Learning to walk

Here’s the latest post from Wise Goose graduate Helen Tyrrell. Her topic feels timely as a cool April, month long storm in May followed by just enough warmth and rain (though not much sun here on Dartmoor until last week) means this year growth on my allotment has galloped away so it now resembles a jungle – lots of happy nettles, bindweed and giant comfrey. Produce a bit hard to find under all the green.

Here’s a image from the allotment walk Helen T. mentions in her post. Taken before the growth exploded!

“You were running before you were one year old!”  That information has long formed part of my personal mythology: according to my mother not only did I run before I had learned to walk, but I would run everywhere on my tiptoes.

So it seems my early entry into movement was headlong, fast and barely in touch with the ground!

Has that approach continued into my adult world? In a way, yes! I have sometimes rushed headlong towards what excites or interests me, while keeping my feet steadily on the ground has not come naturally.

Let’s be kind and call it a hunger for life!   

The busy, ‘always on’ culture around me seems in some ways an extension of that running, rushing, action-oriented, unbalanced way of being. Somewhere hidden in frenetic activity is not just a high-energy, excitable sense of achievement – of impact in the world – but also a sense of virtue: we can’t be lazy if we are busy! In there, too, is feeling of self-importance: even as we rail against how busy we are, there is often a smidgeon of hidden pride – after all our busy-ness signals we are in demand!

A significant learning for me with Wise Goose was a session where all this was turned upside down. Our tutor, Helen, did an amazing thing: she walked us through her allotment, slowly, through the seasons, using photos and simple narrative.

Gardening is something that you can’t rush!

In the changing seasons and viewpoints were dramatic transformations – and not all wrought by the gardener. In fact compared to the action of time, the environment and the varied potential of each plant, the gardener’s interventions were relatively small. Furthermore the different camera angles dramatically changed the scenery.

How is this useful learning for us as coaches and as people?

Well, it helps us to appreciate the important role time plays in personal and professional development, as well as the unpredictable impact of other factors. An awareness of these interrupts any over attachment to results: if we, like the gardener, plant seeds then this may produce intended outcomes, but not necessarily. We need to see our own efforts within the context of the wider environment, the seasons – metaphorical or actual – the time it takes to grow, the unique potential and stage of development of both ‘seed’ and ourselves, the ‘sower’. And we need to be aware that the perspective, the angle we are viewing our ‘garden’ from may alter the way we see it.  

Germination happens invisibly under the ground and seeds take time to grow. By the same token, dramatic displays of beauty and growth may happen with very little intervention if the time is right.

So our results are not just down to us. ‘Not really’, as Helen S would say. Whatever we are trying to accomplish, that is something to remember.

The gardener approach calls for a slowing, for staying in touch with the ground and watching for what else is going on. While there is nothing inherently wrong with impatience and energy for movement, as with the infant, the fast-and-barely-in-touch-with-the-ground approach is unsteady and may lead to a fall, while slow observation, considered movement and steady step by step progress that factors in the importance of time in development can produce surprising results.

So while I may have run early as an infant, it is only now, as a coach, that I am really learning to walk and enjoy each step!

Hitch your Wagon to a Star

Here is the next instalment about her journey from student of coaching to professional coach from a soon to be Wise Goose graduate Helen Tyrrell (just waiting for her portfolio to be signed off by our external verifier.) We’ve had some great feedback about this series and hope you enjoy reading.

Major milestone 1: I submitted my coaching portfolio two weeks ago! Major milestone 2: my creative living pilot programme, Play Ethic: A Creative Way, has run with 5 wonderful participants and a fab co-host and guest speaker, ready for Hawkwood College in June.

