I am reading again the article ‘What is the difference and what makes the difference? A comparative study of psychodynamic and non-psychodynamic approaches to executive coaching’ by Vega Zagier Roberts and Michael Jarrett. Among many other things, I am particularly drawn to one conclusion that the coaching relationship matters more than specific theoretical schools or methods.
To be specific, it is ‘the quality of the relationship with the client – how understood and safe the client feels’.
It is not rocket science. It is in fact often highlighted in coaching 101. In a way, it is basic but it is not always well-practiced for 2 reasons.
Collusion – The attempt to establish an ‘understanding and safe’ relationship overshoots and results in excessive collusion with the clients which prohibits difficult awareness and change;
‘How’ instead of ‘Who’ – The ‘relationship’ aspect can be easily put aside when the coaches focus on the method or session outcome instead of the person and the relationship
On reflection, I most probably have been rather disciplined on the 1st issue. Well, in fact, may be too much sometimes – as illustrated by my previous realisation like ‘‘Zero collusion’ can be equally bad’. This also makes me increasingly conscious of my own practice on the 2nd issue. I am now shifting my attention….. If there are only a few things staying in mind before and during a session, they are:
NOT the methods / models….
NOT the hypotheses / ‘games’….
NOT the next killer question….
NOT the PRO….
NOT the Competing Commitment / Big Assumption….
NOT the coaching outcome….
NOT me….or how much I am liked….
BUT the PERSON and our working alliance
I love the analogy used by my supervisor – ‘How are you like when you are having the moment with your kids?’ I am just with them. I am just curious. I just feel them.
Numerous articles on the internet have been discussing the on-going trend of remote working. I have my own milestone experience of such trend last week as I coached small groups for 4 hours on zoom. More importantly, it turned out to be much more effective than I imagined. Why did I find it so different, say, compared to my initial virtual group experience many years ago?
Of course, it was the better internet connection and interface nowadays e.g. facial expression in sync with the conversation. In addition, we got trained to be more zoom-savvy in the last few months. On the soft aspect, we are all more willingness to work virtually e.g. to overcome occasional bad connectivity. Further, interestingly, it helps when one knows that the others are willing to do as well.
On further reflection, the last few points are actually the ‘products’ of COVID. It is well illustrated by the well-circulated image below:
In practising Leadership, it is about taking ‘Crisis as a Change Agent’ – people got ‘heat’ up which provides opportunity for one to practice leadership by putting people into the Productive Zone of Disequilibrium – see the HBR article ‘Leadership in a Permanent Crisis’.
I cannot then help wonder how about playing ‘offence’ on Leadership Development? I would think of:
‘Crisis as a Mirror’ – Crisis demands our responses, probably more than we want. Reflecting on our responses can reveal who we are (individually as well as collectively) e.g. our pattern of thoughts and behaviours.
‘Crisis as a Lab’ – Crisis also provides a lot of opportunities to experiment our different responses, if we are prepared to put some consciousness in the process.
Like Manzoni said, instead of focusing on ‘defence’ only, playing ‘offence’ generates energy. I feel excited in imagining to put together an action-learning type of intervention or to coach by following these 3 anchors 🙂
Sorry. This is another post which probably only my Cantonese readers would be interested.
I am re-reading the book ‘Games People Play’ by Eric Berne on Transaction Analysis. It is very helpful in identifying unconscious processing on interpersonal or group level which actually undermines the stated objectives. But I am here discussing the concepts. There are a lot of material online e.g. Tom Butler Bowdon’s blog explains the concepts quite concisely.
Instead I want to reflect on the games’ names. There is some magic in how Berne named each game For example, he called the first game in the book ‘If It Weren’t For You IWFY’. (I highlight briefly at this article end what he meant by ‘Game’ and this particular one IWFY) The use of such colloquial language helps capture not only the meaning of the game but also the general sensation one would have when we say or hear such language. And there is some fun in it!
