The Power of being ‘Clueless’

“There is no such uncertainty as a sure thing.” ~ Robert Burns

When we believe we are right, we don’t go looking for data to check otherwise. We close down our curiosity antennae and remain blissfully unaware of alternative views of the world. It can be cosy and comfortable existing in this state of course. Sticking with what you know keeps life simple. You don’t have to experience the dis-orientation of constantly questioning and challenging your assumptions. It lets you go about your daily business with minimal fuss. Life’s complicated enough, after all, without setting out to make it more challenging.

But, think about it a little longer. What if we all adopted this approach, all of the time? Nothing would ever change. Where would innovation come from?  What would happen to creativity?  The problems that we face, big and small, would simply become ‘accepted’ and incorporated into our ‘reality’, our ‘truth’, and not open to question. I guess this approach is more prevalent than we care to imagine. How much of our world, and ‘your’ individual ‘reality’, is governed by assumptions and beliefs? Continue reading


Coaching with emotion

We can’t stop ourselves having emotions. Indeed, why would we want to?  So, how do coaches coach from a place that ensures their emotions do not hi-jack their approach and derail the effectiveness of their engagements with clients?  What happens if you feel sorry for a client?  What if you get an overpowering desire to tell someone what they need to do?  What if something they say upsets you, or makes you angry?

Masterful coaches recognise that they can’t (and shouldn’t) block their own emotions, but rather, that they use these emotions to help them be a better coach.  By raising awareness of their own reactions and emotions, coaches can channel their coaching skills into better listening, richer rapport and deeper presence.



If your emotions leak into your questions, then they will lose impact, and judgements you are making will be transparent. If you are focusing on how you feel, you will not be listening fully to the client, and presence in the moment will suffer. Much better to be open and honest about emotions that are showing up for you. Sharing with a client that, “….this is making me feel uncomfortable right now, how is it making you feel?”, is fine. In fact, role-modelling the sharing of emotions in this way, may well help elicit a deeper exploration and sharing of emotion by the client.

It is when coaching reaches this emotional level that great things often start to happen, and progress and movement becomes possible.

The importance of engaging on an emotional level was discussed in a previous post called the The Upstairs & Downstairs Brain.


If you feel that you (or members of your team) would benefit from exploring ways to make substantial improvements to personal and collective effectiveness and productivity, please get in touch. Tailored learning programmes are available that have delivered proven benefits, whether your current focus is on:

  • a need to engage your workforce in a positive and compelling way through a transformation
  • how to ensure you get the best out of your investment in talent 
  • ensuring your senior teams, team leaders & middle managers are equipped to handle the conversations that are needed to ensure your organisation is operating as effectively and productively as it could be. 

Simply submit your contact details on the Contact Us page and I will be delighted to get in touch with you for an informal initial chat.


From Curiosity to Attention

“You had my curiosity. But now you have my attention.”                                              as spoken by Leonardo DiCaprio’s character (Calvin Candie) in the move ‘Django Unchained’

“Be curious” is a very popular term used widely within the coaching fraternity.  It is of course great advice, as it encourages people to ‘simply notice’, without judgement, and with an open questioning mind. Being curious helps raise self-awareness. It also encourages one to consider and reflect on things that may otherwise go unnoticed. However, merely ‘being curious’, in itself, is unlikely to create the sufficient mental conditions for significant learning and change to occur. To achieve this, generalised curiosity needs to be cranked up to a state of sharply focused ‘attention’.

Being curious is the equivalent to being a casual ‘observer’ of the game. Having focused attention requires you become completely ‘immersed’ in the game.

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I have touched on this subject many times in the past, most notably in Slow Down, you Move too Fast.  Before getting to agreements that something needs done about a problem, and long before specific actions are decided upon, it is vital that high levels of attention are shone on the issue. People simply do not agree to take action on situations unless they first of all recognise that it is important enough to do so, and that there are high enough stakes at play to make it worthwhile. Continue reading

Discard the new year speech

Another year begins. You are re-charged and ready to hit the ground running.  You’ve spent time thinking about all those issues and challenges that need tackling and you are determined to get things moving.  Before you dive straight in, and start giving the big motivational speech, consider whether this might be the year to tackle some things in a new way.



