‘You ask way too many questions, pal.’ (Homeless person – to me, 1982)
I was excited, intrigued and a little nervous to visit my first homeless project in London. As a young Christian activist, I wanted to learn from the lived experience of people in need so that I could use my own life to make a positive and tangible difference in their world. In my enthusiasm and a genuine spirit of curiosity, I asked this homeless man question after question about his life. After a while, he cautioned me politely but sternly – to stop. It was a stark, timely and important lesson.
Questions lay at the heart of coaching and facilitation; questions that aim to enable a person or group to think through an issue more deeply or broadly and to reach their own solutions. We may talk about powerful questions, or impactful questions – questions targeted at a person: what he or she is thinking, feeling and doing, rather than at the broader issue itself – to enable the greatest shift. It’s a language that, in a safe space, speaks of constructive challenge with a positive intent.
Yet what happens if we are working with people or groups where the very experience of receiving questions, however well intended or framed, evokes considerable anxiety or stress? We can think of various examples: e.g. a refugee who has been subjected to violent interrogation in their country of origin; an asylum-seeker who associates questions with having to defend an appeal for help; a person who has endured abuse from a controlling partner who challenged her/his every action.
The language of power-ful questions can itself raise issues of power dynamics implicit in the coach or facilitator relationship with a person or group. After all, the coach is the person posing the questions – not feeling a need, pressure or expectation to answer them – and may at some level reflect or represent the type of person, group or authority the client regards as oppressive. Similarly, impact-ful can sound like hitting, violence, done-to, to a person or group living in a state of anxiety.
The homeless man I alluded to above explained, with pain in his eyes, that my questions were taking him to places in his past that he was trying hard not think about or deal with because they felt too traumatic. I was, in effect, inadvertently re-triggering the emotional effects of experiences he had lived through. I remember feeling horrified, apologising, and falling silent in shame. Yet I learned the vital need to pay attention to sensitive relationship and mutual contracting in these fields of work.
Given these risks and dynamics, it could feel tempting to shrink back altogether from coaching or, say, action learning with vulnerable people or groups. What if we make a mistake or make things worse? Is there a risk that we will inappropriately stray or be drawn into the realms of counselling or therapy where we are and feel out of our depth? Is there any guidance that could help us navigate such potentially difficult terrain? I will offer some practical insights here that I’ve found helpful:
Some vulnerable clients may feel concerned about why they are being asked questions, how they are expected to respond (the ‘right’ or ‘acceptable’ answer, in that context), who will have access to their responses and what they might do with them. This may be especially the case if they have been sent for coaching or action learning, perhaps as a remedial measure, or if they come from a personal-cultural background where posing questions as a developmental approach is unfamiliar.
In my experience, vulnerable clients rarely raise these concerns explicitly. They are more likely to surface during contracting as something like, ‘How can I be sure that what I may share here will not be shared elsewhere?’ This points to a need for trust-building. I may ask a client, ‘What would give you the reassurance you need?’, ask other participants (if in a group), ‘What are you willing to commit to?’ and explore and agree explicitly what we will do if, say, a conflict of interest should emerge.
Claire Pedrick offers a simple and useful frame that helps ensure healthy and constructive focus and boundaries: ‘What are we here to do?’ and ‘How shall we do this?’ The language of ‘we’ points towards a coactive conversation in which both parties discuss, negotiate and agree their terms of engagement. Claire also regards the client positively, whether an individual or group, as resilient enough to engage in the process – unless it transpires that they aren’t – and contracts accordingly.
Geoff Pelham, drawing on Gestalt psychology, focuses on creating an authentic human relationship (‘contact’) with the client rather than a purely transactional one. This can help to create a safe-enough space for coaching to be effective. He may inquire with empathy, ‘What do you need?’ – and listen carefully to the response – before discussing and agreeing how to address respective needs and to move forward. (Attention to need is framed as a healthy foundation for growth, vs ‘needy’.)
