‘Just take the first step.’ (Martin Luther King)
I was intrigued by a colleague who had cycled recently from Land’s End to John O’Groats, a gruelling distance from one tip of the UK to the other covering some 1000 miles (1600km). When I asked what he had learned about what it takes to achieve such a great feat, he responded with a wry grin, ‘Just keep pedalling.’ I smiled at his brilliance. All other considerations of fitness, equipment and logistics apart, he had captured the essence of the task – and the hard key to its success – in a nutshell.
This was a classic case of simple but not easy. When faced with some of life’s most difficult challenges – which could equally be, say, a broken relationship or an unfulfilled aspiration – the solution can stare us in the face yet feel agonisingly beyond our grasp. We may overcomplicate things, become gripped by paralysis-of-analysis or fear, lack the focus or determination to do what it takes, or create all kinds of self-defeating reasons to justify our inaction. Nike’s advice: Just do it!
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Does risk-taking freak you out or give you a buzz?
‘If you risk nothing, then you risk everything.’ (Geena Davis)
Snapping my leg sideways at the knee was a painful experience. It shattered my confidence too. I had been cycling when, unexpectedly, I hit a curb and flew off, unceremoniously, and hit the ground hard. The next year was a gruelling experience of trying to learn to walk again. The consultant told me, bleakly, that my biking days were over – as were my chances of ever hiking, swimming or climbing stairs again. I felt stunned, numbed, in shock. How could this have happened?
This changed when I met Leanne, a remarkable Olympic athletes’ physiotherapist. She asked if I’d like to cycle off road again. I told her what I had been told and had believed – that it wasn’t an option. Nevertheless, she persisted and posed the same question again. I felt frustrated and confused. I had already answered. She asked what I’d be afraid of happening if I were to cycle again. I responded that I risked sustaining further injury to my knee - and that really scared me.
This turned out to be a transformational conversation. ‘Every time you went out on a bike, you risked injury. Knowing what you know now, if you were to go back in time, would that stop you taking up cycling?’ ‘Not at all’, I answered. ‘Some of my best life experiences have been out on the mountain bike.’ ‘So,’ she replied, ‘It’s not about what’s possible so much as your attitude to risk. Will you allow that same risk of injury to prevent you doing what you love now?’
Six months later, I cycled the longest distance I had ever done off road. It was a breath-taking experience. I learned that risk isn’t just about balancing probability and impact. Positive risk-taking is about stance: taking what can feel like a leap of faith, being willing to crash and burn if it all goes wrong and, at the same time, to experience the possibility of discovering or achieving more than we had ever dreamed possible. When have you taken a positive risk? What did you learn?
How far can action learning (a form of small-group peer coaching) be useful in fast-paced and complex humanitarian contexts, in countries as diverse as Bangladesh, DRC, Iraq, Jordan, Malaysia, Myanmar, Somalia and Syria? What would it take to make coaching and action learning effective in these different cultural environments? These were questions I was invited to explore and test with ALNAP and ALA’s Ruth Cook during the past 18 months.
The idea was to train field-based practitioners in action learning techniques, then to mentor them as they adapted and applied them in disaster zones. Our goal was to learn from this experience too. Travel restrictions meant that workshops were all conducted online, which created its own challenges vis a vis patchy internet connectivity and access to training resources via cell phones, yet we-they persevered and the experience proved fruitful.
I was particularly interested in cross-cultural dimensions and dynamics in these training groups.
Workers in humanitarian crises face intense time pressures and it could have been tempting to short-cut personal introductions and press ahead with the task. In some cultures, investing in relationship and trust-building is integral to the task and, therefore, inseparable from it. We chose, therefore, to create opportunities, where possible, for participants to get to know and understand us and each other from the outset.
In Western models of action learning, emphasis is often placed on posing coaching-type questions that are short, sharp and direct. If, however, we don't pay attention to relevant cultural norms including relational preamble (e.g. ‘I am pleased to be here. Thank you for the opportunity to ask this question…’) such questions can be experienced as blunt, harsh or rude. It's important, therefore, to allow for different cultural framings and expressions.
We were aware that, in contexts such as the UK and USA, action learning tends to assume an egalitarian culture within a group, within which participants are and feel free to invite and pose challenging questions to one-another. In some cultures, however, where perceived authority and social status are based on e.g. age, gender or tribe as much as on formal hierarchy, careful composition of and contracting in groups are critical success factors.
