Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Did you hear me?

I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” is a simply great quotation - apparently credited to Richard M. Nixon.

This seems to have a synchronicity of its own in the week of Thanksgiving as I had a similar gift from a colleague skyping me from a presumably sunny LA in the week. He opened the conversation with an enquiry as to whether I was currently "deluged". 

As I have been extremely busy, and was three quarters of the way through my day, as he was just beginning his with, no doubt freshly squeezed oranges from the garden, I launched into an explanation of just-how-busy-it-had-been-with-last-minute-budget-realisation-for-clients, with lots of demand for work to be completed in Quarter 4 and delivered before Christmas, and then, like a complete idiot, continued with a brief outline of what Quarter 1 was looking like for 2010...

...and then he explained that what he actually meant was - "how is the weather". After the reporting of all the flooding, it's a perfectly reasonable question, even though the floods were (sadly) in Cumbria and I am in London, I do know how, once in the US, Africa or Australia, the geography of the UK kind of shrinks to something the size of the M25.

Then last week, my colleague and I were running a workshop and explaining how to collect and organise lots of information for planning a presentation. One of the activities we use to illustrate is a theoretical "how to make £100 today" - collecting lots of ideas from the group to a flipchart and then organising it into cateogories and sub-sets.

Usually a straighforward-enough activity, we got ourselves hilariously hooked on a prong of language when someone in the group suggest "pawn" and it was heard by someone else - for whom English is not first language as "porn" - which could indeed be a way of making £100 in one day - but wasn't quite what we had in mind. Big points for creative thinking though.

So - twice in one week - I have believed you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.

Now I am wondering what that coincidence is telling me - I may have more in common with Nixon than I would feel comfortable with.

So - I intend to live in the question for a while...Did you hear me?

Saturday, 21 November 2009

What is appropriate?

I have had an interesting week! Unusually for me, I have been back in that place of delivery to slightly grudging groups of people who were "told" to be there, rather than participating from their own free will. The project-related delivery content was also quite cognitive, procedural and task focused in nature, designed to be delivered in just one half-day. 

Because of the situation and their initial state, I was treated to a fair selection of unconscious and some (I suspect) conscious defensive behaviours - including all the usual favourites - cynicism, yawning, over-talking, aggressive challenging, negativity, victim status, sniding, silence, in-jokes, hooking, wooden-legging, frustration - a rich mixture indeed!

With only half a day and a set agenda to deliver, it meant embarking on the content and making specific choices in the moment in order to keep on track - and not let my self concept issues around my own sense of significance, competence and likability get in the way. My defenses colliding with theirs at any point would have resulted in a horrible mess.

During the sessions, I was constantly reminded of my precious facilitator cube, based on the work of John Heron and developed by Pat Young at Learning Edge. I have written about the first two faces of the cube in earlier blogs, (see blog of the 22nd Sept) but realise that I have not yet completed the remaining four. This week has provided me with a perfect opportunity:

Face 3) Foundation - Awareness, Intention and Contract.
This face provides the solid foundation from which all facilitation actions emerge. The remaining faces are a menu led selection according to the moment - but this face requires all three to operate simultaneously. My contract involves my agreement with the client (of course) and considers what I have contracted to deliver for a fee. However, it is deeper than that, forming at least a three-cornered contract between me, my client and the group. The best explanation for the three-cornered contract that I have read is in Julie Hay's marvellous "Transactional Analysis for Trainers".

With my contract firmly in mind, awareness of the here and now will assist me in honouring it in the moment and my intention flows from my awareness. If my intention, through awareness, is to maintain a clear and balanced space in order to honour my contract, then my management of myself in the face of defensive behaviour from the group members becomes clearer and cleaner.

Face 4) Focus - Individual, Procedural, Group
This face is invaluable in managing the group process and dynamic. With defensive behaviour and a degree of acting out in evidence in my groups this week, I was finding myself using these almost like gear levers to move us on to another place when appropriate - or necessary. Because of the time limits and the nature of the session, the laddering up and down of the different foci was a conscious choice that I made numerours times during the single mornings and afternoons recently.

Face 5) Depth - Task / Content, Relationship, Source
This is the depth-gauge for all facilitation work - and a vital judgement according to the contract. What depth is appropriate? is a key question to keep asking on a continuous basis in all facilitation situations. The task/content deals with the cognitive level. The relationship level gets into affective learning and feelings, emotions about myself and others in relation to me and me in relation to them. The source level begins to take the lid off "why" - where in my self-concept, hidden self is the reason why and the source?  It's that murky area where coaching nudges up to psychotherapy, where inept or unskillful facilitation can do the most, deepest and long-term damage.

Face 6) Ability / Skill - Perverted, Degenerate, Appropriate
Linked to the above - although they are all linked in a brilliant web of client-centred concern - is the question of awareness of my own ability and skill levels and the constant brush with my own self concept and underlying values. If I stay awake, aware and present, then my conscious choices will be more likely to be appropriate.

Interventions risk degenerating if  I lose awareness, if I am not awake enought to be fully present or if I choose to work with material beyond my competence level.

A perverted intervention may arise from any situation in which I allow myself to willfully or consciously make a decision to do something devious or contra to my values or integrity. That split-second moment of departure from myself, the urge to score a point over someone else, to get irritated, to brag about something that I don't really know that much about, to bulls*t, to pretend or to do something in order to be liked or feed my ego with a soothing spoonful of competence or significance. Faced with a group of defensive and disaffected individuals this week, I was very mindful of the pull to jump in to the warm seductiveness of the perversion pool - and the value of this work in providing me witt the awareness not to do so.
With all the faces of the cube, it is important to remember that there is not a "right" or "wrong" place to be - but there is ALWAYS an appropriate place to be and to be serially inappropriate is just inept.

Elegant and effective facilitation of any situation is driven by self-awareness and sense of value - for myself, for my client and for the individual and collective members of any group. Even if they don't know the difference - I can't escape from the fact that, thanks to Pat Young, I do!

