If the IPCC’s Special Report on climate change made you want to do something – anything – to calm the climate, swiftly followed by a sinking feeling that you just don’t know what is both doable and meaningful, and you’d rather not think about it…. You can do something meaningful! Here’s a great way to find your contribution.
Lots of the women who came along to She is Still Sustainable said that the highlight was a co-coaching exercise we ran, using a solutions focus approach. People paired up and coached each other, asking positive, future-oriented questions about the sustainability work they wanted to do. The instructions are here.
One of the lovely things that we did at She is Still Sustainable last month, was to build a wonderwall of our achievements. And wow! What a lot we have achieved.
Some were very personal – surviving divorce, arranging funerals, raising children....
Some had enormous reach – training 100s of facilitators, systems change programme with Sierra Leone Ministry of Health to improve community health, part of a team delivering a sustainable London 2012...
In a recent coaching session, my client was exploring whether they had permission to do something. And, in an uncertain and fluid situation, how they would know whether they had permission or not. What if they misread the signs?
We developed a two-by-two matrix, to sort out the possibilities.
Are you an environment or sustainability specialist, working to help your organisation step up to its role in bringing about a sustainable future? Want to make more of an impact? I want you to as well! Which is why I was so pleased when IEMA invited me to write a second edition of Change Management for Sustainable Development.
And when one of our peer readers said "it's like having a coach in your pocket", I was really happy, because that's exactly what I wanted it to be.
It's published today!
Huge thanks to all the wise, insightful and generous practitioners who shared their experiences with me.
There is a free download for IEMA members, and non-members can order an e-copy (£10) or a hard copy (£25 /£15 for members). https://www.iema.net/cmsd
In the last couple of months I have taken up climbing again, after a break of about ten years.
The atmosphere at the indoor climbing centre I go to is upbeat, dynamic, friendly.
When you hire out a carabiner and belay device - the small, beautifully engineered bits of metal which could save your life - the heavily pierced man in the hire shop will accept an RSPB membership card instead of a credit card as a deposit. It’s that kind of place.
The background music is familiar and chosen to make you smile: ABBA, early 80s pop, 70s funk.
There are cheerfully written signs dotted around to point you to the café, yoga room and organic garden as well as to the more challenging ‘Stack’ and ‘Catacombs’ – fancifully named climbing walls. Notices tell you that dogs are welcome, outside of peak times, but must not be tied to the safety equipment.
There are people whose job it is to set routes that you climb on the walls. They bolt on the brightly coloured artificial ‘holds’ in carefully planned patterns that allow for all levels: starting at an easy peasy grade 3 and carrying on right up to a surely impossible 8a. They include tricky little challenges that you have to puzzle out and then implement – can I really get my foot that high and then push down on my hand to shift my weight on it?
But don’t be fooled by the jollity and bright colours. 12 metres up is still 12 metres up, even if the holds you are balanced on look like spotted turtles or alien jellies.
I climb tied to a rope which runs from my harness through a metal chain fixed at the top of the wall, then drops back down to the bits of metal secured via another harness to my climbing partner. This is known as “top roping” and the act of holding and carefully taking in the rope - which the non-climber does - is called ‘belaying’. Your belay is the person in charge of making sure the rope will save you.
Don’t worry, there is more to this post than a lesson in climbing terminology!
If you climb this way, with a partner who is your belay, there’s something a bit funny – in fact, a bit alarming - that I’ve been taught to do at the beginning of a session.
When you have climbed up high enough that your feet are above your belay’s head – around two metres - you are supposed to fling yourself from the wall, without warning the belay.
Why would you do that?
You fling yourself from the wall to prove to you both, the climber and their partner, that they will hold you.
And the beautiful symmetry of the partnership means that as soon as you are back on solid ground and have wiped the sweat off your hands onto your trousers, you swap over and belay your partner as they make their way up the route they have chosen.
You can also climb without a partner.
It’s not just humans who might stop the rope slithering through, halting your rapid descent and leaving you swinging gently instead of writhing in agony on the floor.
Where I climb, there are also automatic belay devices – simple mechanisms which take up the slack rope for you and, like a car safety belt, stop you if you fall.