In some cultures, to pose a question directly to an authority figure could be perceived as insubordinate, disrespectful or even insolent. Authority figures may be expected by others always to have the ‘right’ answers and to pose a question in a group risks shaming that person, a loss of face, if they are unable to answer it. One way to avoid this issue is to invite participants to write down questions and hand them to the person first, who can then chose which to respond to.
In some cultures, it would feel inappropriate for a participant to decide unilaterally on an action at the end of an action learning cycle without having first run the idea past their line-manager for approval. This may partly be indicative of where decision-making authority is held in that hierarchy. It can also signal deference to or respect for an authority figure. One way to address this would be for a participant to report back on agreed actions at a subsequent meeting.
When using a peer-consultancy version of action learning, in which participants are invited to offer suggestions for consideration as well as questions, particular challenges can arise. In some cultures, participants may feel compelled to accept the first suggestion that is offered, or to agree to whatever is suggested by a perceived authority figure. Again, writing down questions to offer a presenter can help to address this.
When using an appreciative version of action learning, in which participants help a person to identify what personal and contextual factors contributed to the success of an initiative, there can be challenges too. In some cultures, it can turn into a praise-party, with participants wanting to affirm the presenter rather than to tease out success factors. One way to address this is to allow space for praise first, then to move onto the more structured process.
In other cultures, a presenter may feel uncomfortable to comment on what they did well personally in case it sounds immodest. Two possible ways to address this are to invite the presenter to comment on what other people may have noticed about his or her contribution, thereby attributing the qualities to a third-party perspective rather than their own, or to depersonalise it as ‘This happened’ rather than ‘I did this.’
I am deeply indebted to all of the participants in this initiative who contributed so richly to our learning and ideas. What have been your experiences of coaching, training or action learning in different cultural environments? What have you learned - and what would you recommend to others?
Adrian’s a guru on the negotiation skills front. ‘Say what you want, not what you don’t want’, he advises, wisely. If it’s a complaint or a dispute, ‘State what would resolve it for you’. It’s a solutions-focused approach that makes desired outcomes clear and explicit. ‘Too often’, he says, ‘we leave the other party to second-guess what we want. We raise an issue or a problem – but we don’t let them know what we’d prefer or what would make a happy resolution for us.’
Imagine, for instance, contacting a supplier who has provided you with faulty goods or substandard services. ‘I’m very disappointed that X arrived broken’, or ‘I felt frustrated by your lack of attention to customer care.’ These may be fair comments and we might well assume that the supplier knows what would restore our confidence. Try instead, ‘I’d like a replacement delivered by X (date) please’; ‘I’d like a full refund on my room today and X (%) discount next time.’
A similar principle applies when navigating relationships. Tensions or unresolved conflict are common themes in coaching. A person may feel hurt or frustrated, become fixated on a problem, and lose sight of the relationship they hope for. To help someone to envision a different future – and how they may frame a conversation in terms of what they do want – can be transformational. ‘This is how I’d like us to work together. How would that be for you?’
‘A skilful, patient process of walking people to their own conclusions.’ (David Brooks)
I liked Claire Pedrick’s definition of coaching from David Brooks (above). It resonates well with Henrick Adams’ citation from Alexandra Trenfor on teaching: ‘The best teachers are those who show you where to look but don’t tell you what to see.’ That, in turn, reminds me of Tony Jeffs and Mark Smiths’ quotation from Bill Rosseter on the goal of education: ‘It’s about moving on in some way from point A, not necessarily to point B or C, but to some position beyond A.’ Madge and Tom Batten, community development pioneers, coined the phrase ‘the non-directive approach’.
Some years ago, I had the privilege of learning non-directive group facilitation alongside Catherine Widdicombe, author of Meetings that Work, co-leader of AVEC (‘with’) and a keen disciple of the Battens in this area. I use the word alongside deliberately because Catherine insisted on working-with, enabling and facilitating as the optimal route to developing my – and others’ – confidence, insights and skills. Her expertise lay in drawing out, encouraging experimentation and eliciting discovery rather than simply imparting her own acquired knowledge to passive recipients.
In later years, I trained in non-directive supervision and coaching, both of which reflect a process of working with an individual or team developmentally, often enabling and enhancing critical reflexivity and critical reflective practice. Subsequently, I trained in action learning, a form of peer-coaching in groups that draws on the same fundamental ethos and principles: an opportunity to pose and receive Socratic-type questions that enable a person to move on – with greater depth or breadth – in her or his thinking and practice. It’s as much about growing in wisdom as reaching solutions.
