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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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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Remembering Cindy Cooper

London’s community of mindfulness practitioners lost a guiding light this year with the death in March of Cindy Cooper. Cindy was my teacher and sometime supervisor for about ten years. During that time, I frequently reflected on my good fortune to have encountered her. She combined the integrity and wisdom evident among the best practitioners in her field, with a warmth which made people feel they had a deep connection with her. In this, she embodied the value we gain from working with a teacher and learning in groups. She helped generate a depth of understanding that could never arise simply by practising alone.

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The modest antidote to fanaticism

The New York Times columnist, David Brooks, wrote a series of columns this year on the subject of moderation. He was responding to the increasing prevalence of fanaticism in the United States, which stretches from Trump’s “conspiracy mongering” to the neo-Nazis. We have our own problems with fanaticism in the UK, ranging from the hard-line Brexiteers who will have no compromise with reality to the misogynistic and anti-semitic left.

The problem with fanaticism is that it provokes righteous anger in those who oppose it. So a perfect storm of rage encompasses civic life. The last sentence of my previous paragraph might even have contributed to it.

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On being the best you can be given the circumstances

Here’s a passage from The Compassionate Mind by Paul Gilbert:

“When I was younger and training to become a therapist, trying to help people who were very distressed, I used to say to my supervisor that my patients would be so much better off having somebody with far more experience than I had. To some extent, that was clearly true. However, my supervisor, who was a wise and gentle older lady, pointed out that this was the essence of life. We can live life in the ‘if only’ lane or make the best of it and appreciate where we are right now. So the question for me was not ‘How can I have 20 years’ experience on Day 1?’ because that wasn’t possible. Everyone has to walk exactly the same road as I was walking, from being inexperienced to experienced. There is no other way. Rather the question she wanted me to ask myself was ‘How can I be the best young, inexperienced therapist I can be, given my limitations?’ Because that was all there was for these individuals – there was no one else. It was a harsh lesson in some ways but it helped me confront the reality of my limitations: I could only be what I could be.”

One of the best things I’ve done this year is to help convene a group of coaches who share an interest in mindfulness. I needed to take to the group a reading that we could reflect on together and alighted on this passage. For some years, it has informed my thinking not just about who I am as a practitioner but who my clients might think they are as leaders.

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Leading mindfully is a radical challenge to corporate orthodoxy

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Book review: Leading Mindfully by Amanda Sinclair

I sometimes wonder whether we have reached peak mindfulness in the corporate world. So widely discussed – apparently embraced by banks, Google, the US Army – yet so hard to integrate into organisational culture. Leading Mindfully by Amanda Sinclair at first looks like a contribution to the bandwagon. But it is, in fact, a profoundly subversive exposition of the philosophy of leadership. It takes us to places that aren’t routinely part of the discourse of management theory: the role of the senses, the pursuit of happiness, the erotic dimension of leadership. In its evocative depiction of what leading with integrity looks like, it highlights the malpractice inherent in leadership as we know it in most organisational contexts. Reading it before and after the Brexit referendum, I also found in the book insights on how Britain finds its way through the chaos and uncertainty that lies ahead.

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Cut ego down to size in leadership

audrelorde
How can we presume to lead until we understand from where we’ve come?

Book review: Leadership for the Disillusioned by Amanda Sinclair

Amanda Sinclair published Leadership for the Disillusioned in 2007, shortly before the financial crisis that has done more than anything in my lifetime to undermine public trust in corporate leadership. It’s telling that the most resonant example she cites of leadership that chips away at our illusions is the collapse in 2001 of the energy company, Enron. The most resonant corporate scandal of its time, the Enron affair could nonetheless be explained away at the time as an isolated if grand case of fraud that didn’t call into question the contemporary view of corporate leadership as a largely benign practice that broadly benefits society. Since the banking crash, our social system has become more widely perceived as governed by an ideology of corporate self-interest that nearly brought society to its knees and continues to serve the enrichment of a tiny minority. Throw in (to name a few UK examples) the phone hacking scandal, the Mid-Staffs Hospital scandal and the Jimmy Savile scandal and, if there were grounds for disillusion in 2007, there is widespread acceptance now that leadership as traditionally construed faces a crisis of legitimacy.

