

That insight, that we can discover Blind Spots by ourselves, by a process of reflection, (rather than only by gaining feedback), also applies, of course, to other practices, such as Journalling, and (some types of) meditation. But the effect of having these discoveries witnessed by others is peculiar to discovering them out loud in the presence of someone else.

In discussing this with the ever-insightful Jane (my co-Director, Boss and Wife of some 40 years) she pointed out that disclosure, in confidence, to a coach is not the same as reducing one's façade at work. And of course she is quite correct. 

However something I have frequently observed is that people who have practiced (one might even say rehearsed) disclosure in a very safe environment, are more likely then to risk disclosure in the work place. In part, that is because they have removed a blind spot ("I'm not the kind of person who shares that kind of thing...") and in part because they have taken the risk and not experienced the rejection or judgment that they feared.

So if Joe and Harry's assumption (that an larger Arena makes for more effectiveness in teams etc) then I think that Nancy's process is one fast and effective route to that goal.

Sunday 7 April 2024

Generative Attention

I have always been struck by the phrase that Nancy Kline uses to describe the quality of attention that is at the heart of the Thinking Environment: Generative Attention.  The idea being that such attention is generative of good thinking in the person to whom we are giving it.

One of the ways in which we seek to demonstrate attention is by keeping our eyes on the eyes of the thinker.  This is not about staring the thinker down, of course; we talk of a 'soft gaze' and the thinker may look all over the place as she or he thinks, and often does so.  But if, whenever they glance at the listener, they see the listener looking at them, and looking interested, that is a non-verbal encouragement to keep thinking. 

And then, the other morning, Jane, my wise and wonderful wife, commented:

'I’ve been studying prayer; and it is clear that God always makes the first move - that when we turn to Him, He is already looking at us, waiting for us. It reminded me of your thing about attention: whenever the Thinker looks at you, she sees that you are already attending to her.

That set me thinking, not least about the idea of Generative Attention. For in Christian (and I think, though I’m no expert, Islamic and Jewish) theology, God holds us in being momemt-by-moment; Creation is a continuing action, not a one-off event. I am, because He is thinking of me. 

All of which reminds me, of course, of this famous pair of limericks:

Ronald Knox

There once was a man who said "God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there's no one about in the Quad."

Dear Sir,
              Your astonishment's odd.
I am always about in the Quad.
And that's why the tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by
                          Yours faithfully,

I have seen the first limerick, and sometimes the second, attributed  to Ronald Knox (incidentally the last man, I believe, to translate the whole Bible, singe-handedly, into English - and a fine translation it is!)  But I digress.

My real point is that it is God's attention that is truly Generative Attention. As Tolkien pointed out, human creativity is always sub-creativity.  And so it is here: when we offer Generative Attention, we are imitating God, which (in my theology) is what we are called to do.  And that could explain why it is so powerful and (sub-)creative a process.


With thanks to Christina @ for sharing her photo on Unsplash

Friday 29 March 2024

What do I think?

My late father, who died when I was only 17, had a keen wit and a sceptical turn of mind. One of his favourite sayings was: 'There are two reasons for everything: the good reason and the real reason.'

I thought of this as I was reflecting on the education programme in the 1970s (I think it was) called Helping Youth Decide. It was based on the then-trendy ideas of values clarification, stemming from the work of Carl Rogers.  Its good reason was to encourage young people to make decisions based on their values - with regard to tobacco usage and drugs, for example.  

Its real reason - well, according to Dr William Coulson, long-time friend and colleague of Carl Rogers, it was funded by Philip Morris, the tobacco giants whose best-selling product is Marlboro. In Coulson's view, the tobacco industry had realised that nobody with a fully mature brain was going to take up smoking, so they needed to get to people whose brains were not fully mature - teenagers. 

Helping Youth Decide (later re-branded as Helping Youth Say No and promoted by the Tobacco Institutewas a way of teaching them, and the adults who should be looking out for them, that adults' views and values are irrelevant to their decisions. Meanwhile, of course, Philip Morris continued to spend millions of dollars inviting them to 'Come to Marlboro country.'  So their commitment to a non-directive approach was, how can we say this, a little selective.

All this came back to me (from a talk I heard William Coulson give many years ago) when I was thinking about the trans issue.

Assiduous readers of my posts may have noticed that I keep circling around this: it troubles me.  In part, it troubles me because I see the toxicity with which the issue tends to be discussed (particularly on social media) and the polarisation (particularly in Higher Education, where most of my work is done) that surrounds it.  But deeper than that, it troubles me because I fear that serious harm is being done.