What is "appropriate" for you right now?

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

How do you manage performance?

Synchronicity is a wonderful thing. I have had a question buzzing around for a while now about peak performance and how to further explore and identify it for my clients when coaching.

Then on the Training Journal forum, ( the question was posted this week - "what is performance?" That has taken me to a place of comparing and contrasting the notion of "performance" in other contexts...
For example - if we consider performance in the arts, we could separate it as something we watched and experienced as the audience - giving applause and showing our appreciation (or not). Or we could take on the role of the critic and offer witty or pithy comments about it - but not perform ourselves. (Many professional performers don't read their critics anyway - too damaging for self esteem and confidence!)
Then I shift to wonder how improvisation arts performers - comedy, drama or jazz - would access and continue to develop their creative genius if they were subject to external feedback (or appraisal) after every impromptu experiment?
Also, a virtuoso music performance can be awesome, but I notice how moved I can become when experiencing choral music of almost any description - the sound of humanity in harmony is quite profound for me. Similarly with many orchestral performances - it works because all those deep subject matter experts are playing on the same page, conducted and led from the front.

Because we also advise on employee relations cases, I have also been noticing an inner friction for myself with some client organisations in their application and understanding of "performance management" as a management activity and often equating it with the disciplinary procedure.
So I am now pondering why managers make such efforts to transform work-based performance into something we manage externally? Or whether better results would be obtained by developing it internally? Musical performers know a good note from a wrong one, actors, comedians etc know instinctively what works and what doesn't- so why is the assumption and practice so different in the work place?

Competent, aware individuals and teams don't generally need "performance managing and disciplining" - they already have the discipline and providing they know and commmit to the requirement, can usually perform their socks off - or learn to do so.

Surely better results could come from coaching, encouraging and exploring the possibilities of developing their craft or knowledge still further?

So, next time we get asked to provide a "performance management" workshop, I might take a risk and suggest a "manager as coach" piece as an alternative.

My question is - how do you manage performance?

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

How would you describe your career?

As so often happens to me, I had the experience of two random events combining themselves into a new thought pattern in my head last week. I don't go looking for it to happen - it just does. 

The first was from a recent conversation with a colleague who had just read my post "Who's Managing your Headroom" (28th August) and sharing that, whilst he thought it was funny, he recognised the metaphor of "running out of headroom" as a critical incident for his thinking about his own career.

The discussion about his career that followed stayed in my head for a while to be joined by the second event at the weekend... We were at a delightful party for the daughter of a family friend to celebrate her 21st birthday. Katie is the same age as my own daughter and they have been great friends since pre-school days.

The party was a joyful event, tinged with more than a touch of nostalgia as we witnessed the positive effects of those passing years on the beautiful vibrant young as they prepared for graduation and their chosen careers, and the not-so-positive effects on our parental group as we approach retirement from ours!

I was struck, not only by the unoriginal thought of how quickly time passes, but also to ponder on why a career is called a career?

As a word it has an alternative connotation of something that is out of control, frantic and random in direction - like a detached snowbard on a steep ski run careering down to the bottom, (or a people-carrier driving at speed towards a low-tunnel with insufficient headroom?) It's an unmanaged process that is both dangerous and with great risk. I reflected on how I would describe my own working life if it wasn't to include the notion of a "career".

After over 20 years as a free-lancing consultant, I settled on "joyful gambol" in the field of coaching, learning and development. (I am acutely aware that this could also serve as a homophonic "joyful gamble" - which would also be true!)

So - my question is - how would you describe your career?

I'd love to know.

Monday, 28 September 2009

How might you reinforce the negative?

On the Training Journal Digest, that has been part of my daily routine for a few years now,( we have been discussing a thread of "reinforcing the negative", prompted by a recent Radio 4 interview with Robert Cialdini.

In part of the programme (as in his book) he explored the influencing effects of reinforcing the negative. For example reporting in GP surgeries the amounts of people who missed appointments does nothing to improve the situation and creates a social proof that it is acceptable and the norm to miss appointments. The press and media create newsworthy stories by accentuating and reinforcing the negatives.

As so often happens, when unconsciously following a theme, I had a gift of an experience one morning last week...

In the ladies changing room in the gym I go to in the mornings, the recent topic of conversation has been the new routines of children starting, changing and returning to school. As I am past that stage with mine, I smile with nostalgia and carry on drying between my toes. This morning I overheard the best of all:

Mother 1 "How is xxx settling in now?"

Mother 2 "Oh, she's OK. She's had a few more wobbles, but this week it's been a bit better. She asks me every day "Mummy, did you worry about me today?" and I say "yes of course darling - all day."

I was left quietly wondering how it might affect the child's "wobble-ometer" if instead of reinforcing the negative, the answer was something along the lines of "I think about you a lot, of course, but I don't worry about you because I believe you to be a clever and competent person who can take good care of themselves".

Developing a robust confidence about our own competence, capability and coping ability in the world is a vital part of the formation of a healthy self concept. In the scientific research that led to the teachings of The Human Element, Will Schutz identified that our feelings about our own competence and subsequent defences against fears of humilation directly impact our behaviour around our self determination and control of ourselves and others.

I walked home pondering how and in what ways I might unknowingly keep other people captive through my own anxieties  - I really hope I don't, but I am planning to live in the question for a few days - without reinforcing the negative of course!
So my question is:
In what ways might you notice yourself reinforcing the negatives today?

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Where are you now?

The second facet of my touchstone cube is a constant reminder to consider the three modes of facilitation: (Heron, J. 1999)

According to Heron, the three modes are:


I am guessing that this facet is fairly straightforward, and most of us will have some sort of theory for the transitions of group dynamics and behaviour. However, the three modes also begin to deal with the politics of learning - which are important in any intervention, but particularly so in consultancy interventions.