For the first time I am beginning to appreciate just how far I have come since late 2018, when I lost both my father and my job at exactly the same moment. The truth is that the job and I had outgrown each other, and my father, a Jungian Psychoanalyst, and a person dear to very many hearts including mine (working right up to the day he died aged 89) was unwell and not getting any better. I’d have clung to both.
It may have been a bumpy ride, but at last I find myself at a vantage point from which I can fully appreciate the scale of what has been going on for the past few years.
I am launching as a coach, having found work and a lifestyle that deeply fulfils me, with its own unique rules of play. That feels big!
I’m not exactly like every other coach. The rich seams of Processwork weave their way in, as clients show up wanting to explore their dreams and symptoms. Creativity, too, has taken on a mantle of manifest relevance beyond my own practices (which remain very important and alive) and the other rich areas I am immersed in through my own research clamour for attention, signalling their relevance to my new found work and play. I may not be quite there yet, but let’s pause for a moment to take in the view, looking, as does Hecate, the ancient goddess of boundaries, crossroads and hidden things, behind, now and ahead.
Behind I can see my journey to this place and feel gratitude for all its challenges and twists and turns. In the now I see a different me, changed by that path behind, at last ready to look ahead unencumbered by fear. It’s time to ‘hitch my wagon to a star’ and to trust in that destination whatever the journey brings.
For me, that star or destination involves helping people access their own deep resources and move closer towards their authentic selves, bringing their unique gifts to the world. It means holding space too, for grief, pain and difficulty and encouraging the deep meaning behind these to emerge, blinking, into the light. It means reaching out through creative programmes such as at Hawkwood and through one to ones.
As I think about positioning I find that my own experience of midlife shocks and changes means I’m drawn to help others unravel the meaning and message in the bumps in their own roads. For example, redundancy and loss may be indicators of unknown gifts and talents waiting to be brought to the world, while the experience of not fitting in may indicate a need for new ways of being, relevant not just for the individual, but contributing to the evolutionary leap we, as a species, are trying to make, towards more creative, sustainable living: showing others the way. A star waiting to be noticed!
So, what is going on for you? What is really going on? Have you experienced any bumps in the road lately? How might you respond to those creatively? To explore that further, join us for the Hawkwood course in June, or give me a call and let’s see if we can unravel some of the meaning in that bumpy ride and- even – find a surprising and fulfilling, creative way forward.

Clients, Sweet Spots and Values

Here is the next instalment from Wise Goose student Helen Tyrrell on her journey to becoming a coach. She’s celebrating new clients arriving, one through Wise Goose ‘Find a Coach’ Directory, and getting to grips with self-employment with the help of a friend. She has had some great feedback on previous posts, so do read on…

So, things roll on…. and over the last five weeks I have had the privilege of undertaking a pilot 5 step programme to ‘authentic self-employment’  led by one of my fellow Wise Goose students, Mhairi Mclean.

Many big questions for me were addressed by this short programme and my impossible mountain now looks- well sort of more achievable – maybe. I find I am also less attached to outcomes. The element of fear seems to have dropped out, and, gradually, new clients are beginning to arrive. Of course there are a thousand unanswered questions and things are still as precarious as can be, but I have begun to feel a change. So what has happened?

I can’t reveal all in a dramatic gesture because it is something about the way the course was delivered that has reached me. However I can reveal some learning about the art of exchange: exchange of ideas, thoughts and listening: authentic conversations. If business is a dance between your own needs, talents and skills, and the needs that the world brings to you, how do you navigate that spot? One answer is by bringing your authentic self to every conversation and by listening: both practices which work well with coaching – and which help me understand what is going on out there, beyond the limits of me, in a very real way. Any needs that show up in those conversations do so in a very personal, specific way rather than being faceless, guessed at, generalised, so it is easier to recognise where and if I might help. I also have the chance to become the client when I meet a person or service that fills a need of my own. Everybody wins.

The other part of the programme that has me still mulling is the area of my chosen business values:  balance, courage and financial sustainability. Thinking though the value of balance has required some deep reflection. What does balance mean in a business context? For me balance means not working all the hours God gives! it means occasional fallow days in the working week,  time for my creative projects, for my friends, time for care of body and for proper care of the ‘household’, our immediate environment– a true ‘ecology’, where we remember that eco once meant ‘household’ in Ancient Greek. The sort of balance that allows me to give of my best and most creative self to my clients, rather than a burnt out shell.  It is easier said than done. Our ‘always on’ culture of perpetual summer is deeply ingrained in many of us, myself included. It’s also more radical than it might sound. Received wisdom says work ethic is rewarded. My creativity workshops were called ‘Play Ethic’ to remind myself of the value of play time…. and yet, still an inner critic harps on, dismissing this approach as frivolous, lazy, entitled, privileged, out of touch with reality, with necessity. Is it? And if yes, how impoverished are our lives by this? How do we navigate the tension between said necessity and, well, life?

