Friday, 30 September 2016

Open Space and Graphic Recording

The inspirational new head of the HASS Faculty and Newcastle University has launched a Faculty-wide discussion about the values of the Faculty. She is pursuing this in various ways, and in conversation with her a while ago, we agreed that an Open Space event might be a valuable part of the process.

We held the event last week, at St James' Park (home of NUFC)  and around a hundred academics and professional support staff came along for the day.  As ever, I was slightly apprehensive at the start of the day: a hundred people and no agenda...  But as ever, people were full of ideas about the important questions to discuss, and quickly generated a large number of options.

Then there was the slightly messy business of constructing the agenda: people signing up for the questions they personally wished to discuss and then arranging the timings of the sessions so that as many as possible could get to all the topics they had chosen. Some people find this stage of the process uncomfortable,as it is somewhat chaotic and, finally, arbitrary. I always enjoy it: seeing order emerge from the chaos.  And in my experience, the group always manages to produce an agenda that works very well.


We had also invited John Ashton along - a graphic facilitator, recommended by Eleanor Beer, with whom I have worked before. John started with a blank sheet of paper, which mirrored our process of course, and over the day built up a comprehensive record of all the many discussions that had taken place. A number of participants were intrigued to watch this process, and the resultant poster (and electronic copies of it) will be very helpful both in reminding attendees and informing others who were unable to attend, of the range and key themes of the many rich discussion.

What I particularly enjoyed about the day was the huge, and unexpected, range of topics discussed: from how to have fun to how better to engage with the city and region.  But you can see the full range of the discussion in John's graphic poster, below. 


Friday, 23 September 2016

Learning to finger whistle

I nearly called this post 'What I learned on my holidays,' but reflected that I had learned other things, too, and also that title sounded a little like a junior school essay.

But what I want to reflect on is how I learned to produce that shrill loud, piercing whistle that one produces with one's fingers between one's lips.

I have wanted to be able to do that whistle for years, in a vague kind of way; but never enough to take any actual steps to learn the skill. However, as my dog grows older, harder of hearing and more confused (and you can keep your jokes about dogs growing more like their masters to yourself) it has suddenly become a more pressing need. I love to walk her on the fells, and let her roam freely - but I do need to be able to call her back, and increasingly my old-style whistle just wasn't loud enough.

Mike (my son) can do it, of course, so I asked him to teach me. He told me what to do, (something like this) and demonstrated it; and then I tried - and nothing. 'Now it's just about practice,' he assured me.

So I kept practicing. And eventually, some semblance of a whistle emerged from between my fingers.  

I had thought that once I had found that sweet spot, I would be able to replicate it, and increase volume, pitch and so on by further trial and error. But it has proved to be a more complicated business than that. Four weeks on, and I am still finding that sometimes I put my fingers to my mouth, and no noise emerges. Further, I don't know what to do when that happens. I don't know what makes the noise that does (unreliably) emerge higher or lower pitched. In fact, I don't really have any understanding of the skill I am practicing.

But nonetheless, practice works. The frequency of getting no noise at all is reducing; and the frequency of getting a really good noise is increasing (I'm up to about 90% of the time, now).

Which raises the fascinating question, for those interested in learning: how does that work? Why does practice work, when I don't know what is making the difference?  Clearly, I am gaining feedback each time I practice: either sound emerges or it doesn't.  But my inability to recognise what is making the difference means that I can't (consciously) try to to it better next time. Yet, nonetheless, over time, the more I practice, the better I get.

It seems to me that this experience raises serious questions for our models of learning: I am approaching unconscious competence without going through conscious competence: is that even allowed? And does it make (for example) sports coaching redundant?  

 Maybe the best way to learn a forehand smash at tennis is just to try lots and lots of them, without a coach telling you what to do differently each time. Perhaps your body will learn the skill more quickly like that?  I'd like to think not: I prefer to believe that some guidance and instruction really do add value. But I'd be even more interested to know what evidence there is to believe that, and what theory can be built around these different routes to acquiring skill. 'Muscle memory' is a label for this - a potentially misleading one, as no memory resides in the muscles; but even when not misleading, it seems to me to describe rather than explain...