The considerations are about the exercise of power, who controls and influences, who makes decisions about what and how people will learn. Essentially it is about whether these decisions and political dimensions are managed by the facilitator alone, by the group alone or a balance of the two. Of course, there is another layer to consider at planning stage - and that is where else the power is invested outside the intervention space - by the Company, employer, boss etc.

1) Hierarchical

In this mode, as facilitator, I take all the responsibility (and the glory!) leading from the front by thinking and acting on behalf of the group, directing the learning process, exercising my power over it, interpreting, giving meaning and managing group feelings and emotions. (I find this mode closely linked to the Control dimension of FIRO - but that's another story and another blog-series for later.) The hierarchical mode may also be a group preference - it can be a safer position to not take own responsibilities for learning! Too much hierarchical control can encourage participants to be passive, or they may become hostile or resistant.

2) Co-operative
In this mode, power for the learning process is shared with the group. As facilitator I am engaged in enabling and guiding, working with group members to make decisions and become more self-directing. Outcomes are negotiated and the facilitation style is co-operative and participative. However, too much co-operative guidance can degenerate into a bland style, or kind of nurturing oppression, as I may unconsciously work to keep the dynamic "comfortable" and prevent them from becoming autonomous in their learning.

3) Autonomous
As the facilitator I do not do anything for the group in this mode, or with them, but respect their own autonomy. They have total freedom to find their own way, exercise their own judgement without guidance, reminders or assistance through the subtle art of creating the space in which people can exercise full self-determination in their learning. It is a subtle art though, as too much autonomy too early on can leave them wallowing in ignorance, misconception and chaos.

However, the modes are situational - so now link this facet to the Six Dimensions and witness what happens!

Each of the six dimensions can be handled in three different ways. By applying the three modes to six dimensions, we can combine eighteen areas for consideration:

Whenever I am in planning, meaning, confronting, feeling, structuring and / or valuing dimension, the next level of question is "and which mode is most appropriate for this activity?"

Am I ...

Planning in hierarchical mode? Planning for the group and making decisions for the learners - I plan everything including time, topics, resources, methods
Planning in co-operative mode? Perhaps planning with the group and integrating their ideas with my own, negotiating and co-ordinating the learning contract, discussing and canvassing views.
Planning in autonomous mode? Delegating the planning to the group and letting them get on with it

Am I...
In the meaning dimension in hierarchical mode? Being the source of understanding, giving meaning and making sense of what is going on for them. I input the theory, concepts and images and interpet and assess what they mean and what is going on.
In the meaning dimension in co-operative mode? By prompting, sharing, inviting participation in giving their own meaning and collaborating with my view in an effort to make sense, stimulating the group to work out "what is happening now?", describing events without interpretation.
In the meaning dimension in autonomous mode? Leaving the group to manage its own interpretation, feedback, reflection and  /or review to reach understanding for themselves.

Am I...
Confronting in hierarchical mode? - I decide when to intervene, interrupt the process and interpret things for the group. I do this directly to participants and for participants in order to bring it to their awareness.
Confronting in co-operative mode? - This is collaborative consciousness raising where I work with the group to surface avoided issues and defensive behaviour. I may describe what I witness and experience, prompting and inviting people to comment and become more aware.
Confronting in autonomous mode? - I provide and hold safe space and structures for peer confrontation and for particpants to experience self-confrontation.

Am I ....
Feeling in hierarchical mode? - I take on the control of the affective dynamic for the group, deciding the process and how it will be handled, judging what will suit them best, switching the dynamic with activities and prescribing opening and closing ceremonies. I think for the group and give permissions for expression.
Feeling in co-operative mode? - We work collaboratively together with me eliciting, prompting and encouraging views and discussions about different ways of managing feelings and how they are being experienced and handled
Feeling in autonomous mode? - Giving space to the group to manage its own life of feeling and emotion - it is managing its own affective process and learning, perhaps collectively or in smaller groups or pairs.

Am I....
Structuring in hierarchical mode?- I take responsibility to structure, design, and supervise the learning activities within the group, managing feedback and supervising the collection of learning points
Structuring in co-operative mode? - We co-operate together in devising activities and structure to progress their learning.
Structuring in autonomous mode? - The group manages its own process, being self and peer directed to complete whatever needs completing, devise and mange its own learning.

Am I...
Valuing in hiearchical mode? - I take a strong lead in caring for group members and demonstrating that I consider their value, I decide the ground rules and direct the group accordingly
Valuing in co-operative mode? - I co-create a community of value and mutual respect with them, giving choices and collaborating as they develop and respecting self-determination.
Valuing in autonomous mode? - I simply choose to let the group manage their own affirmation of self value and give space for them to celebrate their self-worth, identity and emergence in their own self-determining way. I make self-disclosures about my own beliefs, attitudes, anxieties, defences and delights.

Of course, the lines and spaces between these definitions are soft and blurry and all these questions also have a time dimension - Am I asking these before the intervention? At any time during it? Afterwards when reflecting on my own practice?

And, do I only ask myself once? - or continuously and regularly?

Now you can see why the cube is so symbolic - because the model itself is 3D and dynamic - it's simply too much to sit flat on a page.

I love the notion that I can have the whole thing in my hand as a touchstone - and reminder to keep asking these questions. I am mindful that through my own descriptions, I may be displaying my preferences and unconscious judgements.

I am also hoping that people in groups I have facilitated, coached and trained will read this and question me, hold me to account and challenge me about decisions or actions I have taken in the moment and their reactions to the experience - so please do!

I find it helpful to keep asking myself "where are you now?"
Which dimension and which mode?
The next question is inevitable and equally important "and why!"

I can't imagine feeling safe with any facilitator who was not asking these questions on a regular, if not continuous, basis. I also wonder if leaders of teams consider it in the same depth as trainers and facilitators? It seems as relevant to me - especially for leaders of high performing teams.
So, my question is:

Where are you now? 

I'd love to know

We have another four facets to explore...