So the thing keeping you safe when you climb – actually, keeping you safe when you fall - might be a person or it might be something else. You test it just the same. You fling yourself off the wall from a relatively safe position.
I am afraid of heights and I am especially afraid of falling. Both those fears magnify a third fear – I am afraid of not being in control.
Even a couple of metres off the ground, I really don’t want to fling myself from the wall. My palms sweat. My feet - already in a gripping shape due to the tight, tight climbing shoes - curl further inwards in a reflex reaction to the very thought of falling. They are trying to grasp the footholds. I psych myself up and chicken out.
We fling ourselves from the wall at a safe height, so that we can be sure of being safe when we need to make a truly risky move twelve metres up.
Why we fling ourselves off the wall
In my life, I have put off doing some things that I really want to do, for fear of how bad it will feel if I fail. I am afraid of the shame, the crushing of my self-confidence, the public humiliation.
Your fears may be different. These are mine and I suppose they must be very precious to me because I still cling on to them after all this time.
What’s enabled me to go ahead and do the exciting things anyway – including just in this last year - is my previous experience of coming back from failure and from the excruciating shame I feel when I think I have failed.
This fear of failing is strong stuff.
Even the anticipation of that shame is really powerful too. I don’t have to actually fail, to feel the shame. I just have to imagine it happening.
In fact my palms are sweating now!
I have lately come to accept that I will feel bad while I contemplate and plan my daring actions. I will fall off the wall. I still feel bad – I haven’t learnt to avoid the fear, and I’m not sure I ever will. It’s more that I now see it as the price I pay for doing something really cool.
Taking a test fall
I’m on the climbing wall. My belay partner is relaxed and ready. They have done this before, they trust the ironmongery and the rope. They trust me. They want me to experience the exhilaration and triumph of beating the challenge from the fiendish route-setter, of getting to the top.
And yet, and yet….
OK, this is it. If I wait any longer, my pretend fall won’t be enough of a surprise to test the team.
I reach for a hold with my arm, pushing away from the wall with my legs at the same time. I’m airborne and falling for a split second, before the rope goes taut and I’m jerked to a stop.
A few minutes later, I’m 12 metres up, stretching for a hold I can’t quite reach, but launching towards it anyway because - what’s the worst that could happen?
I’m no gecko, but knowing I’m roped up to someone, or something, that will catch me means I’ve definitely left the grade 3 routes behind.
In fact, if I’d never fallen and been caught, I never would have made it beyond beginner graded climbs.
In our lives, we can all be climbers. We can all take practice falls. We can all belay for someone else.
Over to you
· What are you afraid of, that holds you back from doing the cool stuff?
· Who or what catches you when you fall?
· Who do you catch, when they fall?
Knowing that we will be caught when we fall – by a person or by something else - enables us to do greater things.
Let us climb, fall, be caught. Let us catch others.
Images: David Caines
I'm very excited about this season of workshops that I'm piloting - still conversations.
It's a vision I've had for a while, and it's begun to take shape over the last six months.
The groups will be small - a maximum of ten people in each conversation. The atmosphere will be easeful, open, creative. People will learn from each other and from the opportunity to think aloud with others who understand what it's like to grapple with sustainability - trying to move fast enough while bringing others with you; finding the authentic way to be truthful and motivating.
To begin with, I'm offering three conversations on different topics and people can come to one, two or all three. The themes are:
- personal resilience for sustainability leaders - sold out. If you would like to added to a waiting list, or to be notified if this session runs again, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- where next with my sustainability strategy
- getting sustainability into my organisation's strategy
It's an experiment, so the price is deliberately low with discounts (for multiple bookings, self-funded people, people who took part in the survey earlier in the year, IEMA members). So it's just £100 plus VAT for a single session (discount if you book more than one). And I'll be looking for feedback on how to make them as useful as possible for people.
It's a chance to take time out and be still. Think aloud with other sustainability leaders.
I've emailed and sent personal invitations to people via LinkedIn, and the feedback is that now, more than ever, those who don't already have these kind of supportive professional-yet-personal networks in place are keen to get involved. The Personal Resilience theme is definitely striking a chord.
Find out more and make a booking here.
Earlier this year I went on a short course on Thinking Partnerships - part of the stable of approaches developed by Nancy Kline of Time to Think fame. This course was run by Linda Aspey, of Coaching for Leaders.
