Flipping the Question (or searching for where the real learning lies).

An interesting breakthrough moment happened for one of my clients this week. I thought I would share some of it with you (while maintaining confidentiality obviously).

She and her team work closely with young men in custody. Their job essentially is youth engagement and preparation for release. A problem occurred with the team’s contract renewal, resulting in a great deal of uncertainty and anxiety among team members. I asked my client what she wanted to focus on in our session. She said she wanted to explore how she could provide them with reassurance about their jobs and the ongoing work they all did, as she was sure that the issue would get resolved.

I rephrased the question somewhat, and asked again, what she ‘really’ wanted. I followed up by asking what she was really hoping for, what a successful outcome would be, what that would mean for the young men in prison, and what learning opportunities might be created. The more she played with and examined the dilemma that she and her team faced, the more she started to see it from the point of view of their client base.

Her stream of consciousness went something like this. “The young men in custody experience uncertainty and anxiety every day, so perhaps her team could learn something from them. But that would require them to display some vulnerability to the young men, to share the fact that they are experiencing concerns. Is that allowed? Is that professional? Perhaps it would be good for them to see that people ‘on the outside’, and who are employed, are also experiencing volatility and a feeling of lack of control around their lives. Perhaps it would be empowering to be asked about how they have developed strategies for coping in difficult situations. After all, she knows that some of the young men she has worked with have remarkable resilience, are street-wise, know how to negotiate, have developed qualities like patience and tolerance.” Continue reading

Words matter. Time or Space?

Time is only a luxury when you perceive yourself to be time poor. People with fast lives and rich tastes can often be heard bemoaning their lack of time. For others, time can drag. Time plays tricks in the way it bends and slows.

This fact hits home most powerfully when I visit prison. My work regularly takes me inside prisons to meet young men who have been unlucky enough to find themselves on the wrong side of the law. There is a distinct absence of watches and clocks inside prison. Prisoners perceive time according to the establishment’s regime. Wake up, shower, medication, work, association, visits, meal time, bang up. These events punctuate the day, and provide the assuring rhythm that time is indeed passing. When I walk through a prison, whether on the landings, wings or yards, it is not unusual to be asked, “What time is it, sir?”. It is clear that they are hoping it is later than it really is. Continue reading

Get Vulnerable and Get Curious.

I accept that my perception of what is going on the world is tinted by the lens through which I find myself viewing it.  Brexit, Trump, Knife Crime, The Wall, Gaza. The daily menu for rumination is endless.  But what worries me most are the reactions I see and hear around me; in the street, on the train, in the barbershop, on radio phone-ins, and on social media. People sound angry. Angrier, it feels to me, than just a few short years ago.  Not just a good old-fashioned straightforward type of anger. The anger that wells up in our chest when we observe an injustice only to dissipate soon after.  No, the current anger that is milling around among us is more impatient, more intolerant and much more pervasive.

What’s going on?  We hear the cry around us all the time for greater certainty.  I hear it everywhere.  People demand answers and they want them now. They want decisions and they don’t understand why decisions are not being made, now. They have had enough of politicians, they have dismissed experts, indeed they feel that the whole ‘establishment’ (whatever that actually is) has let them down and they have simply had enough.

This is unfortunate timing, as we are living in an era that is arguably the most volatile, uncertain, ambiguous and complex period in the history of the planet.  The term VUCA has been coined specifically to capture this and has become something of a trendy managerial acronym.  If there was ever a time when we humans need the capacity to live with, and cope with, VUCA conditions, then this is it.

image by Alexey Kljatov // creative commons

But this growing intolerance is not happening simply by chance or because the world has hit a particular high water mark of VUCA. It appears to me to be more sinister than that.  It is being fueled by politicians and governments, ably supported by elements of the media, to generate populism and simplistic thinking.   Arguments are reduced to ‘Yes versus No”. “Us versus Them”. “Right versus Left”. Social media often gets blamed for causing shallow analysis and lack of critical thinking, and I have some sympathy with that view. But, let’s be clear, social media has exaggerated and amplified things, it has not created the problem. When we are engaged in our social bubbles we get fed more of what we already believe. Information comes to us, not as conversations with arguments and rationale, but as  soundbites, as snippets, as shock headlines. We become more and more lazy in the way we consume data. Continue reading

Are we ready for the Future?