My big thanks to Pat Young at Learning Edge for the gift of my precious cube.

When do you feel most alive?

I love the gift of coincidence in any part of my life. I think it is something I have got better at noticing and accepting as I have got older - and it seems to obey the natural laws that the more I notice it, the more it seems to happen.

This week's gift was started by Michael Neill and his geniuscatalyst newsletter ( that invariably marks the start of my week on a Monday morning.

In it, he was describing the application of an Ockham's Razor type of approach to coaching questions.  One such question that emerged, stripped down to just its vest and absolute simplicity, was "What would make you feel most alive?"

The concept of "aliveness" is a powerful part of The Human Element teachings of Will Schutz, so this question found a cozy nest in my head while I read the newsletter briefly, then got on with the rest of my day.

Later in the week, I was having an introductory coaching conversation with a client. Things were moving along in an ok direction, but I was feeling that something was missing from the mix. Everything was kind of vanilla, beige and careful and I wanted to see what it could be like with some of the zest and zing of passion.

Apathy and excuses are a form of defence after all and our defences keep us locked in assumptions about ourselves, so I was getting curious about what was underneath. Then, the question popped into my awareness - so I asked it...

"When do you feel most alive?"

There was silence and then ... transformation. Eyes sparkled, complexion changed colour and facial expression lit up. A totally different, vibrant, exciting, excited, energised, colourful, authentic person described the circumstances and the feeling.

The question provided a direction and pathway from wherever he /she was currently and habitually, to where they most want and deserve to be. (And boy, do I want to be there in the cheering crowd when they get there.)

I was reminded, once again, how completely energy-sucking it is to work in a way that doesn't value our individual genius and how feeling alive immediately connects us with our own talented brilliance. It makes things easy, creates energy and feels light, playful and spontaneous.

Surviving is just not the same thing as thriving and existing is not the same as being alive - but we can spend a lifetime kidding ourselves that they are.

Waking up to the difference is the first step to - literally - staying alive.

So, my question is - when do you feel most alive?

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Where is valuing in your planning agenda?

The first face on my touchstone cube is the Six Dimensions of Facilitation (Heron, J. 1999, p6) The six dimensions are mutually supportive of each other, interweaving and overlapping, but since a basic NLP premise is that separation precedes integration, it is helpful to distinguish each element.

The different dimensions are invaluable to consider because they answer some questions that require asking about my facilitator purpose, what I want to achieve and what is my intention. I find these questions useful throughout any intervention - before for planning the intervention, during to stay in awareness of intention and afterwards for reflective review.

The six dimensions are:

 1) The Planning Dimension = Prescriptive
This is the prescriptive activity of determining the ends and means of the intervention where, as the facilitator, I may find myself in a position of political authority. Decisions such as the nature of the objectives, the programme, contents, methodology, resources, evaluation etc. are important - and generally requiring visibility with a client.

2) The Meaning Dimension = Informative
The area of cognitive learning for participants. How do I facilitate their understanding of their learning and making sense of what is going on? This is cognition on a number of levels - the task, the process of the group and the learning process and generally I find that the deep this penetrates, the more the learning "sticks" and the more likelihood there is that behaviour will change for the long term.

3) The Confronting Dimension - Challenging
How much do I challenge? When? How? - and why? (back to "what is my intention?" above). Am I brave enough to interrupt things, interpret or hold up a mirror for the group? What blocks will we encounter in each other's anxieties, defences, oppressions? How willing am I to surface the issues being avoided? the "elephant in the room", to mention the unmentionable? What do I know about beforehand and how much is that colouring my view of what is actually happening in the moment? Is the challenge part of my plan or completely off-piste? How much do I want to raise the group's consciousness, and how much do they want to raise their own consciousness? Am I elegantly holding the boundary, tiptoing around it or stamping it into the ground?

4) The Feeling Dimension = Cathartic
How are feelings and emotions within the group to be managed? How will the groups consciousness of feelings be brought into the life of the group? The balance between negative and positive, changing states and switching dynamics, introducing exercises and activities to create a balanced flow, opening and ending ceremonies, honouring feelings within the learning process and allowing space for safe catharsis, celebtration, acknowldegement and moving out of stuckness.

5) The Structuring Dimension =Catalytic
Here, the facilitative question is all about the formal aspects - what methods of learning shall I use? How will I structure the group's learning? What should I take account of in the environment and supervision of it? What exercises, activities, methods and models will I use? What is the group composition? Do I pre-plan or go with the here and now?

6) The Valuing Dimension = Supportive
I love this area of questionning - how do I create or co-create a climate in which people can be their genuine, empowered, real selves? A place of personal value, integrity and respect that honours people for their authenticity and contribution in the moment. The acid question for me is how to do this for myself first as I will then lead the way. If I hide and deny my own vulnerability, if I do not treat myself with respect and integrity, then how do I create a space in which others are able to break through into a new place for their own development?

That is the first purpose of my cube - to act as a reminder to treat these interfaces as a reverse hierarchy and begin at the bottom - with valuing. From there I can work upwards to finish with planning. The quality of my planning improves a thousandfold when I work from the platform of valuing. I spent so many years doing it the other way round.

So - where is valuing in your planning agenda?

In the next blog, I will cover another facet of the cube - the three modes of facilitation and the politics of learning.

Monday, 21 September 2009

John Heron Intervention Analysis - Where do you begin?

Following the thread of  "touchstones for ethical frameworks" from my previous posting and various discussions with colleagues as a result, I find myself drawn to sharing how John Heron's framework shapes my practice. It has been so much part of my operating wallpaper for so long, that it is a real pleasure to disaggregate it and explore it all over again.

In terms of explaining the basis of the model, I can't do better than the explanation on the back of "The Complete Facilitator's Handbook" -  "Originating at the Human Potential Research Project, University of Surrey, and rooted in the realities of facilitator training, this model has been continuously developed for over 25 years and is committed to empowering whole people in highly flexible learning environments."

