Just the Person

‘Just the person’

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.    

‘Games’…. in Cantonese

The psychological game – NIGYSOB i.e. ‘Now I’ve got you, you son of a bitch’

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.)

‘Zero collusion’ can be equally bad

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:

  1. How much is the coach aware of the colluding acts?
  2. How much is the coach colluding to lower the client’s defense in order to better embrace change?
  3. 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.

Demons in Gobi desert

[Photo source unidentified.  Please advise if anyone knows.  I will add the source accordingly]

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.

Related previous posts:

‘I know how to ….. but I don’t really want to’

Leadership Development in Gobi desert

Leadership Development in Gobi desert

Experiential learning to an extreme – a leadership development program in the form of a team walking race for 96km in 2.5 days over the Gobi desert (part of the Silk Road) Lot of memorable moments, and most importantly reflection on leadership, teamwork, learning design and my own development. Zero internet and each team sleeping together in a tent helped. Perhaps we were even mobilized by the collective unconscious of the Xuanzang 玄裝 history / myth to endure hardship and pursue wisdom…..

Why does Economics assume rationality?

To a certain extent, I regret that I was major in Economics in university.    Economics assumes that people are rational i.e. individuals always make prudent and logical decisions which provide them with the highest amount of personal utility.  For many years, I took this assumption almost like the truth unconsciously.    Well….  even if not the truth…  I saw it as the RIGHT to be.    One should be rational!   One should park the feeling aside!    Such judgement has been reinforced in my mind as it is the norm in the banking industry and in Hong Kong.   (I have worked in banks and lived in Hong Kong for decades.)

On reflection, even outside the Economics / Banking / Hong Kong domain, the world does not really seem to welcome irrationality.    Normally, when someone said, ‘He is irrational’, it often carries certain negative connotation.   

Why would the world push away irrationality?    I think it is about predictability.   Back to the definition mentioned above, if all are rational, we always make prudent and logical decisions which provide them with the highest amount of personal utility.     We can then more easily predict how the others will behave.   And human being generally prefers certainty.   One would thus want OTHERS (or even himself or herself) to be rational.     

Why do I regret?    First, more and more I realise that human being is hardly rational.  The assumption in Economics that people are rational fails more often than not in real life.   I recently note down a few examples:

  • Why people spend so much money on funeral?
  • Why would people have kids?
  • Why would people celebrate new year / birthday?
  • Why people would pay USD1,000 for a plastic bag?
  • Why would people still smoke after near-death experience caused by heart attack? 
  • Why do people fall in love?  

After all, why do economics have to assume rationality? Because we are not!   At best, one can only say that ‘human being is irrational but trying to be rational’

Second, worshipping rationality means denying feeling. But when we really think about it, our feeling about things is inevitable.   In fact, one can argue that feeling is our ultimate pursuit.    For example, think of our most hardworking colleague – why does he / she work so hard?   He would say because he needs to pay for the mortgage.   Why mortgage?   Because of the need to find a place to live.   Why?   Because he needs to keep him / his family warm and well-fed.   

Further, if we want to understand ourselves better, we cannot ignore our feeling.  Feeling is an important source of data for self-awareness.   For example, different people would have different feelings when they look at the same painting.   On the first level, such difference already is already an element of who I am.  After all, who I am is in a way defined by how I am different from the others.   On a deeper level, exploring why one would have certain feeling will reveal his / her assumptions and beliefs.   

This is getting closer to why I am talking about irrationality and feeling in this blog….  which is about coaching / learning / development.     I will continue in the next post on how working with and on feeling will contribute to coaching / learning / development.    

(There are different definitions on the word ‘feeling’, and various arguments on how it is different from the term ‘emotion’ or ‘sensation’.    I refer ‘feeling’ as one’s own inner subjective, often irrational, experience.  It is sometimes more physical and observable e.g. tight stomach, headache, cold sweat. dizziness.    Sometimes, it is less so e.g. annoyance, anger, excitement.)