Maybe that goes to the heart of my coaching practice as well. It is said that you are best placed to teach what you yourself have had to learn – or in my case go on learning. If you too feel that your best life choices are also often assailed by that inner critic, or that you face a tension between necessity and your lifestyle of choice perhaps we could explore it together through coaching? There is much richness and relevance to your struggles and they have a significance beyond you, to the culture we live in. Maybe you would like an open, free, unstructured  conversation to see if we have a sweet spot exchange of skills or money? Or maybe you’d just like to talk – I know I would! Drop me a line!  And of course if you want to know more about Mhairi and Business and Freedom and that amazing 5 step programme, drop me a line too. Who knows she may run it again before too long!

Image by Helen Tyrrell

Is it (really) OK to be vulnerable as a coach?

Here is another instalment from Wise Goose student coach Helen Tyrrell, as she treads the ‘narrow path between vulnerability and expertise’. This is a paradoxical topic, rarely discussed in coaching and we wish her well on her way to becoming a vulnerable expert.

As well as being a coach, Helen is Processworker and Creative, with a background in Art, Business Operations and Human Resources, you can find out more about her work atwww.consciousorganisations.com I hope you enjoy her post as much as I did, and do leave her your comments.

I had some nice feedback about my previous, opening blog for Wise Goose. Getting to this point has involved rigorous training:  a minimum of 60 hours of independent coaching practice, over 125 classroom hours, and closer to 200 private study hours, plus peer and professional supervision, much reflective work and an extensive portfolio to submit. In an unregulated industry this is a far cry from a 2 day online coaching course and launch!  This is a serious undertaking.

As I organise the records of my 60 hours of client sessions for my portfolio, I can see my progression, my tendencies and weaknesses over the last year and a half, but also my strengths, talent and commitment to coaching practice. An absolute cornerstone of the Wise Goose training is honest, self-reflection. No sugar-coating. No overblown claims. We need to be like a clean pane of glass, unmuddied, as far as possible, by our own automatic triggers and responses – or at least able to recognise and ‘bracket’ these where possible – so as to respond to the client from our own best place. This requires a high level of self-honesty.

So, I had nice feedback about my blog. And people said it was vulnerable. Is that a good thing? Was it too vulnerable? Too honest? Should a coach not, by definition, be somebody supremely sorted? Where does vulnerability feature in that? After all, I have many years of experience, many qualifications and much training – should I have focussed on all that rather than on the real, raw edge I find myself at? Maybe. But if I did that, my blogs would be a marketing exercise rather than a genuine point of interest. Not a bad thing, but a different thing and to my mind less valuable here.

Vulnerability seems to be fashionable these days. We are encouraged to show it, as leaders, as coaches – and we all know it is easier said than done. Sometimes we get around this by showing it after the event, from the luxury of a safe place.  As in… when I have so many clients that I am turning them away, say, then I can be vulnerable and admit that launching was challenging! Hmmm – question: can vulnerability ever be in the past tense? Can you really show vulnerability from a safe space? Vulnerability, by definition, isn’t safe! Maybe I was mad to allow it into my writing given the need for robust certainty at this delicate juncture.  

To be sure, coaches – and other professionals – don’t, in my experience, much like to show vulnerability. At the very least we prefer to bill ourselves as the expert, and there are some coaches who like to trade on an air of guru-like wisdom. There seems to be a slightly bogus cult of personality in the wider coaching field that I perceive is generally absent from its sister profession of psychotherapy, which relies instead on training, professionalism and self-awareness – the same skillset that we need to be good coaches. Yet perhaps because coaching works on fewer and less regular hours per client, over shorter timescales, and is more associated with business than medicine, coaches need to attract clients differently. We have to get smart. We find our niche. We choose to appear in our ‘expert’ role. And that’s no bad thing – why should anyone buy a coach’s services without proper kudos and credibility?

Yet here’s the thing: what makes us experts is lived experience, so being open and vulnerable about that needs to be part of what we do. And here’s the other thing: in our industry it is the client who is the real expert: they are the expert in their own lives! What the coach brings is training:  listening skills, self-awareness, ability to question, knowledge of a few useful, effective techniques to prompt insight and change and, above all, interest – in life and in the client. We know the client has all the tools and expertise to rise to their challenges creatively, and it is that expertise we are interested in getting at.

So as I launch, I find I am treading this narrow path between vulnerability and expertise, mostly zigzagging from one side to the other unable to stick to the sweet spot I’d like, but then, that’s life!