I may ask a client, ‘Where would you like us to focus our attention?’, ‘What questions is this raising for you?’ or ‘What questions would you find most useful to explore?’ I will also discuss and agree explicitly with the client what he or she may do if I (or others, in a group) pose a question that, for whatever reason, he or she would prefer not to answer; e.g. simply to respond with, ‘Thank you.’ This enables the client to exercise choice and control throughout and, by doing so, to enhance their own agency.
Finally, Karen Treisman encourages us to beware of 'pathologising' the client; of focusing on his or her vulnerability as if it’s their sole defining characteristic and, instead, ‘To see the whole person, their story, their world – to magnify, celebrate and learn from people’s survivorships, strengths, resources and what they truly bring to the table.’ I’m keen to learn: what has been your experience of working with vulnerable people or groups? What trauma-informed principles help to guide your practice?
(For further research and resources in this area, see: Dr Karen Treisman, A Treasure Box for Creating Trauma-Informed Organizations: A Ready-to-Use Resource for Trauma, Adversity, and Culturally Informed, Infused and Responsive Systems, 2021).
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?
‘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?
Better to be on the edge than on the fence? There are times and places where diplomacy is the best option. There are, too, roles and situations in which a degree of neutrality is essential to enable a successful outcome. Coaching, mediation, group facilitation and process consultation are good examples. To become too embedded or embroiled is to lose the value that relative independence can bring. Yet, in spite of this, the most radical change often takes place at the bleeding edge.
What does that mean? At times it’s about leadership, taking a firm stance based on our beliefs and values, no matter how unpopular that may be or make us. This sometimes involves taking a counter-stance to prevailing received-wisdom, culture and norms. We associate various graphic metaphors with this approach, e.g. cutting edge; cut-through. The bleeding can result from the reaction, the push-back, the potential personal and professional cost. To take a stance can be and feel bruising.
At times it’s about being authentic, congruent and revealing our proverbial cards. ‘This is my stance on this issue. Let’s discuss how we can manage the boundary together so that it works positively for our relationship’ is very different to, ‘I don’t have a view on this’ or, ‘I don’t want to reveal my stance in case it impacts negatively on our relationship.’ The former can build trust; the latter may leave a person or a group suspicious or unsure. In my experience, this can be a sharp edge to negotiate.
How do you handle disclosure and stance in your professional relationships? How close do you get to the bleeding edge?
Running for the school bus every morning felt like hard work. I don’t know why I didn’t just get up a bit earlier but, hey, I was a teenager. I remember vividly having my attention caught by a programme on TV featuring Timothy Gallwey and his revolutionary idea of The Inner Game. I think it served as an introduction for me to the world of psychological insight. I practised his idea, focusing away from the activity itself onto something else as a distraction, and the running became smoother, easier.
Some years later, the UK’s Guardian Newspaper ran an advertisement on TV, Point of View, that challenged perspective and interpretation. It invited viewers to re-think their own ways of making meaning of events, including the implicit risks of assumptions and prejudice. I found the ad’s message simple yet profound. It was at a time when the need to question everything was already pulsating through my own mind, within a prevailing culture that seemed to question far too little.
Later still, I saw a psychology experiment on TV, The Invisible Gorilla, by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, designed to test selective attention. The narrator invited viewers to try the test for themselves by watching a short video clip with specific instructions to follow. She also suggested that viewers record it so that they could play it back afterwards. I dutifully followed the instructions and was so completely astonished by the results that I did play it back to check if I’d been tricked.
Such influences, among others which now included my Christian faith, drew me into the professional fields of psychological coaching, training and organisation development (OD). I continue to be curious, intrigued and amazed by the dazzling weirdness, complexity and potential of people, teams, groups and organisations, and by different cultures. I hope and pray I will never lose that sense of wonder. Who or what have been the earliest or greatest influences on your life and career?