In the humanistic psychology arena, for me it is the whole enchilada - analytical, structured, theortetical content mixed with aspects such as group dynamics, facilitator roles and authority, experiential and whole person learning, co-operative enquiry and social change.

As a model, it provides a leader's manual as much as a facilitator's guide in that his definition of a facilitator is " a person who has the role of empowering participants to learn in an experiential group".

So, whatever you do, wherever you are, if you are engaged with the idea of helping others (and yourself) to learn from experience, then this next blog series might hold something of interest for you.

I certainly hope so anyway.

We will start with The Six Dimensions of Facilitation and his Six Category Intervention Analysis (1975):

Prescriptive = Planning
Informative = Meaning
Confronting = Confronting
Cathartic = Feeling
Catalytic = Structuring
Supportive = Valuing

My question for now is:

Looking at this list, where do you begin?

We will explore your entry point in the next posting...

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

What's your ethical framework?

Last week, I was interviewed as part of a research project for a colleague / fellow researcher at London Metropolitan University. Her research topic is "Ethical Practice in HR Consultancy" and I happily volunteered to be a subject of her research, as this is a topic dear to my heart. Ethics in any business is an important enough issue and in consultancy it is absolutely vital to define boundary management, confidentiality and best practice.

One of her searching and well designed questions asked me to explain anything that I might hold as a touchstone for ethical practice. Without hesitating, I fetched a particular item from my desk and brought it into the interview space.

In explaining it to her and experiencing her interest in it, I realised that I am so used to this object and it is so much part of how we do things, that I take it for granted - it has been part of my landscape for years. I have explained it to various colleagues, clients and co-facilitators in the past - and the reaction is always one of interest and reaction at a deep level.  So, I have considered that sharing it might serve as a useful Blog topic.

So - what is this miraculous object?

It is a crystal cube, lovingly and brilliantly designed by Pat Young of Learning Edge, ( to celebrate the graduation of the only 12 Master Facilitators in the UK. I keep it on my desk, it travels with me and it is with me in any room where I am facilitating, coaching, consulting with people.

This is my touchstone.

Each face of the cube has a particular meaning and represents a facet of the underpinning facilitation practice as defined by John Heron in "The Complete Facilitator's Handbook", "Helping the Client" and other works of his particular art.

So - in my next Blog, I intend to introduce John Heron and then over the course of the next six, to disaggregate and explain my understanding and application of the 6 facets or dimensions of skilled and ethical facilitation.
At the start of this jouney, my initial questions are: 
What's your ethical framework?
What is your touchstone for "right and wrong"
What do you hold on to in the turbulent world of business?
How different would our political and business worlds be if our ethical touchstones were public and we were held accountable to them?

I am happy to share mine, and I would love to share yours too.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Are you Surviving or Thriving?

I think I am currently experiencing a certain phenomena. In true phenomenological style, I am noticing an increase in conflict behaviour all around me. For example, we have had a marked increase in the grievance / dispute resolution side of our work for clients recently. I canvassed a few of my HR Director and practitioner clients and colleagues - and their experience concurs with mine. So, although not a statistically valid sample or empirical research (in case you are reading this Professor Walton!) I am still wondering where it is all coming from.

My hunch is that the energy to thrive is being used up in a struggle to survive in some situations. The rigidity of defensive survival mode and the energy it takes to maintain it takes it out of us and conflict, poor relationships, resentment and petty reactions become our default position.

I am using that hunch as I am preparing to facilitate a particularly complex and potentially explosive meeting between two warring work colleagues (for a client - not my own!) and I find that the damaging direct and ripple effects of conflict is on my mind. I am also trying to separate the work practices contribution from the personal issues in a deeply damaged relationship.

As always, when planning deep work, I dive into the tranquil waters of Will Schutz and The Human Element for the eclectic mix of scientific with spiritual and practical application, therapeutic tough love and unfathomed wisdom. 

Sure enough, in my facilitator notes, I fnd the questions I need to work with in the chapters on Concordance Decision Making that will help me guide them to find their own answers for their work practices. As always, the issues ebb, flow and crash around the big rocks of inclusion, control and openness.

No real work can begin until those three wants are recognised and acknowledged in a state of awareness. Once that happens, then we can move forward into the space created through mutual understanding where Will insisted that "everyone is 100% responsible and no-one is to blame". Once this point is reached, there is no turning back, hiding or blaming - the only way to go is forward.

I find the process for conflict dissolution using the Human Element method is stuctured and provides safe boundaries for all concerned. From that structure that I now know I will use, are some key questions to ask if we are to use our energy wisely for thriving in relationships with ourselves as well as others:

Which of the things I accuse you of are also true of me?
Which of the things I accuse you of do I think you feel about me?
What personal fears of being ignored, humiliated or rejected do I have in this issue / relationship?
How important it is to me personally to be paid attention to, to look competent and be liked?
and the $64,000 question - what do I do to prevent a solution?

The honest answers to these questions provide choices for surviving - or thriving - in conflict situations.

The man was a genius - thank you Will Schutz for the work and your legacy - and to Ethan Schutz and Pat Young for teaching me so well.

How are you managing your headroom?

Yesterday, I was catching up and swapping driving experiences, having made it through the M6 toll road, (see yesterday's Blog) with a client who had just returned from a family holiday down in the Vendee.  Asking how it was, he told me that it had been an entirely and enjoyable stress-free period. (His face lit up at the "stress-less" description and memory of such carefree times.)

Of course, it's a long drive down to that part of France - but all part of the holiday experience, and the  Autoroute system is (in my opinion) like the girl-who-had-the-curl in the nursery rhyme - that "when it's good it's very very good"... Luckily, he had avoided the "and when it's bad it's horrid" part of the driving equation! Of course - it wasn't the beginning or the end of August - nor the beginning of a sunny weekend after a huge dump of snow...