So, is it really OK to be vulnerable as a coach? I still don’t know, but I’ll keep you posted! For now, I have a portfolio to complete…..

Edgy Living

Thanks to Wise Goose ‘almost-graduate’ Helen Tyrrell, for this post as she stands on the edge of a threshold about to step out as a qualified coach. We look forward to hearing the next instalment! If you’d like to find out more about Helen she is listed in our ‘Find a Coach’ coach directory https://wisegoose.co.uk/listings/helen-tyrrell/

So here I am, on the edge of qualifying as a coach! Assuming nothing goes wrong, I will soon be the proud owner of an Advanced Diploma in Coaching and Mentoring.

Great! I’ll be fully qualified! And…then what?

It’s been a fascinating journey, and I’ve had the best clients in 2020. But the last few of my clients are finishing shortly and I don’t have any more lined up. That is where the uncertainty begins to creep in. How can I make a living doing this thing which I love?

I spent many of my younger years being driven, especially when I wanted to be an artist, believing I could make things happen with passion and determination, only to discover that what life had in store for me was far more interesting and rich than I had dreamt, but that I had first to let my dreams go as part of the deal. Now I am wary of striving. Instead I attempt to see what wants to come and to accept and celebrate that. And yet, as my supervisor pointed out, if you don’t let people know you are there, how can they come to you? Tricky.

So, how do I get clients? The gremlins of self-doubt gnaw and undermine and a significant (and dangerously powerful) chunk of my thoughts fully expects this not to work. Hello amygdala!!

I set myself a goal at the start of 2020: I wanted the year’s theme to be ‘The Year I’  with a play on the letter ‘I’ and the number ‘1’ to indicate a fresh start. The fuller title was to be ‘The Year I [Believed in Myself] . I wanted to see where I could get to with that simple, confident attitude. If I were to keep that up now, I wonder what would happen?  

It is interesting and significant that I developed a workshop all about creativity earlier last year, which has now run twice. Aptly, I find myself at precisely the sort of creative edge that this workshop is designed to work with: it is a place of not-knowing, pregnant with possibility, delicate, precarious, hopeful. With my creative hat on, my advice to myself is to stay light, and interested in everything that happens, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as a source of information;  to encourage myself to try things out and to forgive ‘mistakes’;  to make time for creative play as well as for work;  to use alternative ways of knowing (e.g. art, poetry, embodied knowing) and to suspend my usually quick judgment of results: new things, being new, are not easily recognised, and being raw rather than slick, are easy to miss and misjudge. Most of all my advice to myself is to be receptive, collaborative and to say yes.

So, when my supervisor, demonstrating what a great coach she is, picked up on my enthusiasm for writing and creativity, suggested that I generate some creative content about this edgy time, I got interested. Interested in my own experience; interested in a moment of my life that, in fact, merits attention and scrutiny over head-in-sand blocking of unnamed, unacknowledged hopes and fears.

And so a new creative content is born – its parents a conversation and an edgy time. Let’s see what happens next……

Coaching with GROW

In the coaching community GROW is probably the best known and most popular coaching framework. Arguably, no coach training programme would be complete without it’s inclusion.  GROW has been around since coaching’s early days and was popularised by Sir John Whitmore in his best selling book Coaching for Performance (1988). Since then it has been tried and tested across cultures and disciplines. So, what exactly is GROW?  It’s an acronym that stands for:

G: Goals – aspirations and intentions

R: Reality – current situation, including inner and outer obstacles

O: Options – possibilities, strengths, and resources

W: Will, way forward and ‘what next’; actions and accountability

At each step a few powerful questions are used to structure the coaching conversation. Starting with the clients goals, identifying the gap between where they are, where they would like to be, along with actions they need to take to get there, GROW supports setting goals, solving problems, improving performance and unlocking potential.

It doesn’t take long to learn to use GROW, these four simple steps are easy to pick up, giving a framework that doesn’t take much knowledge or practice to apply. It gives beginners and more experienced coaches alike an empowering sense of direction, competency, and focus. GROW provides a simple and effective way to help the coachee identify what they want to achieve and a convenient way for coaches to navigate the coaching conversation, keeping it purposeful and avoiding the pitfall of drifting into a cosy chat. It’s not hard to see why GROW is so popular.