At this point, of course, it would be easy to dismiss me as a transphobe.

But that is precisely the problem, in my eyes: tactics designed to shut down any discussion, and the reduction of this complex set of issues to a simple goodies versus baddies narrative that loses all nuance.

Yet I think it is complex; and I have no generalised fear of, or hatred of, people who identify as trans (or non-binary or anything else). I only wish them well; but I believe that we must seek truth, as well as offer care, if we are to achieve good ends for them and for society more broadly. That is why I see 'No debate' as a very bad approach.  As the Cass Review's interim report makes clear, 'There is lack of consensus and open discussion about the nature of gender dysphoria and therefore about the appropriate clinical response.

So in this post (and others that may follow) I thought I'd throw caution to the wind, and think out loud about that complexity; and if a nuanced approach offends anyone... well it is of course their right to be offended; but again, I think that the instinct to be offended at ideas that differ from ours is not a helpful one.

One of my concerns, then, is that I think well-meaning teachers who used the Letting Youth Decide programme with teenagers may have done great harm, by withdrawing from their adult responsibilities and teaching teenagers that whether to smoke or take drugs was a choice they should make as autonomous individuals. The result for many: addiction to tobacco (or worse) and the long term likelihood of severe health outcomes.  

Likewise, I think that well-meaning teachers who teach children counter-factual ideas (such as 'sex is a spectrum') may also be doing great harm.

In the first case, they ignored the huge pressures (from Philip Morris' and others' relentless advertising campaigns, and the need to look cool in front of peers) that meant that teenagers (whose brains, remember, are not yet fully developed) were unlikely always to make wise choices.

I fear that in the second case, we may have something similar; distressed teenagers who are under huge pressures (from social media influencers, and a need to find acceptance among their - often online - peer group) may reach conclusions that are neither accurate, nor in their best interests. And the results may be unnecessary double mastectomies and lifelong dependency on a drug regime that may result in sterility, loss of sexual function and other unwanted consequences. How many Keira Bells does it take?...

And for teachers to undermine truth by taking a naive, ideologically-driven approach (albeit with the best of intentions) risks many other serious unintended consequences. One, of course, is to undermine trust, both from parents and children. Another, is to de-stabilise children's sense of their own identity. 

We know that the young brain develops fast, particularly in early years, and again in puberty and adolescence. (The Oxford Brain Story is very good on making the research on this accessible). We should pay serious heed to this well-established knowledge, and banish the notion that children are 'born trans' - a proposition for which there is no evidence whatsoever. Instead, we should offer children clarity about the basic reality that they are born male or female, and that is stable (for the vast majority). Seeking to normalise the abnormal is irresponsible and dangerous. Of course there are exceptions, and they should be dealt with on an exceptional basis.

I return, finally, to my father's dictum, about the good reason and the real reason.  Why is the trans agenda being pushed so hard?  The good reason is that there are genuinely a small number of people who, for reasons we don't know, but most probably springing from damaged psychosexual development at an early age (and again we know the research about Adverse Childhood Experiences...) have a profound sense of dysphoria with regard to the sex they were born - and we should do nothing to make their lives harder. And I am sure that for many, that is also the real reason.

But for others, particularly some of the activists and activist groups (and their financial backers), I do wonder, what is the real reason?  Is it the huge profitability of this market, as some suggest?  Is it the need for those who have gone down this track (for themselves or their children) to validate their choices?  Is it the need for progressives to be progressive, to show that they are at the cutting edge; and for others to try to keep up, so that they are not perceived as lacking in 'inclusion'?  Is it the need for transgressives to be transgressive, come to that? Or some other reason I can't discern? Or some combination of the above?  I don't know - but I think the questions should be asked.

Of course, I could be wrong about any or all of this, and if you think that I am, I would be very interested to hear why you think so.  As I say, one of my major concerns is that we should be able to discuss these contested issues with clarity and charity.

Wednesday 27 March 2024

A Visit to the Doctor

The other day, I had to go to the doctor's: I had a lump, where previously I had not, so thought it wise to get an expert view.

Needless to say, I consulted the internet, too, and decided it was probably a inguinal hernia, and therefore benign (so I liked that idea...). But I didn't look to see what cancers might cause similar symptoms, though that was, of course, my fear (not least as both my parents died of cancer, my father at a younger age than I am now.)