What different results might emerge if you considered some of the following ‘alternative’ ways of engaging and ‘energizing’ your people?

Giving away Ownership   Instead of spelling out what you want done in precise detail, just paint a picture and outline the general direction.  Allow room for people to be creative, innovative and own the solutions.  They may just surprise you. They’ll get greater satisfaction than they do when implementing someone else’s solution, and will most probably do more than you expected.

Demonstrating Trust   You’re always busy, and often feel compelled to ‘catch up on things’ every time you are back in the office.  What if you were to make it clear that you Continue reading

Stroke of Genius

I was intrigued by an article I read this week on 5 Reasons Your Top Employee Isn’t Happy. It got me thinking about how we manage talent.  And maybe there lies the problem – in that very word ‘manage’.  Talent is a precious thing, but should it be given ‘maverick status’ or does it need to be controlled?  Well, I guess the answer might well vary depending on the culture of the company, what period in the company’s development you are at, or what sort of leader you are?



I immediately thought about the football team analogy. I have played and watched football over more years than I care to remember, and the recurring debate about how teams should accommodate rare talent just never goes away.  What I have seen,  is that teams who are riding on the crest of a wave, winning everything in sight, and blowing the opposition away, can often afford the ‘luxury’ of the occasional ‘maverick’ or ‘outlier’.  Often described as a genius, these players entertain the crowds and keep the sports (and sometimes front-page) writers happy.

But, when the going gets tough, everyone is expected to put in a shift. Sulking on the wings with your hands on hips, complaining about not getting good service, doesn’t go down well – not with the crowd (or shareholders), team mates (or work colleagues) or coach (boss).

It’s a big issue for companies too. When someone is bestowed the title talent (or genius) – what is expected of them and of others?   Continue reading

Breaking Barriers

As the London Olympic Games draw towards their close, it has been exciting to watch records tumble and barriers being broken. Of course, not all barriers are measured by distance or by the clock. Some of the most fascinating are psychological barriers.

Andy Murray appears to have broken a personal barrier in winning his Tennis singles gold medal. Regular readers will have read Learning from Wimbledon a few short weeks ago which described the progress Murray was making with his Inner Game. At the Olympics he buried the anguish he experienced a month ago, by defeating two of his fiercest opponents in quick succession, something he has found tough to do previously. He played unbelievably well, out-hitting, out-moving and out-thinking both Djokovic and Federer. A huge breakthrough, which may well see Murray move on to achieve much more success in future championships. .

Michael Phelps broke the barrier of all-time most decorated olympian – 22 medals – 18 of which are gold. This is a phenomenal achievement, even in a sport that provides more opportunity than most to multi-event. Phelps has set the bar at a new height for someone else to emulate in years to come.

Oscar Pistorius broke a barrier of a very different kind, becoming the first double amputee to ever take his place in an Olympics starting line up. He qualified from his heat to reach the semi-final of the 400m. A remarkable story which has cleared the way for future paralympians to stake their claim to be able to qualify for full olympic participation. New barriers will no doubt have to be overcome, but Pistorius has shown it is possible.

Some barriers are broken with increasing regularity, most notably in the swimming pool and in the velodrome, the latter no doubt assisted by advances in cycle technology. Others stand defiantly unobtainable, such as the long jump record which has stood for over 20 years. What fascinates me most of all is the psychological nature of breaking barriers.

Perhaps the best known example of this in the sporting arena is that of the mythical 4 min mile ‘barrier’. Until 1954, many actually believed that it was impossible, and perhaps even dangerous (or fatal) for anyone to run a mile faster than 4 mins. Roger Bannister became the first to make the breakthrough, and opened the floodgates for many others to do the same very soon afterwards. Soon the record was being broken over and over again. Those people who were soon running sub-4 minutes on a regular basis, were clearly physically capable of doing so, in the same way that Bannister did. The barrier they broke was inside their head, not on the track.

