Coaching is just one way, albeit a very important way, of helping people to learn. For the past few years I have been learning upholstery. I have been instructed, taught, demonstrated to, lectured at and shown how to execute various techniques, but not once have I been coached. That led me to reflect on the application of coaching techniques to adult learners of new skills; would I have learned faster with more coaching and less ‘telling’? Have I become a more dependent learner as a consequence of learning by instruction? Or am I not yet at a stage of sufficient competence to benefit from coaching? I am now applying what I have learned about the experience of being taught in my coaching practice. It now seems to me that there is little point in coaching someone who has insufficient knowledge to benefit from such a reflective learning strategy.
Today the sun is shining and I really do think Spring has decided to get cracking. However, my thoughts keep wandering back to the snow and the impact it had on me, my clients and even a few lessons for my coaching practice.
To begin, there was the novelty: snow is comparatively rare in the UK and to get so much before Christmas is unusual. The landscape softens. Ugly aspects are purified, covered, obliterated. That local eysore is granted a new persona through the gift of snow.
Then reality begins to bite: I can’t get to work; my clients are snowed in. life becomes stressful – an effort. Every journey needs major preparations: snow shovel, hot drinks, blankets. ‘You are trying to get where? And to do what? No chance!’ Family celebrations are put on hold. People grow weary of the sheer effort of trying to impose some vestiges of normality on a situation that demands a high tolerance of ambiguity. We are not used to suspending our disbelief for so long. We like certainty. We prefer to arrange meetings in the belief that we can get to them without worrying that we shall be held in the suffocating embrace of a snowdrift.
As a coach, there are wonderful metaphors here to explore. But what also strikes me is not metaphorical or allegorical at all – just reality. People are tired. We are emerging from a long, cold, disrupted Winter. We are through the first quarter and only now are the very first green buds beginning to show. Spring flowers are between 2 and 4 weeks late, depending on where you live in the UK. We are faced with a rich mix of uncertainties: political, recessional, personal and financial. As a coach I need to bring the very best of myself to the service of my clients. My energies, my ‘signature presence’ is important if my clients are to get the very best of our sessions. David Megginson gave a most thought provoking session at a Critical Research day in Bristol earlier this year. The topic was ‘Aliveness in Coaching’ and it has just dawned on me that my own sense of aliveness is being challenged by many of the factors I have just described. That will not do me, or my clients any good. Time to step out of Winter and into Spring: bring on the daffodils.
Some of you may have read this eminently readable polemic by Barbara Ehrenreich. Its subtitle is How Positive Thinking Fooled America and The World. It is arguably a book that badly needed writing but as a coach it has provided me with some very uncomfortable moments. This book was never intended to be a balanced rationale; it is written as a strongly descriptive and amusing diatribe against many of the more barking beliefs of New Age adherents. Ehrenreich begins with her bitter reactions not to having breast cancer but to being exhorted to love the disease, to see it as a gift and an opportunity to re-think her life and begin anew. The ‘positive thinking’ that she most objects to is that if you don’t get better then it is because you do not believe strongly enough. She covers positive prayer, positive greed (put the picture of the yacht on your mirror, believe positively in it and an abundant universe will provide), and positive psychology. It is an exciting, exhilarating and funny read but as we get swept, along babies are being thrown out with bathwater.
Coaching gets caught up in the mix: ‘What attracts the coaching profession to these mystical powers? Well, there’s not much else for them to impart to their coachees’ (p63). Eh?? ‘Mystical powers’? ‘Impart’? She continues: ‘All they can do is work on your attitude and expectations, so it helps to start with the metaphysical premise that success is guaranteed through some kind of attitudinal intervention. And if success does not follow………it’s not the coach’s fault, it’s yours. You just didn’t try hard enough and obviously need more work’. As the exam Q says: ‘Discuss’. There is so much here to unpick that in a short blog it is probably better not to get started. However, chapter six on Positive Psychology really should be explored in depth, and by more informed brains than mine. Ehrenreich takes the trouble to attend conferences, to talk with Martin Seligman and Ilona Bonniwell and the picture she paints is of an approach that is rapidly gaining popular momentum but is based on a weak evidence.
Clearly Ehrenreich overstates her case and frequently for comic effect. However, she has posed some interesting questions and reading this book has prompted me to re-evaluate some of my beliefs about the work that I do and the ways in which I do it. Any profession should be able to stand up to rigorous examination and challenge and if this book has prompted us to re-examine our work with increased clarity and professionalism then that’s all to the good. Bring on the research!!
I am writing this while listening to a programme on radio 4 on ‘me-time’; ways to value reflection, conserve the personal battery or ’switch on the personal screen-saver’. There is much written on self-esteem and reflection, and clearly we need to know ‘who we are’, to value ourselves and to take care of our own physical and mental well-being. However, there is a dark side to all this, and that is the self-indulgence and selfishness of getting ‘locked within’. Cherish and value who you are, don’t denigrate, or decorate it. Stand outside yourself and stop ‘musterbating’. Know what you want, be clear about it, and honest with yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to say ‘no’. Give yourself headroom, and breathe. Then look outside. Get on with it. The happiest people I know are those whose focus isexternal. They look outside themselves and are concerned with others. They do stuff. Find out what makes you authentic and real. Love what you have, then give time and attention to others. As the Buddha said ‘there is no way to happiness: happiness is the way’. So crack on and get happy. Happy Christmas.