The Thinking Partnership approach
There are a few aspects of the Time to Think approach which are worth noting: the ten components of a Thinking Environment; the uncovering of limiting assumptions and the use of incisive questions. I've found these powerful in coaching and other situations.
But the thing that really struck me on the course, and in the practice sessions I had with other participants, is the power of just listening.
Actually, it's not just listening.
It's paying "generative attention": promising not to interrupt; focusing on the person who's doing the thinking - whether they are thinking aloud or silently; exuding a warm neutrality, neither praising nor dismissing what they say.
This kind of listening has a powerful impact on the person who is being listened to. In that space of acceptance and ease, they explore and solve their own problems. It is rather marvellous to be the mirror for someone who is combing through the tangle of their confusion or distress: doing (almost) nothing, and yet catalysing such great work. And having the privilege to observe them doing it.
Listening as support
In another part of my life, I'm a member of a volunteer community support team. We promise to listen confidentially (within the usual boundaries) to people who need some kind of support through a hard time. We don't offer advice. For some of the team, the idea that 'just listening' could be enough was hard to accept at first. It feels awkward. It feels like such a minor intervention.
Our team leader shared some wonderful quotes on listening:
Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present, and that takes practice, but we don't have to do anything else. We don't have to advise, or coach, or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit there and listen.
- Margaret J. Wheatley
Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.
- Shel Silverstein
You can practice deep listening in order to relieve the suffering in us, and in the other person. That kind of listening is described as compassionate listening. You listen only for the purpose of relieving suffering in the other person.
- Thich Nhat Hanh
Sharing expectations for an unusual conversation
This kind of conversation is unusual. It's not the turn-taking social interaction which we're used to. When we're doing this kind of supportive listening, it's not our job to make things right for the other person. And it's not their job to make things right for us. (This heartbreaking piece by Decca Aitkenhead describes how she learnt to reassure her friends that she was coping bravely, following a devastating bereavement.)
So it's a good idea to invite the other person to this kind of conversation - to explain that you're planning to listen and not interrupt, and not to give advice or share your own story - and for them to accept or decline the invitation.
For the community listening, we have a simple form of words to help people know what to expect:
We aim to offer a confidential listening service, so we’d expect that you will do most of the talking and [your community listening team member] will do most of the listening. We’re not there to share our own stories, make judgements or offer advice. We will listen, maybe ask questions, and point you towards other sources of support if that’s appropriate.
I've been doing some more one-to-one facilitation training this autumn, with someone who is a natural. It's been a real pleasure from my perspective, as most of what I've been suggesting has been practically useful and made sense to the person I've been working with. Which is always nice!
The four sessions we had were spaced out so that three came before the crucial event which was the focus of the training, and one came after.
In the first session, we mostly worked on crafting really helpful aims for the workshop: making them crystal clear and (where this made sense) empty of content. What do I mean by that? For example, changing "agree to set up a working group on X" to "agree what action, if any, to take on X".
In the second session, we worked on design: which tools, techniques or bits of process would best help the group meet the aims.
And the third session was where it got real: going through the draft design and running little thought experiments. What if someone doesn't like this bit of process? What if people can't easily divide themselves into the two groups the process depends on? What if the round of introductions overruns? It became clear in this session that the trainee had a lot of fears about things "going wrong" in the workshop. I chose to make these fears the agenda for our session.
focus on fear?
I realise that I have an important relationship with fear. It's the emotion that butts its way in and uses up my energy. I know that a lot of people have this too. And a lot of people don't. So when I'm coaching, it's important that I notice when I feel afraid and consider whether it's my own fear, or something from my client that I'm picking up. And I know that many coaches would rather choose to work with the pull (enthusiasm, dreams, hopes, visions) than the push (what you want to avoid). I try to avoid focusing on the negative, but in this session fear seemed so clearly to set the agenda! I decided that to ignore the fears would be stubborn and unsuccessful.
What are you afraid of?
So we listed the fears on a flip chart, and then categorised them into three broad types: things that could be managed through preparation (e.g. design tweaks, process alternatives, 'things to come back to' flips, prepping a friendly participant to model brief intros); things that could be responded to 'in the moment' with body language and words that the trainee could practice in advance (e.g. interventions to respectfully request the conversation moves on); and things that might happen but would be fine.