Sinclair’s book brings home the extent to which corporate thinking shapes how we view leadership. We’re culturally attuned to a managerialist model that construes leadership as invested in figures of formal authority at the apex of hierarchies. Leaders are action-oriented and ego-driven, their self-regard pumped up by status or absurdly inflated remuneration. The trend towards authenticity in leadership is of a piece with such ego-massaging, encouraging managers to identify themselves with their work role and self-actualise by bending others to their agenda.

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What has trauma to do with work?

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Book review: The Trauma of Everyday Life by Mark Epstein

I read The Trauma of Everyday Life to inform my thinking for an event I am helping to organise on trauma in coaching. I hadn’t appreciated before I read the book just how much of a Buddhist take on the subject it would represent. It turns out Mark Epstein, a New York-based psychiatrist, is an established writer on Buddhism and its intersection with psychotherapy. He provides here a psychotherapeutic biography of the Buddha: how the Buddha’s own traumas informed his enlightenment and how this, in turn, shines a light on how best we can cope with difficulty in our lives. This is perhaps more interesting to me than a straight psychotherapeutic discussion. Though no Buddhist, I practice mindfulness. As a matter of philosophical disposition, I find the possibilities it holds out for caring for oneself more appealing than the path that working with an expert therapist offers.

Epstein adopts a broader and looser interpretation of trauma than one normally encounters in psychotherapeutic discussion. He distinguishes between the conventional view of trauma, as confronting a death or serious injury, and developmental trauma, when emotional pain cannot be held. Sometimes, these might converge – for example, Epstein refers to the Buddha’s own developmental emotional pain resulting from the death in his infancy of his mother. But Epstein also views the common difficulties of life through the lens of trauma and refers to the pre-traumatic stress with which we experience the inevitability of death.

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Mindfulness plus narrative awareness equals critique

mindful revolution
Time for a mindful revolution?

This is the third and final part in my series on being and doing in coaching. In Part 1, I explained how I draw on mindfulness and narrative awareness in my work. In Part 2, I discussed the symbiotic link between being and doing, and the challenge to bring more of a sense of being to our doing.

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the critique of organisations that we have developed here: the idea that organisations could be less toxic places to work and could play a more positive role in addressing society’s problems. I don’t want to rehearse those arguments again but instead look at how they come out of the approach to coaching that I have been describing in this series. If coaching is, as I maintain, a way of facilitating unfamiliarity, it follows that it is potentially disruptive of the received wisdom in organisations – the things that are so taken for granted that it’s otherwise almost impossible to question them. By putting a premium on connecting with our embodied wisdom, our gut instincts and nagging doubts, it creates space to acknowledge the ways in which the things organisations ask of us might make us uneasy.

Where does received wisdom come from? Narrative theory tells us that it is shaped by the dominant culture of the age. In our age, the common sense is defined by neoliberalism: the idea that the market is the natural way to do things and, if we live with the consequences of the market, this will be better for everyone in the long run. More than that – and more pertinent to this conversation – it’s a common sense characterised by hyper-rationality in which the insights that comes from emotion, values and embodied wisdom count for little.

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Being and doing are not mutually exclusive

Day's work
A day’s work is never done

This is the second in a series of posts based on a talk I gave on being versus doing in coaching. Part one of the series looked at the influences of narrative and mindfulness on how I work as a coach. This post explores the tension between being and doing.

Being versus doing is an increasingly important question for our culture. We live in an era when time is at a premium. Time is money and we’re all under pressure to give as much as we can in the time when we contract our labour to others.

This doesn’t always equate to greater efficiency. In the years since our rubbish collections were contracted out to private management, there has been a clear shift in focus from quality of service to minimising inputs (both time and people). The bin men’s job was never pleasant but now they have to do it as if competing in a macabre version of It’s a Knockout. The rubbish gets collected, but much is strewn all over the place and the bins are left lying in random places – so neighbourhoods are left, in some respects, in a worse mess than before the bin men arrive.

Because this pressure on time can lead to a poor quality of working life, we come to put much more emphasis on our getting the most from our personal lives. So even away from work we don’t escape the pressure to get things done. Films to catch, rooms to decorate, walks to be done in inspiring places – not to mention routine essentials like laundry, shopping and cooking. We really need times of stillness and quiet: opportunities to calm the agitation and connect with ourselves and how we’re feeling about what’s going on.

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