The doctor was very good: he asked if I had any ideas about what it might be, so I told hem. Then he examined me, and said my diagnosis was in fact correct. Which was a relief.

But it was only a relief because I believe that he is telling the truth - that based on his training and experience, he is sure that the lump is indeed an inguinal hernia.  

However, if he was practicing the new 'patient affirming care' that seems to be the fashion, at least in some aspects of medicine, that would be a problem. It might feel kind to tell me it's only a hernia, and that I am clever to have diagnosed it correctly; but if it is in fact a cancer, that is not a true act of kindness.

It would be equally bad the other way about, of course: if I had decided it was a cancer when it was in fact a hernia, and had demanded chemo and an operation - and he had affirmed my diagnosis and decisions and put me on the road to full cancer treatment. 

Absurd! you may say.

And yet, this is what seems to have happened at the Tavistock; and this is what many lobbyists and activists are continuing to demand now, for people who self-diagnose as trans. And just as I didn't want to look at what other explanations there might be for my lump, there is always a risk that others undertaking self-diagnosis may prefer to avoid explanations that they are less happy with...

The Tavistock's reputation, historically, was built on its exploratory approach: really working with patients to reach a deep understanding of the complexity of their lives and experiences. But at some time that was abandoned, and (according to one clinician, quoted in Hannah Barnes' Time To Think) the gender unit there took on the characteristics of its clients (in a bizarre example of parallel process) becoming strident advocates for puberty blockers etc on demand.

Given the large proportion of the Tavistock's patients who presented with complex conditions, (often including autism), this unquestioning affirmative approach seems appallingly negligent.

Yet it is understandable: there was a real desire to be kind and supportive to these troubled children. But love without truth is as dangerous, in its way, as truth without love. And I think that all those who enter this polarised conversation would do well to remember both halves of that proposition!

And I really, really hope that my doctor was being truthful!

Friday 22 March 2024


Stop! Before you read any further, I invite you to notice your immediate response to the topic of this post: Obedience.

If you are like me, and many others I know, your instinctive response may be somewhat critical, and you may have immediately started to think of the many reasons why blind obedience is a bad idea.

And of course you are right.  But the title isn't blind obedience; it is obedience.  And I suspect many of us have been educated and culturally conditioned to conflate the two.

Allegory of Obedience, Giotto
Our educationalists and our culture place such a high premium on being an individual, true to yourself and so forth, that the idea of obedience as a Good seems somewhat alien.

Yet clearly it is, and I think we do ourselves and others a disservice by not recognising that fact and interrogating it with a little more rigour.

And if you think I am making a bold, or even rash, claim with 'clearly it is,' I invite you to consider a few practical examples.

In this country, we drive on the left. It is really, really good if people obey that convention. It has terrible consequences if people neglect to do so, even inadvertently.

The lifeguards on one of my favourite beaches in Cornwall tell you not to swim outside the flags, as there are riptides. Again, it is good if people obey that instruction.

But I want to make a more profound point, beyond drawing your attention to our cultural dislike of the notion of obedience (and its practical importance). And that is, I think we all obey, all of the time. The question is what, or whom, do we obey.

The word obey comes, originally, from the Latin: ob + audire; literally to listen to. So whom do you listen to? When you are considering whether to have one more drink, for example, do you listen to the part of you that counsels you to do so, or the other part that suggests that you have had enough already?

If you place all your obedience at the service of your own autonomy, how do you differ from a narcissist?

And as we are social beings, we need rules of some sort at least to coordinate potentially conflicting behaviours (such as which side of the road to drive on).

So the issue, as I see it, is deciding how to use our obedience: what rules, authorities, sources, people or institutions are worthy of obedience?

I think this is an important question for our times, not least as children and young adults in particular need boundaries, to keep them from harming themselves and others. And I fear we have created a culture in which any idea of obedience is so abhorrent to some that they are unable to follow evidence-based health advice, for example, and that the simple sharing of information about healthy life styles is seen as an oppressive practice.


As so often, this post is my thinking-out-loud rather than my final view; so I'll be interested in others' perspectives, particularly if I've got this wrong...

Sunday 3 March 2024

A challenging tension

I have been reflecting on an interesting tension, which I can see no obvious way to resolve. So, as I often do in such situations, I thought I'd write about it, both to clarify my own thoughts and in the hope that others might be interested and might have insights to share. 

