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What made Shirley Williams such a great communicator?

This week we are going to Shirley Williams’ memorial service in Westminster. Shirley was my first boss and the best communicator I ever met. I now work as an executive coach; I have a psychodynamic background and a particular interest in communications. Through the decades since I worked for Shirley, I have waded through a weight of management theory about leadership communication, presence and charisma; much of it twaddle. Shirl – the Pearl – was the Real Deal. So what made her such a brilliant communicator?

Self confidence, for starters. The daughter of Vera Brittain and George Catlin, she began life being adored. In her own words: “My father gave me the single greatest gift with which a child can be endowed: self-confidence.” Through whatever alchemy, that gift translated into one of the Holy Grails of leadership communication today: authenticity. (30, 614 Amazon book titles include the word.) Although a politician to her core, Shirley seemed unlike other politicians – exactly the same in private as in public.

Crucially, the thing that made her an outstanding communicator was being an outstanding listener. Listening is Chapter 1 of Comms 101. But what was interesting about Shirley is that she listened because she actually wanted to know what you think. Her body language was frequently chin down, suggesting – not entirely accurately – humility. Pushing the chin down rounds the throat and helps the voice to stay deep. It also signalled – accurately – that she was interested in your question, and she frequently reflected the question back, acknowledging and validating you as a listener. 

All of this adds up to the kind of empathy that leaders today would give their right arm for. Simon Baron Cohen’s sixty-item Empathy Quotient (EQ) questionnaire is the gold standard diagnostic for empathy. It’s well worth a look. Yet, while some aspects of empathy are inherent, some of the behaviours that contribute to Shirley’s famed empathy – acknowledging the question, complimenting the questioner, making eye contact – are eminently coachable. 

That distinctive voice, however, is harder to emulate. Shirley started political campaigning when she was in her teens, and she never had any voice coaching. When she was young she wanted to be an opera singer. Joining the Colchester Messiah Choir later in life, she was told she was a tenor and hence not eligible to join. In fact, she had a warm contralto, almost masculine, voice, similar to Kathleen Ferrier’s. The voice was naturally low and she used her body in a way that allowed the sound to resonate. The sonority of Shirley’s voice gave her authority, whilst still remaining credibly female – unlike Margaret Thatcher who sometimes forced her voice so far down that she could sound like Danny la Rue.

And Shirley made complicated stuff make sense – another Gold Standard for communicators. Schlepping round the country on the SDP Battle Bus, I lost count of the number of people we met in cold church halls and drafty libraries who told me: “I heard Shirley Williams talking about this new party, the SDP, that they’re setting up. I’ve never been involved in politics but I said to my husband: write down that telephone number, we’re going to join.”

Shirley’s body language tended – at odds with daffy, always late, poorly coiffed, image – to be very still, very focused. She clarified understanding by nodding her head. Her eyebrows almost asked questions as she went along. Although she tended to speak in long sentences, she also breathed well enough to allow the words to carry, without appearing to take a breath. As a result, there were few distractions from the content of what she was saying.

These are style points. Yet it’s also hugely important to remember the content. Shirley was a brilliant communicator partly because she had a brain the size of a planet, the stamina of a cart horse (the morning after she lost Crosby, we got up at 6.00 am and climbed Helvellyn) and the work ethic of the ancients. During the time I worked with her, Shirley wrote her second book, A Job to Live. I still have some of the research papers. The titles alone: The Small Business Share of Job Creation; Lessons Learned from the Use of a Longitudinal File make me want to have a bit of a lie down. But Shirley routinely worked through piles of highly academic treatises in writing her own books, papers and articles. (Jenny Murray’s interview with Shirley and Mary Warnock at the South Bank reveals that shared Somerville style where you can see two people vibrating at a slightly higher intellectual frequency than the rest of us). Shirley assumed a high level of intelligence in her audience, but she drew on her academic work, distilled its essence, and used very simple, classless, language to paint a picture that brought the audience along with her. 