Last year Dan Docherty came to a coaching research day at Sheffield Hallam. His topic was ‘limbic coaching’ and after a short tussle with the terminology I had a series of ‘aha’ moments that are still continuing. Dan chucked a largish rock into the pond, asking us to consider, as practising coaches, what happens at the margins: the session where nothing much happens, but where there is a breakthrough moment on the walk back to reception; the time when you wonder if you are pushing too near a boundary – and a crack appears and the light shines through. Edges can be dangerous but they can also be creative and exciting places to be. Senses are heightened in the presence of danger and it a matter of judgement how far to go. Intuition is often the best guide under those circumstances – but only if that intuition has been honed and polished by experience, continuous professional development, and first class supervision.
‘The path to hell is paved with good intentions’. How often does a coach find him or herself working with a client who has acted from the best of intentions, yet fallen foul of the perceptions of others? I might craft a message, but what confidence do I have that you will de-code the message in the way that I intended? Take a recent example: a middle aged man, with no sight in one eye and serious retinal damage in the other, holding down a turbulent job and under attack from all quarters, takes time to write a letter to a bereaved mother. The letter is written in his own hand and is not checked by his office. The penmanship is clumsy; words are misspelled and the impression is poor. The recipient is offended and the tabloids make political capital of the situation. Yet the Prime Minister has taken the time to write a personal letter of condolence and other recipients of similar letters have appreciated the time and effort taken to write such personal notes.
This is a dramatic example of something that coaches work with all the time: helping clients to untangle crossed wires and work on disaster recovery strategies when actions that they have taken explode in their faces. A good coach works with clients to help them to understand both ends of the communication channel: transmitter and receiver. I should not send a message without a good idea of who is to receive it. I would not craft a key without knowing what that key is designed to unlock. Poor Gordon Brown shaped his key but misunderstood the lock. Who is coaching him through the resulting fallout?
Just at the moment I am close to obsessed with metaphor. As a coach I am increasingly fascinated by words and the meaning of words. I know I use language in ways that may confuse others: I play with words and love puns. However, I am aware that that tendency has to be watched if I am not absolutely certain my client has the same associations for words that I do. Metaphor however, has the ability to transcend many language and cultural barriers. ‘What is that like?’ ‘How would you describe that?’ ‘Are there any images or stories that idea links with?’ These sorts of ‘openers’ even if not all strictly metaphors, frequently lead to images, parables, stories, similes, that allow the conversation to broaden and deepen.
Last evening, on Radio 4 (Oct 27th) I think around 8.30, there was a brilliant talk by Dr. Phil someone who was speaking on the subject of metaphor for medical insight: GPs, trauma supporters and cancer sufferers all spoke about words and images to describe, and alleviate pain. There was also a short section on Clean Language and Jenny Rogers spoke too, about coaching and metaphor. So others out there share my interest. There were also fascinating book references, so I must leap off to the ‘play again’ function on R4 and take sensible notes this time. Just thought you might be interested.
Last week I attended Dan Docherty’s Critical Coaching Research Day in Bristol. I love these sessions: there are wonderful people to meet and ideas to exchange. There were three contributors: Michael Carroll, David Megginson and Janet Keep. Michael described ‘Four Levels of Reflection’, an exceptionally useful session for me since my learning style is rather more action/theory/pragmatism than reflection. Michael’s notes will give me something to refer to and use when I need to reflect in a guided way rather than get absorbed in self-indulgent navel-gazing: the ‘dark side’ of a necessary and useful practice.
David’s contribution was a brief and thought-provoking discussion on the concept of ‘Aliveness’ in coaching. We discussed personal daily rhythms: larks vs owls; the energy levels in the room while coaching – where is the client’s energies and where are our own?; and the different concepts of drive and vitality and how food and rest affects these. Lots to think about, and a measure of balance I had not consciously considered in my own practice.
Janet Keep was the final contributor of the day and she introduced her auto-ethnographical study of the ‘quality of service-to-self’ that she is studying for her doctorate. This was thought provoking and although Janet and I would be on the opposite ends of a very long continuum here, there was much that she mentioned that will provide food for thought for a long time to come. I do wonder though about the usefulness and application of such a personal study: but there’s my innner pragmatist again! However, I have taken away a strong message that failing to take care of myself serves nobody: a valuable lesson for anyone coaching someone on the verge of burnout ….and for any parent who opts for martyrdom rather than a robust and appropriate defence of their own needs. As a friend of mine said recently when listening to a pantheon of woes: ‘do I smell burning flesh?’
‘When I use a word’ said Humpty Dumpty ‘it means what I mean it to mean – no more and no less’. Words are cognitive triggers and with each one comes a plethora of associations. Take this collection for example: teach, train, lecture, discuss, facilitate, mentor, supervise. For each: different behavioural expectations. As coaches, those behavioural expectations are crucial – if we use the wrong word then we set unrealistic or skewed expectations with our clients. If I am going to teach something, then I had better use that word and not another, with different expectations. My current concern is that I label my behaviours appropriately and don’t confuse my clients!
This is my first blog, and a new opportunity to share some thoughts with you all. One of the issues that has been concerning me recently has been words, and the meaning of words. Specifically, some of the jargon we take for granted but that puzzles clients. Take ‘unconditional positive regard’. To me, this sounds both patronising and unrealistic. How about ‘wholehearted non-judgemental attention’? ‘Unconditional’ cannot be guaranteed: we are neither doctors nor priests. Conditions are bound to exist – we have sponsoring organisations to consider. What do you think? Over to you.