The lack of stress was consistent - apart from one incident...

There they were, happily bowling along through the various clever tunnels that avoid major towns (I think Rouen? but then - why let the facts get in the way of a good story).

Wherever it was, the height restriction was clearly marked on each tunnel, and the UK-stickered family-car-with-top-box height was well measured - as it has to be for Euro-tunnel - and well calibrated by the responsible driver / Dad /client / person to whom this story really belongs.

Imagine this - two tunnels down, approaching the third at a fairly respectable (and just legal) speed - and suddenly the sign above the tunnel informs you of the height limit - except this time, the height allowed is a mouse's whisker less than the height of your family-car-plus-top-box..

What do you do? Think about it - it's August in France and you are driving South - along with most of the population of France (or at least Paris) behind you, in front of you and either side of you and your UK bumper stickers, scarily reading the newspaper/map in the driving seat at 90K an hour - until you remember that they are not actually driving cos it's the "wrong" side!

So do you:

Option 1)
Stop on the Autoroute, at the mouth of the tunnel, and get your tape measure out? (Providing it's a modern one with mm/cm as well as feet and inches!) - and hoping that your French vocabulary can stretch this
faaaarrrr to explain to the drivers-of-the-cars-behind-you-in-the-queue-that-you-have-personally-caused? But data collection is part of critical decision making after all...

Option 2)
Stop where you are and get your Euro's-worth (or £'s worth - let's face it - they are pretty much the same thing at the moment!!) out of that red triangle and fluorescent jacket in the boot that your Europe-insurance cover insisted on you carrying, (buried under all the luggage that's not in the top-box,) - and rely on the authorities to sort it out once they arrive?
NB.The key to success with this option is probably to threaten ALL passengers in the car that if they utter a single word of school-curriculum French, that they'll be travelling the rest of the journey IN the top-box (even if it is in the back seat of the car behind by this time) along with the red triangle AND wearing the fluorescent jacket - WITH sandals AND socks for the rest of the holiday - or watching you while you do - whichever is the bigger threat*.
*This threat option tends to have varying strengths, depending on the age of your passengers / family members. For example: very small children tend to find their parents amusing whatever they do in that they tend to like bright colours - and other kids saying "isn't that your Mummy / Daddy in that fluorescent jacket, socks and sandals, dancing like they were at a wedding?" doesn't freak them out  at all - in fact they may well join in the dancing - and you are relaxed because you know you have plenty of years to a) pay off the mortgage and b) top up their psychotherapy fund to full capacity.
However, older kids tend to get a bit more neurotic (whilst they learn from us how important it is to be guided by what everyone else thinks)...and adolescents get acutely embarrassed if you can even spell "fluorescent" in public - and the Freedom Pass generation quite likes the security of socks inside their sandals to keep the sands of time out from between their toes.
So if you choose this option, you need to match it with an appropriate level of threat to be really effective.

Option 3)
Pretend that you haven't noticed and drive on regardless, hoping that your top-box doesn't land in the back seat of the car behind, having narrowly missed the driver and not killed or injured anyone on its rapid flight through their windscreen - especially if they are smaller, younger, better looking, or have two (or more) legs than you. 
NB: You might find that closing your eyes and sticking your fingers in your ears whilst making progress is a bit of help in the short term with this option.  Also - if you choose this, then singing "la, la, la, la, la" in a loud voice at the same time will ensure that you don't hear anyone else making comments or sounding alarmed at the time - whether in English or in curriculum French.  It's true, it is a bit tricky while you are driving with that whole "fingers-in-ears-or-on-steering-wheel" choice thing going on - but to be frank, by the time your British top-box is slicing its way through the car behind - all bets are off and "la la la la la" will be music to your ears - fingers or not.

Option 4)
Edge through veeeerrrrry-veeeerrrrry-carefully and hope that if your top-box is clawed off the roof as you go, that at least you can salvage enough clean underwear - and the kids' swimming gear - out of the road and off the windscreen of the Citroen behind,  to see you through the first 3 days of the holiday until the shops open again. (On the basis that lack of underwear is eminently solvable with a bit of creative thinking - but lack of kids' swimming gear from the first 3 minutes of arrival at desination is a disaster of nuclear proportions!)

Is that not the most stressful set of choice options? Have I missed any?

Running out of headroom, especially at speed and with responsibilities, is indeed a stressful experience. It got me thinking that unfortunately, cars and tunnels are not the only places where it hapens in life.

I spent some time checking out my own headroom as a result of this story (thank you Robert!)

In my coaching practice I see examples of people using each of the options to manage their own version of personal or professional restrticted headroom with varying consequences.

How are you choosing to manage your own headroom - in your job, in your life?
How are you helping others to choose to manage theirs?

I think these are important questions to ask ourselves.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Who's Choosing Your Road?

Yesterday, was a great day for me - a coaching session in the morning with a client who is making his progress in leaps and bounds, followed by a meeting with an "old" client consulting together about their strategy for next year.

So - two of my favourite occupations on one day - being lucky enough to be paid for them is practically incidental.

On my somewhat complicated journey (that's another story) to the venue for both meetings, I set my sat-nav to guide me along the way. It needs to be said that it is somewhat old, as it is installed in our trusty-but-aging Mercedes, that we cannot bear to part with.

As part of my planned route, I decided to use the wonderful M6 Toll Road to advance North. However, as I reached a mass of motorway intersections and fast decisions, the instructions coming from my dashboard were urging me to leave the motorway and divert to Coventry.

I am never sure how much to trust the rather bossy female voice (I much would prefer a French male voice giving me directions - making a u-turn would be such a different experience - but that's just me!) and decided to follow my instincts and not the technology.

As I emerged triumphant onto the fabulously clear, wide, perfectly-surfaced ribbon of tarmac, my sat-nav went into a major sulk and informed me that I was now "off-road". (I think it was tutting with a frown and crossed arms and generally giving out bad Karma in my car).