But such colloquial language by nature resonates well only to the native speakers. (And I believe there are local games particular to different cultures / social groups.) This prompts me to have some fun in coming up names in my mother tongue – Cantonese on a few games as follows. What else will you think of which carries the sensation even better?
NIGYSOB – ‘Now I’ve got you, you son of a bitch’ – Somehow allowing others to take advantage on self on trivial matters , and feeling justified in venting almost unlimited rage against the person. Actually has been looking for similar injustices, received them with delight and exploited them with the same vigour.
>> There is a popular Cantonese saying for that – ‘你今次仲唔死, 契弟!’
SWYMD – ‘See what you made me do’ – Somehow allowing self to make a small misfortunate / mistake as a result of an interruption in order to give him a lever for ejecting the intruder.
>> Again, this popular one – ‘睇你搞成我咁’ is probably the equivalent.
WAHM – ‘Why does this always happen to me’ – Repeatedly getting oneself into misfortune or choosing to see the misfortunate aspect. Trying to win the contest of misfortune.
>> How about ‘點解成日都係我’? Or even a more contemporary one ‘我正一係地獄黑仔王’?
IWFY – ‘If it weren’t for you’ – Somehow got self into a constraining situation in order to avoid confronting fear outside those constraints…. and enjoy the potential compensation by complaining to the one who imposes those constraints.
>> I think of this one – ‘如果唔係為咗你’. Unfortunately, this line is what some parents say to the kids often in order to influence with guilt. Oh, and there is sometimes a more aggressive version – ‘如果唔係為x咗你’
(Game – Berne defines it as ‘an ongoing series of complementary ulterior transactions progressing to a well-defined, predictable outcome’. Basically, we engage into unconscious patterns of behavioral interaction with others in order to achieve some hidden gains. For example, in IWFY, a woman complains regularly how her husband restricts her activities e.g. starting a career. Actually, she gains by not having to face the anxiety in finding a job, and she can complain about the restrictions which makes her spouse feel uneasy and gives her all sorts of advantages. Of course, men do this as well.)
My take on collusion (e.g. pleasing participants in developmental interventions) has been changing in the last few years. First, I was not aware at all that I may be doing it. Then, I became aware of it and saw it as a bad thing – counter-learning. See previous post – Unconscious Collusion with Learners. I even sometimes found myself enjoying being an annoying consultant. But in the last year or two, things changed further. Collusion could be useful and sometimes even necessary for quality learning. It could be useful data to gain understanding into the unconscious. The article ‘Petriglieri, G. & Wood, J.D. 2003. The invisible revealed: Collusion as an entry to the group unconscious.Transactional Analysis Journal’ describes it well. And to a certain extent, it is almost necessary in building up the ‘working alliance’ – a useful concept by Catherine Sandler in book ‘Executive Coaching – A Psychodynamic Approach’
Recently, I heard of a coach with psychotherapy background who struggles with own tendency to quickly and persistently name the unconscious processing, instead of the interest in the person. I think of the case of ‘zero collusion’ i.e. a coach behaving always as an icy-cold analyst. He / she shows only a poker-face for projection and directly confront participants with hypothesis of the unconscious.
In a way, ‘zero collusion’ could be as ‘bad’ as the case of ‘full collusion’. In fact, on reflection, it is not about how much the collusion is. It is about whether we know what is going on. To be specific:
How much is the coach aware of the colluding acts?
How much is the coach colluding to lower the client’s defense in order to better embrace change?
How much is the coach even using the colluding acts, from both parties, as data for learning purpose?
The worst is that I collude (or not)… primarily to meet my own needs. For example, I please the client in order not to be disliked. Or I show no emotion / friendliness and only analyse in order to stay safe by intellectualizing everything.
Interestingly, or boringly :), it goes back to our own self-awareness as practitioners to help others develop.