Are we failing our children by what is taught at school?  How much has the basic curriculum changed in the last 30 years?  Are our children still having to endure an education program designed for the 20th Century?  I believe so.

credit: Inc.com

There is little evidence that governments around the world have really got to grips with what is happening right underneath their noses.  It is perhaps little wonder, as the politicians and leaders of our states, institutions and corporations are, almost exclusively, products of the 20th Century.

The steady spread of computers and mobile devices that we have become used to over the past twenty years has lulled the baby-boomers into a complacency. A state of believing that this pace will continue, and that they, as the first generation to really get to grips with the IT revolution, have a handle on it and can even teach the youngsters a thing or two about programming or big data. Continue reading

Spark Inside

This blog has been copied from a blog written by Jack Merritt on The Exceptionals, an organisation that helps businesses employ ex-offenders by connecting them with relevant organisations who provide training, recruitment and ongoing support.  

“Sometimes when we talk about prisoners and prison, we forget that we’re talking about people. These are parents, siblings, children.” – Baillie Aaron, Spark Inside Founder and CEO

Spark Inside Founder Baillie Aaron: ‘Why we need to rethink England’s prison system.”

“Spark Inside’s work is vital and unique. It is the global pioneer in offering life coaching to young people in prison, enabling those facing the most significant life obstacles to have more fulfilling, purpose-driven futures. Spark Inside provides that rare antidote in today’s complex criminal justice climate: hope.” – Rt. Hon. David Lammy MP, Member of Parliament for Tottenham

According to Spark Inside, prison doesn’t work, because it isn’t effective in reducing crime. Although 97% of prisoners say they want to leave crime behind, 49% will go on to reoffend within one year. This figure increases to 65% for 15-18 year olds. Spark Inside wants to see people leaving prison break this cycle of reoffending. Founded by Baillie Aaron in 2012, Spark Inside aims to bring about a criminal justice system which prioritises rehabilitation.

How do they plan on doing this? Through two innovative and effective coaching interventions.

Continue reading

What if people just don’t care?

You are a manager. You are responsible for getting the best from your team. You will be held to account if deliveries don’t happen, if deadlines are missed and if budgets overrun. But of course, you are a good manager and those things rarely happen.  You know how to engage, motivate and inspire your people. Don’t you?

We’ve all had those conversations with people where you’ve had to lay out what’s on the line.  Why it’s so important this time – again!  And, on the whole, those cosy chats work. People walk away from those sessions, and they get on with it. They pull out all the stops and you can all go down the pub and enjoy a few drinks to celebrate the team’s (and your!) success once again.

But, what if it just doesn’t matter to them that much? What if they don’t care?  Or, they just don’t care enough?  What’s the right conversation to be having with that person now?

Continue reading

Get Out Of Your Own Way

Every so often I have these moments.  It feels like a loss of focus, it gives rise to a dip in confidence, and an anxiety that the ‘clarity’ I had been experiencing has drifted away, perhaps never to return. As a coach, trainer and consultant I convince myself that I ‘need’ a solid and reliable platform from which to operate successfully. A base where I feel reassured by my own purpose. How, after all, can I be fully effective in what I do if I am seeking clarity as much, if not more, than my clients?

In these periods, my go-to instinct is to read.  To read and re-read passages from books that have in the past provided me with light-bulb moments. Flashes of light that put everything into perspective and allow me to get back on an even keel.

