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...