Yet maybe the key thing is that Shirley saw life as an adventure.  Working for Shirley was my second job. My first was as Headmistress of the Moravian Mission School in Leh, Ladakh on the Tibetan border. I am sure that it was this that persuaded Shirley to take me on. A sense of adventure was central to her personal narrative about her life. Writing in her autobiography about how she narrowly escaped being raped in the ship, the Serpa Pinto, that brought her back from the States in 1943, she says she felt the need prove herself by doing whatever frightened her, and that drive remained throughout her life. One of my favourite Shirley stories is of missing the tour bus that was carrying Henry Kissinger and other luminaries from the Corcovado back to a Johnsons Wax conference in Rio in 1984. Night was falling. Shirley was equipped with details about homicide rate by handguns for the metropolitan region of Rio de Janeiro (doubled from 20.5 per 100,000 in 1982, to 41.3/100,000 in 1983). But no cash, folding or otherwise. A search of our handbags yielded a pad of Basildon Bond, three biros and half a Tunnocks Caramel Wafer. No taxis anyway. We walked the three miles through dimly lit favelas back to our swanky hotel singing “I’ll sing you one oh, green grow the rushes oh” and talking about the veritable Who’s Who of Heartbreak of Shirley’s romantic life (Roger Bannister, Peter Parker, Bernard Williams, Anthony King and others). And we laughed a lot.

And here’s perhaps the most important lesson. The very thing that made Shirley so engaging, the view that There’s More to Life than Politics, was probably the very thing that stopped her from getting to the very top job in politics. But that determination not to die an un-lived life; to squeeze life until the pips squeak; to have stories to tell – that’s what made Shirley Williams such a great communicator. The world is massively poorer for her dying. But it was hugely better, more vibrant, more colourful, more fun, for her living. May she rest in peace, and rise in glory. 

Jane Maitland is an executive coach, writer and facilitator. She is currently completing Politics; a Love Story, a not too serious account of working with Shirley Williams.

Some Basics: Structure; Self-care and Service

After a week of coaching post Corona (and twenty years working from home), three brief thoughts. I’m not pretending to have any answers but I hope these three suggestions help you and yours adapt to life and work in this New (very far from) Normal. Take care of your selves. This too will pass.

Structure. Virus aside, one of the biggest shifts for people this week has been the move from office to home working. All of my sessions, both 1:1 and group, have moved to Zoom, as they likely will have for you. Up to now, WFM has tended to be a bit of an opportunity to catch up with things that need doing around the house (giving the deep freeze a really good clear out; shredding your old tax returns) while still working your hours. This week, that changed. So how do you get into the way of working from home productively. The answer? Set a structure and stick to it. Which doesn’t just mean accepting all the meetings that have magically appeared in your diary as people rush to stay connected. It means the basics: 1. Figure out the three things you need to get done today (Why is it always three things? As Civil Servants say: four is too many; three is too few). 2. Prioritise them – inc doing the tough stuff first 3. Schedule when you are going to do what so that you know that if it’s 3.15 you are working on a Line Manager briefing, not having a bit of a browse on the BBC News website. Then stop when you have scheduled you are going to stop. I know this sounds like something from All I Really need to know, I learned in Kindergarten but it’s the business. And when you start to think about working at home in style (rather than just working at home), the have a look at the FT’s Edwin Heathcote’s Tips for Working from Home in Style.

Self-care. Decide what three things you will do to take care of yourself – not others – during this time. My coaching sessions this week have focused a lot on how leaders plan to support their teams, their families and their friends through the coming months. All good. But as with the oft repeated message about putting on your oxygen mask before putting an oxygen mask on your children, this is a time to schedule the self care basics into your diary – and do them. For me, it’s yoga, meditation and walking the dog. (Lord, I’m dull). I’m hoping for you it’s something a lot more exciting. Could be singing or listening to music. I’m hoping it involves walking the dog or otherwise getting out and walking about (keeping several metres apart – social distancing matters. End of). The key is to come up with things you want to do, and want to do for yourself, rather than others. Identify and do your three self care activities; schedule them into your diary (which can be i-Cal or, as in my case, handwritten on a yellow legal pad). Then Just do It.