Many many years ago, there was a village where no one has ever eaten anything from the sea. A few village men accidentally caught a few fishes and ate them. They liked it. They were not sure the reason why. Some said it was because of the taste. some said it was because of the nutrient they could not get elsewhere.
As the news spread, they even opened a store and started to sell the fishes to the others. Some followed and opened similar stores selling fishes nearby. As they were gradually gaining popularity in the village, people invented a name ‘SEAFOOD’ and the area was then called SEAFOOD market. No one knows how the name came from but this was the way people called it.
The SEAFOOD market kept on growing. As it was expanding, some started to sell things other than fishes. There were crabs, shrimps, shellfishes… There were even stores which sold seaweed, frogs, whale meat and freshwater fish. In fact, the seaweed store used to have its business in the vegetable market but moved to the fast-expanding SEAFOOD market.
At the same time, the market kept on expanding and still so now. It became quite a trendy thing to shop from the SEAFOOD market. Even companies bought stuff from the SEAFOOD market for their top executives!
One day, people in the village started to debate what is really meant by SEAFOOD. Some argued that only saltwater fish counts. Some argued that any watery stuff should be included so long as it is helping (or nutritious) to the consumers. Some stores were even more ‘inclusive’ by arguing that the SEAFOOD market can sell anything so long as there was demand. People were selling fish-shaped drug which created short term pleasure but was not nutritious at all. Some challenged that the drug in fact created dependency.
In fact, a few stores came together and established something called ‘International Seafood Federation’. The association sat out some standards of what seafood is. For example, seafood can only be saltwater fish and in more details it should be ‘a limbless cold-blooded vertebrate animal with gills and fins living wholly in water’ It started to accredit other stores according to those standard. And the accredited stores needed to be supervised by a supervisor (differently accredited by the Federation) which in turn needed to be supervised….. and so on.
No one knows exactly how the debate started or the meaning of the debate. There were some hypotheses though:
Governance Perspective – Some said there have been cases of food poisoning, and thus there were calls to regulate the market. In order to do so, we need to know what SEAFOOD is in the first place.
Academic Perspective – Some scholars became interested at this growing SEAFOOD phenomenon and wanted to research deeply into the topics like what it is, how it helps, etc.
Ethical Perspective – Some stores strongly believed that their products were truly nutritious. They have invested a lot of R&D and took proud of their products. In addition, they challenged that some other products were deceiving, and should be kicked out of the SEAFOOD market.
Market Perspective – Few admitted but some said what is really going on … possibly unconsciously… is that the debate is simply a battle of money. Everyone wanted to have a share of this fast growing SEAFOOD market. So, all wanted to define SEAFOOD in a way so that their products stayed or became relevant.
I learnt to use the ‘Immunity to Change’ (ITC) approach (or the ‘4-column’ tool) in 2013. See the post ‘Immunity to Change’. In the last few years, I have been investing myself into the Systems-psychodynamics approach. See the post ‘What may also be going on?’.
The more I use them, the more I realise they echo each other a lot. To be more specific, the ITC approach can be described as a systematic way to apply the psychodynamics approach. Let me take an example to reflect and illustrate what I see as the linkage between the 2 approaches.
Jeff (pseudonym) headed up the legal and compliance department. He has repeatedly received feedback from his peer and subordinates to be aggressive. For example, during some heated arguments, he would bang on the table and walk away from the meeting room. Upon reflection, he knew that such pattern of behaviour, and more importantly the resulting perception, is not helpful to his work, his well-being, and his career aspiration. To the last point, he bought in a lot the idea – ‘What Got You Here Won’t Get You There’.
With some coaching work, he resolved to experiment something specific – to proactively demonstrate understanding to his counterparties. We explored how he would do so, and role-played to prepare. However, on review after a few months, he realised that he made little progress. For example, he noticed that even when he has done something in favour of the counterparties privately, he would not share it and sometimes he would deny it. He found himself continue to act tough and keep the distance.
