From toolkits to relationships: getting real about what happens in coaching

The practice of coaching has many antecedents. But one that most eased its way into the corporate world was the analogy between sports coaching and leadership development. Corporations are susceptible to narratives of being world class and winning. So learning from methodologies fine-tuned to get the best out of athletes can be appealing to the corporate leader’s world view. This, for a long while, created an emphasis in the development of coaches on the acquisition of skills and techniques. Coaches would turn up with their “toolkits” and fine tune their clients’ performance in the pursuit of specified goals.

The Theory and Practice of Relational Coaching by Simon Cavicchia and Maria Gilbert proposes a different perspective. It views coaching as a dialogue of discovery between coach and client, one which calls on the practitioner to cultivate awareness and empathic attunement more than it demands technical accomplishment. It’s an approach which is grounded in the insight that all of our experience is socially constructed. There is no fixed thing called an organisation which provides a predictable environment for our working lives. It is enacted every day by its participants and shaped by the different world views that each of them brings by virtue of their biography.

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The serious business of playing the Fool

fool

It’s a shame that Hetty Einzig’s The Future of Coaching is so-called. Its concerns spread much wider than its title implies. It’s a radical and thoughtful book which holds before us the chaotic nuttiness of the world as it is now and asks what kind of leadership should coaching call forth.

Hetty Einzig takes it as axiomatic that the big challenges we humans face demand committed and creative interventions by leaders. Never mind present concerns such as Brexit or Trump, Hetty reminds us that the broader context is that of a trajectory to environmental catastrophe. She has no truck with the notion that coaches should be neutral facilitators of whatever goals their corporate clients might pursue. Nor does she believe leaders should collude with such ideas. Coaches and leaders alike are citizens in wider society as well as servants of the organisations that employ them. It is the legitimate task of all of us to try to influence organisations to play a constructive role in addressing society’s problems.

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Engage a coach to save humanity from itself

Humans are a clever species. Look at the world we’ve constructed. The very name homo sapiens describes us as wise. But somehow we’ve come to live in a way that is inimical to our nature and destructive of our wellbeing. The organisations in which we work are part of the problem. They are incapable of maintaining bonds of trust with their employees, and obstruct our efforts to sustain our closest relationships.

This is the thesis of A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon which attempts to explain the science behind our fundamental need for human connection. Written by three professors of psychiatry, it was published in 2000. In my layman’s reading, its scientific authority has been overtaken by more recent neuroscience. But its date of publication is significant. At the start of a new century, the book aimed to debunk the mythology – whether psychodynamic or behaviourist – which shaped our understanding of emotions through the 20th Century. Insofar as these mythologies remain influential today, A General Theory of Love remains a relevant read. Indeed it seems prescient in its cultural criticism of how Western societies have developed so as to deny our physiological need for attachment, and the social maladies that thereby arise.

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Going deep in conversation with insight dialogue

If I’m working with a group that is highly committed to improving the quality of relationship between them, I might reach for Insight Dialogue.

This is actually a meditation practice developed by Gregory Kramer, a meditation that is conducted in relationship with someone else. Its essence is that it interrupts the normal routine of conversation with deliberate pauses and reflections, so that we might connect with the perception that we hold that might otherwise lie just beneath conscious awareness.

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Dancing with nonviolent communication to change the conversation in organisations

One of the methodolgies we use to change the habits of conversation in organisations is nonviolent communication (NVC). This is a clunky name for a practice, developed by Marshal Rosenberg. It is deceptively simple but also profound in the insights it generates about what’s going on when people talk to each other.

Marshal Rosenberg’s key insight is that often in communication, people are seeking – consciously or unconsciously – to satisfy needs. It’s the frustration of these needs that can cause relationships to become mired in conflict. The route to understanding needs is to notice the feelings that are at play in a situation. So Marshal Rosenberg proposed a four-fold grammar for communicating in a way that could help people bring empathic attention to these factors.

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Conversation matters more than structure in organisations

A lot of our work in organisations focusses on getting people to show up differently in conversations. This is because it’s through conversations that organisations exist. People often think of organisations as structures which have a solidity beyond the people who comprise them. There’s some truth in this construct. The BBC existed long before I joined it and seems to be managing to survive quite adequately even though it’s a decade since I left.

But it’s also true that organisations are enacted into being by their members. The day-to-day interactions people have with each other in organisations are much more material to how things get done than the structures, strategies, documents and plans that people imagine to be their work.

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18th Century insight on 21st Century complexity

Who, these days, speaks for conservatism, the philosophical orientation that is cautious of change? We have an answer in the small band of Tory rebels, led by Dominic Grieve, who have won for Parliament a right to decide on the final Brexit deal. But the very fact of their struggle against their own party shows that cautious conservatism is not much in vogue.

My question is prompted by reading Jesse Norman’s 2013 biography of Edmund Burke, one of the founding thinkers of conservatism. Jesse Norman is a Conservative MP and current government minister. But I imagine he might be out of sorts with his party since the philosophy he describes is not much reflected in current Conservative practice. His book demonstrates, though, that even if Burke is out of fashion with the Tories, he still has much to say to contemporary Britain.

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Effort more than talent is the key to achievement

growth bw

In conventional thinking, the people who get on in life are those who are brainy or talented. But this apparent truth was overturned by the Stanford University psychologist, Carol Dweck. Through many years of research, she found that being labelled as talented could quickly become an obstacle to achievement. It turns out that effort is much more important than talent.

This simple but important finding is presented in Carol Dweck’s book Mindset. The key insight it contains is that people learn and develop best when they adopt a “growth mindset” – open to learning as a challenge, relishing setbacks as an opportunity to learn – and flounder when they adopt a “fixed mindset” – defensive of their identity, frightened to take risks in case they fail. The fixed mindset values innate talent over cultivating potential.

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England: the nation with a special place in Europe

The English and Their History by Robert Tombs is a monumental book covering the story of England from the 7th Century to the present day. Published in 2014, it’s a pertinent insight into our national identity. While the whole of the UK is leaving the EU, it is English nationalism that is a driving force behind it.

Tombs shows that an English nation was established well before 1066 using the language of old English which was suppressed by the Normans but revived in the fourteenth century. A long history of conflict with Scotland overhangs much of the story prior to the Acts of Union. The union is sometimes portrayed in the nationalist perspective as something close to England’s annexation of Scotland. But the union also meant England was subsumed into Britain. Scotland retained a national identity, England less so. And Tombs’ history becomes more blurry after union: it’s hard to pick out England’s story from that of the broader UK.

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Deep work is the key to doing anything useful in the knowledge economy

The premise of Cal Newport’s Deep Work is that deep work is what creates value in the knowledge economy but our culture encourages people towards distraction. Therefore opportunities exist for those who can prioritise depth. The book outlines strategies for doing so.

Newport defines deep work as:

“Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

Its antithesis, shallow work, is:

“Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”

If the thought of a life of concentration sounds exhausting, the good news is that it is not necessary – in fact, would be counter-producive – to try to spend all one’s working time in deep work. Newport says the aim should be to minimise the shallow and get the most out of the time this frees up by committing three to four hours a day to deep work. A certain amount of idleness is necessary to make sure the time spent in deep work is productive and creative.

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