Untangle and grow

A blog by Alison Maxwell

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Thinking together

I'm fascinated by how groups of people talk, listen and think together. So often the experience is dispiriting - something about the sum of the parts adding up to less than they should. So it always of interest to observe, and be part of, a group in which the quality of collective thinking outweighs what seems possible individually.

What makes the difference? William Isaacs ** reckons it is often down to the quality of dialogue and some apparently very simple, very teachable behaviours:
  • Listen - like a peer
  • Suspend - your certainties
  • Respect - others views
  • Speak - your true voice

Easy .. no not at all . We, by and large, don't 'get' the difference between debate and dialogue. We've all be trained in a 'debating' culture and have few really positive role models of group collaboration and skilled dialogue.  It takes time and patience to learn these apparently simple skills, and get the balance of advocacy and inquiry consistently right. 

Watch next time  you are in a group that's going round in circles - which of these behaviours is being overplayed and which undercooked? Always illuminating.

**Isaacs, W. (1999), Dialogue and the art of thinking together, New York: Doubleday.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Choosing change - issues in coaching

I've recently started work with two new coaching clients - one who has fought tooth and nail for a coach and another who has been told come. As you'd expect the contrast between them is stark: client 1 is very clear about what they want to work on and very motivated, whilst client 2 is every so slightly resentful and more than a bit fuzzy about 'their' goals . As you can imagine this impacts the work hugely and I'm working hard to find an agenda that client 2 can call their own ... and still aligns with the organisational need that sent them to me in the first place.

I believe we have to choose change - especially personal change - and that it is nigh on impossible to coach someone in directions they don't buy-in to or pay only lip service to. I don't think this necessarily renders them uncoachable so much as uncoachable on an imposed agenda. The 'trick' (if trick it is) is to connect to what people really care about, the reputation they want and the changes they are trying to make in the world... and then see if it aligns with the organisational paymaster.

So I'm with Peter Senge when he says "We don't resist change. We resist  being changed". Coaches are on dangerous territory if they see themselves as changing other people - we can only hope to help people change themselves in the directions they choose for themselves.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

In praise of confusion and uncertainty

I got off the phone this morning with  my mentor thoroughly confused, and feeling grumpy as a result. I'd gone from a surety that  "I've got my ducks in a row" to feeling that the whole duck pond had been unexpected emptied. However I also know that this will be to the good eventually as a better plan will emerge once I've have time to stew.

This experience got me to thinking about the value of feeling confused. Isn't a good shake up of one's certainties and assumptions actually the stuff of learning and growth? Like most of us, I'm not keen on the feeling of confusion and can rush on in an attempt to get back to the comfort of  'certainty' rather than tolerate the discomfort of confusion and not knowing. However, I know from experience that the 'not knowing' place is often the place where I find genuinely fresh perspectives ... if I am prepared to give it the time it needs.

I notice when I work with novice coaches they are often very keen for their clients to reach clarity and are often dismayed if a way forward doesn't emerge quickly. Consequently the work can become a rushed problem-solving session rather than a thoughtful and considerate examination of the assumptions and beliefs underlying an issue. Result - a superficial quick-fix that doesn't stick... perhaps tolerance of confusion and uncertainty is a muscle more coaches could usefully develop.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Creating our own glass ceiling - issues in coaching

I've recently come back to an old favourite of mine - the 'Let Go, Preserve, Add On'  model * and found myself having some interesting and useful leadership coaching conversations on the back of it. Arthur Freedman's simple model suggests that the mix of skills, abilities, beliefs and knowledge (etc.) that got us to where we are today not only won't get us further up the organisational ladder but actually might be holding us back - our own glass ceiling if you like. The trick is to know what we should ditch, what we should preserve and what we need to add into the mix. The problem is we tend to be comfortable with the repertoire that got us to today and the idea of shaking it up can feel scary .. particularly behaviours that have served us well in the past.

This was born out in a conversation I had with Martin last week. Martin is a promoted expert in his company and is struggling with the fact that he now being asked to lead experts instead of being one. "I just love the work" he confided in me, "...so much so that I've been know to repeat my team's work just so I can feel connected again". Worse still, he was struggling to value working strategically and was in danger of doing neither his new or old role well.

Freedman talks about a series of 'crossroads' that leaders must navigate as they move upward through the organisation. At each of these turning points, a fundamental reappraisal of our 'leadership map' is called for if we are not to be trapped by a glass ceiling of our own making.

*Freedman, A. (1998) , Pathways and Crossroads to Institutional Leadership, Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, Vol. 50, No. 3,131-151  - click here for a copy