Thursday, 15 September 2016

The Daring Way

Back in July, we had a great CPD session run by Jacqui Sjenitzer (about which I reflected here)
Jacqui has been in touch to tell us that she is planning to run two workshops -  the Daring Way programme - in Penrith, on 11/12 November and again on 20/21 January. The details are at the link below.
If you are interested in Brené Brown's work on Shame and Vulnerability, or keen to step up to the mark in your own professional or personal life, these could be a great starting point.

Friday, 9 September 2016

Archetypes in Coaching Supervision

We had a very interesting exploration of archetypes in coaching supervision today.

The three archetypes we were exploring were Guardian, Teacher and Healer. Of course there are other archetypes one could identify and explore but we limited ourselves to these (which map well onto other coaching supervision models).

The Guardian is concerned with standards, ethical concerns, appropriateness of interventions in relation to the contract and so forth.


The Teacher is concerned with continuing development: what still needs to be learned, what theories or models might be helpful, and what development opportunities might be appropriate.

The Healer is concerned with offering emotional support and keeping the other safe.

All of these are appropriate concerns in coaching supervision (and coaching, of course); but it is useful to recognise to which one is more drawn, and which one neglects; or whether there are patterns such as starting with the intention of teaching, but then moving into healing (eg habitual rescuing).

And then the conversation got even more interesting as we discussed the shadows...


The shadow associated with the Guardian is the Omnipotent; thus one may feel he or she has the right (indeed the duty) to correct every perceived fault in others.

The shadow associated with the Teacher is the Omnisicient; thus one may feel he or she has  superior knowledge which has to be used to enlighten all.

The shadow associated with the Healer is the Panacea; thus one may feel he or she iss predestined to provide the perfect cure at any time.

Again, spotting preferences, habits and patterns is valuable.

I am not a great fan of Jung, and don't attach huge significance to his ideas about archetypes and shadows; but I found this a rich metaphor to provoke some different conversations and insights about both coaching and coaching supervision.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Vulnerability and Shame

Last week we had a very interesting CPD session at Cumbria Coaching Network. Our guest speaker was Jacqui Sjenitzer, who introduced us (by both word and experience) to the work of Brené Brown on shame and vulnerability.

We explored themes of emotional exposure, and how the flight from that is one of the things that prevents us from truly turning up and being ourselves. We talked abut armouring up (to protect ourselves from the risk of emotional exposure), and the three strategies for that: moving away, moving towards and moving against. I was interested in the relationship of these to the Hogan HDS, where the Dark Side behaviours fall into the same categories.

And we spent a lot of time talking about The Arena. This metaphor is drawn from the famous Roosevelt speech, Citizenship in a Republic, delivered at the Sorbonne in 1910:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. 
This is a powerful metaphor, and the idea of turning up (see above) is closely linked to it: unless we turn up in the Arena, we are not really being true to ourselves. But the steps of the Arena is when vulnerability is most likely to strike: just as we go into that meeting when we can tell a difficult truth (ie enter the Arena) or hold our peace (stay on the steps) etc.

Such vulnerability is fed by ideas of scarcity (not enough time, money, expertise, courage, experience...) comparison (someone else is .... than me) shame, and the idea is that we can overcome it by self-compassion and empathy.

There was lots here that resonated with me, both with regard to myself and many people I work with. But I do have reservations about the Arena as a metaphor: building a philosophy on the metaphor of fighting for survival seems to me to lead to a particular way of looking at things - a particular set of possible stories - that may not be the most helpful.

Nonetheless, I found this a very stimulating and thought-provoking session, and am keen to read more of Brené Brown's work, and reflect on her TED talks: which may be seen here (on the power of vulnerability) and here (listening to shame). 

Friday, 15 July 2016

Anyone Got A Nail?

 I have just finished my training to use the Hogan Psychometric tools (click here to see my previous musings about these). It was a fascinating couple of days, though I will need to do some further reading, discussion and reflection to get the full richness of the concepts, and also some practice in discussing them with clients, of course.

Part of the enjoyment came from the rich group who assembled for the course, which I organised (purely for my own convenience) and which was run at Lowther Castle - just over the valley from my house. We had a few independent coaches, some academics, an HR Assistant Director, a maths teacher - all good stimulating company.