Service. Service is an antidote to fear. We all know the way that our feelings shift when we turn from thinking about ourselves – and getting caught up in the all too many What Ifs in our lives – to thinking about others. So it’s worth asking, particularly when the anxiety kicks in (and I’ve seen a lot of anxiety on my calls this week) what you can do to help others. In particular start to think about how you can use your particular skills and experience to be of service during this crisis. As with self care, this is a muscle that needs to be used on a regular basis so getting in the way of asking the question on a regular basis will help others. And as the excellent Action for Happiness have been showing us for years, it will also help you.

Finally (for now) one of the very many things to be grateful for is that Spring is just around the corner. My thanks to the wonderful Amelia Freer for the photo above. Should you decide that this is the time for Healthy Eating (and to be honest, I’ve rarely eaten as many M&Ms as I have this week) Amelia is your

Too good to leave, too bad to stay; the hidden cost of anger at work – and what to do about it

Many of my clients are stuck in a career version of Too Good to Leave, too Bad to Stay (the title of a great book by Mira Kirshenbaum that is actually about relationships). That is, they all too often find themselves enraged by things about work, but feel trapped by the job and unable to find a way out.  Let’s take a composite example; my client Adrienne, who recently spent a good part of our two hour  session telling me how unbearable her work is; an absent – yet apparently massively overpaid – boss, colleagues who don’t pull their weight; an upcoming three day global conference about a business strategy everyone knew was a waste both of time and Airmiles,  and on and on.

We did some good coaching around feelings and actions. But close to the end of the session, she put on a grown up face and said: “I just need to get a grip”.

Now, I’m a big fan of getting a grip. But getting a grip is not a viable long term strategy. At worst it can make you ill. At best it will make you grumpy. In particular, it can limit the way that you allow yourself to express your feelings both to yourself and to others. For many people, this feels too dangerous. This may be because of early experience of being unsafe around one or both parents’ anger, or for some other reason. And/or it may be because they are uncomfortable with having those feelings in the first place. In particular, people who see themselves as amiable, easy going, Miss Nice,  etc may find the quetching, grumpy, enraged (pick your own descriptor and remember that it is likely to be on some kind of continuum) part of themselves difficult to acknowledge.  So they bring their irritation, anger, rage, to coaching. Which allows them to ‘vent’ and get clearer about their thoughts and feelings.

Which is great. And that is a valuable role for a coach to fulfil. Yet the real shift is to learn how to experience, process and then express those emotions, thoughts and feelings openly to colleagues in a way that allows you more fully to inhabit your life.

But before looking at what you can do about anger, it’s worth asking why it’s an issue. Three reasons (and not an exhaustive list). Firstly, suppressing anger takes energy. And energy will always be in short supply in today’s corporate environment. Particularly if you are, like Adrienne, someone who at one level doesn’t believe you really are angry, or really are ‘entitled’ to be angry (perhaps because it conflicts with you sense of who you are),  you may dismiss the idea. Secondly, suppressing anger takes away the energising potential that anger affords. Finally,  and this is perhaps most relevant in the coaching context – getting more comfortable with anger can help you to become more authoritative and effective as a leader. In particular, it can help you to deal more effectively with the difficult relationship that are pretty much a given in any workplace nowadays.

Which brings us to what you can do about it.  Clearly, the first step is to recognise it. And that is huge, particularly in our culture. I was in therapy for four years before I acknowledged that I was even a tiny bit cross. Hopefully most people will get there sooner than I did. Another approach is to track the feelings, particularly at work, using a simple three column grid showing “What happened”; “What I felt”; “What I said”. Take a note over a week of any patterns and think about what you would like to have said.  

A third technique is to map anger on a spectrum that shows what extremes of anger look like to you. For example: “Cold and controlled” at one end and “Angry and out of control” at the other. Map where you see yourself on that spectrum then explore where you would like to be, adding descriptors to that position. Then think about real situations you are facing and reflect on what specific things – if you were at that new position – you might do or say differently.  None of which requires you to follow Peter Finch’s advice (in the 1976 classic film, ‘Network’ (image above).  Rather that you think more skilfully about how you can harness the energy of anger, and use it to make sure that you get heard – without having to go to the window and shout “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more”. Unless, of course, you want to. 


Work, Sleep, Repeat – so how do you find your Why?