In my mind, this third category had echoes of Nancy Kline's possible fact assumptions: to which the response from the coach or thinking partner is "That's possible. But what are you assuming that makes that stop you?" (For more on this, see Kline's classic Time to Think.)
And that would be fine
So the trainee's feared scenarios might come to pass: the group might decide at the start of the day that they wanted to add in a new chunky agenda item. And that would be fine.
The always-negative-person might complain and grouch. And that would be fine.
My trainee might be at a loss to know what to do at some point in the day. And that would be fine.
This part of the session was all about taking away the fear of these possibilities, and replacing it with curiosity, confidence or some other more positive emotion. Coupling that less fearful mindset with thinking through what she might do equipped her to be the great facilitator she turned out to be on the day itself.
Much food for thought at the joint AMED / IAF Europe 'building bridges' facilitation day last week. I find myself day dreaming and speculating about a particular kind of helping role: the accompanist.
Vicky Cosstick mentioned this in passing, when setting up her session on the glimpses of the future of facilitation. Early in her career, Vicky played this role as part of her training. The role apparently has its origins in spiritual practice, although I'd not come across the term used in this way before.
What does an accompanist do?
The role involves minimal intervention. You attend the work of the group and listen. You write up to a maximum of one page of observations. You pose two or three open questions as part of that. The group can choose to do something with these, or not.
It reminded me of the practice that Edgar Schein describes in Organisational Culture and Leadership, where he too spends much of his time observing.
What a wonderful way to work with a client / self.
What's the minimum we can do, to help?
I love to train people in facilitation skills. It's so much fun! People get to try new things in a safe environment, games are played, there's growth and challenge, fabulously supportive atmospheres can build up.
What's the minimum group size for this kind of learning?
How about one?
A group of one
From time to time I'm approached by people who want to improve their facilitation skills, but who don't have a ready-made group of colleagues to train with. I point them towards open courses such as those run by the ICA, and let them know about practice groups like UK Facilitators Practice Group. And sometimes, I work with them one-to-one.
This one-to-one work can also happen because a client doesn't have the budget to bring in facilitator for a particular event, and we agree instead to a semi-coaching approach which provides intensive, just-in-time preparation for them to play the facilitator role. This is most common in the community and voluntary sector.
The approach turns out to be a mix of process consultancy for specific meetings, debriefing recent or significant facilitation experiences, and introducing or exploring tools and techniques.
Preparing to facilitate in a hierarchy
A client had a particular event coming up, where she was going to be facilitating a strategy session for a group of senior people from organisations which formed the membership of her own organisation. She had concerns around authority: would they accept her as their facilitator for this session? She was also keen to understand how to agree realistic aims for the session, and to come up with a good design.
We spent a couple of hours together, talking through the aims of the session and what she would do to prepare for it. We played around with some design ideas. I introduced the facilitator's mandate, and she came up with ways of ensuring she had a clear mandate from the group which she could then use to justify - to them and to herself - taking control of the group's discussions and managing the process. Helped by some coaching around her assumptions about her own authority, she came up with some phrases she was comfortable using if she needed to intervene. We role-played these. She felt more confident about the framework and that the time and energy we'd put into the preparation was useful.
Facilitation skills as a competence for engaging stakeholders
As part of a wider team, I've been working with a UK Government department to help build their internal capacity for engaging stakeholders. As a 'mentor', I worked with policy teams to help them plan their engagement and for one team, this included helping a team member get better at meeting design and facilitation. He already had a good understanding of the variety of processes which could be used and a strong intuitive grasp of facilitation. We agreed to build this further through a (very short) apprenticeship approach. We worked together to refine the aims for a series of workshops. I facilitated the first and he supported me. We debriefed afterwards: what had gone well, what had gone less well, and in particular what had he or I done before and during the workshop and what was the impact. He facilitated the next workshop, with me in the support role. Again we debriefed. We sat down to plan the next workshop, and I provided a handout on carousel, which seemed like an appropriate technique. I observed the next two workshops, and again we debriefed.
