Untangle and grow

A blog by Alison Maxwell

Monday, 18 August 2014

Outstaying our welcome

In my recent travels around the coaching world, I heard two stories from client organisations that troubled me. Both stories concerned external coaches who were still working with the same clients some years on from the original contract

To my mind as a coach supervisor, this sort of issue is potentially unethical and could give the rest of the coaching industry a bad name. The whole premise of coaching is that we are supposed to be helping our clients to be come more autonomous and capable, rather than creating a potentially dependent relationship between coach and client. Yes, I get that not all coaching issues 'fit' neatly into the typical 6x 2hour formula and that occasional extensions are required, however to be working with the same client years later is very questionable.

Cynically you might say that this is just coaches' driving up their billable hours.  I also think that clients can too grow to fond of their coaches and the time away from the fray that these sessions represent. However in the long run we do neither our clients, ourselves or our industry any good, and we must all take care not to stay beyond our welcome. If in doubt, talk to your coaching supervisor!

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Habits of mind and action

It is a curious phenomena that the act of talking out our problems with someone else (eg. a coach) often seems also to shift the problem - ' a problem shared is a problem halved' as the old saying goes. However it appears that this phenomena is more that just unburdening ourselves of a problem. Recent developments in neuroscience are starting to help us understand a lot more about the structure of 'thinking' and what it takes to change our thinking.

Neuroscientists  are suggesting that a 'thought' is merely a pathway of neural connections that have been forged in the brain. A bit like a ski path in the snow, the more we think in a particular way, the deeper that pathway gets, and consequently the harder it is to shift. We develop habits of mind as well as of action. If you've ever been stuck with a problem you will probably know the feeling of being stuck in a rut you can't get out of.

Talking out a problem with someone else literally can jump start our thinking process, forcing us to think down different pathways and come up with new possibilities. Great coaches are skilled at testing for habitual ways of thinking and catalysing new thought processes. While research suggests it can very difficult to shift old habits (of thought or action), forming new habits  is a whole lot easier. Overall good news I thought!


Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Paradox of feedback

I spend a fair amount of time taking to leaders about how they and others see themselves on the back of 360 degree feedback (aka multi-rater feedback). In general terms people seem to fall into three broad comps: firstly there are those who have an over-inflated view of themselves relative to others, secondly, the 'under-inflaters', and lastly, those whose self image aligns pretty closely to others.

The 'over' and 'under-inflaters 'give coaches different challenges:  'over-inflaters' often selectively pick up on positive messages that confirm their self-perception, rationalising away contrary messages. The coaching role is therefore to 'hold up the mirror' squarely and robustly to let a more balanced message in. For 'under-inflaters ' the coaches role is reverse, helping the client see a more positive and rounded view of themselves even if they cling to a negative view.

These reactions can be neatly explained with an understanding of the 'self-consistency' and 'self-enhancement' motives - terms coined by social psychologist Dr Roy Baumeister. We all need a consistent or enduring sense of ourselves, and some of us need to feel we are better than the next man (or woman). For those with inflated self-esteem both motives apply, whereas for those with low self-esteem the consistency motive wins out - its less anxiety provoking to believe bad things as long as it is the same things!.

So as coaches we have an interesting paradox to contend with when debriefing 360 feedback - instead of increasing self knowledge and awareness we may inadvertently help people confirm their existing (erroneous) self-image rather than challenging it. Coaches need to have their wits about them to spot the give away signs and be prepared for some challenging conversations!

Friday, 1 August 2014

Being 'triggered'

In an ideal world, we would all get on with our coaching clients, however, frankly, there are times when the 'chemistry' just doesn't work. Clearly, if this happens we shouldn't even consider taking on the relationship in the first place. Tough I know for those of us whose livelihood depends on billing coaching hours and it can be tempting to try to give life to a working relationship in the hope that it will come good. On the whole my advice is simple -- 'don't' - a poor relationship at the start is unlikely to get any better without major surgery.

However there are times in an established relationship when we can find ourselves strongly and negatively reacting to the client - I like the term 'triggered'. It is as if something in the relationship has shifted substantially. This may be as simple as a clash of values - the client holds a perspective that we can't , or it may be something more subtle or ill defined. At one level this may be useful data that is worth putting (sensitively) on the table for discussion, at another it may indicate we can no longer operate from an appropriately emotionally detached stance.

So if you suddenly find your self reacting to your client, or interpreting their words/deeds in a consistently negative light, it is probably time to take it to your coaching supervisor to sort out what exactly is going on.. and what you can do about it.

Monday, 9 June 2014

The gap between deciding and doing

Too often I find with coaching clients that the hard part is not deciding what to do (although this can be hard enough), the really hard part is taking that decision and translating it into a change. Just think of the number of New Year's Resolutions that are dust within a matter of days* and you'll know what I'm talking about!

It's easy to get into self-damming when we see yet another resolution falter - "I'm not determined enough" or "I have no will power or "We are rubbish at change management around here". However Robert Kegan (Harvard professor of Adult Learning and Education) prefers to talk about our in-built  resistance to change. Kegan reckons that we all have a change 'immune system' that helps us to repel change... even change we deeply and sincerely want for ourselves

Kegan's work has explored the idea of competing commitments. These are the (often unconscious) beliefs and assumptions that work against changes we might want to make. Kegan believes that unless we can surface and test these competing commitments changes we make in our lives are likely to be superficial or short lived at best. Food for thought for anyone serious about helping individuals and organisations to change.

He's a great speaker so here he is talking about his ideas (starts at 46secs):


* On average our New's Year's Resolutions last just 24 days

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Leaving it in the past - issues in coaching

I'm very clear as a coach that I am not a counsellor or therapist. I don't have permission, training or  expertise to go delving about in someone's past. However I'm equally aware that sometimes the roots of present day issues brought into coaching conversations lie in the past.

Take Peter as an example (obviously all specifics are changed!). He is way too nice for his own good - he ends up taking on too much work for others and usually puts his own needs last. He's come to coaching to work on his assertion skills. He's also very aware that this stems from his difficult childhood where pleasing his parents was his default strategy. Knowing this however doesn't help him show up differently at work. He sighs and says something along the lines of 'That is who I am...'.


This is a conundrum for a coach. To what extent is a difficult past a rationalisation for not talking responsibility in the present? Do you take the conversation into discussion of the past in an attempt to undo past wrongs? Or is the work more about acceptance and looking to the future?  To my mind the only legitimate choice is to help the coachee recognise the impact of past experience on the present and help them work out if they want different choices for the future. Do they want keep re-reading the last chapter or start writing the next?

Monday, 17 March 2014

The either/or trap

I'm sitting today with a new coaching client - a likeable man in a demanding job, but stuck in the 'either/or trap'.  On one hand he wants to move on in his career but isn't sure he's got what it takes, but on the other hand he feels a sense of duty to his team, but loathes the culture of his organisation. He's in the 'either/or trap' - stuck between two equally unpalatable choices, expending massive mental energy but not getting anywhere or making any decisions.


The 'either/or trap' is a classic dilemma that often presents itself in coaching conversations. Curiously enough the client will often show you this dilemma with their body language as well as their verbal descriptions - literally holding the two halves of their problem in their hands. This is a tip-off that the client has made the assumption that they only two choices, and the trick (if indeed it is a trick) is to help them step outside of this self-created mental limitation. This could be looking for a third way forward, or perhaps a compromise between their choices or... or...