Running the 100m had a similar ‘magical’ barrier for quite some time. Once 10 sec was broken by Jim Hines in 1968, many others soon followed. The 100m final at this week’s Olympics was won by the extraordinary Usain Bolt. Had Asafa Powell not pulled up with an unfortunate injury, there is no doubt that every runner in the race would have gone under the 10sec barrier.

No-one has yet gone under 2 hours for the marathon, but it is getting closer with the current world record for men standing at 2hr 03min. It will be fascinating to observe how long it takes for the first person to run 1hr 59min 59sec, and how long afterwards we have to wait to see that time further reduced.

What is going on with these symbolic barriers, and what learning can it provide for other areas of life? In business, when people say it’s impossible, do they simply mean it’s not been done yet? Does it mean that Continue reading

Lessons from a journey through Wales

Life is like riding a bicycle.  To keep your balance you must keep moving                  ~ Albert Einstein

During the last week I went on a solo adventure. I cycled the entire length of the country. Now, before those of you living in places like Australia or the USA get really excited, I need to point out that the country I am talking about is Wales.  But hey, that’s an adventure for me. If you don’t know Wales, it is hilly. From top to bottom, all 250 miles or so of it, are either going up or going down, though I am certain there are many more ups than downs!

It was a superb trip, spread over four and a half days, in glorious sunshine, through some of the UK’s most beautiful countryside.  I had no big plan other than to enjoy the journey and prove to myself that I could rise to the challenge.  As I came toward the end of the road, I began to ask myself what, if anything, I had learned along the way. I cannot report any spiritual awakening, or major personal transformations, I’m afraid, but I thought I would  share with you a few of the musings of my journey.

1. Take Frequent Breaks.  There were many points where I was sure I could not go on.  I was exhausted. The hill was too steep. It was too hot.  No matter how spent I felt, I was amazed how even a 5 min break, with a bit of refreshment and a stretch, was enough to allow me to carry on. It worked, over and over again.  I do have a tendency to work on tasks until they’re completed, often ‘forgetting’ to take breaks. I know now how much more re-focused and re-energised you can be with frequent breaks.

2. Have small, regular goals.  The ‘Big Vision’ – the feeling of completing the journey – is great.  It sets the direction, it inspires you to take on the challenge in the first place, and it helps occasionally to play the picture over in your mind of what finishing will be like (especially when the going gets tough).  But, what got me through was having small targets – the next hill, what’s round the next corner, what’s the next village. This short-term chunking allowed me to focus only on the immediate stage, and not be overwhelmed by the scale of the entire challenge.

3. Rhythm is all important.  This lesson only really came to me later on the journey.  It’s difficult to explain how it happened, as it was something that ‘came to me’ without consciously seeking it. But, it was quite clear that the effort required was much easier once I hit upon a steady, relaxed rhythm.  Fighting against the rhythm is tiring and, on steep hills, I found I ground to a halt the more effort I put in. Relaxing and pumping out a slower, but even, tempo allowed me to go on much longer, and I even began to enjoy hills!

I also learned two other, more trivial, lessons. Continue reading

What’s your favourite Question?

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”  (Albert Einstein)

Have you ever thought about the power of questions?  We ask questions all the time but we probably don’t think much about doing it, or what impact our questions are having. There’s more to questions than simply choosing whether to use What, Where, Who, When, Which, How or Why?  Good questions are what drives creativity, discovery and progress.  But, I have a concern that our business culture and organisations do not encourage and reward behaviour that promotes good questions. Instead, our leaders and managers are expected to have ‘answers’ rather than questions and are expected to make decisions and fix problems.  This drives our management cultures toward adopting an ‘advocacy’ rather than an ‘enquiry’ philosophy, reinforcing the expectations of the workforce and of the leaders themselves.

More than ever, we need ‘new thinking’, fresh paradigms, and questions that challenge the ‘way things have always been done’.  Unfortunately, we don’t train people in the skill of constructing powerful questions, perhaps reinforced by the age-old ‘dogma’ that we pay people to come up with answers and solutions, not ask more questions.  Of course this is short-sighted thinking, and it is time to value the power of questions and to invest in the development of this most important of skills.