So here's the thing. One of the issues that the current enthusiasm for Diversity and Inclusion as values is addressing, is the phenomenon known as 'othering.' (I know, my linguistic sensitivities don't like it either, but it seems to be the vogue term). This is the process of identifying someone or some group as outsiders, often accompanied by negative stereotyping,  For a full (and fairly typical) account, see here. Clearly, this can be problematic, whether in an organisational context, when it will impede working relationships and therefore organisational effectiveness, and also at a societal level, when it can lay the foundations for prejudicial discrimination, and in extremis, de-humanisation and persecution. 

One of the responses to this is to lay great stress on our common humanity, and to expand the bandwidth of what we perceive as normal, so that we do not see people who are different from us as abnormal, or 'other.' A fairly common example is when people say, with regard to Autism Spectrum Disorders, ' Of course, we're all on the spectrum somewhere.' Yet this well-intentioned attempt to normalise ASD can meet a very angry response. Some people with ASD, and those who advocate for them, point out that this approach has several unhelpful, unintended consequences.

One is that it risks minimising the very real difficulties some people face. For example, I am not particularly socially skilled, particularly in unstructured situations. But to attribute that to my being 'a bit on the spectrum' seems to belittle the very significant difficulties some of the people I know with autism encounter in such contexts. They (and I) would argue it is a difference in kind, not just of degree.

A second and related risk is that it may obscure the need for reasonable adjustments at work and in broader society to enable the full and fair participation.

So that's the tension: how do we sufficiently normalise difference that we reduce the risk of othering, whilst maintaining sufficient and useful distinctions, so as to ensure that differing needs are fully understood and met?


Images: Tug-of-war generated by 123RF; Autism Spectrum seen repeatedly on Linked In, but I haven't found an attribution or originator: happy to credit if anyone tells me!

Friday 23 February 2024

Boundaries of coaching

One of the questions that often arises for coaches, and in my supervision of coaches, is around the boundaries between coaching, counselling and psychotherapy. It is an important issue, as coaches should not stray into areas where they do not have the right training and skills. 

It was brought to my attention (yet again) when a friend asked if it were normal for a coach to suggest to a client that their problems might, perhaps spring from childhood, and then to ask (with no hint of this from the client) if the client had been abused as a child. My immediate response was that is not normal. That seems to me to be overstepping the boundary quite significantly, with the coach venturing into territory that he or she is not competent (probably) and certainly not contracted to address.

But it is surprisingly hard to define quite where the boundary sits. Is it about the subject matter (eg work, not personal life?). But what about when personal life impacts on work performance?  Is it about techniques and processes used? But many coaches use techniques derived from counselling or therapeutic sources, form Roger's Non-Directive Counselling approaches, to Gestalt, and many others.

Is it then about the context and purpose of the conversation? Coaching is about work improvement, not resolving life traumas? I think that is true, but not in itself enough of a boundary marker.

So I my current thinking (and I would welcome others' views on this) is that our sense of when we are up against the boundary of coaching needs to be informed by a number of considerations, as summarised in this handy grid. Such issues should be discussed at the initial contracting meeting, so that clients are reasonably clear about them.  And coaches should be very careful about borrowing tools and approaches from therapy or counselling, and in using any such approaches in ways that don't delve into the unconscious, childhood, or trauma.

But as ever this post is my thinking aloud as I develop my thinking, not my final position: I would be very interested in others' views on this.

Monday 19 February 2024

How dangerous is AI?

 Over the weekend I watched The AI Dilemma on Youtube. It's about the risks of the race for AI supremacy (or at least advantage).

There's lots here to be concerned about, and their practical illustrations of the risks are nothing short of shocking: not least Snapchat's AI Friend feature cheerfully supporting the grooming and proposed rape of a 13 year old girl by a much older man. Likewise their claim that 50% of researchers working on AI think that there is at least a 10% chance that AI will cause the extinction of humanity.  Yes, read that again! 

I won't try to summarise their argument here; rather I recommend that you watch the video. But beyond that I am not sure what you (or I) can do.  But sharing this seems like a good start.

And perhaps, just perhaps, the existence of thoughtful critics like this (who are not Luddites, but rather wanting proper thought to precede mass rollout) may account for the fact Open AI's Sora - which looks fantastic, but also very dangerous - is not yet released, as it is undergoing safety checks.

One of the many worrying things that Harris and Raskin talk about in the video, however, is the degree to which the cat is already out of the bag, as it were, with social media. That is to say, that we have had a huge rollout of social media before we were collectively ready for it.  And whilst the benefits have been real and significant, the harms were largely unforeseen and even more significant. 