But if GROW is the only focus, our coaching will be limited and limiting. If as coaches we become lazy or cling too tightly to the structure, we can end up concentrating more on our ability to follow the steps, feeding the belief that asking questions is all there is to coaching. This is simply not true.  When we fail to allow the client to fully explore what is important, they won’t be wholly committed to their actions and the result will rarely lead to meaningful or lasting change.

When this ‘slippage’ happens we need to shift emphasis away from GROW towards developing what is sometimes called ‘coach presence’ the underlying capacity to be with the client. This involves learning to listen deeply, understand and follow their energy and be in relationship, rather than racing towards the finishing line of ‘W’ – ‘will’. This shift is from ‘doing’ to ‘being’ and involves increasing both coach and coaches awareness about who they are, what they are noticing; ‘their being’. It involves coaching principles like empathic resonance, the ability to create the space for generative dialogue, and the flexibility to move between and beyond structure; holding tools and techniques lightly, using them sparingly, in the service of the client. This is where the true art of coaching flourishes, it takes time (maybe even a lifetime!) to cultivate and is a defining characteristic of coaching excellence.

Another criticism of GROW is that its emphasis on behavioural change, performance and business results limits the conversation. If this is the case, what might be excluded? Often the more ethical, philosophical or personal aspects of the coachees life. Topics like career change, wellbeing, personal transition, integrity, deeply held values, meaning and purpose. The relevance here goes beyond the individual coachee. Trust is a critical success factor in business today, questions of ethics, purpose and doing ‘better business’ have moved up the corporate agenda over the last decade. Though it remains important, performance alone is no longer the holy grail. Increasingly today success is not only a matter of what you do—it’s also how you do it.

The advantage and strength of GROW, the structure it brings to guide the process contains the seed of its weakness.  Could this be otherwise? Any single tool or model brings its gifts and limitations. Used wisely, GROW offers an excellent framework for structuring a coaching conversation. It is particularly useful for beginners, helping them keep a session on track while they gain confidence and learn to embody deeper coaching principles. It’s in this context that we offer our introductory ‘Steps into Coaching’ session on GROW.

Moving Beyond The ‘Blame Game’

I can’t believe we are heading towards the Autumn equinox and the marking of the transition between seasons. There’s definitely that back to school/ work feeling in the air. This week I’ll be driving my son back to Brighton for the start of his final year at the University of Sussex. 

This year it’s a transition that I have mixed feelings about, with news of a virus storm brewing on university campuses and knowing he will be returning to face more uncertainty, disruption and social distancing. Young adults generally are more likely to suffer the long-term consequences of economic downturn, more likely to have lost their jobs or been furloughed, more likely to live in cramped shared housing; more likely to suffer Covid related mental health issues. There’s been a lot of talk about impacts of the pandemic on children, the elderly and businesses but impacts on young people and how to support them seems to be largely ignored and this troubles me.

Given my concerns, a couple of days ago when I heard Matt Hancock laying the blame on young people for the Covid spike, I felt angry. I wanted to blame him.

My rant began something like this: “How dare you shift the blame. It’s your fault they took advantage of ‘eat out to help out’ and heeded the prime minister, who said it was a ‘patriotic duty’ to go to the pub.  Your mixed messages made this mess, and so Mr Hancock, YOU are to blame for your governments chaotic, incompetent response to Covid19.”

My reaction got me thinking. In this tirade, the fact that quite a few young adults have been casual about social distancing, and the question of how best to do something about the risks is simply not part of my picture.  I’m off, on my high horse, lashing out at full speed, sucked into the ‘Blame Game’. What just happened?

Blame it turns out, is contagious, it spreads like a virus. A 2010 study from USC into ‘blame contagion’ showed that pointing fingers at others is not only infectious, it is amplified when trust is low and seems to be eliminated when people feel valued and appreciated. In other words, being blamed for things that are not our fault and not receiving acknowledgement and the credit that we deserve are entangled.

How the credit/ blame game is played is a key ingredient of organisational cultures, for better or for worse. I often meet clients who work in organisations with rampant cultures of blame. These are places where dishing out blame, unfair attacks or credit grabbing hijack energy and distract from tackling problems. Teams and organizations with a culture of blame have an uphill struggle when it comes to encouraging learning, creativity, innovation and productive risk-taking. Blame is an excellent defence mechanism, by avoiding looking at our own flaws and failings, blame protects our self-image. However, research shows that people who blame others for their mistakes lose status, learn less, and have poorer performance compared to those who own up to their mistakes. The pattern is so destructive, whether you are a coach or a leader, blame is something to be alert to, because in the end playing the blame game never works.  

