Untangle and grow

A blog by Alison Maxwell

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.

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...

Monday, 10 March 2014

Listening for the assumption - skills of coaching

One of the least useful pieces of advice I was given in my early career as a manager was 'Don't assume". Surely if I'd know I was assuming I wouldn't have done it! Assumptions are almost by definition outside of our awareness - they are simply the water we swim in. We develop habits of mind as well as habits of action, as a way of short cutting life's routines. After all, if we had to re-decide all our decisions everyday, including which side of the bed to get of, we really wouldn't get much done. However many of our assumptions - our habits of mind -  as well as being invisible, are simply outdated, have ceased to serve us and need revision.

On our own it is often very difficult to see what is an assumption and what is fact, so one of the more useful ways a coach can serve us is to help us see our assumptions afresh and give us the chance to do a bit of much needed rewriting.

We've all probably been taught about active or deep listening - and many of us have got very good at this. However an under-developed skill in coaching I believe is 'listening for the assumption'. I have been surprised how many times in my coaching practice the real shift often comes when we can surface and explore the nature of the assumptions that are being made by the client.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Taking our own medicine?

If you move in coaching circles it can't have escaped your attention that coaching supervision is considered the 'done thing'. All the professional bodies speak of it as an essential element of good practice, and (rightly) refuse accreditation if a coach hasn't adequate support. Possibly more importantly, purchasers are increasingly insisting on it and see it as a hall mark differentiating the professional coach from the amateur.

So how come the up take of coaching supervision is so poor (if admittedly slowly improving)? Maybe it is the cost, but I have a sneaking suspicion that there is more to it than that and wonder if it is about revealing our practice to another who will potentially find us wanting. (The term 'supervision' doesn't help here! ) So much of coaching happens behind 'closed doors' and to let another in can be daunting. Or perhaps it about 'problematisation' - I notice many supervisees report 'nothing to talk about' when what they actually mean is 'I'm not stuck with anything' at the moment and therefore don' t want take up my time. Interestingly whenever they start to talk about their practice it is always a rich and often developmental conversation that ensues.

I value my time with my own coaching supervisor hugely and find our conversations a vital source of support and continued challenge to my practice as a coach. However, more than that, I feel that if I ask my clients to reveal themselves to me it is only fair that I am prepared to do the same. Perhaps if we called it 'coaching the coach' we would be more prepared to take our own medicine?

Friday, 31 January 2014

Slow burn - Fast burn?

Where did we get the idea that every coaching session has to produce a magic ‘ah—ha’ moment? These days I meet way to may coaches in my supervision practice who seem to carry around a huge self-induced pressure to produce fireworks in every session - and if they don’t, seem to feel they have failed the client or not done it ‘right’. As a result they push through their coaching sessions without adequate exploration or creativity, in the desire to get their clients somewhere  ... anywhere.

The therapy world talks about the  idea of slow burn change vs fast burn. Fast burn change is where the client rapidly comes to a conclusion or a decision, but may be short lasting or worse, in the wrong direction.  Slow burn change is where nothing much seems to happen until one day the accumulated work precipitates a radical change without it being obvious where it came from.

To my mind, our coaching clients take many decades to get to be the rich, exciting and frustrating mix they are today and it is extreme arrogance on our part to assume that a few hours with a coach will fundamentally change them. Often our work is slow and patient, waiting for the tipping point to come.  Coaches would do well to remember they can only go at the pace of the client .. and to let themselves off the hook if each and every session is not stellar.