“As we get older and stop making sense . . .
Stop making sense,
Stop making sense,
Stop making sense, making sense”
Talking Heads, 1984
Over the past year, our expectations, hopes and dreams maybe, and assumptions about what does and doesn’t make sense to us have taking a massive whack on the head. We’ve had to make huge adjustments to what we think and expect about our day-to-day lives. Which is OK when we can weave it all into the story we tell ourselves about us, if it makes sense. I might not like it but if it makes sense that’s OK. The problem comes when it doesn’t.
At the core of our conscious existence is the voice inside our head, the narrator. Up to 4,000 words per minute of commentary, speculation, chaos theory and criticism, creative or otherwise. And our driving impulse is that the story being told must make sense. But as our knowledge of the world is only partial, our ignorance is necessarily infinite. Which means that the canvas of patterns and connections that we weave inside our minds is periodically challenged by events. And our response to this is anxiety and an urgent need to correct the story that is becoming incoherent. Continue reading “2021: so what now?”
“Don’t they know, it is wrong. It makes me anxious”
The Housemartins, 1986
Anxiety exists above all as anticipation, our hopes and fears for events that we might see on the horizon but that haven’t arrived yet. Most of us have been living with greater uncertainty in 2020 than we have in the past; understanding our emotional response to this can be very useful.
Some key points that I’ll explore further:
- Everyone experiences anxiety – this is “Normal”, and most people have an exaggerated sense that they are an exception when they aren’t
- Anxiety encompasses stress and worry, but also ambition and happiness; indeed “a life that was anxiety-free would also be bereft of wonder, enthusiasm and excitement.”
- Worrying about worrying is one of the most prevalent forms of non-useful anxiety in work. It distracts us from productive activity but many people see virtue in it because they equate it with caring
Continue reading “A useful framework to understand anxiety”
A couple of years ago I was approached by a client who was frustrated and annoyed by a recent NPS (Net Promoter Score) survey carried out on his staff. Since a major re-alignment of the business this score had taken a big dive and had gone from being a strength to a weakness. So much so that the prevailing mood of unhappiness in the company had led to dramatic increases in staff turnover and markedly poorer performance against targets.
His frustration and annoyance was that as far as he could see his people were being indulged with benefits that he wouldn’t have dared dream about when he was starting out himself. Pay rises, unlimited holiday, goldfish bowls in reception, transparent communications had all been introduced with as much vigour as possible but it seemed to him were just being taken for granted.
They weren’t happy, he didn’t know why and it was a major problem. Continue reading “Happy New Year and how to find it (happiness)”
Every coaching assignment is different and the ground covered varies a lot depending on each client and their needs. But there are themes and questions that come up again and again in various forms. Some are rooted in the existential dilemmas that we all face in life; others are born out of common frustrations.
I often describe coaching as working on two levels over time. The first level is explicit: the conscious pursuit of the goals and objectives set at the beginning of a coaching programme. This is what people have come to coaching to address and spend time on. The second level is implicit: it’s what occurs as a consequence of going through a process of self-examination. Sometimes the themes here shift and become the core of the contract, as new depth and complexity alters the premise behind the questions being asked by the client of themselves. Continue reading “The top five questions that come up in coaching”
“The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth” Garry Kasparov
In common with much of the rest of the world, political campaigning around Brexit is increasingly about pumping out so many conflicting messages that undecided voters just give up on making sense of the different analyses. Which works as a tactic, and in the case of politics, there are always operators who believe that their ends justify the means. Politics is at the more extreme end of this when it comes to public debate as it all seems to matter so much. But as a process it means that the debate is dominated by interpretations rather than substance. Continue reading “What Brexit shows us about the struggle to find truth”
“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?”
Yes is the answer to all of these. Creating a coherent narrative, which makes sense to us (no matter what) is a central function of being human.
When I was younger, my favourite book (by Richard Scary) was “What do People do all Day?” It’s a very intriguing question that I still find fascinating. The short answer 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 briefly and busily striving, fighting, achieving for no clear purpose before a quick expiration.
But with us there is a point. We can find what we do meaningful. Look at what we do when we genuinely consider it to be meaningless. On the whole we stop. Continue reading “Meaning making machines: what do people do all day?”
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”
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”
“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”
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 an engaged life. 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 when we get what we have wanted? Great thought has been applied to this over the ages in religion and philosophy. Continue reading “Plate tectonics: four ultimate existential concerns”
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”
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”
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?”
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”
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?”