Friday, 2 December 2016

Personality - what makes you the way you are

I have just finished reading Daniel Nettle's book: Personality - What makes you the way you are. The first thing to say is that it is fascinating - engagingly written, so that it is easy and enjoyable to read, and also well-founded on a very broad reading of the relevant research (and some interesting by-ways) and properly referenced: a book (and an author) you can trust.

Daniel (full disclosure - I know him) starts by explaining why personality traits matter, and what the Big Five are. Then he considers the evolutionary context: why is there such variance in each of the Big Five in all human populations. This is all fascinating context, enlivened by vivid examples and anecdotes - such as the variance in the Beak of the Finch (which is the title of the second chapter).

The next five chapters look at each of the Big Five in turn, considering the nature of the trait, how it has been researched, the benefits and risks associated with high or low scores, and so on. Each chapter has a title exemplifying. or rather personifying, the trait under consideration. Thus the chapter on Extraversion is Wanderers, that on Neuroticism is Worriers; Conscientiousness, Controllers; Agreeableness, Empathisers; and that on Openness, Poets.

In each case, I finished the chapter with a far deeper and richer understanding of the trait than I had had previously; and I am not starting from a zero base-line. 

In passing, it also becomes clear why typologies such as the MBTI, whilst they may have some utility as a useful fiction, and a way of enabling some self-awareness and some interesting discussions, are not really adequate in representing where the state of scientific knowledge now stands with regard to personality. The Hogan tools fare rather better, as the HPI is based on the Big Five, and also uses scales rather than the binary approach of MBTI.

The penultimate chapter then looks at the nature/nurture debate, particularly drawing on twin studies, which are, of course, crucial in this context. The startling and counter-intuitive conclusion is that parental influence (excepting extremes of abuse etc) has no influence on the personality of their children. There is more work to be done on environmental influence, but that finding is clear and conclusive. Other candidates for influence (such as birth order) are also considered and, by and large, discarded. But, as I say, there is more work to be done here.
Daniel Nettle (centre) expressing some extraversion:
chairing a post-play discussion with the cast of
Hitting the Wall at Northern Stage on 30 November 2016

All this can leave one feeling somewhat fatalistic: if so much of my behaviour is driven by my personality, and my personality is largely inherited and influenced post-birth by factors we can't fully describe, still less control, where do I stand in terms of individuality, agency and responsibility.  Daniel addresses this in the final chapter, and in particular, the key question: can I change? Here he makes valuable distinctions between personality traits and how one might express them (including working against them, as well as finding benign rather than harmful expressions); but he also emphasises the importance of the personal life story - the meanings an individual constructs to make sense of his or her experiences, and the malleability of those.  This of course is a perfect fit with my work in Shifting Stories, so I was both pleased and relieved to find it here.

So I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in deepening his or her understanding of personality, and in particular the big five. And now I need to go through it again, this time making notes...

Friday, 18 November 2016

On becoming a grandfather

Despite a very rich week, work-wise, I can't think of anything to write about this week.  I attribute that to the birth of my first grandchild, James.

He was born on Wednesday, and I was lucky to be able to call in at the hospital before travelling down to Winchester University, to run a two-day event with the inspirational VC, Joy Carter.

James' arrival, though long-expected, was still a momentous event in the life of our family. Naturally his mother and father are delighted - and besotted. It has been lovely to see, too, how our other children have been equally delighted  in their new roles as aunts and uncle.

Jane and I, too, are excited at the new role we have as grandparents, and I feel I ought to write something profound and inspiring about that. But the truth is, it is too soon to do so. Euphoria - and perhaps exhaustion - mean that I can't move beyond the simple feeling of joy. So that will have to suffice for this week's post.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Inside Out: Emotions in Hollywood and Science

On Monday I went to an excellent event run by the School of Psychology at Cardiff University, as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science.

The event involved a screening of Inside Out, followed by presentations by Profs Tony Manstead, Stephanie van Goozen and Andrew Lawrence, with Dr Job van der Schalk as ringmaster.

Inside Out was excellent. If you have not seen it, here is one of the scenes I like, which really demonstrates emotional contagion in action:

Following the film, the talks covered a wide range of areas. A number of points struck me.

I was interested in Tony Manstead's points about the functions of emotions, and the distinction between the intrapersonal and the interpersonal functions. At the intrapersonal level, emotions are often a signal that we need to act, often preparing us for an emergency response: fight or flight. At the interpersonal level, they enable learning, links to other people and communication. A particularly interesting example was the 'is it safe to cross?' experiment with toddlers. The toddler is on a surface that appears to disappear, and is invited to crawl towards his or her mother. When the mother's face communicated fear, none of the toddlers ventured to cross. When the mother's face communicated joy, 74% of them did so.

