Sunday, 12 November 2017

The Pursuit of Happiness

At Cardiff Futures this week, we had a session with the inspirational Aileen Richards. She had a long corporate career with Mars, and is the first woman on the Board of the Welsh Rugby Union.

She raised many interesting aspects of leadership, illustrated by anecdotes from her 30 years of corporate experience, and led a highly-engaged discussion with participants. 

One point she made that has been causing me to reflect was based on an article about parenting that she had read many years ago. It started by reflecting that most parents say; 'I just want my children to be happy.' That sounds a bit motherhood-and-apple-pie. But, the article continued, what they should say is; 'I just want my children to be kind.' 

The point was that is people are kind, happiness will follow, as will other good things. And I think that there is much truth in that.  But I have also been reflecting on the other part of the proposition: the pursuit of happiness (which is famously written into the US Declaration of Independence. 

For I think implicit in the idea Aileen was proposing, and made more explicit in other contexts, is the notion that happiness is actually a by-product of other things. The direct pursuit of happiness is likely to be counter-productive - for it provokes a focus on the self, and on one's own state of mind and emotion that is likely to lead to a selfish outlook: and it is a matter of common observation that selfish people don't tend to be happy.  Conversely, if one considers the truly happy people one knows, it is pretty clear that they don't focus on pursuing happiness: they have more meaningful things to do with their lives. 

Of course, Aristotle was on the case, back in the day: he maintained that true happiness is to be found by pursuing the virtues.  And I think he may have been onto something.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Playing with four-box models

Last week, wondering what to post on the Shifting Stories blog, I drew up a quick four box model on the back of an envelope about the stories people tell in organisations. It was fairly light-hearted – not the fruit of deep thought or empirical research. What surprised me was how much it resonated with others. As is my custom, I cross-posted it to Linked-In, and it had a sudden flurry of hits and likes, mainly from people I don’t know.

So always one to respond to feedback, I thought  I’d play with some more four-box models (when wondering what on earth to blog about this week…). In part this was stimulated by a conversation with my eldest daughter at breakfast this morning. I am going to meet a charity this morning, with a view to becoming a trustee.   It is one of those informal ‘meet for lunch and then a brief meeting’ things – not, as I understand it, a formal interview. 

I was remarking that such occasions are not my favourite; I rather prefer a structured situation where I know the rules of the game, as it were. I am not particularly adept at informal social situations. But I mused that perhaps the image I should strive for is ‘committed but not fanatical.’ Annie laughed: ‘Yes, I think either uncommitted or fanatical might not be the best!’  And instantly a four box model sprang into my mind. So here is my grid for anyone recruiting trustees for a charity…



And that’s why I like four box models. Although they only look at a couple of variables, they do throw up and clarify interesting and thought-provoking combinations – and they are good fun.

Friday, 27 October 2017

On the 50th Anniversary of the Abortion Act

Marble Arch lit up by Life to mark the anniversary
People sometimes assume that I am pro-life because I am Catholic. In fact, it might be more accurate to put that the other way around. In my late teens and early twenties, the time when one is questioning such things with particular intensity, the Catholic Church's clear and consistent pro-life position was one of the things that helped convince me that this was my spiritual home.

My pro-life position, then, has two main roots: one practical, one philosophical.  The practical one was witnessing one of my sisters being pregnant at a relatively young age and in very inauspicious circumstances. That was in 1969, the year after abortion was partially de-criminalised. So my nephew was an early candidate for abortion - and I have always been quite clear that ending his life would have been the wrong thing to do (not least for his mother, as things turned out, of course).


On the philosophical level, it seems to me that human rights are universal or they are nothing. Of these rights, the right to life is clearly foundational: without that, no other right has any meaning. Once we take it upon ourselves to say certain categories of human beings do not have the right to life, whether because of age, disability, the circumstances of their conception, or any other reason, we have assumed to ourselves a position of power that is untenable and, I think, corrupting. History is rife with examples.


The first training I had in non-directional counselling was with Oxford Nightline, when I was an undergraduate. It was the approach taken to all the issues that students might present with, except suicide. With suicide, we were not non-directional: all our efforts were to keep the student from ending his or her life; confidentiality no longer applied - a second volunteer would call the emergency services whilst the first kept the student talking, and so on.


And rightly so: somebody's life is at stake. Moreover, we recognise that the desire to commit suicide is, more often than not, a passing one; but a successful suicide is irreversible. 


I believe similar considerations also apply to abortion. If one considers Kubler-Ross' research, and the transition curve, we are compelling women to make an irreversible choice at a particular moment, when they are going through the emotionally charged experience of coming to terms with an unwanted pregnancy. We know that the way she will react will change over time - but the nature of the choice demands a quick decision. Such a decision may well not be the one she would make given more time and more support.