There are three tools in the suite that we studied. The first is the Hogan Personality Inventory. This is known as the Bright Side, and looks at those strengths which others are likely to see in us when we are operating at our best. There are seven scales, and they map onto the Big Five psychological traits (the Five Factor Model). The Five Factor Model is the most widely-accepted personality trait model (though not above criticism, by a long way...) What the Hogan tool adds to the model is an emphasis on how others see you - your reputation. Behind the questionnaire sits a lot of research about how others perceive people who self-report in particular ways. I think that is particularly helpful in coaching conversations, especially with people who are quite self-aware, in terms of their internal self-image, but may not have such a clear understanding of how others read them, interpret them, and react to them.

 The Second of the tools is the Hogan Development Survey, popularly known as The Dark Side. This was the first of the tools I heard about, and anecdotally seems to be the one that people talk about the most. The 11 scales measure those strengths which may become career de-railers if over-used. Typically, that occurs when one's self-moderating habits are relaxed; so under pressure or stress, or (conversely) when very relaxed and at ease. This was also the first of the tools that I experienced on the receiving end, and I have blogged about the insight, and the impact, this tool previously (here and here). This is also the basis of the book Why CEOs fail (by Dotlich and Cairo), and we looked at some of the real-life case studies from the book on the workshop. It looks well worth a read. I think that all of us on the programme found this a particularly helpful tool, in terms of stimulating useful coaching conversations.

The third of the tools is the Motives, Values, Preferences Inventory. This is the tool that looks 'inside'  and looks at the core values, goals and interests that determine satisfaction and drive careers. I can see this being very helpful for people who are not sure why they are dissatisified with (apparently) successful careers, or who are considering a career change.

All of the tools struck me as useful. There are all of the usual caveats about validity, need for tentativity in discussing the reports with people, problematic language (some of the labels seem unhelpful) and so on. Nonetheless, I can see many situations in which these could be extremely helpful - and am already thinking of many individuals with whom to have that discussion.

And then, of course, I pause and reflect: here I am with a shiny new hammer: so the temptation is to see every problem as a nail... I will proceed with due diligence, and in discussion with my coaching supervisors (one of whom was on the programme, as was a member of my co-supervision group).  But if you are interested, don't hesitate to get in touch!

Friday, 8 July 2016

The Dunning Kruger Effect

I have been learning a little about the Dunning-Kruger effect (in the wake of the referendum - I heard David Dunning on the radio and did a little reading subsequently). In essence, what Dunning and Kruger's research suggests is that people with low competence in a particular skill tend to over-estimate their competence, quite dramatically. Their incompetence includes an inability to make a sound judgement of their level of competence.

Moreover, those who are highly competent are more likely to underestimate their competence. I am reminded of Socrates, who probably didn't say All that I know is that I know nothing, but certainly had the intellectual humility that seems to accompany great wisdom.

I also reflected on my own complex set of beliefs about myself. I have confessed before to a fair dose of Imposter Syndrome. Is that, in fact, a clue that I am more competent than I perceive myself to be? Not so fast; for I am also pretty clear in my own mind that I am a better coach and facilitator than many others I come across. Is that, then, an example of Dunning-Kruger in its first observed form, and evidence, in fact, of my incompetence?

The best way to address such questions is probably not to pay too much heed to one's own opinion of one's abilities, but rather to seek objective measures and feedback from those who are well-placed to judge.

But the Dunning Kruger Effect raises another interesting question, and that relates to performance management. Conventional wisdom has it that you start the performance review meeting by asking the individual to assess how well he or she is doing. But if the incompetent are likely to believe that they are better than they are, and the competent that they are worse than they are, that gets the conversation into a difficult place straight away.

Moreover, in many organisations, managers shy away from giving accurate feedback in such direct conversations - understandably, because it is difficult. Instead, they make more general comments about the need to Raise the Bar and so on. And that, of course, is also fraught in this context. The incompetent, to whom the message is really addressed, will assume it doesn't apply to them. The competent, who are already carrying the bar over their heads on tiptoe, will believe that they Must Do More, like poor old Boxer in Animal Farm.

I haven't reached many conclusions about this. I need to think further about it.  And in particular I am interested in how it relates to my work on stories (did I mention my book on that is coming out shortly?)  So I would be fascinated in others' views and perceptions.

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Incidentally, in doing the extensive picture research necessary for such a well-informed and well-illustrated blog as this, I came across this wonderful image, and found the source to be this equally wonderful blog: all of life can be mapped on a 2x2 matrix of one sort or another...

Those who know me will quickly recognise why this is a significant matrix for me to contemplate...