Danny Chan 陳百強

I guess only my fellow Hong Kong friends of certain ‘age’ will appreciate this post….  but whatever 🙂

I had a day of individual and team coaching sessions last month.   I arrived early to settle myself in my coaching room.   The first song coming from my iPhone was ‘不‘ (Translation: ‘No’) from Danny Chan 陳百強.    I was intrigued by the lyrics – what a sign for the upcoming coaching sessions.  This also points to the common resistance, unconscious or not, when enquiry goes deep.   The 2nd line makes me think of a common team issue of ‘artificial harmony’ vs ‘ productive conflict’.   Or, it reminds me of individuals’ defence of denial.

”請 不要問 請 不要問
只 想快樂 不 想有恨…..”

(Translation: “Please… do not ask.   Please… do not ask.   I want only happiness but not hatred”)

The song was released in the 80s.  Passing away young, Danny has been a legend to Hong Kong-ers of certain ‘age’.    I probably have heard his songs like this one a few hundred times.    Amazingly, new meanings arose as I listened to it in a coaching context.

When I paid attention to the rest of the lyrics, there are quite a few pieces reminding me of common issues I encountered with my coachees e.g.’.. 不顧生根 怕留腳印…’.   It sounds like the avoidance of genuine commitment to a team in order not to be hurt. 

Here is the song for those who loves it, and for those who have not encountered it.

‘I know how to ….. but I don’t really want to’

 

A reflection on a recent ‘learning miracle’….  kind of.     I conducted a day of group coaching with 5 executives in a business school program.  Around 3 weeks later, I had a follow-up individual coaching call with each of them. Charles (pseudonym)said in the call that he was amazed in witnessing how 3 other members have changed after the group coaching day.    In another call, Sandy (pseudonym) expressed repeatedly her excitement on how she became better in getting her message across by speaking less and more slowly.   She also gave detailed description on her changed behaviors were well received in her global offsite meeting.

The magnitude of change was exceptional.

If it was just one of them making such rather drastic change, I would say I was lucky.   Perhaps Charles was just unconsciously pleasing and colluding me a less pushy coaching call.    Perhaps Sandy had been on the edge of change before the day, and the group coaching was just ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’.

But we had a few of them making exceptional changes.   Why?   On reflection, the magic is probably around the following factors:

Open program– To start with, majority of the participants paid considerable sum of fee (by themselves instead of being sponsored) and effort to enroll into the program.  This is very different from those programs which participants were reluctantly ‘invited’ to join because they are ‘talent’ or even because the program is ‘mandatory’.

Pre-coaching orientation– The professor has spent an afternoon with them before the group coaching orienting them into the ‘adaptive’ space.   I have to say that he has successfully got them out of the expectation to be told of technical solutions.

Psychological Safety– We spent the morning of the group coaching day on personal disclosure.   The process is well designed and I think I ran it reasonably well.   This benefited a great deal to the afternoon sense-making on their individual 360 reports.

Feedback with Concrete and Comprehensive Evidence– The afternoon process made each participant facing their respective and detailed 360 reports together.   We did it in a way that they cannot avoid the content consciously or unconsciously.  And thanks to the morning, they went through the afternoon together with good receptivity.

Peer– As Sandy pointed out, she managed to change probably because she witnessed how the others were also working through their own struggles.   This is both relieving and motivating.

My Being– I suspect my orientation was helpful as well.  Somehow I adjusted the balance between being supportive and challenging.   Putting more attention on psychological safety.

Yet, I am more amazed with another layer of reflection – they made change without any input on techniques and skills!   This reinforces my belief that the key to behavioral change is more about ‘will’ rather than ‘skill’.  This is especially the case for senior learners who have considerable working experience and been through countless ‘training courses’, reading, videos or advices from others.   They own a great deal of conscious and tacit knowledge.

In other word, when learning does not happen, it is less about they do not know how but more about they do not want to, consciously or unconsciously.   And so, why another training course with 135 slides and thick binders?

Or in a ‘so-what’ angle, whilst there is always limited resources on learning / development intervention, the emphasis should be put on enhancing the willingness to make change….  like considering the list above.