Of course, I do not condemn any woman who has made that choice; any more than I would condemn anyone driven to attempt suicide. But in both cases I would see it as a tragic choice, one to be avoided, not promoted.


And I do blame those who promote abortion through lies; both the active lies of the abortion industry and the colluding lies of their cheer-leaders in other spheres of public life. By active lies, I mean lies like Marie Stopes promoting itself as supporting women in their choice, when in fact their staff are on a bonus scheme to push women in one direction: the one that contributes to MSI's bottom line. Lies like denying that the unborn child is a human being, flying in the face of science. And lies like claiming that pro-life prayer groups are harassing women in Ealing, when despite having two cameras trained on them, there is no evidence of their having done so.  Their crime, rather, is to offer women a real choice, as these women testify: 




By collusive lies, I mean things like the BBC, commissioning a poll on public opinions, and then suppressing the fact that the public does not favour de-criminalisation, and only quoting the results that favour the BBC's agenda of liberalisation. And the BBC dropping a woman who chose not to abort her baby with Downs from a programme, and steadfastly refusing to interview women such as those who feature in the video above, who have been helped by pro-life organisations. 


I also mean things like the NHS, which refers to an unborn child as a baby, when it is wanted, but as 'a pregnancy' when describing abortion. Surely the nature of the being under discussion doesn't change depending on our attitude towards it? This is an Orwellian use of language.


I mean things like ideologues imposing radical pro-abortion agendas on organisations they lead, without consultation of their membership; whether that is Colleges of health professionals, or Amnesty International, which has apparently spent more on abortion campaigning in Ireland than on the causes its founders and members signed up to.


Abortion, of course, does not address the many serious and challenging issues that some women face. Indeed, it provides a short cut that makes it easier to ignore them. Perhaps the most damning indictment of all is that abortion is used by pedophiles, rapists, incestuous relations, and abusers to cover their crimes (as in Rotherham, for example). To its shame  MSI carries out hundreds of abortions on girls under 16 without any referrals for safeguarding.


That is why I not only oppose abortion, but also support those who work to offer real support to women in crisis pregnancies; and why I am so proud of my daughter Clare, who works for Life (the second speaker on this clip).


Thursday, 12 October 2017

The Meeting

This morning, as I was driving down the M6 to a meeting, the traffic came to a halt and we could see heavy black smoke ahead. The opposite carriageway was completely clear, and it was quickly apparent that the motorway had been closed due to a vehicle on fire (we soon learned, from those who wandered up the central reservation to have a look, that a large crane had caught on fire).

So I sent a message to the person I was due to meet, and also texted Jane at HQ (we were at a complete standstill, and had been for some time, I should add...) to let her know what was going on. She replied that the person I was due to meet had also got in touch to say he wouldn't be able to get to work on time, so could we postpone the meeting.  I had visions of him being a couple of cars ahead in the queue...

So I then typed up a quick briefing note of the issues I had wanted to update him about, and the questions I had hoped we would be able to discuss, and emailed that through to him. In the meantime, he had texted me his mobile number and agreed we should talk by phone.

And that is what we did. I called his mobile (it turned out he was sat at a train station, awaiting the  next train to get him to work) and we had a very productive telephone conversation, in about 15 minutes.

And then I had to wait for the motorway to reopen, before I could go to the next junction and then come back home the back way (the northbound carriageway was still closed as the crane was on that side of the road).

All of which made me reflect that I should conduct more meetings by phone.  Had I gone to his office, the meeting would doubtless have lasted longer - not least because both of us would, at some level, have felt that it should, to justify the journey.  But in fact we sorted everything in quite short order.

Yet I had had, I thought, good reasons for seeking a meeting rather than a phone call. I was suggesting some changes to a plan of work, and wanted to gauge his reaction. I wanted to have a creative conversation with him about some possibilities, and elicit his best thinking. I wanted to continue to build the relationship: we had only met twice or thrice, and that over a twelve month period.

But in fact, the meeting we had by phone was more than adequate: it was quick, efficient good-humoured and productive.  I was able, I think, to gauge his reactions, and he certainly had some very good ideas that took our thinking forward. And writing the briefing note had really focused my thinking, and also gave us both a written record of the key issues.

So my conclusion is that I need to be more confident in the power of a phone call both to transact business, to enable creative conversations, and to build relationships.  And I am sure my clients will appreciate the time saved by shorter conversations - and I certainly will, once travelling time is added on top...

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Listening and power

I ran an event for the senior team of an organisation recently. The team has an annual retreat for a couple of days every year: this was the sixth one since the current Chief Executive has been in place, and first I have facilitated for them.