Stephanie van Goozen talked about the development of emotional problems in children. These can range from being rejected by peers to aggressive behaviour. She pointed out that these may arise from difficulty in recognising emotions in others, and difficulty in controlling one's own emotions. This, of course, resonates with some of the underpinning ideas of the Emotional Intelligence movement (as does the idea of emotional contagion, already mentioned). She highlighted two phases in the developing child's life when problems may develop: early childhood and puberty/adolescence.

Andrew Lawrence introduced us to some of the neuroscience that sits behind all this, including explaining how to parse fear in a human being (fmri scans and tarantulas are involved...). In particular he highlighted the key role of the amygdala, which is central in the processing of emotions, and how well connected it is to many other areas of the brain, which are related to many other important processes. So emotional responses to stimuli have wide ranging effects on perception, memory, interpretation, and so on.  All of that, of course, resonates particularly with the issues I look at in Shifting Stories.

So a very rich afternoon - much richer than this brief summary suggests - with plenty of food for thought, as well as a lot of confirmation of the underpinnings of various aspects of my work.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Table d'hôte, A la carte or Open Space?

I am considering the merits of different approaches to training workshops in different contexts. Some of my workshops are table d'hote: I run a workshop according to an agenda that works, with input, exercises, discussions etc in a pre-determined order to meet defined learning objectives. Workshops on specific skills, such as my Influencing and Negotiating Skills workshop are very much in that mould.

Other programmes are more à la carte: we offer learners a choice of topics, speakers, and approaches at the start of the programme, and construct the programme according to their expressed needs. The programmes I run for Professors at various universities follow this model. The idea is that they are better placed to decide what they would value discussing than I am. And that approach, of course, also ensures a high degree of relevance and ownership

And I am also a fan of Open Space approaches, where the participants generate the agenda. I have blogged about Open Space before (eg here, and see the tag Open Space for other posts). This approach seems to work particularly well when the topic is large, and the agenda is about exploring possibilities, sharing expertise, and generating ideas for collective action, rather than learning pre-identified knowledge or skills.

All of which reminds me of John Heron's model of facilitation, where he identifies three decision-making styles (Hierarchical, co-operative and autonomous). Here I have applied them, I realise, to what Heron calls the Planning dimension of facilitating an event: who decides what is going to happen.

He also identifies five other key dimensions, and any one of those three styles can be used in any of the five dimensions.  The five are: meaning, confronting, feeling, structuring and valuing. The six dimensions (these five, plus planning, as mentioned previously) address six key questions:

  • How shall the group acquire its objectives and programme?
  • How shall meaning be given to and found in the experiences and actions of the group?
  • How shall the group's consciousness be raised about resistance and avoidance?
  • How shall the life of feeling within the group be handled?
  • How shall the the group's learning experiences be structured?
  • How shall a climate of personal value, integrity and respect be created?
All of which makes me reflect that whilst I am aware of making conscious decisions about the table d'hôte, à la carte or Open Space options, I am more likely to act out of habit in some of the other dimensions.

So a memo to myself: re-read Heron's book, and deliberately experiment with some different combinations of style and dimension...

Friday, 28 October 2016

Shifting Stories

After a long gestation,  Shifting Stories (by Andrew Scott, ISBN 9781785893551) is now available to order from your local bookshop, on Amazon (also as an ebook, but without the wonderful graphics), and directly from me (If you would like a signed copy) via the website (see below)

I would ask that you consider buying from your local bookshop, rather than Amazon, for a few reasons: bookshops struggle for business, but we would miss them if they disappeared - and they pay a much better margin to authors than Amazon does (so this is also a self-interested request!)  

If you want to know more about the book, there are a few Youtube videos (between 4 and 6 minutes long), and a lot more detail on the  website.

The Youtube videos are 
  • a (mock)TV interview, here: 

  • a (mock) radio interview here: 

  • and a presentation including a case study here (this was produced as a reminder video for people who have been on my workshop):

The website is at  

If you like the book, please tell everyone, and write a glowing review on Amazon.

If you dislike the book, please tell me, and tell me why.

If you want to discuss anything in the book, please go to the website (  where I hope lively discussion will take place, to develop my own understanding, and other peoples’ too.