‘It’s about moving on in some way from point A, not necessarily to point B or C, but to some position beyond A.’ (Bill Rosseter)
I love Rosseter’s open definition of the fundamental goals of learning, development and education. We could argue this principle lays at the heart of leadership, coaching, training and facilitation too. After all, an axiom of Western thought is the unquestioned value of personal autonomy and agency. Applied more broadly in organisation development (OD), we can attach the same idea to teams, groups and organisations. It points towards an underlying and oft-implicit intention, trajectory and destination: from dependence towards ever-increasing independence: to stand on one’s own two feet.
And it’s not just theoretical. If, like me, you were born into a Western culture; perhaps especially into a UK proud-of-its-island-mentality culture, notice the connotations and feelings we associate with the words themselves: dependence vs independence. Dependence can sound and feel (negatively) weak, vulnerable and needy. Independence, by contrast, can sound and feel (positively) strong, resilient and resourceful. We see this language played out increasingly on the global-geopolitical stage too; with independence often being associated (desirably) with power, control and self-determination.
So, what could this look like in leadership, coaching, training and facilitation? Reg and Madge Batten, development pioneers against a backdrop of colonialism in Africa, proposed three distinctive forms of intervention that, when used well, can support a useful journey of empowerment. In paraphrase, there are things we can: (a) do for others; (b) enable others to do for themselves; and (c) leave others to do without us. Some critical questions this spectrum begs are: what is most facilitative (that is, enabling) for this person (or team, group, organisation) in this situation, at this time - and who decides?
There are further considerations too. The Battens (above) coined an important qualifying phrase, qualitative autonomy, stating: ‘We are interested not only in the fact of independence but also in its quality.’ Independence is not a values-neutral end in itself and, therefore, needs to be balanced with broader ethics and values in order to ensure holistic change. It is possible, for instance, to imagine a form of independence that is self-centric and limiting, undermining or exploitative of others; lacking any sense of altruism, mutuality-synergy or healthy interdependence; and, ultimately, self-defeating.
So, how do you work with people, teams or organisations to learn, develop and grow?
How far do you take your, and their, cultural backgrounds, beliefs and values into account?
How do you help ensure that wider people, relationships and systems are kept in view?
'Vulnerability + Hazard = Disaster.’ (Steve Penny)
It’s one thing to conceptualise it. It’s quite another thing to feel it, to experience it, to know it for real. Marcus Oxley, international disaster response expert, comments with insight that at moments when crisis hits, all vulnerabilities that pre-existed, yet lay out of view, come into sharp relief. It’s like a lightning flash in the darkness of night that, suddenly and just for a moment, reveals starkly what’s already there: e.g. political systems, public services, infrastructure, corruption, technology, security etc.
Yet crisis can also reveal and evoke extraordinary awareness, resourcefulness and resilience. Shona Adams, a clinical psychology expert, observed astutely that people often don’t know what’s possible, or what they and others are truly capable of, until they are in a crisis. There’s only so much we can imagine, anticipate and prepare for in advance. People sometimes discover surprising strength, support and spirit and fresh possibilities emerge, as if by magic, that lay hidden or untapped before.
So, here are some tips for leaders, coaches, OD and HR that feel especially pertinent in the midst of the Coronacrisis: 1. What vulnerabilities have emerged that were already there, yet your client now sees more visibly and has energy to address? 2. What has stayed strong or not broken in the face of crisis? (e.g. ‘If your client rates his or her resilience as 2 out of 5, what has stopped it becoming a 1?’). 3. What new opportunities can you and the client see and create: to be, become or do something new?
Can I help you think through steps 1-3 in your work? Get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org
‘Organisation Development’s (OD) goal is an inspiring and effective organisation’.
We can view OD as perspective: a way of looking at people and organisations and posing provocative, searching, stretching questions, e.g. ‘When you look at this person, team or organisation, what do you see?’; ‘What are you (and others) noticing and not-noticing?’; ‘What stands out to you (and to others) as important and valuable here – and why?’
