Untangle and grow

A blog by Alison Maxwell

Friday, 12 June 2015

Being helpful vs being useful

 I was reminded last week by the wonderful systemic facilitator, John Whittington, about the difference between being useful and being helpful.   Lots of people (including myself) got drawn to coaching because of a desire to make a difference in the lives of others, and to be of service to others. This positive intention can then get translated into a wide range of behaviours, some of which are not useful to the client even if they are helpful.

The coach that takes too much responsibility for the client's change process ultimately does the client no service. For example, I was recently talking to one of my coaching supervisees, who had got into the habit of taking the actions for her client after coaching sessions and was wondering why the client wasn't taking much responsibility or action between session. The simple signal of taking the action list unintentionally said to the client that the responsibility sat with coach not with herself. While the coaches intent was to be entirely helpful it wasn't useful

If the client does not take full responsibility in their lives, then a coach who props this up or colludes with this might be giving the client what they want but not necessarily what they need. Being helpful is all too often about pleasing others and being liked, rather having the difficult or courageous conversations about what is really going on. Speaking the truth to a client isn't easy but it is always useful.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Coaching as a sticking plaster?

Don't get me wrong, but sometimes I wonder about the motivation of some organisations when they buy in coaching services. Are they genuinely using coaching as a way of growing their people, or as a sop to mask other problems?

I was recently asked to work with several leaders in a rapidly expanding organisation, however it be rapidly apparent that all of them were working seriously crazy hours and seeing too little of friends and family to be healthy. I guess if I had been working with just one of them this pattern wouldn't have been so apparent. As it was I began to suspect that the development agenda extended beyond working with these individuals and starting to point at more structural issues. The company had survived a traumatic start-up where it had nearly gone bust but now, several years on, was still working flat out just as if it was about go under. Resource levels still reflected the old way of operating, despite the fact that the organisation was now highly successful and very profitable. Endemic workaholism and stress was the net result.

In coaching, the focus is very much on the person sitting in front of you. As  result I've been working with my coachees on the way they are working and helping them to find a more functional work/life balance. However a bigger conversation is needed with the Exec about their style of managing, the strategy of the organisation and the resources required to deliver it. Yes, coaching can help individuals to work differently and take responsibility for how they show up, but it also needs to support individuals to have the difficult conversation required in the broader organisation. It is all to easy for coaching to be non-systemic and fall into the trap of being a sticking plaster on broader organisational issues.

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.