Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Habits of a Lifetime

As a coach I work with clients to "manage change" and to "facilitate transitions".

In theory this is a great space to work in. After all, it's universally accepted that coping with change can be challenging. Yet, we live in volatile and fast moving times where the old ways of doing things often no longer obtain. It is increasingly important then that we develop skills for embracing and managing change in order to remain effective, productive and competitive. Adapt or be left behind. A good coach should be very happy operating in this millieu!

Paradoxically, we (and I don't mean only coaches) need change to be challenging.

Many people (my dear mother among them), say: "people don't change". After much thought, I think this is correct in most cases. Fundamentally, people don't really change. Nevertheless, people can change how they react, behave or feel about a goal, person or situation. In other words, while we stay basically the same person, we evolve and develop and sometimes, we feel transformed.

This is where a coach can help - in this journey towards new ways of seeing or doing things. Indeed, given our propensity to resist change, to stick with what we know or to take the safe route, coaching can be invaluable.

Indeed, today I had a realisation that despite my best intentions and excellent coaching skills, I may in fact be a difficult client to self-coach.

I was in a driving lesson when this dawned on me...

Yes - I know - driving lessons at my time of life!

The thing is that I have been driving for 20 years but for the past 13 I haven't driven often, apart from 4 months in 2009 when I was living in Australia.

So, I'm out of practice, a little nervous and unfortunately, not qualified to drive in the UK.

But I can drive. So the challenge is not that I have no ability or competence. The challenge is to change bad habits and re-learn the skills properly.

No big deal, right?

Well, let me just say that I have new found respect for teachers of adults. How do they stay calm and patient with students who think they know what they are doing? How do they not guffaw at the silly, unforced errors repeated over and over again? How do they not just lose it entirely with people who refuse to follow basic instructions?

At one point my instructor - South African thirty-something - told me:

"You have to listen," in a tone of carefully masked frustration. Hand on heart - no one has ever had to tell me to listen before! 

The whole situation was ludicrous. I'm an experienced driver. I know the rules of the road. But I would have failed a driving test today. For a series of small mistakes - giving way when I could have gone through the junction, moving into the empty right lane without checking my right mirror, approaching a roundabout at 15 miles an hour, stopping over a white line at a red light, crossing my hands on the steering wheel. 

It was very humbling. And I was reminded that changing how we do things, breaking a habit, is not easy. In confronting the fact that change is hard, one becomes disillusioned, disheartened; one wonders why one is bothering.

There was a moment this morning when with aching knee and ankle joint from all that slow speed gear changing, I suggested we end the lesson and have a coffee; perhaps refer me on an automatic vehicle instructor? ie give up.

I mean, it's not as though we have a car or need to drive anywhere, really. I don't need to have a licence. don't really miss driving. One can manage on foot or public transport. Plenty of people can't drive...

But my instructor - coach - talked me through it, as good coaches do. 
"Don't be put off. Most new students feel some discomfort using muscles not usually used. It will get easier. You are doing well. Let's persevere."

"Ok," I said, compliantly. Mostly to save face. I wasn't completely convinced...

There came a powerful realisation. A few well chosen words of encouragement can go a long way. 

So I punched through the pain barrier - like I do at the gym without ever complaining. I even saw the humour in the situation and was thus open to the idea that I was not giving of my best, but being defensive or resistant to letting the learning happen. I was so wrapped up in the fact that I could drive already that I wasn't open to the idea that I had some learning to do. 

Thus, there came the next realisation. The instructor asked me (for the fourth time) if I noticed the car shuddering and could I tell him what I was doing that was causing that. I knew it had something to do with clutching and accelerating and pace and timing but I wasn't sure. Like when I have to reverse, I don't remember which way to turn the wheel (scary?).

So I said: "No. I don't know."
He said: "I've only told you three times."
I said: "I wasn't listening."
He said: "I know."

And there followed the third realisation. I can't learn to do something differently if I don't engage with the process openly and willingly. When the Offspring say they don't know after I have explained something to them, it's not because they're stupid or lack focus or have a poor attitude to their work. Rather, they are probably not interested enough to listen attentively. 

And in admitting I was not listening, the ear muffs came off and I finally heard him!

Thought provoking stuff.

So - next time you find yourself resisting a change you think you have embraced, pause for a moment and ask yourself, what are you resisting? Are you truly ready, willing and able? Are you listening? Do you need some encouragement? 

Or quite simply - is this a change you actually want to make?


Thursday, 17 January 2013

Mixing it up

This week I decided to mix it up a bit.

After all, what is the use of coaching clients about managing transitions if one is not also prepared to embrace  change?  Let me just preface what follows by saying - I love routine. Love it. I love the tried and true methods that work well. I often tell people about how fantastic routine can be. I extol the virtues of boundaries.

Yet, I was not always such a person, was I? While never exactly intrepid, I was once a little adventurous, wasn't I?

Well, suffice to say, a breath of fresh air was long overdue so I conducted three experiments. By definition a cautious approach I dare say. But anyway...

First, I altered my fitness routine. I did the same circuit of exercises in the gym, but I changed the order in which I do them. I wanted to see how I would feel after and what impact the change would have on my workout. I expected to be muddled, do fewer exercises and barely break a sweat.

