Meaning making machines: what do people do all day?

 “It’s completely out of hand. But I can see what’s going on, he’s trying to make up a version of events in his mind where what he’s doing is OK. Or at least that’s how it seems to me. Is he? Why? And is that what I’m doing too?” To which the answers are very definitely a) yes, b) he has to and c) yes.

When I was younger, my favourite book was by Richard Scary, called “What do People do all Day?” It’s a very intriguing question that I still find fascinating. The short answer to what it said in the book was all kinds of “stuff”. Going from one place to another, working indoors and outdoors, shopping, eating etc. But the bigger questions behind the record of activity loomed ever larger: what for and why? From a distance we can look like a swarm of bees busily striving, fighting, achieving for no clear purpose before a pointless and possibly premature death.

But with us there is a point. We find what we do meaningful. Look what we do when we genuinely consider it meaningless. On the whole we stop. Continue reading “Meaning making machines: what do people do all day?”

Why you should learn to stop worrying and love your anxiety instead

I recently met up with someone who’d just left their job because the worry and stress had built up to a point where it just wasn’t worth it anymore. In many ways it was a shame because it had been a fantastic role, the pinnacle of a brilliant career. But what’s the point when the anxiety from being at work overwhelms everything else?

Although there’s much more open discussion currently about the subject of anxiety, the details of the experience are mostly kept very private. But the point to understanding your anxiety is that it’s not a state, something that appears temporarily and then goes away. It’s a more or less constant trait, in many ways the very core of being human. It’s what drags us down and inhibits us yes. But it’s also the agitation and will that makes us go on and achieve, to give a damn and to change things.

The opposite of an anxious perspective is not necessarily one of calm and peace but often one of indifference and apathy. The point it not to eliminate your anxiety but to learn to live with it, since “a life that was anxiety-free would also be bereft of wonder, enthusiasm and excitement.” Continue reading “Why you should learn to stop worrying and love your anxiety instead”

Thinking the worst: awfulizing and catastrophic fantasies

It’s not just that. If I get it wrong, my boss will lose all faith in me and it’ll only be a matter of time until I get fired. And then nobody will ever give me a job again. Ever. I’ll run out of money and my wife will leave me. I’ll lose my home and end up on the streets. I’ll be in the tube with a one of those little signs and all my work colleagues will pass by and pretend not to recognise me . . .”

This all started with getting ready for a work thing and anxiety has spun out of control into a collapsing sequence of catastrophic fantasies. And the worst thing is you’re the only person ever to do this. Only you’re not actually, awfulizing is very common. Continue reading “Thinking the worst: awfulizing and catastrophic fantasies”

To describe something is to change it

“I had been thinking about it that way, but talking to you about it now, I’m starting to see that it isn’t and could even be the opposite”. About relationships with colleagues, decisions to be made, general questions of whether something is right or wrong, I’ve heard variations of this comment more than any other during coaching sessions. Why is it that the act of talking out loud about something changes our understanding of it?

During coaching, people often discuss subjects that are either confidential are that seem too personal to talk to other people about. Doubt, motivation, anxiety, confidence, purpose are all very important issues, but for many of us, many of our thoughts on these subjects occur as part of our inner monologue, the voice inside our heads. Continue reading “To describe something is to change it”

A leader is someone who other people follow: the six Hay Mcber leadership styles

“The biggest problem I have is getting the right people . . . I need people who can keep up with me and make their own decisions without needing me to hold their hand”. That may well be true, but it’s also possible that it’s just the wrong style of leadership for that situation.

What often happens is that we lead using the way that comes naturally to us, or that we have seen being used by key role models from the past. The quote above is from someone who uses a Pacesetting leadership style. This can be the natural home for experts who lead by example, setting their own high standards which they then expect others to meet. It can be by far the most effective way to lead a small and capable team, with mutual trust and a clear sense of what they’re trying to achieve. When people talk of the Golden Years at work, often there was a Pacesetting leader, making very rapid and creative progress with a small team of trusted followers. It’s a sink or swim mentality where those that thrive have great responsibility and opportunities to learn. Continue reading “A leader is someone who other people follow: the six Hay Mcber leadership styles”

Plate tectonics: four ultimate existential concerns

I’ve been lucky to work with clients who’ve achieved a lot, who can tick the boxes that are conventionally called “success”. Achievement of a creative endeavour or business and financial accomplishment has been the cherry on the top of a life with a great partner, family and home, good health, loving friends and family. The journey towards achievement has been exhilarating, absorbing and often brought out the best in collaborators. But, when the battle has been won, when we get to the part of the film where everyone walks off into the sunset, something unexpected happens. After the elation there’s a hangover.

What is this dissatisfaction that is perversely thrown into sharp relief on arrival at a striven-for destination? Great thought has been applied to this over the ages in religion and philosophy. The point is to learn from this and to apply it. Continue reading “Plate tectonics: four ultimate existential concerns”

Hell is other people: Transaction Analysis

Why is it that professional, adult people find themselves talking at cross-purposes? The substance of what you’re trying to say can seem ignored, almost as if there’s another script in the background. Well often there is another script. Making this explicit is the goal of the metaphors and models provided by Transaction Analysis (TA).