The blame game is lazy. It’s easier to blame someone else than to recognise and accept responsibility for the part you play in a messy situation. Becoming blame-savvy requires effort, changing behaviour so you don’t repeat mistakes involves work.  Creating psychological safety is one of the most important things a coach or leader can do to stop the blame game but this takes awareness, time and commitment. Here are a few potential places to start:

  • Avoid collusion. By setting the right example and not joining in with the game, you can help grow awareness and model collaborative problem-solving rather than defensiveness and finger-pointing.
  • Own up to your mistakes.  When you make a mistake, it is tempting to shore up the illusion of our own self-worth and blame someone else.  Instead, say sorry when you are wrong, you are not omnipotent, face up to the reality that you are not always right. When you don’t pass the buck, you gain respect and help to prevent a culture of blame.
  • Focus on learning and creating a ‘growth’ mindset. This is where learning from — rather than avoiding mistakes — is the priority. This helps ensure that people feel free to ‘own up’, discuss and learn from their errors.
  • Pause. Take a breath. Step back. If you’re facing a “blame-thrower” or “credit-grabber” a good first response is to pause. We all tend to cast blame; it is often a subconscious process; the blame game might not be personal. What is behind the game? What might be triggering your reaction? This is where talking to someone outside of work, a coach or trusted colleague will help you gain perspective and distance make strategic decisions about your response.
  • When you do blame, do it constructively. Accountability is important and there are definitely times when people’s mistakes need to be raised in public. In these cases, make sure to emphasise that the goal is to learn from mistakes, not to publicly humiliate those who make them. As a manager, peer or coach, be careful not to use feedback as a sneaky way of dishing out blame.

Author of The Blame Game Ben Dattner summarises it like this: “We all want to be recognised for our effort and accomplishments, and we resist being blamed when things don’t go right. This leads to habitual patterns of credit and blame at work. […] The most successful leaders are able to see their role in the blame game, admit mistakes and focus on fixing rather than blaming.” 

Do you recognise the Blame Game?

The Gift of Feedback

Many of us struggle both with the giving and receiving of feedback, so a big ‘thank you’ to Josie Sutcliffe for this post. Josie is one of our trainers for the online Foundation Course (starting at the end of September) and will be leading the session on effective feedback skills. 

We can learn to both give and receive feedback in ways that are enabling, that do not wound but instead energise. Is now the time for you to begin your exploration into the freedoms feedback brings?

When someone says to you, “I want to give you some feedback”, what do you think – I mean your first uncensored thought…?  What do you feel, what do you do?

When someone says to you, “I want to give you a gift”, what do you think – I mean your first uncensored thought…?  What do you feel, what do you do?

I’m willing to bet that the responses would be very different!

I studied Photography and Graphic Design at Art School and then later, Theatre Studies.  In both these areas of the Arts, feedback was considered a gift and vital for the development of your practice as an artist.  How could you progress without enabling, encouraging and effective feedback?  How could you learn that you had made mistakes that might (easily) be rectified?  It seemed implausible as a student to continue into a career without opening yourself up to sometimes challenging feedback or criticism. 

Of course, we soon learn that there are more than mere challenging criticisms that inhabit our worlds of work and life.  ‘Killer feedback’ can be hurtful, wounding, humiliating, shaming and contribute little to someone’s learning, although it seems unfortunately it is still alive and well and commonly used in business/professional situations. 

Of all the skills that coaches can possess, giving and receiving feedback is perhaps the most sophisticated and difficult.  Many of my clients are already fearful of receiving feedback because historically it has caused them pain.  And yet sometimes it may be important to challenge a client’s strongly held beliefs.

Do you see feedback as a potential threat to your sense of yourselves as valuable human beings?

We can learn to both give and receive feedback in ways that are enabling, that do not wound but instead energise the Wise Goose Foundations will help you to begin your exploration into the freedoms feedback brings.

