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.

Thursday 1 February 2024

Wilful Blindness

I am always interested in - and sometimes incensed by - many organisations' preference to avoid asking questions for fear that they may not like the answers. I think this is related to the phenomenon of Wilful Blindness, explored by Margaret Heffernan in her excellent book of that title, and in various Youtube talks (here, for example).

I think it is particularly problematic in Universities, and have come across a few examples recently. 

One is library opening hours. A number of institutions offer 24/7 access to their libraries, in response to student demand.  I asked one about the research on this, in relation to student mental well-being and was told 'In terms of research, there may be a gap in terms of projects purely looking into mental health & 24hr uni libraries.'

Whether 24/7 opening is problematic is an open question, I suggest. I could see arguments both ways. So this is precisely the kind of topic that would benefit from some serious research - yet none is undertaken, and the Universities press ahead, because of student demand. And the cynic in me wonders if it is because Universities don't want to know, because if it is proven to be deleterious they would have to face the choice between an unpopular decision and one that is bad for students.

We find the same on the trans issue, of course. This is highly complex, not least because Stonewall et al have created a trans umbrella that groups together an extraordinary array of different types of people under the label trans. 

Given the problems at the Tavistock, the Cass Report, and the tangles that Universities have been getting themselves into over people who are gender critical, one might think that this merits some research and exploration. 

But what we find is that Universities have taken an ideological, not an evidence-based, approach to this issue, both in terms of their DEI policies and (in the case of some 40-odd with Medical Schools) by signing the GLADD Charter on Conversion Therapy.  This includes the statement: The diversity of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression are natural variations of the human experience and do not require a cure. 

As I say, that is clearly an ideological, rather than an evidence-based, statement. But it is one that avoids engaging with the rather difficult reality that would arise, should research discover that some of those who identify as trans do not meet (for example) the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria.

One very senior individual at a prestigious institution told me that he thinks it highly likely that the huge increase in teenage girls identifying as trans is a result of social contagion.  He may be wrong, of course: my point is that the issue should be being researched. But as James Caspian discovered, there are some questions that Universities do not want to be researched.

So why are Universities keen not to know some things? My hypothesis, as I suspect has been clear throughout, is that they are too concerned about student reactions. A small number of angry students can do a great deal of damage to a University, not least through the NSS. So any issues where student feelings may run high are potential minefields. 

Nonetheless, I believe that if Universities end up preferring wilful blindness to confronting challenging realities, they will do themselves - and the wider culture of the country - much greater harm.