I often see Jesus using this approach in the gospels of the New Testament: evoking, provoking, revealing and releasing. I also see sports coaches, inspired by Timothy Gallwey’s The Inner Game, using it to great effect. When have you used a non-directive approach? How did you do it in practice? What impact did it have?
‘You don’t hire for skills, you hire for attitude. You can always teach skills.' (Simon Sinek)
Richard looked for spirit, talent and potential. Perhaps surprisingly, this wasn’t first and foremost about knowledge, skills and experience. It was about attitude, character and engagement. Get the right people on board, the right team in place, and almost anything becomes possible. This made interviews intriguing. One person would try hard to impress based on what they had done and achieved. Another would convey humility and courage: ‘I’ll do whatever it takes to succeed.’ If the spirit was genuine, the sentiment was real, the latter person could leave with a good job offer.
It made performance conversations interesting too. Rather than ‘I’ve done this, or that’, it focused on spirit and contribution. ‘This is what I’ve made possible, including for others. This is what I’ve learned, including from others. This is how I aim to develop, and to enable others. These are the steps I’ll take, alongside others.’ People took ownership of their own performance, recognised their interdependence with and impact on others and proactively sought authentic feedback: ‘What do I do well? What would most improve my contribution in future? How can I do this better next time?’
This Richard took a chance on me too and invited me into his leadership team at a global Christian non-governmental organisation (NGO). He gave me a gift – Stephen Covey’s ‘The Speed of Trust’ – to signal his trust in me. That small gesture inspired me deeply and challenged me to reflect critically on my own spirit and practice. I created a simple grid with ‘can do/can’t do’ on one axis and ‘willing to do/not willing to do’ on the other, as a tool for honest conversations with myself, God and others. It reminds me to fan the flame of the Spirit within and not to become jaded, fearful or complacent.
What part does ‘spirit’ play in your life and work? How to you spot, nurture and help sustain it in others?
‘If one door closes…kick it down.’ (Adrian Hawkes)
Patience isn’t my greatest virtue. Some of the most pain-inducing words for me are ‘wait’ or ‘let go’. I have learned patience at work, yet in my personal life, now often feels nowhere near fast enough. Instinctively, I’m with Pastor Adrian Hawkes who had a graphic way of challenging apathy, passivity and fatalism. His focus was on agency and dramatic leaps of faith. Do it. Do it now. Action man.
Yet, years have passed by and I’m older now. I’ve faced closed doors that have stubbornly refused to re-open no matter how hard I have pleaded, pounded or kicked hard at them. It could have been a person, a relationship or a cause. For some, it could be a bereavement, an illness or a redundancy. It’s someone or something over which we have no power or control to change. An ending that really is the end.
Against this backdrop, I read a very insightful and inspiring piece by Helen Sanderson-White this morning: Celebrating Closed Doors. In it, she describes the transition between letting go of one door and waiting for a new door to open: ‘The hardest part of this journey is the corridor of in-between. Sometimes we can stand in the corridor waiting for a long time before another door opens.’
(Cf: ‘Everything looks like a failure in the middle. Everyone loves inspiring beginnings and happy endings; it is just the middles that involve hard work.’ (Rosabeth Moss-Kanter). ‘It’s not (necessarily) so much that we’re afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but it’s that place in between that we fear. It’s like being between trapezes. There’s nothing to hold on to.’ (Marilyn Ferguson).)
Sanderson-White, with echoes of William Bridges’ Managing Transitions, draws on biblical material to inject a sense of hope, and a hope of sense-making too, in the midst of such corridor experiences. Sometimes it’s about learning patience, acceptance and trust. At other times, it’s about a deep leap of faith, taking a risk and looking up openly and expectantly to see what fresh opportunities emerge.
Have you ever felt like Tom Hanks in 'The Terminal' (2004) – trapped in transition? Who or what got you through it?
‘You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it think.’ (Mark Lawson, Twisted Idioms)
My mind, heart and soul have been turned upside down, inside out. I’ve had the privilege and, at times, intense discomfort of being mentored by a Chinese coach and Christian pastor. I half-jokingly call her Why, rather than her real name Wei, because of her courage and tenacity in pressing deeper, innocently, with the next question. My usual subconscious ways of getting myself off the hook have failed miserably. My beliefs, values and behaviour have all been thrown into question.
Wei’s natural orientation towards critical reflexivity means she examines her own attitudes and behaviour transparently – and reflects on them honestly first. She displays child-like curiosity with adult wisdom. She’s far more interested in following God authentically in her life and work than in preserving a superficial relationship or presenting a perfect front. To show real love is more important to her than to win an argument. Her spiritual maturity humbles and inspires me.