Beyond Performance: Stillness as Action, Lockdown on the allotment

Cronk cronk… Cronk cronk… Cronk cronk…

At the third of the rhythmic set of cries I stop, push the garden fork into the soil and turn.  Of course, I know it’s a rook, but somehow there’s a depth in this particular call that makes the familiar strange, she has my attention. The tone and the rhythm have drawn me out of myself, out of the business of preparing ground for spring planting.

I scan the still-bare trees at the edge the allotments looking for the owner of this loud but surprisingly warm, almost mellow voice. Behind the trees the sky is empty, a cloudless, bottomless blue. I stand, squinting into the brightness, quiet, waiting. One patient breath; another, two more, long and slow.  Then a rolling shuffle along a high branch catches my eye; there, I see you now. Out of the seamless ground of sky and woods where ‘rook’ is simply part of everything, a figure is pulled out by my curious senses and insistent urge to know and name. Then, almost as if she knows she’s been spotted, she takes flight, air whistling whhsh-whhsh-whhsh through beating black wings, heading towards the rookery above the nearby cemetery.

Left behind, I close my eyes for a moment, listening to the presences of this place. Over there high in the cherry, intense, confident warbling of a robin; somewhere to my left , darting between the cover of the beech hedge and bramble brash, a whirr of wren’s wings; very close to my ear the drone of a bumble bee. From the direction of the apple trees, tits call back and forth ‘tsee-hu, tsee-hu, tsee-hu’ and there’s a gentle mystery song too; long, low and burbling like a softly blown referees whistle.  It’s late March and the world is filled with twitters and caws and coos, I’m hearing the voice of ‘ten thousand things’ as they briefly emerge into manifest existence then fall away again into nameless, formless, generative emptiness.   For a few moments eyes still closed, enjoying the warmth of late March sunshine, I know I am also and always woven through this place, whether conscious of this truth or, as is more often the case, not.


Back at home I’m at my desk, during the first couple of weeks in a strange pandemic world of social distancing, hand washing and self-isolation, lethargy stalks me.  After an initial burst of activity, most of my work has come to a standstill, groups postponed with no sense of when I can re-schedule, no indication of when or how this lockdown will be lifted. My car stands idle in the drive, coated with tree pollen and spiderwebs. Much is restricted: ‘non-essential journeys’, more than one walk a day, meeting friends for coffee, a meal out. Daily, I cross the playground on my way to and from the allotment, slides, swings and climbing frames cordoned off like a crime scene, plastic incident tape fluttering red and white in the breeze. In this alien new world, where we stand patiently two meters from neighbours in straggling queues and streets fall silent after 2pm I have felt bestilled. Fragments from a poem memorised in childhood surface and run as if on a loop through my mind:, “Day after day, day after day, We stuck, nor breath nor motion, As idle as a painted ship, Upon a painted ocean.’

Expectations of how the world works have been disrupted, my plans, and the plans of so many others, abandoned, or placed on hold.  This is disruption on a grand scale, my sense of myself as a productive person doing meaningful work has been upended. Though unhappily passive, I resist the frantic activity I see ‘out there’, a flurry of lockdown blogs with seemingly endless advice on how to cope, survive or leverage ‘opportunities’, the competitive churning of performance and productivity goals, or heartless pontification about the ‘purpose’ or ‘meaning’ of this pandemic. My reaction to all this ‘noise’ has been a bristling, guilty anger.  I want none of it. What is happening is unbearable, people are dying, isolated and alone, so much of everyday life lost.   I wonder, could it be, in part at least, denial, a grasping for an illusion of control or a filling of the void created by self-isolation through frenzied activity. Nevertheless, I measure ‘their’ busyness against my loafing, finding myself wanting.  I pause and potter, unsure of how to make good decisions about how far to postpone course dates, what options to offer students who need to complete their programme, how to include their voices as well as listen to my own.   Maybe I should reschedule to June, maybe September, or maybe neither, there are so many unknowns.  

So, I do what I must: respond to emails, coach online, buy zoom pro, offer virtual seminars, postpone meetings and retreat to the allotment. The only place where I feel fully ‘myself’ is on the allotment. Blessed with sunshine, it’s there I’ve been spending most of my days; days punctuated by a tally of new coronavirus cases and deaths. Though the human world is in lock-down, time does not stop. Spring sends out its own messages. Each day the buds on the cherry tree swell a little more, I watch for flowers knowing that not long after apple blossom will follow, each tree knowing its time.  Every morning in the grey light before dawn, birds fill the air with song, in the evening, they fill it again. Days lengthen.  Most days as the sun sets, you’ll find me still on the allotment sitting in the evening sunshine drinking tea.  