The surprising result was that I worked harder and finished sooner. I expended more energy in a more efficient way.

Secondly, I tried a different route on a walk I make every day. This change was forced upon me by an unforeseen hitch in the school run. But in the spirit of making the best of things and avoiding recriminations, I went with the challenge of taking a different route.The astonishing result was that the new route was quicker.

Thirdly, I enrolled in and began two new courses. One I had been considering for a while. The other was a crazy whim based on a long dormant, or perhaps suppressed, desire to stop "keeping my light under a bushel". At best, I thought I might gain ideas for my book, make a new contact or two and perhaps gather some new conversational gambits. In actual fact; I met new people, had loads of fresh ideas and most gratifyingly and satisfyingly, confirmed my long held suspicion that there is an Oscar in my future.

But perhaps best of all I unlocked a treasure trove of new creative energy.

Sorry? The Oscar? Oh, that old thing. We can discuss that some other time.

I want to focus on the other discoveries and benefits of making some small changes.

The fact is, after just four days, I feel quite transformed. While I've slept less than usual, I feel more energetic. I'm sleeping better and I've watched no tv. Well, perhaps I should say: I've watched very little tv.

Moreover, making some changes led to even more unexpected openness to change. Without a thought, I tried a different cafe for my morning coffee and ate a huge plate of waffles. Something I've not done in years. And no - I'm not getting in character for a role as a larger lady. I was mixing it up.

And today, while walking home I burst into song and managed to stay in tune through a wonderful rendition of "On My Own" from "Les Miserables" (until the Off-Spring shushed me most harshly - talk about repressive and rigid!).


I challenge you all to do something different tomorrow. Not something irrelevant like changing your toothpaste, though. Do something a little bit bold. Smile at a stranger. Eat lunch in a new place. Read a new book. Try a different newspaper. Take the stairs. Stop and chat instead of rushing past the acquaintance you usually avoid.

See what you notice.

Let me know what happens?

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

A change is as good as a holiday

It's been some time since I posted here. Suffice to say I was doing other things. Clich├ęd as it sounds, the past 13 months flew by and while I seem to remember being occupied, unfortunately I feel a little cheated. Why? Because I have nothing tangible to show for all that time passing.

So what was I doing?  I was busy with coaching and charity work up til mid July. The summer was quiet, filled with cricket with the Off-Spring, walks on beaches in Wales and lots of reading.  Now, while the memories remain, I struggle to find tangible evidence that I contributed anything at all to the world. The final quarter  of the year saw a change of gear and a focus on education - both that of the Off-Spring (number 1 is awaiting news of his secondary school place for this September), as well as other people's children with whom I work on communication skills, confidence and resilience. I hope some difference was made in that domain at least; time will tell.

On the "fun" side of things, I drank a lot of coffee, developed a keen interest in kettle bells, enjoyed some of London's finest museums. And became a little OCD about jigsaws...

But there remains a sense of dis-ease, that in spite of all that activity, I have very little to show for it (note to self: mount and frame current jigsaw when completed).

Consequently, over the Christmas and new year lull, I had ample opportunity to pause and reflect on achievement and contribution; productivity and engagement. These musings took place against the backdrop of my work as a coach.


At its heart, coaching is about managing change. Much of the time I work with clients to develop specific skills - often it will be communication skills; pitch and presentation work, interview technique, improving delegation processes and managing feedback. Sometimes we're focussed on time or stress management (or what I prefer to call - "wellbeing"), and sometimes the challenge we're managing is change itself - transitions at work, redundancy, retirement, starting a family or a business.

Sometimes a lot can be achieved quickly and without too much pain. A bit like losing weight quickly and easily when a more active way of life is embraced.

But what happens when the weather turns? When party season arrives or when the stress of the new job erodes the gains?

In order for real and lasting change to occur, there is usually a need to delve below the surface and explore the subtle and intricate issues that lurk there. Invariably in the corporate milieu, depending on who is buying the services, one tends to highlight the commercial benefits that the coaching brings about; the improved processes, the bids won, the greater levels of productivity, the enhanced satisfaction of the employees. One doesn't tend to highlight the breakthroughs made in understanding the subtleties and intricacies that underpin the issue.

At the end of the day though, without addressing those deeper issues, meaningful change is not sustainable. In other words, without understanding and addressing the "why" and the "why not", that transcend the "how" and "what, there cannot be true transformation.

For example, why is it that Mr X cannot get his subordinates to step up - what prevents him from empowering his team? Why does Johnny struggle to sell himself in interviews? Why is Ms Y unable to quit smoking and lose weight?

None of Mr X, Ms Y or Johnny lack verbal or cognitive skills. And if they don't know what to do they can soon learn. Despite this, nothing changes.

The fact is that the issue is rarely what it purports to be. And it's almost never about ability. To use the weight loss example again - Ms Y knows how to walk and run. She knows the location of a gym and has friends that swear by Zumba. And yet...

The key to change is not skills and training. It is the alchemy that comes about where there is congruence between motivation, volition, energy and action.

So what does that have to do with achievement or productivity? Or my need to have something to show for all my efforts.

I have some ideas, but now that I have your attention I will save them for my next post...