But as I say, I won't try to summarise their arguments here, merely exhort you to watch and think for yourself. 


Friday 9 February 2024


I've just finished reading Liz Wiseman's book, Multipliers (on the recommendation of an academic, who saw parallels with the approach I had taken to facilitating a leadership meeting he attended).

The subtitle is How the best leaders make everyone smarter, and Wiseman contrasts Multipliers (who multiply the collective intelligence, contribution and commitment within their sphere of influence) with Diminishers, who dominate and discourage people from thinking for themselves, taking the initiative and so on.

My first thoughts are that Wiseman has dressed McGregor's Theory X and Theory Y in new clothes, with a nod at the knowledge economy. Back in the 1950s, McGregor articulated the different management styles of those who assumed workers are lazy, and those who assumed they were keen to contribute; and how the styles tended to become self-fulfilling prophecies. That is, if you consistently treat workers as though you expect them to skive off at every opportunity, you will create an environment when they will see management as the enemy, and try to get away with whatever they can. Conversely, if you expect the best of them, you are more likely to create an environment in which they contribute their best efforts.

It is hard to see much difference in Wiseman's Diminisher and Multiplier assumptions. The Diminisher  assumption she offers is: People will never figure this out without me; and the Multiplier assumption is: People are smart and can figure it out.

Having said that, the book is useful in bringing this fundamental point to people's attention in a thought-provoking and memorable way. As one reads, one can quickly identify managers one knows who act as Diminishers - reducing their staff's room for contribution, and ultimately their commitment, creativity and morale; or conversely those who act as Multipliers, expecting and creating the conditions for staff to give of their best.  And following on from that, one can look in the mirror and start to reflect on one's own practice. 

However, I found her taxonomy of Talent Magnets, Liberators, Challengers, Debate Makers and Investors less convincing and less helpful. It seemed to me that she was merely restating the central thesis in slightly different contexts over and over; and the same was true of the multiple examples of people who exemplify her theory. That results in the book being over-long, somewhat confusing, and very easy to put down. Multiplying pages is not, perhaps, a virtue.

Nonetheless, I was glad to have read it, and would recommend it to anyone who has either lots of time and patience, or the ability to skim and extract the key ideas without wading through the whole lot.

Tuesday 6 February 2024

The Eyes Have It!

I am currently reading van der Kolk's excellent The Body Keeps the Score. (In passing I notice that this, along with the recent seminar I went on with the Oxford Brain Story, raises further serious questions about the idea of young people having a settled gender identity, and of the affirmative approach to trans youth care.  As I have remarked previously, this is a complex issue which would benefit from serious research rather than political game-playing, virtue-signalling, and polemical point-scoring...)

However, what I want to reflect on today is eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing, or EMDR. This is something I had heard about previously, and been rather dismissive of, as it sounds a bit like so many of those NLP techniques that are claimed to work miracles ('Frogs into Princes') but when researched are found to be largely bogus.  Somewhat to my relief, I found that van der Kolk had started from much the same place: 'To me and my academic colleagues, it sounded like yet another of the crazes that have always plagued psychiatry...'

However, van der Kolk and others have the commitment, skills and resources to do proper, blind, studies, with control groups; and EMDR is found to be extremely effective for many who suffer with PTSD. And as he says, 'While we don't yet know precisely how EMDR works, the same is true of Prozac...'

Nonetheless, there seems to be some connection between eye movement and the way the brain processes thoughts and memories; and the link with REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which is when we are dreaming, is intriguing and suggestive. There is something about the free association style of thinking in both EMDR and dreams, that suggests the brain is doing something important; and the results, in both cases, seem to support that  hypothesis. 

All of which set me thinking about the Thinking Environment process. When we are listening to someone think for an extended period of time, we notice a few things. One is that the mind does something similar, in terms of free association. The sequence (and even relevance) of what is thought is often far from obvious. But also, the thinker's eyes are often very active. Indeed, when I am listening through the silence, I often glance at the thinker's eyes, and when I see they are moving around, I am confident that the thinker is continuing to think. And often, at the end of such an extended period of thinking, the thinker is able to pull together, make sense of, and find new meanings in, all that has gone before. Which is remarkably similar, albeit dealing with less deep-rooted issues, to what van der Kolk describes his patients as doing.

This is, as ever, simply my thinking aloud about my practice; and it may be that I am making unwarranted links and parallels,  But I thought it was interesting, so I assume others might.  And if anyone knows better, please tell me!


With thanks to Printerval for the image of the sweatshirt.