Untangle and grow

A blog by Alison Maxwell

Monday, 9 February 2015

Awkward triangles

I've been caught a few times in my coaching career in an 'awkward triangle'. By this I mean situations where the commissioning client and the coaching client have relationship problems. Both sides try to enrol you in their point of view and expect you to side with them against the offending party. It is not often clear where the 'truth' of the matter lies (usually somewhere in the middle), and it is easy for a coach to get trapped between the warring factions. This triangle can be doubly awkward when it is a boss-subordinate relationship, and there is the assumption that the boss has the total 'truth' of the situation

I find the Karpman 'drama' triangle' a useful way of explaining, at least to myself, what is going on. Both parties see each other as the 'persecutor' and themselves as the 'victim'. The coach is cast into the role of 'rescuer', a role they are bound to fail at particularly if they get seduced into taking sides.

I've found that the only way of escaping this triangle, is to refuse to enter into it in the first place. Both clients have to know that you are not there to play 'agony aunt' and that your concern is for the overall functioning of the individuals and the organisations they get paid by. The work is therefore to help the clients have direct and open conversations and step out of the picture. Now that is not necessarily as easy to achieve as to say....

Here's a link to some background on the drama triangle in coaching relationships

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Who shouldn't coach?


Now this is a tricky question! As you probably know, i) everyone seems to want to be a coach these days and ii) there are absolutely no barriers, other than those self-imposed, to becoming one. So it is perfectly possible to set yourself up in business with no qualifications, experience, supervision, or talent for the work.

It's also not an unknown phenomena for people in need of help themselves being attracted to the role of supporter /developer/ rescuer. There seems to be a sort of unconscious logic that says 'If I can help someone fill a whole in their life, that will fill a gap in mine'. And of course it doesn't work, as the agenda becomes about the 'coach' and their needs, not the client. Our clients often don't know what 'good looks like', and there just isn't enough feedback on practice from robust reliable and experienced sources.

Coaching has a long way to go to become a recognised profession, however we can all start by insisting on professional and ethical practice. Next time, for example, you speak to a coach who doesn't think they need supervision ask them what makes them so special.



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