Listening to Radio 4 is one of the many pleasures of running your own business. But for those of you whose back-to-back meetings meant that you missed Private Eye journalist Richard Brooks’ The Age of Consultancy, it’s well worth a listen. He argues that management consultants operate inside 90% of FTSE 100 companies, most public services and many of the world’s governments. But most of us know very little about what they do or what impact they might be having on our world.

Brooks’ wide-ranging preoccupations (he is the author of The Bean Counters; the Triumph of the Accountants and How they Broke Capitalism) meant that the programme contained some unexpected voices: Felix Stein, author of Work, Sleep, Repeat; ex-McKinsey Consultant, Dina Nayeri, author of The Ungrateful Refugee and Christopher McKenna, author of The World’s Newest Profession. The overview of the elite networks, training and opportunities creatively to problem solve all served to remind you of the good reasons why so many young people are drawn to consulting (and not just because it’s a more palatable option than banking).

Ernst & Young’s seductive brand: Where do you Start if you want to Change the World? and Accenture’s Peter Lacey talking about how big data/analytics and design thinking/innovation are revolutionising business made the appeal of consulting clear. Yet I know how many of my professional services clients are struggling to square that offer with their 14 hour Work, Sleep, Repeat days. For all the initial attraction, too many of them are wondering how they got here, and what they can do to get back in touch with the people they thought they were going to be when they grew up.

Which is partly why, having listened to Richard Brook, I switched off You and Yours (obvs) and plugged my AirPods in to Audible to listen to Simon Sinek’s Find Your Why.

I’m running Simon Sinek’s process with a client team later in the autumn. The client is a fan of Sinek but I’m naturally skeptical about leadership speakers. Sinek’s mantra: “Imagine a world in which the vast majority of us wake up inspired, feel safe at work and return home fulfilled at the end of the day” reminded me why. But I stuck with it. Sinek’s talk “How great leaders inspire action” is one of the most-watched talks on But it’s his work on purpose that I find more engaging.

The notion that each of us has a life purpose, a statement not about who we aspire to be, but who we are when we are at our natural best, is not unusual. What is a little more unusual is the clarity of Sinek’s process. At root, it is similar to what most good coaches do: ask good questions – ones that invite people to recall and retell specific stories from their lives – and listen. Enquire. And listen. In particular listen for the emotion that underlies the stories. (If nothing else, Brexit has reminded us that its stories, not facts, that persuade). Then pull together the themes that emerge and funnel them into two main components: the contribution you make and its impact on others. Sinek’s example: To inspire others to live fully so that together we can change the world. At its core, the individual Why is an origin story that is largely formed by our late teens. Uncovering your Why can help you understand your purpose and find fulfilment. Something that gets all too easily buried under the Work, Sleep, Repeat day.

Organisations also have origin stories (think Steve Jobs’ Apple). Sinek’s process can also – when carefully contracted – be run with teams to help them find what Sinek calls their ‘Nested Whys’. Exploring the stories a team tells and then asking: “In each of your stories, what was the specific contribution your organisation made to the lives of others?” allows them to excavate and articulate their Why and use it to energise and inform.

It’s all too easy to be as skeptical about management consultants as Private Eye journalists are right to be. And there is no harm in being skeptical about leadership writers. But at root, everyone – perhaps particularly those living the 14 hour Work, Repeat, Sleep days in the world’s newest profession – need the clarity and contentment that understanding their Why can deliver. I’m running the workshop in November and will report back. Happy September.

Holidays – still haven’t found what you’re looking for?

As just about everyone I know appears to be taking August off on holiday, it’s worth considering Alain de Botton‘s quote about holidays: “From the office, we tend to fantasise about two weeks in which we will no longer be quite ourselves; we picture ourselves as an implausibly other-worldly creature, unbothered by issues in relationships, fear of humiliation and longings. And yet the one person we can never leave behind is ourself and everything that makes us challenging to live with. We will therefore – even on the sunlounger – be grumpy, exhausted and worried about money”.