I then had several miles of reflection on random questions such as:
Who's judgement was "the right road?"
What would have happened if I had followed instructions and not my instinct?
How much of my life have I followed the "right road" for other people?
What might others define as "off-road" but that path be exactly the right one for me?

So that's my question to you for today - who's choosing your road?

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Why hitching and hobbling only works on horses

Whilst swimming up and down the pool doing my customary lengths early this morning, I was reflecting on what it does for me. I find myself counting the strokes and then adding them up as I do each length. I don't mean to do it - it just happens that way. But it really works for me because I often have great ideas whilst I am swimming. (I need a waterproof notebook!)

I think that because I am counting, my left brain is occupied and behaving itself for a change and so my right brain wakes up and comes out to play. For example, this morning, I worked out exactly how I was going to approach a piece of work that I have been prevaricating about and putting off for a while. I wasn't even thinking about it at the time - the thought just arrived as if from nowhere. I love that!

I was also reflecting on the hitching and hobbling of horses from yesterday's Blog, and wondering why that particular metaphor had appeared for me in relation to people in organisations.

Hitching - an effective, but temporary knot that can be undone in one movement
Hobbling - tying in such a way that the head can't be raised.

Both are pretty useful for cowboys (and girls) to ensure that your horse is still there when returning from the saloon or waking up from a siesta. Horses don't tend to move very far, or very fast, when hitched to a post or hobbled so that their heads stay down.

In terms of employee engagement, I wonder how many of us are unknowingly relying on a version of these methods to retain good people? And how many will remain when the economy eventually wakes up from its siesta?

It occurs to me that now is a good time to work actively on employee engagement and make sure that leaders and managers in your business are not relying on hobbling and hitching your people - it only works on horses!

Monday, 17 August 2009

Hunting in the long grass...

This time of year always has the feel of preparing for a new business cycle for me - perhaps more so than the actual New Year. I put it down to my years of stocking kids up with new pencil cases and the flurry of name-taping everything in sight as the beginning of a new school year approaches.

Following my last Blog, my thoughts have had me hunting through my own business long grass for the achievements that are hidden out there from this year. These had been triggered earlier in the summer through my membership of the HR Forum (at where the question had been posed about how we were coping with a "difficult year".

It got me thinking at the time about whether I would choose to label 2009 in such a way.

For me, personally, I have had a thoroughly interesting year that I certainly would not have had without external economic influence. I have done work and written stuff that I would not have considered accepting before this year - and consequently have learned heaps because some of it was out of my comfort zone and needed thorough research. That alone has really sharpened my saw and I know I have produced some stunning pieces through the re-thinking and re-modelling - and a bit of struggling it's true. It makes me think of the personal development difference between "20 years' consulting experience" or "1 year's consulting experience 20 times".

I've also been able to focus on client relationships that are temporarily (I hope) not commercially based, rather than focusing on project implementation. I have also given time, resource, material and stuff away to people who can't pay for it right now. So there's a fair bit of paying it forward energy out there, courtesy of me - perhaps scarcity is the time to be abundant - I don't know, but it feels pretty good.

I've increased my coaching assignments considerably and have loved witnessing the softening of crusty edges in some clients as they engage with their own vulnerability that executive success and making heaps of money so often masks - and gets in their way.

Have I made as much money as last year? - I don't really know and probably not - but my business and personal expenses are also down considerably. So I look forward to my accountant's verdict at the end of our financial year - my guess is that revenue will be down a bit, but profit ratios about the same and I quite like the reality of stepping off the exponential expectation treadmill that this-year-must-be-better-than-last-year. I reckon I've done twice as much learning though!

I think I have got a lot smarter about the business in general - like taking good care of a friend or family member who needs you - and in a way, I find I have connected back to the delicious early days of starting out and going it alone, when every telephone call was laced with excitement and the highs and lows of getting work (and being accepted) or not (and being rejected) were immediate and powerful - because it really mattered and was hard-won. I realise I've lost some of that intensity in the recent years.

Is it always easy? No - but at least I feel fully alive and present to myself and the business! Vive la difference!

On the personal front, my garden is looking pretty good, with 6 types of vegetables all staked up and soaking up the sun and rain, and I was able to be home for the whole of the GCSE period this time round, rather than phoning from a foreign hotel room somewhere to see how it had gone - so benefits all round!

So, time spent hunting in the long grass was a good investment - you never know what you might find!

Why cowboys didn't name their horses!

I was listening to Radio 4 yesterday,actually to a programme on the brilliant, talented and witty Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain, (, when one of them made a comment that cowboys never named their horses - in case they had to eat them later.

It got me thinking about how scarce resources can contrive to create a similar sort of practical callousness in organisations too. I am currently pondering the long-term effects that such defensive mentality will have on the people, their loyalty and levels of engagement in the aftermath of the current economic conditions.

In contrasting but connecting thoughts, I did two greatly pleasurable work assignments last week with forward-thinking managers of talented teams in hotels. Both groups were independent of each other, but the motivation for getting together was the same. They were driven by a wish to get together, nurture their team and to plan their strategies for their new fiscal year. Both businesses have a version of a balanced scorecard to guide their strategic planning.

In both groups, the work they did together revealed the same theme - their route to profit and success is directly through their people. Their independent and collective intelligence was telling them that now is the time to get closer to their people - to lead, direct and manage them as authentically and consistently as they can.

In theory, they all "knew" this to be the case, but it was interesting to explore the degree of management hold-back that had surreptitiously crept in as a form of defence. A great example of knowing not being the same as doing or being.

These insights triggered questions for myself, and my hunch is that they are relevant for other business leaders...

Firstly, what nameless horses are currently "hitched" to your metaphorical business posts? Remembering that hitching is a specific quick-release, non-secure and temporary knot for tethering horses so that they can't run away. (Another method is "hobbling" where they are tethered so they can graze, but can't lift their heads, so they don't go very far!)