We can view it as critically-reflexive: a way of surfacing and testing oft-hidden personal, cultural-systemic and contextual beliefs, values and assumptions, e.g. ‘How are you (or are others) construing this situation, e.g. via metaphor/narrative?’; ‘What enabling or limiting assumptions are we making here?’; ‘Who or what is influencing who or what – and how?’
We can view it as reframing: a way of re-thinking and creating paradigm shifts, e.g. by viewing a situation through different frames (e.g. psychological; political; financial; legal-regulatory); flipping between vantage points, e.g. personal; team; organisation; other stakeholders; shifting the conversation from problem-solving to innovative solutions-focus.
We can view it as co-creative: a radically-relational way of working, high in support and challenge, that engages diverse people and teams in powerful conversations that engender shared focus, insight, energy and action. It involves listening, visioning, influencing and sense-making as collaborative ventures, releasing talent-potential and building trust.
What’s your experience of OD? What has it looked like? What difference has it made?
My response was anything but appreciative. I had been invited to attend an Appreciative Inquiry (AI) workshop in the UK with a view to writing an article on it for a UK organisation development (OD) journal. At that time, AI was still a fairly new concept and approach and I was curious to learn what the hype was about and whether anything new and of substance lay behind the rhetoric. I left the workshop feeling distinctly unimpressed and with clichés like emperor’s new clothes floating in my mind. I subsequently wrote a scathingly cynical piece and the editor chose (wisely) not to publish it!
I’m pleased to say that was all a very long time ago now. Over the years since, I’ve returned to and experimented with AI on many occasions, increasingly convinced by its amazing potential and that of related fields such as Gestalt, social constructionism, strength-based/solutions-focused approaches and positive psychology. There’s something about what we notice and focus on and how we construe it that impacts profoundly on what we perceive as real, true and valuable, what sense we make of it, how we feel, what energy it releases – or not, how we respond what emerges or changes as a result.
I drew on AI with faculty and staff at a ‘university for the poor’ in the Philippines recently. They were experiencing some challenges with cross-departmental working and wanted to find and agree ways to resolve them. I prayed, suggested an alternative hope-filled framing of ‘what is’ and proposed using AI for a 1-day whole group workshop with 4 sequential phases: 1. Stories: When have we been at our best? 2. Aspirations: What do we want to be more like, more of the time? 3. Ideas: What would need to happen for that to happen? 4. Commitments: What are we willing to do?
The vision, energy, ideas and relationships that formed throughout this event were truly incredible – and proved transformational. So, I’m interested: what have been your best experiences of using AI?
I took part in an intensive Teaching English as a Foreign Language workshop at the weekend. It forms part of a longer course that leads to a TEFL qualification. The tutor, John Nelson, was inspiring and experienced as a teacher and offered great insights, ideas and challenge in a spirit of support. I noticed how valuable it felt to have a tutor, a mentor, a leader with us on our learning journey.
John wasn’t simply a detached expert who stood and pointed us in the right direction. He was committed to ensuring that we were able to grow and succeed in our work. He engaged with us – tuned into where we were, what mattered to us, what we could already do well, what we were struggling with or could improve – and helped moved us forward towards where we wanted to be.
At one point, John role-modelled a teaching session by enabling us to use basic greetings in an alien foreign language from scratch. At another, he gave us very specific feedback. I discovered that I can explain complex concepts simply…and that I can improve my teaching by engaging participants creatively in conversation around a topic first. I have grown in awareness, ability and confidence.
So what are some lessons here for leaders, trainers, facilitators, mentors and coaches? The points that stand out for me are: (a) intention – a commitment to helping others to grow; (b) relationship – working with others as people, not as objects to be done to; (c) expertise – crafting and using what we have to move others forward and (d) freedom – a willingness to experiment, laugh and play!
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!