Gloomily, true enough.But – apart from the regular 10 hours’ sleep and the peach bellinis – holidays can also be an opportunity to test out ideas about how we want our lives to be. Life and wealth planning guru George Kinder trains financial advisers to ask three questions:

1) Imagine that you are financially secure, that you have enough money to take care of your needs, now and in the future. How would you live your life? Would you change anything?

2) Imagine your doctor tells you that you have only 5-10 years to live. The good part is that you won’t ever feel unwell. The bad news is that you will have no notice of the moment of your death. What will you do in the time you have remaining to live? Will you change your life and how will you do it?

3) Imagine your doctor shocks you with the news that you only have one day left to live. Notice what feelings arise as you confront your very real mortality. Ask yourself: What did I miss?, Who did I not get to be? What did I not get to do?

I am (SO) not an IFA, but at some point in coaching, I often ask clients similar questions. Yet people invariably find it near impossible to answer them. In particular, even though money is a huge driver for many of my clients, they often find it really hard to describe the life they would live if money genuinely wasn’t an issue. (Not infrequently, people say that they just need to work for another five years and then they will be free. Yet they still find it hard to describe that freedom).

To help them get clearer, I ask people to talk about times in their lives when they were happy and fulfilled, and they often talk about being holiday or on maternity leave. Times when there was some structure to their day and some small tasks to be done. And mostly they talk wistfully, not about the specifics of the experience, but about the way that they had time and space fully to inhabit their lives.

One of my clients, recently returned from Myanmar, talked about a visit to a temple in the jungle in the North of the country. The temple made of red clay, was largely overgrown, thick, green, banyan trees surrounded it; there was a river alongside and hordes of monkeys leaped gleefully through the fallen statues of deities, several still tended with flowers and incense by nearby villagers.As she talked, I could almost hear the sounds of the jungle and smell the incense. For her, this image gave her a more powerful sense than words could convey that her mind and her life were so overstuffed with thoughts, ideas, box sets of Killing Eve and To Do lists that she had lost sight of who she was and who she wanted to be.

Without intending to, she had reconnected with the original ‘holy days’ that prefigure our current ‘holidays’. A time when people traveled for months to touch the bones of saints. To shuffle slowly on their knees around labyrinths carved into the stone before the altars of the great medieval cathedrals. To reconnect with some deeper truths and commit to turning over new leaves as they returned – slowly – to their day to day lives.

At this time of year, the newspapers and websites are full of articles about places to holiday and things to do to hold onto the holiday feeling. As ever, the best advice is the simplest. Before you log on and certainly before you get back on the Tube, take time to reflect on the high days of the holidays. And what you were re-minded was important in your life. Commit to doing one thing regularly – or to making one change – to stay connected to that feeling – without having to log back onto Expedia. Happy Summer.

Values aren’t buses … so what are they good for?*

Values are one of the things my clients find most confusing. Which may well be because coaches use values in a particular way. Namely to suggest that knowing and living your values can help you live a more fulfilled life. So let’s have a look at two things: how to help people who have no idea what their values are. And how to help people who know what their values are and feel conflicted because they think they aren’t living their values.

How to help people who have no idea what their values are.  To be clear, few people will say they have no idea what their values are. Most people – when pushed – will admit to something along what I call the Do your Work Well and Be Kind sort of values. Boy Scout values. Which do matter enormously, but may not help if you are trying to figure out how to make your life better and happier.

One way to mine for values is to look through a list of values and check off the ones that seem to have some sort of resonance for you. As a Coaches Training Institute trained  coach, I ask clients to identify  moments when life was especially rewarding or when they felt particularly alive.  When the client has a specific moment in mind, I ask them “What was happening?” “Who was there and what was going on?” We go for a balance that enquires about peak work experiences, as well as non-work peak experiences and aim to capture the values that are emerge. I prefer this approach – which will also look at how the person feels, how their body feels, when they are remembering – to the more cerebral list, because it feels truer in some ways, and also gives people a sense of what it is that they are wanting to recapture, and re-create in their lives.