A brief review of the past year also revealed that, whilst trading has been extremely difficult and some tough decisions have been made this year, there were some fabulous nuggets of achievement and success to be celebrated too. Some of these were lying forgotten and abandoned in the long grass.

What shiny successes and achievements are out there hidden in your own version of the long grass that could benefit from some recognition?
Now might be a good time to name them.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Why Consultants Should Blog

This posting is somewhat oxymoronic as I was very taken by a brilliant (imho) article by Jonathan Bailey at I notice that he markets as "Plagiarism Today" - so I am wondering about the boundary of sharing my learning - and plagiarism! I'll do my best anyway and state credits where due.

I found this article really helped me in clarifying a clear professional and business case for blogging.

Jonathan Bailey is clear about the purpose of sharing knowledge - which after all is what we aspire to do as consultants. The web just expands the platform for being able to do that.

I work with a team of talented people, and my clients are talented, clever people in senior positions - so every day I gain some new insight, idea or wrinkle in the general arena of "people" and organisational behaviour. I am also meticulously well organised and focused about my own development and learning - so the idea of sharing knowledge, learning and discoveries with a wider population is attractive to me.

What is even more attractive is the idea of being able to write good, fresh, high quality content in a way that will rank well in the search engines, create inbound linkings and drive us even further up. There is a theme in my head of "more content, more rankings, more connections" that excites me.

As I acknowledged in a previous Blog - I have become lazy and allowed the internet market place to develop without me - and it's time to change.

We do some cracking good and groundbreaking work with teams, groups and individuals using a variety of disciplines and in the course of my working life, I have learned a thing or two. Sharing some of the knowledge and information gained is a great way of creating a mutual respect and proving that I am out there doing it - not just talking about it.

For me, that's a pretty strong case for why consultants should blog.

More on Beginning to Blog

Following on from an earlier entry, I promised to share some of what I had learned about beginning to blog. I found an oasis of calm, sensible and knowledgeable advice.

Larry Brooks (thank you Larry ;-)) clarified some ideas for me in his "Four Flavours of Blogging" article, in which he puts his tongue (or perhaps his mouse?) in his cheek and classifies bloggers as:

1) Diarists - of the "what I did today" variety, (often with a plethora of flowers on the page)

2) Gurus - people who know a lot and want to share their knowledge - (spot the "buy now" button on the sidebar.)

3) Geeks - who's main interest is in sharing the latest gizmo, gadget or widget

4) Bloggers blogging about blogging - (oops - that'll me me then!)

He says that all are good and contribute, but it is important to "identify a niche and go vertical with confidence". (That makes me think of my mum hissing "stand up straight" when I was 13 and reached an early 5'6" / 1.524m - "go vertical with confidence" might have done the trick back then.)

Anyway - that kind of makes sense and made me think that it is important to start with some sort of strategy in mind. As my new blog-friend very clearly shared "if you mix expectations with a vague demographic strategy, then you won't be optimising your efforts". So, I guess I need to put some thought into that - who do I want to reach and why?

To write within my niche is clearly important - but I'm not sure that it's that clearly defined yet - so it seems that this blogging is going to be a good learning curve from that point of view. I hope that it will help me to develop my sense of "web-self", my brand and underlying values and help me to develop a writing style with personality and credibility.

Thanks Larry - that really helped.

If you missed it before, I also shared some other stuff I learned from the same site, but another contributor - Jonathan Bailey - on "Why Consultants Should Blog"...

Beginning to Blog

This is weird.
I have decided to experiment with blogging. The reasons are various and perhaps by writing this they will become clearer. I feel excited and nervous about being "out there" - and at the same time, increasing my presence is the main reason for beginning to blog.
If you are reading this (is anyone out there??), it might be worth backtracking to help you understand where I am coming from.
I started my training and development business with a typewriter that needed tippex strips to correct errors, spending days before running courses typing up my handouts and preparing acetate slides with wonky Letraset kits. (My Dad was a master printer, so I had good coaching on layout and composition).
I wasn't unusual - that's how everyone did it at the time - in fact, with my Dad's eagle eye on everything I produced, I probably did it better than most.
Since then, I've had over 20 great years of picking up the 'phone, responding to e-mails (later) and executing the projects that my lovely clients briefed me to do. The business grew year on year and all our work was generated by referral and recommendation. I married a man with an eagle eye to compete with my Dad's and an artistic and graphic design passion to boot. I've been lucky - and I am beginning to recognise that I've also been lazy. Quite simply, I have never had to market myself or develop my own brand presence before - and now, I do.
With the current economic climate, it is becoming clear to me that presence in the market is king and nowadays, that means web-presence. The days of reactive consultancy are over. I know I might be slow on the uptake - but I'm there now! So here I am - blogging.
My first challenge was "what to write about" - that's taken me a good while to prevaricate over.
However, my passion and business is about learning and development - and boy am I on a learning curve right now! So - I thought a good way to start might be by recording my learning about blogging so far. This might be useful to someone else, because at the beginning of today, you could take what I knew about blogging, stick it in a mouse's ear and still have room for the Vienna Boy's Choir.
One of my strengths (I think) is that I am endlessly curious, and once I ditched the tippex and typewriter for the internet, I have developed into quite a good researcher. So I decided to do some research on blogging and getting started.
Here's a collection of tips on what I have learned so far....
1) It helps to know why you are blogging and to have a sense of mission. (At the moment I don't - but I think it will develop)
2) Think about your audience, who they are and what they are looking for (hmmm!)
3) Start small and regular - so I need to keep a list of topics I guess and develop as I progress.
4) Think about how I can create links before I publish - that's a tough one as I am developing all sorts of other presence stuff in tandem, so I guess it will all meet up in the end.
5) Read other peoples' bloggs and get a feel for what you like and don't like - so I did that and found some absolute nuggets of wisdom and generosity about blogging....I'm doing a list for my next blog.