April 17, 2018 § Leave a comment
I should straightaway say that I’ve never sat with someone who is dying.
But a few pages in a book which touched on the author’s experience of sitting with those who are dying, have led me to insights and confirmations about the role of coaching (Parker J. Palmers “A Hidden Wholeness”, 2004).
“We must abandon the arrogance that often distorts our relationships – the arrogance of believing that we have the answer to the other person’s problem … What is before us is not “a problem to be solved”, but a mystery to be honoured.” page 61.
In the phraseology of the Coactive model of coaching, the people we work with are naturally creative, resourceful and whole; not someone who needs fixing.
I’m learning that people who have sat with a dying person find that they are not just taking up space in the room. They may find words inadequate to describe their experience, but are often their description is some version of “I was simply being present”.
When I consider I’m being at my best in a coaching session, I notice afterwards that I too was often “just” being present: practising being present, sitting with a living belief in the value of the other person, and their capacity to pick their path (their path) through their truths and limiting beliefs. My contribution was the quality of my attentiveness, my listening to them and to myself, and my hopeful and supportive expectation of the best in them.
In his book, Parker J. Palmer quotes an incident in Nikos Kazantakis’ Zorba the Greek, in which the narrator is overly-impatient in watching a butterfly emerge from its cocoon. The narrator breathes on the cocoon to warm it, which at first encourages the butterfly to emerge. But it emerges too early, and its wings, which should have opened and dried naturally in the heat of the sun, are folded back and useless. He watches its struggles, as it is artificially and prematurely brought to a new place, before its time.
The metaphor for coaching is clear: we are not there to point out what for us are obvious solutions to the other person’s problem. For example, “Have you spoken to the other person about this?” may seem like an obvious and sensible suggestion. But the coachee might not be ready to take this step, or may not have the skills or awareness to ensure a good conversation. They’ve probably already considered and rejected this course of action. But their coach ’told’ them to, and imperfect skills or an imperfect inner commitment to the task may result in an unfortunate outcome.
Rarely does offering advice or a suggestion in coaching bring such dramatic consequences as for that emerging butterfly! But the story confirms for me that though I might offer models or abstract theories, or a reflecting challenge to help the person really understand themselves better, essentially my work is nondirective.
Rainer Maria Rilke wrote of “the love that consists in this, that two solitudes protect, border and salute each other.” A definition of the coach’s role, perhaps?
December 18, 2017 § Leave a comment
Some book titles are so insightful, or seem to carry the message of the whole book, that reading the book itself almost feels unnecessary. My shortlist of books like this includes Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway, and – on a more humorous level – the parenting book We Were Here First, Kid and Captain John W. Trimmer’s How to Avoid Huge Ships.
The Body Keeps the Score leapt out as a book really to read, as the issues the author explores have links to my coaching practice and to my own understanding of myself. The book explores the mental and physical impacts of significant trauma and how healing can be found; as one reviewer writes, it is “a brilliant synthesis of clinical cases, neuroscience, powerful tools and caring humanity”.
It’s beyond my expertise to work with trauma in coaching. If I ever had a sense of these issues surfacing within a client, I would discuss postponing the coaching, and checking what therapeutic or medical options they have taken up or might consider.
However, “The Body Keeps the Score” is still fascinating for me to read, as I believe the body often keeps the score in all sorts of ways in relation to strong experiences, whether happy, difficult or extreme. I know this from my own experience. In response to a very challenging work situation a few years ago, the best advice I found was not just to listen to my mind, but instead to use the wisdom of the body in finding a way through. This led me to opportunities for private moments of forgiveness of self and others, taking up painting, and using running as a way of processing thoughts and feelings.
Through my coaching, I believe physicality can open the door to emotionality and thus to new insights. When I’m feeling tired or stressed, my shoulders hunch up; noticing and changing my posture can help me feel a bit more positive. Inviting a coaching client briefly to repeat or ‘amplify’ body language – such as a clenched fist, a sweeping hand movement, or tapping of the feet – can lead to greater understanding of what might be behind the body language. As a coach, echoing or reflecting back body language can be a good way to listen more closely and to invite the client into deeper awareness. And active exercises such as time-lines, using spaces in the room or even chair work can make use of the links between physical experience and new realisations.
Van der Kolk writes: “Trauma is not just an event that took place sometimes in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain and body … For real change to take place, the body needs to learn that the danger has passed and to live in the reality of the present.”