Another way in is to look at what – beyond the basics of food, water, shelter – that you absolutely must have in your life if your soul is not to die.  So the question is: what do you absolutely have to have in your life if you are to be fulfilled –  beauty, self-expression, achievement?  As with all coaching, the point is not simply to generate a list of words, it is get a clearer and more urgent sense of what really matters to you. A further coaching task can be to ask: How much are you living that value? If you are currently living that value at around a 5, what can you do to take it to a 6, 7, 8. Generate a list of (achievable) actions and see what impact that has on your life.

How to help people who know what their values are and feel conflicted because they don’t think they aren’t living their values. Many of my clients are living some version of this conflict, particularly around doing well paid work to provide for their family (which honours a value around love and duty) and self expression or some other value. In these cases, there is value in revisiting and examining values (as above). But the values may have become obsessive, a demand rather than a way to express who we are. So, for example, a drive to provide can become a form of martyrdom. If your partner tells you that all you ever think about is your clients or your colleagues, it could be pointing towards a value such as power or leadership that you are taking too far.

A lightbulb coaching moment for me came a few years ago when my coach told me: “You’re either living your values or your are living the life your Inner Critic wants you to live”. This is the conflict I see playing out with clients when they are – as too many of them are – tired from the work, the commute, the politics. They tip over into a values conversation that usually involves a phrase like: “We’re accountants; we’re not saving lives here” and then goes on to berate themselves with their failure to train to be a doctor/take a job with the Red Cross/be a concert pianist. Or in other words: Live in tune with My values – if only I could figure out what they are.

Which is where coaching can help – but as ever, it’s not entirely straightforward. The Values in Action strengths are a good resource. These are 24 ‘signature strengths’ collated by Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology. They suggest that each of us has a particular way of behaving, thinking and feeling that is authentic, particular to us and energising. Knowing – and using – your signature strengths can help you live a more fulfilling life.

As writer Jennifer Crusie says: “Values aren’t buses… They’re not supposed to get you anywhere. They’re supposed to define who you are.”* That’s never going to be easy, but coaching and tools like ViA strengths can offer a different lens through which to view some of the values conflicts that inevitably come with being human.

Career coaching for the 100 year life?

There’s a curious irony in the fact that I’m increasingly coaching high fliers in Professional Service firms whose organisations are majoring on the Future of Work. Increasingly, those same high fliers are coming into coaching because they’re burned out; discontented by the treadmill and can’t see any way out. All at a time where it feels as if the career ladder they were climbing – if there ever was a career ladder – is coming away from the wall. And the grown ups – if ever there were grown ups – who would like to help don’t always know how to help, because we live in times where it really doesn’t feel as if the future will resemble the past.

I’ve always been interested in career transition. Ever since my Dad gave me a copy of What Colour is your Parachute for my eighteenth birthday, I’ve been wondering what I’m going to do with my life. Happily for me, I finally figured out that one thing what I want to do with my life is help other people figure out what to do with theirs. And I’m particularly interested in what used to be called ‘late career transition’, traditionally helping people in their mid fifties. But which, in the era of the 100 Year Life, we need increasingly to think of as mid career transition.

Whether you are:

— Mid career (and it matters more than it did that you know you are in a bullshit job) (about which more in future posts)
— Hate your job but love your kids (and need a job that will pay enough to put them through private school)
— Really want to be doing something else (if only you could figure out what it was)
— Have enough LTIs to retire (but don’t fully know how you are going to fill your days)

Coaching can help you figure out what you want to do with your “one wild and precious life”. The elements, about which I will be posting over the coming months, involve a dance that includes looking backward; looking forward; and looking within. In this post, I’m going to be looking at pivot points and life lines but I want to start with a few thoughts about the Future of Work. I’m not aiming for anything as high brow as the many PowerPoints and papers PS firms are generating on the topic. But it is important to highlight the context because many approaches to career management are still operating on the basis of a three stage life (education; work; retirement) based around a life expectancy that is no longer valid. If – as many experts suggest – those in their fifties or sixties today have a good chance of living to their nineties, what does that mean for how you plan your career and your life?