Instead of a training course
I worked with a client who wanted to develop his facilitation skills and was keen to work with me specifically, rather than an unknown and more generic open course provider. I already knew his context and he knew I'd have a good appreciation of some of his specific challenges: being in the small secretariat of what is essentially an industry leadership group which is trying to lead a sustainability agenda in their sector. His job is to catalyse and challenge, as well as to be responsive to members. So when he is planning and facilitating meetings, he will sometimes be in facilitator mode and sometimes he will need to be advocating a particular point of view.
Ideally, I'd have wanted to observe him in action in order to identify priorities and be able to tailor the learning aims. But the budget didn't allow for this.
We came up with a solution which was based on a series of four two-hour sessions, where I would be partly training (i.e. adding in new 'content' about facilitation and helping him to understand it) and partly coaching (i.e. helping him uncover his limiting assumptions and committing to do things differently). The sessions were timed to be either a bit before or a bit after meetings which he saw as significant facilitation challenges, so that we could tailor the learning to preparing for or debriefing them. The four face-to-face sessions would be supplemented by handouts chosen from things I'd already produced, and by recommended reading. We agreed to review each session briefly at the end, for the immediate learning and feedback to me, and partly to model active reflection and to get him into the habit of doing this for his own facilitation work.
In our initial pre-contract meeting, we agreed some specific learning objectives and the practicalities (where, when). Before each session, we had email exchanges confirming what he wanted to focus on. This meant I could prepare handouts and other resources to bring with me.
And this plan is pretty much what we ended up doing.
He turned out to be very well suited to this way of learning. He was a disciplined reflective practitioner, making notes about what he'd learnt from his experiences and bringing these to sessions. He was thoughtful in deciding what he wanted to focus on which enabled me to prepare appropriately. For example, in our final session he wanted to look at his overall learning and to identify the learning edges that he would continue to work on after our training ended. We did two very different things in that session: he drew a timeline of his journey so far, identifying significant things which have shaped the facilitator he is now. And we used the IAF's Foundational Facilitator Competencies to identify his current strengths and learning needs.
Can it work?
Yes, it's possible to train someone in facilitation skills one-to-one. This approach absolutely relies on them have opportunities to try things out, and is very appropriate when someone will be facilitating anyway - trained or not. The benefits are finely tailored support which can include advice as well as training, coaching instead of 'talk and chalk', and debriefing 'real' facilitation instead of 'practice' session.
There are downsides, of course. You don't get the big benefit which can come from in-house training, where a cohort of people can support each other in the new way of doing things and continue to reflect together on how it's going. And you don't get the benefit of feedback from multiple perspectives and seeing a diverse way of doing things, which you get in group training.
But if this group approach isn't an option, and the client is going to be facilitating anyway, then I think it is an excellent approach to learning.
These phrases have caught my attention recently. All were uttered by sustainability professionals working within different large well-known mainstream businesses.
"...chronic unease..." (apparently the 'price of safety')
Witty constructs: adjective/abstract noun.
Like a secret handshake, they signal the speaker knows that what's being done now is nothing like enough, that optimism is not justified (because trends have not yet reversed), but neither is panic or acute action. This is a long emergency.
At a workshop last week, the adjective/abstract noun combination favoured by was 'blessed unrest', after Paul Hawken.
The combinations catch my eye (ear?) when there's some contradiction between the words, an element of surprise. This can be very helpful when working with coaching clients: what's the insight, just out of reach, that the striking phrase is hinting at? When they capture the unknowability of this strange time we find ourselves in.
I've met some interesting and challenging facilitators recently who have helped me reframe and explore my facilitation work and my sustainable development aims. Our conversations together have been so refreshing and enriching, we wondered if it might be possible to open them up to a wider group...
So we have created Deep Open.
It's a one-day workshop for people who are interested in groups, conversation, change and sustainable development. We hope to enable conversations which allow us to be aware of our feelings (physical and emotional), alert to difference and conflict, challenging and honest. We're going to experiment with having our feelings rather than letting our feelings have us. We're going to experiement with not distracting ourselves when things feel uncomfortable. We're going to try to resist being task-focussed, whilst staying together with purpose.
If you are intruiged by this - rather than irritated - then you might want to join us on 19th May in London for this workshop.