So, what makes a question ‘powerful’?  Here is a list proposed by Eric E. Vogt, Juanita Brown, and David Isaacs, 2003, in “The art of powerful questions”.

Powerful questions……

  • generate curiosity in the listener
  • stimulate reflective conversation
  • are thought-provoking
  • surface underlying assumptions
  •  invite creativity and new possibilities
  • generate energy and forward movement
  • channel attention and focus inquiry
  • stay with participants
  • touch a deep meaning
  • evokes more questions

A powerful question will also spread across networks of conversation, pervade organizations and communities, and are more often than not the catalyst for large-scale and transformational change.

Here are some examples of the types of questions that I believe have the power to shift thinking, tap in to people’s creativity, and open up possibilities that ‘more conventional’ ways of tackling issues may never discover. Continue reading

What gets in your way and blows the conversation?

Because we are human we have a number of fairly predictable reactions and behaviours in given situations.

All people, regardless of culture, gender, experience, job or position in the hierarchy, operate according to the same set of principles when under even fairly mild levels of stress. [For a more detailed treatment of this area I refer you to Chris Argyris’ work on double-loop learning ] 

  1.  We seek to maximise comfort and minimise negative emotions that means both our own and also the other person with whom we may be interacting at the time. 
  2. We will, at the same time as aiming to maintain a position of comfort, still aim to maximise our chances of winning and avoid losingin other words, we typically want to get our point across, and let others see where the problem lies or solution should come from
  3. And third, we seek to maintain controlwe typically try to put out a feeling of rationality and self-control (even when it is lacking) and aim to maintain control of where the discussion or outcome is going so that we can ‘steer’ others to the outcome we want

All of this adds up to a heady mix of potential problems in our everyday dealings with people – especially when stakes are raised, when emotions rise and when threats start to emerge.  The ways in which these principles and values emerge in our behaviour can differ from person to person – sometimes overtly and sometimes beneath a veneer of control, respectability and respect.  The underlying purpose of these strategies is to avoid vulnerability, avoid risk, and avoid appearing incompetent.

But, before you go away with an overly pessimistic view of the human race, don’t worry. First of all, this is natural, and is, to a large extent, a strategy that has helped us survive as a species through our evolution.  These strategies were necessary in the primeval world our ancestors navigated, but they are deeply defensive strategies, and rooted in a desire for self-preservation.  When they show up in our everyday lives, in meetings, in performance reviews and in relationships, they undermine our effectiveness and get in the way of building productive relationships, they are “anti-learning”, and damage the chances of constructive outcomes.

The good news is that we know about these de-railers and how and when they show up, and we can do something about it.

Fundamentally the approach to overcoming these is simple….. Continue reading

You Cannot Lead without Inquiry

BLOG UPDATE:  This article was originally posted in February 2012, and I am delighted to see that Hamza Kashgari, the young Saudi writer who inspired the article, has eventually been released from his prison sentence in Saudi Arabia. If you missed the original story, Hamza was imprisoned for expressing views deemed blasphemous by the authorities.  

(see Freedom House article on his release here)


POSTED Feb 20, 2012      Too many people in positions of authority operate from a position of fear. Fear of not knowing, fear of being found out, fear of looking incompetent, fear of losing what has taken them years to attain.  This is true in companies, public service and politics. People who are in these positions are rarely stupid.  Being smart is usually a big factor in them getting to where they are. But, once they are there, something seems to kick in which is profoundly ‘anti-learning’. To paraphrase the great Chris Argyris, “Smart People find it tough to Learn”.

Today’s story in The Nation of Hamza Kashgari, a 23-year-old journalist, who faces potential death for daring to question, shines a powerful spotlight on the fear with which ‘leaders’ operate. As a species we progress by learning.  We are problem solvers, we are cognitive thinkers, we naturally question, challenge and inquire. It is by doing so that we have overcome the multitude of obstacles that have stood in the way of our evolution over millenia. But, we do not and cannot stand still. To do so would consign the human race to extinction, probably through self-destruction. More than ever before, we require Continue reading