The 100 Year Life?
Camilla Cavendish, former head of the Downing Street Policy Unit and now Senior Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School has written a book, Extra Time, which looks across the globe at how countries such as Japan are addressing the way that our chronological age is becoming decoupled from our biological capabilities. And Linda Gratton and Andrew Scott’s The 100 Year Life highlights the way that people currently in their 20s are likely to be working into their late 70s and even 80s. In South Korea, the average effective retirement age for women is already above 73. In the US, older workers are sometimes referred to as “perennials”, as influential in their way as millennials. All of which highlights Cavendish’s argument that if we are to make full use of what she calls Extra Time, we will need to re-write the career timetable.

Pivot points and lifelines
When my beloved Dad died (in Zurich, twenty years ago, after his fourth stroke) for all the heartbreak, for a few weeks, the things that matter – kindness, humour, learning, relationships, music (particularly Bach) – were somehow calmly, crystal, clear. A year after his death I took a month’s unpaid leave from my job as a management consultant and three months later set up my own business as a consultant and coach.

It is these pivot points, the death of a parent, divorce, a serious health diagnosis, that often bring people into coaching. I recently started to work with Stephanie, a senior leader on the Board of a Professional Services firm. One prompt for coming into coaching was her father’s death a few months before. We started by doing the following Lifeline exercise. It brought her to tears, and started her on the dance of uncovering answers to questions like: “Who am I, apart from my history and the roles I have played?” that characterise this second half of life. A time that is often about the move from external identity, achieving and performing, towards a more internal identity, purpose and meaning.

Exercise: the Lifeline
The Lifeline helps you look back at your life in a way that shapes your past rather than seeing it as a series of completely random events and experiences. This can be a first step to shaping the life you want to live in the future.

1. Take a piece of paper (flip chart, A4, A3 or Ipad with Apple Pencil whatever works for you).

2. Create a horizontal sheet and draw a lifeline across the middle starting with your birth on the left and whatever age (60 70, 100 years) you feel comfortable with on the right. (The example below comes from the excellent Open University STEM website).

3. Write ‘low points’ on the bottom left and ‘high points’ on the top left.

4. Take time to map key events in your life focusing particularly on those that mark high or low points in your life.

5. Think about how much these events were the result of outside influences or chosen by you

6. Do they have anything in common?

7. What did you learn from them about what really matters to you?

8. Anything else?

Trees and Tarot; what can they bring to coaching?

Having lived next to Greenwich Park for two decades and then moving to the less fashionable (yet infeasibly beautiful) bit of the Cotswolds, I’m entirely persuaded of the value – when appropriate – of coaching in green spaces. And two apparently unrelated events I’ve attended in the past week have made me reflect on ways of allowing the outside into our coaching.

The first was Catherine Gorham‘s workshop about eco-therapy in the beautiful grounds of Regents Park College. Catherine is pioneering ways of using ‘eco therapy’ in coaching and it’s well worth taking a look at her work. She is drawing on thinkers such as Berger and Marin Buber to explore how we can partner with nature to help our clients slow down and reflect on ideas and feelings that may inform their coaching. Even though I’ve been coaching outdoors for several years now, I was amazed at how much easier it was for me to ask a ‘client’ (to whom I had only just been introduced) to look around and choose something (a group of plane trees) that reflected where she wanted to take her career. She agreed that the process felt easier and more memorable than it might had we been mapping out a diagram with whiteboard markers in a fluorescent lit room on the 22nd floor of a City office block.

The second event was Amy Sackville‘s talk at the Tetbury Goods Shed (organised by the indefatigable Hereward Corbett of the Yellow Lighted Bookshop). I did the MA in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths with Amy and it was clear from the off that she was a star. Now on her third book, Painter to the King, Amy was being interviewed by Fiona Lensvelt and Jennifer Connie of literary cabaret and Tarot consultancy, Litwitchure. Now, apart from being beguiled by the beauty of the cards, I’ve always been nervous of Tarot, all a bit too Madame Arcati for me. But – apart from the fact that Fiona and Jennifer are gorgeous and clearly knowledgeable about both literature and tarot – what struck me was the way the cards offered an external focus that allowed Amy to respond differently to some fairly standard questions;  What do you need as a writer? What are your strengths? What drives you etc?