At times it feels like there’s too much in the world that needs healing. But if executive coaching can help people understand difficult or apparently inexplicable events at work (again I’m not referring to medically-traumatic episodes here) then maybe coaching can also result in some form of indirect healing?
December 14, 2017 § Leave a comment
Annie Medcalf (The Fusion Firm, and a fellow executive coach and consultant, and graduate of the Academy of Executive Coaching) and I had the great privilege recently of running a coaching skills training session for international human rights defenders at the University of York’s Centre for Applied Human Rights.
The Centre hosts an annual scheme for human rights defenders at risk. This year’s defenders come from Egypt, Ukraine, Sudan, Kenya and Azerbaijan, and over the years defenders from these and many other countries with poor human rights records have benefited from a three to six months’ protective residency in York. My involvement has included interviewing and learning from them about their leadership styles and experience; I also teach part-time at the Centre on leadership and management to the Defenders and to Masters students.
The coaching skills workshop began with the premise that these Defenders, in order to be effective and to mitigate the risks of detention and harassment, are already steeped in local and international networks. These networks offer support, information, co-operation – and some measure of protection. Most Defenders are also leading or working within a local human rights organisation.
So our approach to the Defenders was an offering of training in coaching skills to help develop their leadership skills, and to help them in situations such as supporting burnt-out colleagues, managing ‘maverick’ or disruptive partners, and nurturing up-and-coming activists.
Their response was enthusiastic, and with the support of the Centre for Applied Human Rights the training went ahead last week. We are now offering on-going coaching, to support the defenders in their practice of leadership when they return home.
Though Annie and I brought models and techniques to the workshop, we were of course learners too. It’s humbling to discover the challenges some communities and individuals face in standing up for freedoms that York citizens take for granted.
December 5, 2017 § Leave a comment
The news that Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party have (perhaps temporarily) delayed the Brexit negotiations is the latest version of a story right out of Grimm’s fairy tales.
Some versions of the Grimms’ story begin with an invitation sent to 12 fairies to each give a blessing to a new-born princess. A thirteenth – and uninvited – fairy, hearing what the others are up to, turns up in a rage and delivers a curse rather than a blessing.
This 13th fairy is sometimes depicted as an evil fairy; but according to Peter Hawkins of CSTD, from whom I’m proudly borrowing the idea for this blog, this fairy isn’t evil. They’re just mad at being forgotten.
The result: they turn up late, and make trouble – because they were forgotten in the first place.
So when I heard the news this morning, my fanciful mind wondered if the DUP might be feeling like a thirteenth fairy.
And the link to coaching?
When we’re working with teams, or unpicking complex ideas, or making decisions which affect a range of stakeholders, it’s not always easy to identify all those who need to be involved.
So what might be the implications for coaches, supervisors and for those involved in strategic planning processes?
- When supervising a coach who is coaching a team: invite them to map the team on a flipchart, and as a coach be interested in who turns up ‘late’ in the story; and ask, Who else isn’t on the flipchart yet? How are they connected to the other people on the flipchart? What message are they bringing?
- When providing conflict coaching: asking who else is there in the conflict – perhaps someone on the sidelines?, or who might appear less visible, who could offer another perspective or who might have skills or resources to help bring about resolution.
- When doing a stakeholder analysis with colleagues, asking again and again: Who else have we forgotten? Who else has an interest in what we’re deciding? If we were to look back to today, who might we realise needed to be inside the tent with us?
- When coaching someone who is facing a dilemma or a difficult decision: which opinions haven’t they paid attention to yet? Is there any voice inside them which hasn’t yet been heard? (this might be the voice of the outcome or some deep yearning which they haven’t yet dared to admit to themselves). What other options are available, in addition to the possibilities they’ve already thought of?
October 26, 2017 § Leave a comment
I mentioned the phrase Culture will eat your strategy for breakfast in our coaching session last week, and you asked for more details.
I hope the following is helpful?
On the surface, the phrase simply suggests that it’s irrelevant how much time and care an organisation pours into creating a strategy: it will be powerless against the prevailing internal culture, which will have far more impact on future behaviour.
For me there are also some deeper truths within the phrase, with implications for other realities of organisational life.
First to say, perhaps, is that we can’t expect a strategy-shaping process on its own to change the culture. An organisation’s culture is a product of history, attitudes, beliefs and behaviours. It is a long-enduring reality. Culture is what is surprising or confusing to us when we’re a new-starter – and, infamously, culture is what we then are blind to after three months in the job.