It's the time of year for clearing out the cupboards and taking all the cushions off the sofa to sweep out the composting satsuma peel. So I've been through my email inbox dealing with things. And there - among the discarded invitations to really interesting meetings and unanswered requests for advice on things I just didn't know enough about to reply rapidly - was a jewel, waiting to be rediscovered. I get Michael Neill's weekly coaching newsletter, ever since I went on a two-day coaching magic course which he ran in conjunction with Kaizen Training. Each Monday morning week there's an anecdote or exercise and they help me understand better how to coach, consult to clients or facilitate groups. Of course there are also notifications of the courses he's running or books you can buy, but it's easy to ignore that stuff if you're not in the market for it. (From time to time I get a bit exasperated with the recurring theme of money, earnings, finances and feeling rich. That's not why I'm interested in coaching. I ignore those bits too.)
A Conceptual Jewel
The jewel was one of Michael's conceptual frameworks. I'd kept it in my inbox so that I'd remember to blog about it at some point. That point is now.
It's the Four Quadrants of Creation, and it's a way of understanding what might be getting in the way of you achieving or creating something.
I think this is a great framework to have in a coaching toolkit, and I wonder if it can also be used with a team - for example a transition group, or a sustainability team within a larger organisation, or a consultant team reflecting on a particular 'stuckness' with a client?
Think of something you have thus far failed to achieve or create...
Now answer this question:
Is it because you couldn't, you didn't really want to, or both?
He goes on to talk about the twin importance of commitment and competence.
"Commitment is your "want to" - the amount of desire and willingness you bring to your project or creation. Competence is your "how to" - the amount of skill and capability you are currently able to harness."
Sorry about the poor image quality - it's better in the original.
You can probably see straight away how this can be used in a coaching situation: the coachee can consider where their espoused goal is in this matrix, and whether it's insufficient competence or weak commitment which is holding them back.
What's holding you back?
One of my coaching clients has been using a metaphor of baking a cake, for achieving a particular goal. At the moment, something is getting in the way of moving forward, and it is as if the cake batter is being stirred endlessly. It could be that more stirring is what's needed - when the mix is ready for the oven, it will be obvious. Or perhaps there is a reluctance to let go of the comfortable and known act of stirring, and take the irreversible step of putting the potential cake into the test of the fiery furnace.
Only the client can know this, but the framework can help them to discover 'what is' and work with that.
The framework with a team
Could this framework be used to help a team reflect on its progress towards a goal? There would need to be a high degree of trust in the group for it to be used successfully: who wants to tell a colleague about their own lack of competence, or question another person's commitment to a team goal? A prior agreement not to use self-disclosed low levels of competence or commitment against each other later would be needed. Self-disclosure would need to go before reflection on the team as a whole.
In some situations, it would be very helpful to have a framework for understanding what competence is needed for the task. For example, this framework is about sustainability leadership. A structure like a spectrum, with attitudes to the goal marked on it, may also help to give permission to people to be honest about their level of commitment. The horizontal dimension from the 'who can help me' matrix is a possible tool to use for this, if some additional options are added in between the extremes.
Dotting along the scale would form a whole-group picture of where people stand, which can then be used to focus discussion on the team's commitment and what would increase it (or what alternative goal would elicit high commitment).
The matrix could also be used as part of prioritising a team's work - something which will surely be more fraught as cuts make themselves felt in the public sector here in the UK.
Find out what you are really committed to
Some goals enthuse and inspire us, generating remarkable levels of passion and energy and bringing out the best in us. Others feel more like burdens or accusations, staring at us sulkily from the teetering pile of unread journals or the magic inbox which can apparently hold an infinite number of low priority emails.
Peggy Holman, in Engaging Emergence (fantastic book which I keep recommending to people and will blog about properly one day), talks about "taking responsibility for what you love as an act of service". If you move towards the things which you really care about, you are providing your best gift to the overall endeavour. You don't have to do it all, and you don't have to do the things you think you should do - just the things you love to do. This strategic selfishness is echoed in Michael Neill's thoughts about commitment:
"...check to see if this really is your project or if it's someone else's dream placed in your hands. If you decide to fully own it, notice any thoughts about why you can't or shouldn't really allow yourself to want this for yourself. Authentic desire doesn't need to be created - simply uncovered, one limiting belief at a time, and given space to breathe and to grow."