Towards the end of the third week of lock down I start to wonder: Is this stillness is a form of action?  I watch spring unfurl, quietly turning over questions about the foundations, givens and patterns of everyday life. Perhaps something of the world can be revealed in a time like this when we have been forced to abandon so many old habits to find new ones.

Day after day, day after day my new ritual is to spend time on the allotment, it’s a small ordinary, beautiful place, not a mountain, or a forest, definitely not wilderness, though there are plenty of wild beings there.  I immerse myself in its particular ecology and it teaches me about what it means to be human in a world that extends beyond human concerns. It’s a world where fellow citizens include oil beetles, orange-tip butterflies and carder bees, deer, badgers, mice and squirrels, celandine, dandelions and a robin who follows me picking up an easy supper as I clear the beds of couch grass, buttercups and bindweed.  I see more clearly than usual how wider processes, these non-human neighbours keep me connected and sane, the anxiety, anger or powerlessness sparked by this virus coming to rest within something wider. This isn’t to ignore human suffering and death, who I am, who we are can’t be disentangled from each other. But neither can who we are be disentangled from how we relate to these many beings. Four weeks into lockdown and I begin to find a balance, a place that is open to the awfulness of what’s unfolding and can be sustained by everyday simple joys of life, a sunny day, hands in earth, sowing seeds.

I think again of the rook, cronking in the woods that back onto the allotments, I’m trying to imagine the unimaginable multitude of processes beyond human worlds that sustain me, sustain us all, making us the beings we are.  We humans are a social species, being forced to keep physical and social distance from each other. It feels wrong. Along with many others I feel that loss of human connection deeply, but at the same time I wonder how our habitual crowding together might crowd out all the other voices.  If we let voices from our wider kin seep into our everyday lives how might they help us understand our fragility, limits, strengths and place in the world differently? I wonder, if we paused to listen, how they’d shape who we may become? 

Image by bluebudgie from Pixabay

In-Person or On-line training?

“Are you going to move the new training courses online?”

This is a question I’ve been asked frequently over the past few weeks. We could have migrated our programme online as many training providers have done but decided to pause. Just because an online solution looks within reach, it’s not always the best response. So, we listened to comments and feedback from past and present students and trainers, we considered options and we asked ourselves questions about the quality benchmarks we wanted to set ourselves such as:

  • How can we meet students expectations that the level of training, depth of experience and high level of skills attained are comparable to our ‘in person’ courses?
  • Can we access the best technologies and support to translate our ‘in the room’ course content to an online format? (Above and beyond merely a wholesale shifting of existing content and structure to zoom.)
  • How confident are we that new students will graduate with the high-level of skills, attitudes and self-awareness needed to achieve their goals?

We weighed up pros and cons, researched current thinking on online learning but much seems to justify virtual working so fervently it smells of ‘spin’.  As we resisted the pressure to rush headlong into action and join the movement online, words from Nancy Kline, author of Time to Think came to mind – “Thinking for yourself is still a radical act.”

There’s evidence that students are significantly less satisfied with an online course than with an equivalent in-person course. Of course there are advantages to virtual learning, but face-to-face training has specific advantages that are particularly relevant to our business. Here are a few that seem to come up often:

  • Social interaction during training sessions, including informally during breaks
  • The ability to get immediate answers to questions
  • More fluid exchange of ideas
  • Better retention due to decreased likelihood of multitasking
  • Immediate instructor feedback on coaching practice
  • Higher satisfaction scores
  • Flexibility and personalization of each training session, as a trainer this sensing into and ‘reading the room’ enables me to adapt content in the moment
  • By their very nature, virtual learning platforms are subject to technical issues, such as security, network, and bandwidth glitches. ‘Zoom’ fatigue (google searches for this are currently at 76,500,000)

So, though our courses already include online work and will incorporate more blended learning in future, and even though it makes financial sense, even though we really, really, don’t want to disappoint anyone eager to start training – at the moment we don’t think online format would meet our benchmarks. If we can’t start new cohorts this summer as planned we will postpone, perhaps later this year or into next year. Let us know right away if you want to join our training. We’ll keep you posted.