A person like this presents more than a skill. They demonstrate leadership-by-example. I became aware, over time, of situations in my own life and work that I could have handled very differently; of some of my own defensive routines that I didn’t even know I had. I discovered that I sometimes dig my heels in (something that will, no doubt, come as no surprise to people who know me) and that I can be, at times, more concerned with establishing ‘truth’ than building true relationship.
What I experienced here is, I believe, one of the great gifts of leadership, mentoring and coaching. It’s an encounter with a real person that can evoke and provoke fresh awareness and insight. A role model represents an invitation, not an expectation. She or he can inspire curiosity and a desire to think, learn and grow. When have you encountered transformational presence? How do you demonstrate it in your own leading, mentoring or coaching practice? I’d love to hear from you!
‘To demand perfection from someone is to crush them.’ (Joyce Huggett)
I’m a recovering perfectionist. Perhaps I’ll never fully get over it, but the first step is at least to admit it. In the olden days when we used to write things like letters, essays and reports on paper with a typewriter or pen (some of you won’t remember that far back), I can recall clearly a sense of dismay if I made a mistake at the end of a sheet, and ripping it up to start all over again. The thought of a crossed-out word, or Tippex, was far too painful to contemplate. Everything had to be…perfect.
This kind of perfectionist streak can be a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it can drive us to achieve dizzying heights that would otherwise seem impossible. On the other hand, it can leave us permanently frustrated, disappointed or exhausted. We may spend inordinate amounts of time and energy on tasks and relationships, where ‘good enough’ really would have been good and enough. There’s an opportunity cost too: I’m wasting resources that would be better used elsewhere.
Yet perhaps the most dangerous dynamic is if and when we begin to impose those same standards, expectations and demands on other people; irrespective of what the situation or relationship itself calls for. This is a risk of ‘red pen leadership’ – where a leader or manager (or, perhaps, parent or partner) takes issue with every slightest detail in another person’s e.g. appearance, performance or behaviour, to the point where the other person is left feeling damaged, diminished or despairing.
If you have perfectionist tendencies or are leading-coaching others who do, there are some useful insights from psychology that can help, e.g. psychodynamic: ‘What has happened to you that makes perfection feel so critical?’; Gestalt: ‘What are you not-noticing here and now?’; cognitive: ‘What assumptions are you making about who or what’s most important?’; systemic: ‘What cultural factors are driving your behaviour?’ I’m learning to breathe, pray, relax, be more pragmatic – and forgive.
‘We are interested in the past only insofar as it impacts on the present.’ (Geoff Pelham)
I worked with a training group recently that was learning the skills of action learning, a form of group coaching in which one person presents an issue and others help her or him to think it through to find or create a solution. As one person at a time talked about a challenge that he or she was facing at work, I noticed others often instinctively posed questions or prompts that aimed to uncover the person’s history or the backstory to the situation. The person presenting would then typically respond with something like, ‘OK, let me take you back to the beginning, where it all started.’
In doing so, the presenter used up precious action-learning time reciting a story that he or she already knew. It was as if, by sharing wider background information in this way, the peer coaches would have greater understanding and, therefore, be better equipped to pose useful questions. Yet, as Claire Pedrick (Simplifying Coaching, 2021) puts it: ‘…our role is not to see the situation thoroughly, or to diagnose. It is for the thinker to see the situation thoroughly.’ The purpose of action learning, like coaching, is to enable the person to think more deeply and broadly for themselves.
Claire goes on to reframe past-facing questions by bringing them into the present, e.g. from, ‘Tell me your backstory?’ to ‘Tell yourself your back story and let’s see what we notice?’; or from ‘What have you already tried?’ to ‘If you look at what you have tried already, what do you notice?’ If a person repeatedly recounts the same story from his or her past, Claire will shift the focus to the present, the here-and-now, by posing a gentle challenge, e.g. ‘Assume I know everything. What do we need to think about today?’; or ‘What is your most important question about that today?’
I worked with a psychodynamic consultant, Kamil Kellner, in an action learning group. Once, when a person presented a topic by framing its origins in the past, Kamil noticed her emotional state as she spoke and reflected back simply with, ‘The past feels very present.’ I had a similar experience when once, as a student in a group, I became quite emotional. The psychotherapist tutor, Mark Sutherland, responded, ‘It’s not the first time you’ve been here is it, Nick?’ The past can resonate so powerfully in the present. The gift is to notice its presence and create a shift in the now.
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