Many people who seek coaching are very good at their job and need little if any help with the nuts and bolts of that. But something they often want, especially in the early stages of an assignment, is to improve the way they get along with other people: colleagues, managers, staff, suppliers, and clients.

A typical complaint could be “They become defensive when I’m just wanting to understand what’s going on . . . we get into pointless arguments and as a result avoid discussing operational matters that then suffer due to lack of attention”. The TA framework can illuminate the premises that give rise to this sort of problem. Continue reading “Hell is other people: Transaction Analysis”

L’esprit d’escalier: when you think of the perfect reply too late

We’ve all been there: after a dissatisfactory disagreement or argument, the right thing to have said or done becomes crystal clear just as it’s too late. The perfect riposte occurs to us as we’re on the staircase on the way out. But the chance has gone even though we might run it over and over again in our mind or conversation afterwards.

Variations of this frustration and dilemma come up often in coaching. Often, it’s compounded by a sense that it happens during the most important moments. I once worked with someone who was highly confident most of the time and able to speak their mind fluently and effectively without this phenomenon occurring, except when he was in a room with famous people. Another found they would freeze up when the tone of a negotiation became confrontational or aggressive. And others have found that when they’re put on the spot in board meetings, their normal eloquence falls away.

It’s when we’ve been able to identify particular circumstances that cause this problem that we’re often able to work out a fix that works by using CBT. Continue reading “L’esprit d’escalier: when you think of the perfect reply too late”

Elephant and rider: why don’t I do what I want me to do?

We often have a model of ourselves that has the brain in control as the executive centre. Information comes in, is considered and decisions are made. If I scratch my ear it’s because I’ve detected an itch and chosen an appropriate response. It’s almost like we have an army of specialists in lots of departments looking after each of our mind and body functions. There used to be a cartoon where they all wore white coats.

There is though another model, which I find people often recognise as more realistic: the elephant and the rider. You can see this pair lumbering through the jungle and hear an incessant chatter coming from the rather officious rider who thinks he’s in control.

“I’ll keep on walking this way for a bit, oh no, maybe not, I’ll head off right towards this water and [whoa!] knock over this tree and have a drink, no have a bathe and [oops!] fall down and roll over in the mud . . .” Continue reading “Elephant and rider: why don’t I do what I want me to do?”

What not why: going to the heart of the matter

© Andrew Watt

I once spoke with a client who was frustrated that a proposal he had put forward was being treated sceptically by his boss. He was doubly frustrated and hurt as the scepticism seemed to come from a suspicion that he was motivated by personal reasons rather than the best interests of the company. The focus of the conversation had switched from what he was proposing to why he was proposing it.

As a result, things were degenerating into a passive aggressive exchange about motives. He was also now doubting his boss’s motives and was developing theories that these resulted from a combination of personal weakness and a landgrab for further power. He’d discussed and refined these theories in conversations with others and had even begun to invest rather heavily in them as a validation of a number of other grievances he had about the relationship. Continue reading “What not why: going to the heart of the matter”

What is Developmental Coaching?

At the start of any coaching engagement I always begin by establishing the goals and expectations of the client. A little while ago I started work with a new client who had a short-term priority that he wanted to tackle first. Christmas was coming, so in our first session, he wanted my ideas on quick wins to boost his sales. I told him I’d do my best to give him some ideas but also that they probably wouldn’t be very good.

He wanted to do it nonetheless so we spent an hour brainstorming some ideas.

Next time I saw him was after Christmas and I asked how his sales had gone and whether the quick wins we’d worked on last time around had made a difference. Sales had been great but he reluctantly admitted that the new ideas hadn’t really made any difference. I was very pleased as he looked at me and smiled saying “It doesn’t really work like that does it?” Continue reading “What is Developmental Coaching?”

How do I choose a coach?


There is a practical side to choosing a coach but the most important part is that you simply feel comfortable and confident with them.

I once coached somebody for an hour during which time I didn’t say anything at all. Literally, nothing. By the end of it they’d decided to take a three month sabbatical and get a new job. They were happily married, well-educated and with a wide circle of friends but they told me they couldn’t have had that conversation with anybody else.

Now I have no idea what actually went on there and claim no credit other than to know when to shut up. Most of the work that you do with a coach will come from you and consequently be a result of your feeling at ease with them. When you choose one, the single most important criteria is that it feels right and you trust them. Continue reading “How do I choose a coach?”

What does a coach do?


A coach primarily listens and encourages you to reflect and delve deeper into matters that are important to you. There is an ongoing conversation that you have with yourself. Psychologists call this “the narrator”; individuals often call it “me”. A coach will look to become part of that conversation, to break circular thinking and try to help you find greater clarity.

Conversations with friends, colleagues and confidantes can do this too. Verbalising your inner voice can give you different perspectives on your thoughts and help make more sense of them. If there’s a difference it may be in the extent to which a coaching conversation is one-way, for an extended period of time. Some people find this disconcerting to begin with and take a while to get used to a dynamic where the cares and concerns of the other person present do not have to be taken into account. Continue reading “What does a coach do?”