I hope you buy the book, enjoy it, and find it useful; but above all I hope that you engage in the discussion. I think this is a fascinating approach, and am keen to learn more - and hope that you will be part of that process.

I would like to record particular thanks to the many people interviewed for the book, all those years ago (you should have received your complimentary copy a while back: if it did not reach you, please let me know.) And especial thanks to Andrew Derrington, who coached me into writing a readable book, Mike P-S who did the cover and all the graphic work, and Jane P-S who did all the practical editorial work, and built the website.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Continuing to explore The Dark Side

I am always interested in the theoretical underpinnings of the tools I use, so have been reading up on the Hogan Development Survey instrument.  I have blogged about this tool a few times already (see the tag Hogan for the other posts).

So, where do the scales used by Hogan come from? The HDS Manual states that each scale is designed to describe various personality disorders as they may manifest in working adults:

Excitable - borderline
Sceptical - paranoid
Cautious - avoidant
Reserved - schizoid
Leisurely - passive aggressive
Bold - narcissistic
Mischievous - antisocial
Colourful - histrionic
Imaginative - schizotypal
Diligent - obsessive compulsive 
Dutiful - dependent

I recognise that it may not always be helpful to make that explicit when working with the tool: if my feedback had started with: you have a high risk of displaying Schizoid, Schizotypal and Histrionic behaviours, it might have been a bit of a distraction from the learning...  

Moreover, I think it would have been inaccurate; for what the Hogan tool is doing, if I am correct, is exploring how these tendencies might manifest in healthy functional people under stress (or when over-relaxed) and not at the extremes suggested by the label 'personality disorder.'

I find it helpful to know the link, however; and not least because the Hogan labels are not always perfect: Leisurely has quite different connotations for me than the passive aggressive meaning implicit in the Hogan scale. The Hogan sub-scales are helpful here, of course: the sub-scales for Leisurely are Passive Aggressive, Unappreciated and Irritated. 

One other thing I noticed with interest is that the way the Hogan groups these is different from the way the NHS does:

I do not think that is problematic, as they are focusing on different issues, in their groupings; and, as already mentioned, the HDS is meant to be (I think) the non-pathological manifestations of the traits (‘working adults’), rather than the more extreme manifestations implied by ‘personality disorders’ in the NHS categorisation.

But it is interesting - not least to me; my high scores for Reserved and Imaginative (Schizoid and Schizotypal) now sit together in Cluster A, Odd; it is now Colourful (Histrionic) that is the outlier, in Cluster B, Dramatic… Food for thought.

Incidentally (and perhaps manifesting some of my tendency to go off on tangents that may leave people behind) Stoppard's Dark Side is a great radio play....

Friday, 14 October 2016

More Learning From my Dark Side

I have blogged a few times about the Hogan tools, and my learning from them. In particular, here I talked about the insight into myself generated by the famous Dark Side tool, and the fact that my dark side high-risk factors are an odd mix: high Reserve along with high Colourful and high Imaginative.

Well, Hogan is the gift that keeps giving. Yesterday, in a supervisory session with the excellent Jan Allon-Smith, another light came on. We were discussing my coaching (as you might expect in a coaching supervision session) and some particular questions I had about it, and Jan asked how the Hogan tools might inform my thinking.

It proved to be a very rich question, and I realised that my coaching, when I am not at my best, could be reasonably characterised as Reserved (in the ways meant by the Hogan use of the term). That led to a great discussion about what more Colourful or more Imaginative coaching might look like - and the recognition that sometimes my coaching does look like that, and I think it is the better for it. That is to say, it can be more fun, and more risky; and I allow more of myself to show through. 

That is not always appropriate, of course; and further, my Reserve is necessary to stop the Colourful or the Imaginative approaches from moving the focus from the coachee onto me, or from intimidating the coachee and failing to create that learning environment which is a sine qua non of coaching.  

So I am not going to jettison some of my Reserved behaviours: they go very well with a highly attentive approach to listening, as Nancy Kline's model (of which I am a big fan) advocates. But I think I had allowed them to dominate some of the more Colourful and Imaginative behaviours in my coaching (and to a lesser extent in my facilitation) and that had reduced the range of my repertoire.

I found this a very energising, exciting and slightly scary conversation - what de Haan would call a critical incident in our coaching supervision meeting.  Now the challenge is to integrate the insights gained in conversation with Jan to my practice: so if you have a coaching meeting booked with me, you may want to see if you see me as more Imaginative (though not, I hope eccentric, which is the risk) or more Colourful (though not I hope too dramatic, which is the associated risk with Colourful).