But this week it just wasn’t happening.  I was scanning some of my favourite books and papers.  Writers and commentators who have filled me with inspiration and energy. I was looking for the theory, or model, or piece of latest brain research that would sort me out.  And then, just as I was getting desperate, and thinking that my ‘mojo’ had departed me, I started to scan some of the highlights I had made, many years ago, in a book that I read when I was first in training.   Tim Gallwey’s “Inner Game of Work”.

And then the words jumped out of the page at me.  “We get in our own way.”

Continue reading

Choice, Happiness and the Quarter-Life Crisis

Last month’s post ~ Does Choice make us Happy? ~ attracted a lot of attention. Thank you for your excellent feedback. Some of the comments I received prompted me to consider this issue further, but this time from the point of view of the younger generation, particularly Generation Y.

Alice Stapleton writes sensitively and authoritatively about the phenomenon of the Quarter-Life Crisis. Unlike the well-documented mid-life crisis, which afflicts people in their forties or fifties, and is linked to feelings of stagnancy and a desire for radical change, the quarter-life crisis stems from anxiety about change, expectations, instability and identity.

Continue reading

Talismanic coaching: where science meets superstition

This Article was published originally in Coaching Psychology International, Volume 8, Issue 1 (Summer 2015) – ISSN 1758-7719 – pages 16-19. 

In Daniel Goleman’s (2013) Focus, he proposes that in a world of ever-increasing 24/7 distraction, we need to become better at focusing in the here and now. In this paper we propose the benefit of “superstitious conditioning” through the use of a Talisman to help
clients focus their attention in post-coaching situations.

Learning, at its most fundamental, is based upon the creation of neural connections which either strengthen or inhibit behaviour, facilitated by attending or not attending to stimuli. Learning can be said to happen when a new state (ie, a new connection) or a new association of existing connections occurs. The stronger the associations become, the more they become embedded, meaning the associated behaviour will be more readily enacted.

As coaches, we are in a highly privileged position, able to utilise this knowledge of how learning occurs for the benefit of our clients. We can share with them tools and techniques to create and strengthen associations. Once changes are fully embedded, then the tools may no longer be required, but, in the early days, having a proxy association to aid the formation of a neural association assists with sustenance of early progress.

However, all too often in coaching, after gaining insight, clients return to the everyday fray of work. Here, they lose conscious awareness of their coaching goal as it becomes displaced by more demanding pressures. Continue reading

How do you know when coaching has been successful?

As a professional coach, I regularly take coaching issues and dilemmas to supervision. These sessions are an essential part of every coach’s development, growth and emotional maintenance. I thought I’d share something important that came up for me in my most recent session with my coaching supervisor, in the hope that you may too get something from it.

courtesy: Maurizio Pesce, under Creative Commons, Flicker

courtesy: Maurizio Pesce, under Creative Commons, Flicker

The dilemma I expressed was around exploration of vision. Some of my clients move naturally towards vision. They are comfortable with the language and for them it is not a threatening or challenging conversation when we explore what it looks, feels or even smells like. Other clients struggle to talk in terms of vision. Even the concept of aspiration, dream or goal can be challenging. This is particularly true for some of my clients who find themselves in custody as young offenders. Many express the view that they do not like to think too much about dreams or visions as it only results in them becoming disappointed. They say that they do not want to build up their hopes only to be let down, and as a result they content themselves by living in a world of very low expectations.

When I put this issue on the table in my supervision session, the statement that my supervisor came back to me with was “It is not our job as coaches to breed optimism.”

I let this statement sink in, and my first instinct was to rail against it.  Some of the clients I work with have very low levels of hope or positivity, and I believe that people do their best work when positive neural circuits are switched on. My coaching often focuses on work around beliefs, particularly limiting beliefs, and how those give rise to thoughts, words and actions that generate negativity. Surely the work of the coach starts from the basis that people want to seek improvement, do ‘better’ than they are currently doing (whatever that means), and fulfil their potential? Why wouldn’t we encourage them to look toward alternative futures and choices?