After some discussion with the CE (and knowing the organisation and the senior team quite well) I suggested that we use Nancy Kline's Thinking Environment approach. (See the Nancy Kline tag for my previous posts on this topic).

So we recast the agenda as a series of questions, and included an initial round of 'What's going well for you?' followed by a reminder of the Thinking Environment components (most members of the team had come across them previously - indeed they had resolved to work accordingly last year, but had forgotten to do so...)

And then each agenda item was treated in a TE way: we took turns to speak; we listened to each other without interrupting; we truly attended; we shared the time fairly; we split into smaller groups for some items; - and we had some great discussions.

What I noticed was that this approach re-distributes power towards those who are normally disadvantaged by the traditional meeting behaviours: those who are slightly less quick at articulating their thoughts, those who are more likely to be interrupted, and less likely to interrupt; those who like to reflect, even as they try to express their thoughts. I have, of course, noticed this before.

But what really struck me this time was that power is not a zero-sum game. The increased power of those people was not at the cost of others; rather the whole team seemed more potent. The CE, who spoke less than he normally does, increased in both understanding and stature. Wiser decisions were made with a higher degree of consensus; and difficult issues were addressed with a greater degree of mutual understanding.

At the end, the CE, and many others, said it was the best retreat they had ever had - and they resolved to work in this way in the future.  I will be checking in with them to see if they are more effective in implementing this resolution this time than last (and I did just happen to remind the CE of this resolution just before the next senior team meeting...)

Friday, 22 September 2017

Invisible Facilitation

I have blogged before about Invisible Facilitation (here and here) and was reminded of the idea this week, when I ran an awayday(-and-a-half) for the senior team of a University.

As before, some of my most valuable work was done beforehand (getting the agenda cast as questions, for example, and agreeing the whole approach with the Vice Chancellor, which informed how he introduced the day and ran various discussions). On the event, I said very little.

One thing I did say was a brief (10 minute) introduction to Nancy Kline's Thinking Environment (qv) and the implications of the 10 components as they might apply to this awayday.

I also sorted the groups for the group work, managed the timing and so on; but 90% or more of the talking was done by the participants, and (and this is the important thing in terms of the Thinking Environment) the airtime was shared pretty evenly between them.

At one stage I also passed the VC a note about a change to the meeting process, when I thought the Thinking Environment principles weren't being honoured (ie a few were doing all the talking). He changed the process, and the thinking took off again.

The last thing I did was invite them to comment on what they had taken from the event, and their reflections on the Thinking Environment as a methodology for such meetings.

The feedback was overwhelmingly positive: indeed a number of them said it was the best awayday they had ever had as a team.

So once again, nearly-invisible facilitation proved a very valuable approach: and fortunately the group were sophisticated enough to recognise the correlation between my (very few) interventions and the success of the event.

Another blow struck for introverted facilitators!

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Risk taking and prudence

I have been reflecting a bit about risk-taking and prudence; and my different relationship to physical and emotional (or social) risk.

That has been prompted, in part, by a recognition that over the summer I made a number of imprudent decisions about physical risk; one of which led to my damaging my ankle quite severely, taking a fall from a rock-face, and another leading a group of friends over Striding Edge in fairly adverse conditions (I learned later there had been a severe accident that very day with someone falling from the ridge; and a fatality two or three days previously).

And then, in discussion with some other coaches, I was reflecting on taking risks as a coach, and recognising that I had never regretted taking a risk in that context, but had regretted occasions on which I had failed to do so.

At the level of physical risk, my conclusion is that I should start to act more like the venerable grandfather that I am, rather than the teenager I was thirty-five years ago. That is simply a matter of growing up.

But with regard to social or emotional risk, I have been reflecting on the excellent analogy in Daniel Nettle's book on Personality. He talks about smoke detectors, and points out that a smoke detector can fail in either of two ways.

On one hand, it can go off when it is not necessary; which leads to people standing outside in the rain waiting for the fire brigade to arrive and give the all-clear to re-enter the building. On the other hand, it can fail to go off when it should do, which leads to possible loss of life.  Naturally enough, manufacturers over-calibrate smoke detectors, so that the first error occurs, rather than the second.

Nettle's point is that our response to risk can be over-calibrated like that. Clearly, over the years, I have managed to over-compensate with regards to physical risk, but, like many people, social and emotional risk remains over-calibrated; so that there is always a tendency to over-react to perceived risk and refrain from, or withdraw from, situations that feel risky. 

And as with physical risk, the way to re-calibrate is experience: regularly pushing the boundaries of perceived risk, until I am more comfortable with it.

So if I offend you next time we meet, put it down to experimentation with calibration: it’s nothing personal!