Culture begins to shape itself the moment the organisation begins. If you’ve ever been involved at the start of an organisation or group, you may have witnessed this process happening around you.
(For more information, Edgar Schein wrote some of the most influential and enduring ideas on understanding organisational culture.)
The ‘joke’ is that it takes seven years to change significantly a culture. I don’t think that’s necessarily true in every case, but there’s no doubt that an organisational culture can endure even if the majority of staff leave and are replaced by new-comers.
Second, your strategy is enacted by, or mediated through, the culture. Culture is day-to-day, and every day. It regulates default behaviours and decisions. So if the strategy document imagines radically different behaviours, instead what will happen is more of the past. People will say ‘yes’ and act ‘no’.
This is why a good culture is such a prized organisational goal.
The reality, however, is the culture is what the leadership collectively behave (another Peter Hawkins quote). So changing a culture often requires an appreciative or solutions-focussed approach: identifying which behaviours do we want more of, or which of the staff are holding the attitudes or values we want everyone to have; and then naming and affirming those and giving opportunities to copy them. That’s why story-telling can work well in culture-change. And woe betide the leadership team when they fall back into the old ways without accountability or explanation: contradictions between espoused values and actual behaviour are never more obvious (and damaging) than in organisational life.
Lastly on culture, a quote from the business world: your competitors can copy everything except your culture. Companies – and not-for-profits – which can flourish in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambivalent world, have the characteristics for survival. Your culture collectively dictates your resilience, your flexibility, and your ability to innovate.
And whilst survival isn’t everything, it does at least offer more choices.
With best wishes,
October 18, 2017 § Leave a comment
Have you ever thought of leadership, or leaderful behaviour, as a hosting activity?
If you’re hosting a meeting, you might find yourself:
- Providing conditions and group process for people to work together
- Ensuring the resource of time (the scarcest commodity of all)
- Keeping bureaucracy at bay
- Reflecting back how people are doing, and insisting that everyone – and the system itself – creates space for reflection and learning
- Co-designing relevant measures of progress
And from a wider perspective, I’m finding that more and more people are fulfilling their leadership roles in organisations by acting in similar ways. They’re giving up trying to manage away instability, and instead to create an organisation which can survive and thrive within its unstable world.
If this sounds relevant to you, you may be interested in Meg’s article “Leadership in the age of complexity: from hero to host”. It is full of really practical, hands-on advice for those who bear responsibility for supporting people or organisations through times of complexity and difficulty.
“From hero to host”?
It can be tempting in these times to yearn for an old-fashioned hero to steer us through. You know, the hero in the movies who rides up on a horse just at the moment of crisis. They have the guns on their hips and all the answers in their saddlebag. They’re great at issuing orders and saying they’re keeping control of everything (despite what everyone else knows).
Well, Meg offers some advice here.
“It is time for all the heroes to go home, as the poet William Stafford wrote. It is time for us to give up these hopes and expectations that only bleed dependency and passivity, and that do not give us solutions to the challenges we face. … It is time to face the truth of our situation – that we’re all in this together, that we all have a voice – and figure out how to mobilize the hearts and minds of everyone in our workplaces and communities.”
And so what is better, other than more command and control? To build buy-in through collaboration; to reward people’s yearning for meaning and possibility in their lives and work; to be a holding vessel, hosting conditions for working and learning together.
And if we’re working with people who have given up, or who are feeling discounted, ignored or invisible: let’s use our deep sincerity, and our convening skills, to open up invitations to re-engagement.
And what if we think we’re heroes too? Our good intentions, and our dreams for community and planet, drive us to work and work; and somehow if we just worker harder and smarter, we’ll breakthrough and everything will be sorted.
Well, there’s some final advice for you from Meg: it’s time for the heroes to go home!
And, to notice that actually we’re not alone, we’re surrounded by those who want to help and who aren’t anyway looking for heroes.
They might, instead, welcome a good host.
Meg’s extensive collection of articles are free for download at http://margaretwheatley.com/library/
Leadership in these times:
September 15, 2017 § Leave a comment
“Good leaders find it increasingly difficult to use the processes and practices that worked well in the past to evoke people’s inherent motivation, commitment, and creativity. Yet if we notice who we’ve become, we can recommit to who we choose to be as a leader for this time.” Meg Wheatley