In both cases (trees and tarot) the process offers the opportunity for the client to tell a story in response to a prompt. Clearly coaching (and tarot) also require training, experience and insight to help inform the work, but a little like the traditional Rorschach test, the cards and nature can provides a jumping off point for a personal exploration. One that can bypass the more familiar analytical part of the brain so as to access some deeper – and more memorable – insights. Jonathan Hoban’s just-published book about Walking Therapy, Walk with your Wolf, contains a great line from Patrick Ness: when all is lost, something wild will find you. You don’t need to be lost, but it’s May in England; get those walking boots or Birkis on and head out into the rain to see what good things find you.

Make the decision you make, the right decision

Decisions. Whether its telling your boss what you really think of her. Or slowly realising that the relationship that has lit your fire for the past seventen years has finally gone cold, binary choices often lie behind the decision to find a coach.

Good news is that coaching offers a variety of tools that can help. As a long-time Coaches Training Institute-trained coach, I’m a fan of perspectives work that allows you to explore the lenses through which you are looking at the options. That’s a good place to start. Then – without going all Lib Dem about it – it usually makes sense to explore whether there is a Third Way (rather than the Plan A and Plan B which look to be set in concrete). Crucially – if you can – it really helps to use the body as a barometer and guide. Move around and see how it feels to take up one choice or another. Look at the body energy. All things you can do in coaching. And outside of coaching, finding a time and space to NOT think about the decision on your plate and allow your inner wisdom to emerge will always pay dividends.

Whatever process you use, one of the things that may emerge is that the cigar is not always the cigar. i.e., that the decision is not the real issue. Whether you take the plunge and tell your boss what you’ve always thought of him or her (a fantasy enjoyed by most of the population) or decide better the devil you know. Whether you choose to walk from your marriage or go for couple counselling, chances are that you will still be that same person. Bringing the same hangups, strengths, hidden assumptions, patterns of behaviour right along with you.

So the real work becomes about uncovering those things and seeing which you want to keep, which you want to change, and which you want to jettison. (Or as one of my first, favourite, very German, clients, put it to me: Jane, you have to love it, change it, or leave it. Genau).

Which doesn’t mean that that coaching around decision making is redundant. Far from it. It’s a huge topic and one I often revisit. But one suggestion I would offer is that the question is often not about making the right decision. It’s about making the decision that you make, the right decision. Which means that – when you’ve gone through all the processes, had time and space to walk, talk and sleep it over, made and communicated the decision – you then decide to make the decision you’ve made the right decision.

Amy Cuddy v. the Undercover Economist; the gloves are off

We all know that 37% of statistics are wrong, right? Having blogged the value of Amy Cuddy’s power poses earlier in the year, it behoves me to update on Tim Harford’s FT piece about how Cuddy’s work is a brilliant example of the misuse of statistics. In summary, Harford says that a larger and later study of power posing – which Cuddy and her colleagues argue can increase testosterone and reduce cortisol – shows no such thing. Where Cuddy tested 42 subjects, later researchers led by Eva Ranehill found that the power poses seemed to make no difference worth mentioning. In a study of 200 subjects, high-power poses were correlated with slightly lower testosterone and slightly higher cortisol — the opposite of what might be expected, but tiny and statistically indistinguishable from chance.Read the full article here.

I’ve been advocating the value of power posing with women I coach for the past year. And I know for a fact that there are women around the world taking a few minutes in the loo to pose like Superwoman before they deliver their big presentation. Harford has, as always, a point. But this is also a good case of where data don’t show the full picture. Power posing may or may not reduce cortisol. Most of the people I coach are too busy thinking about their key messages, and whether their fake tan has started to rub off the backs of their knees, to take the saliva swab necessary to find out. But there’s a reason why a study of only 42 subjects inspired 34 million TED views. It’s because the thinking behind Cuddy’s work still holds good. The research may be flawed, but common sense, coupled with a brief look at animal behaviour, suggests the merits of the approach. High status animals prowl the savannah, confident that lower status pack members will take care of them. Lower status animals cower, shrink, make themselves small. Power posing is fun – don’t take it too seriously. It’s something you can do to build up your confidence. And it’s a reminder that breathing deep, being grounded, inhabiting your space, and feeling at home in your body can all add up to being – properly – present.