Untangle and grow

A blog by Alison Maxwell

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Coaching in different cultures

I've been asked to speak at a conference on London in March on the topic of coaching across different cultures. This always seems to a bit of a hot topic for many coaches and my guess is that this might speak to our sensitivities and uncertainties about working with people who are (very) different from ourselves.

I think is very easy to reduce the discussion of culture to a discussion of crude stereotypes.... Italians are voluble and excitable... Americans are loud... and all Brits have stiff upper lips.  A much more useful characterisation of culture is Hofstede's work on cultural dimensions and it can be eye-opening to compare ourselves with other nationalities. Have a look at the Hofstede website to see what I mean.

And of course any description of national culture obscures a whole load of variation. Just because I'm a Brit doesn't mean I'm reserved .. at least not all the time. To understand the individual sat in front of us for coaching means considering a whole pile of factors including their personality type, their organisational culture as well as their national culture.. and that is just for starters. However underneath that complexity, strangely the more you get to understand an individual the more you see their similarities not their differences.

Vive la difference!

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Getting the shift - using pivot points

What does it take to 'get the shift'. Coaching clients all to often show up for coaching with best intentions of making changes in their lives and relations, but somehow never making them. The change becomes overwelmingly difficult - "If it wasn't for my difficult boss... I'm not the sort of person .. my unrelenting workload" - and the conversation stops being about bringing about change so much as justifying why any change is impossible.

Getting the client to the point where they make a real and sustainable change is therefore a challenge and a dilemma for a coach. Some coaches in their anxiety to make a difference, resort to using their personal energies to get the client over the line, forgetting that once they leave them they are likely to fall back to their habitual ways of being.

Dr David Drake  (Centre for Narrative Coaching) has an interesting technique that helps here. He talks about the notion of 'pivot points', effectively choice points in a clients life where they have to two possible course of of action - one aligned with their desires and one aligned with their status quo. Change is then about recognising and choosing a particular path in the moment . For example "I can give my opinion or I can keep quiet" when I'm faced with a threatening situation. What's great about this approach is it reduces what might seem an overwelmingly impossible change into a series of small and simple in the moment choices... which is what life is composed of anyway.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Taking risks in coaching

I was recently sitting with a coaching client who was giving me an update on how he had been doing since our last session - at some considerable length. He seemed to have lost the thread of his original story and he was now on the third sub-branch of his 4th point. Part of me was loosing the will to live, part of me was valiantly trying to follow his thread, but part of me was also curious.... is this what he is like with others?

Taking courage in both hands, this is more or less what I asked him. Do others struggle to follow his argument, had he noticed others disengaging as he speaks? And of course the answer was 'Yes'  and the door opened up to a richer and much more vital conversation between us.

When I work with developing coaches this is often one of the most challenging and risky aspects of coaching - using your own immediate experience of the client as part of the work. Firstly you have to be aware in the moment of how you are reacting to the client, secondly you have to get curious rather than judgmental about it, third, you have to get past your fears of being rude or impolite and lastly, take the risk and find a constructive way of calling it out.

Step 3 - getting past our fears, is often the most difficult. Being a 'talking by helping' profession, coaches like to frame themselves as supporters and helpers. Saying something potentially disruptive can work against our own self image. However my experience is that being 'useful' rather than 'helpful' can in the end be more valuable to the client.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Mastery in coaching (or anything)

I've been asked to speak at a conference this month in London on the topic of growing mastery in coaches, so have been reflecting on my own development as a coach and the work I do supporting coaches development as a coach supervisor.

In short, I find the topic of 'mastery' a slippery concept and difficult to pin down definitively. There is seems to be an assumption that mastery is achieved through accumulation - more experience, more tools,  more models ... just more. However, as big a danger for me, are coaches who fail to inspect their practice regularly enough. Over time we all develop habits of practice and habits of mind and we settle into a way of working which is familiar for us but not necessarily bringing all we can to our clients.

Dr. David Drake (Center for Narrative Coaching) suggest that mastery comes from four 'A's:

  • Awareness - expanding our capacity to be be aware of ourselves, our clients, our relationship and the wider systems and organisations they come from
  • Attention - knowing what to focus on in the coaching session and why. This comes from experience and the ability to spot the emergent patterns
  • Adaptability - too many coaches over rely on one model/theory/tool, adaptability implies a genuine openness to re-examine the basis of our practice and work with feedback
  • Accountability - coaches have a duty of care to their clients and a duty of performance to their organisations. Accountability means developing ethical and practice maturity.
In essence this is about about staying awake as a coach and holding our habits lightly.  Masters are not masters because they practice more, masters practice more consciously.

Join us at the Coaching Focus Knowledge Sharing event, 12th December 2014, at the Herbert Smith Freehills - City Gate House 39 - 45 Finsbury Square, London, 10.00-16.00. The booking link is here

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Breaking the seal

Confidentiality is a central tenet of the coaching relationship - without belief in confidentiality the client is unlikely to open up and talk about what is really going on for them.  If they find we have blabbed to the HR department about what has been said in a coaching session they are unlikely to come back for another session, never mind trust us again! Confidentiality is therefore key to effective working.

Yet confidentiality cannot be an absolute and I don't think we should guarantee it to clients. For example, like most professional coaches I have my own coaching supervisor and sometimes I need to talk about my cases with her - its part of the deal of keeping me working at my best. Clients therefore need to know that I might be talking about them - or at least my response to them - to someone else. Usually this is not a problem as long as I explicitly let them know that this might be a possibility as part of the up front contracting process. Clients often seem less bothered by confidentiality issues than I do!

However there are times and eventualities that cannot be foreseen and pre-empted by the initial contract  e.g questions of legality, safety, health, impact on others etc. In such (unusual) circumstances I would always encourage my client to 'break the seal' themselves and have the outside conversations that need to be had. Fortunately in 20+years of working with clients this has always been enough to move the situation on and I've never had to break confidence myself.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Coaching in the East

I have the pleasure of working with leaders from around the world and am always struck how conceptions of leadership vary depending on cultural background. I've just come back from a week's stint in Singapore working with a cross-section of leaders from across Asia and noticed how much we assume Western European notions of coaching and leadership are shared and understood globally.

Coaching, at least non-directive coaching, is predicated on the idea that boss and subordinate can have adult-adult conversations, in which the ideas of the subordinate are valued and encouraged. However in East, the relationship between leader and subordinate is much more deferential (and respectful) ... did you know that a subordinate in Japan would never initiate a handshake but must wait for the boss ? This means, for example, that open coaching questions can be met with incomprehension and anxiety rather than as an invitation to creative thought.

Does this mean that coaching won't work in the East? While these cultural impediments exist, the organisational culture and expectations are also hugely important in shaping leadership behaviours. It is just not as simple as saying one cultural group is ripe for coaching and another isn't. The group last week while initially mystified were ultimately keen to give coaching a go with their teams.