With the psychodynamics approach, a common line of inquiry is around ‘What may you be gaining by refusing to show understanding (i.e. a behavioral pattern which the coachee knows consciously to be undesirable)?’ The conversation may help gradually discover his unconscious processing e.g. he was actually protecting himself from the fear of being rejected personally or being taken advantage of. The possibility of being rejected or taken advantage of was a dangerous place which he did not allow himself any chance to walk into.
It is like in the diagram – consciously (the ‘brain’) he wanted to demonstrate understanding to the others, but unconsciously (the ‘heart’) he protected himself by doing the opposite.
Such discovery is actually what the ITC approach sets out to do, to be specific, from the column 1 to column 4 like:
In column 1, we identify the improvement goal i.e. to demonstrate understanding and care.
In column 2, we explore what Jeff has done or not done to keep the improvement goal from fully achieved i.e. Jeff denied any help he has done privately.
In column 3, Jeff may discover in the ‘Worry Box’ that if he had to reveal his helping acts, he would feel the worry of being rejected or not appreciated, or even taken advantage of. And the ‘Hidden Commitment’ will thus include items like ‘I am committed not to be rejected with my good intention’.
In column 4, Jeff may discover his Big Assumption as ‘If I got rejected once, no one will ever take me seriously’
(The concept of ‘unconscious processing’ captures both the meaning of ‘Hidden Commitment’ and ‘Big Assumption’ in column 4.)
Well then, how are the 2 approaches different? Though the line of enquiry is similar, ITC does it more programmatically and in a visually-friendly way. It makes the psychodynamics approach more accessible to all, especially to those who values logics and structures.
Another significant difference is that ITC makes the psychodynamics approach more action-able by having the ‘Big Assumption’ concept. The psychodynamics approach is often argued to help make change by mainly building awareness e.g. when Jeff becomes aware how he gets caught up by his unconscious avoidance, he can choose better next time on how to act / respond. ITC seems to do more than that. The ‘Big Assumption’ concept in ITC allows the coachees to take concrete actions to make change e.g. run test and collect data to gradually invalidate the Basic Assumption. Perhaps more importantly, it offers hope. People sometimes end up just the experience of ‘stuck-ness’ in the psychodynamics approach – ‘So, I am doomed to fail in work relationship because of that powerful unconscious dynamics in me!!’.
On further reflection, of course, I can integrate the 2 approaches. For example, after identifying with the coachee on some unconscious processing which has been prohibiting her from achieving what she wants, I can enquire into ‘What may you be assuming which keeps such processing alive?’. And we then make it explicit and run test to weaken or modify the assumption.
On the other hand, there are a lot of other elements in the psychodynamics approach which is not captured in ITC. ITC does not look at the unconscious processing in inter-personal and group level. Go back to the Jeff example – on the inter-personal level, Jeff’s failure to demonstrate understanding and care may actually be located primarily in his interaction with his right-hand man – Chris. They may be locked into the so-called ‘prosecutor-victim’ pattern – Chris derived sense of safety in the victim role which he played with his older brother. On one hand, he often complained to others about being mis-understood by Jeff. On the other hand, he somehow enjoyed the resulting attention (both positively and negatively) from the CEO (like in the past from his parents).
There may also be something on the group level. The legal and compliance department was recently under huge time pressure and resistance from the strong sales department as the former implemented a very demanding anti-money laundering procedure. All in the department were stressed out. Given Jeff’s valency and role, he was mobilized by the group to be the ‘unreasonable man’ in interacting with the sales department.
Really…. why team? Complementary competencies…. A sense of belonging…. Cross-learning opportunities… there are many answers to this question. I was reminded of one important answer during the Gobi race.
The picture is my sketch of a scene in the Gobi race. It was 3:55am of Day 3 in a middle of nowhere in the Gobi desert – It was quite a magical moment for me. The light in the tent would be turned on at 4am to wake us up to start the last day of the Gobi race. I somehow woke up earlier by myself…. probably around 3:30am. Half-awake in my cozy sleeping bag, I calculated in my mind how much time it would take to finish the 28km if we maintain 4.5 min / km…… or even 5 min / km…. I also tried to change the setting on my smart watch to show pace for every km, but I failed. I then quietly sat myself up…. thinking to pack up stuff for the day.
To my surprise, I noticed some others were waking up as well. Very quickly, I realized actually all were up, packing in the dark, before the ‘wake-up’ call, at the ‘daunting’ 4am!!! I felt energized, touched, hopeful and eager for the day!!! Of course, what happened for the rest of the day in the team loaded me with even more feeling on the notion of team.
What made ALL of us wake up so early in the morning? Why did I feel so good about such a scene? It is about a group of people committing strongly to do our best – much more than what each of us normally would. On reflection, I know that such a scene would still touch me deeply even if we finished last on the day. It is not about the result. It is also not about winning, award, or how others people see us. It is about committing together to stretch ourselves for a common goal.
It could be intrinsically motivating. I almost forget completely such power… since the sports team in university time.
What if we could remind the executive teams of such possibility?
In the ‘Journey to the West’ story(西游记), the Xuanzang’s (玄奘) crew met with lots of demons in the Gobi desert. We met some as well in the Gobi race – a leadership development program. However, for us, those demons reside in our own minds.
Here is an incident when the demons showed up. A vivid and embarrassing example on how our unconscious processing prevents us from advancing towards our stated goal….. even though we have the capability.
We had a new team member, Kenny (pseudonym), who joined us at the end of day 1. (Without disclosing too much the program design, we were basically ‘forced’ in an evening to exchange an existing team member with a new one from another team.) When Kenny joined us in that evening, we did not do much except for exchanging names and some brief greeting. I believe all could imagine how comfortable it was for Kenny. After all, moving to share a tent with a group of already-connected strangers at short notice without reasonably-warm welcome was awkward.
In the next morning, we launched into the race… without much words with Kenny. Kenny chose to withdraw from the race in that afternoon. Apparently, his legs hurt too much and he explicitly said he did not want to be helped i.e. pushed or pulled by others. We lost a lot of score (for every withdrawal). We also lost his supreme ability on numbers and direct-ness, which we only discovered after the race. He could have contributed a lot in managing our pace and break down our ‘politeness’ dynamics.
During our After-Action Review, we first attributed the loss to our inability to integrate new members. We then realized that it was probably not true as most are experienced managers or coaches. The problem was that we did not really want to. We came up with very interesting hypotheses as follows. Basically, we were protecting ourselves unconsciously.
We were angry about the ‘talent exchange’ activity itself – the command to expel a member out. Some were probably even angry (or embarrassed) about themselves saying / not saying something contributing to a member’s departure. Me for sure. We then projected such anger to the new member;
We do not want to get hurt again, and thus we do not want to invest too much in the relationship with the new. After all, we do not know when another round of ‘talent exchange’ may come again;
We do not want to be seen as ‘unfaithful’. If we were nice to the new, it seems that we did not care about the departed one
I found it so revealing, but also embarrassing – how could I got so caught up by these…. Inner demons / unconscious 心魔 in action!!
On further reflection, the question is how we could possibly overcome such psychological obstacle. Basically, we need 2 things:
Good self-awareness in noticing quickly own feeling of ambivalence to welcome and thus such inner demons
A clear and commonly-committed goal in place
Then, the person who is aware of such inner demons can say something like that:
‘Hey, we are probably feeling bad about XXX leaving. I do. And we probably are feeling ambivalent about YYY joining. To be frank, I do. And I suspect there are some inner demons in action (as mentioned above). But we have a goal to achieve and it is not fair to YYY. I thus invite all to see YYY as he is, instead of what we project him to be. We also need to YYY’s contribution to achieve the goal together. What do you think?’
Not easy but possible. If someone can do it, this is truly an act of leadership.