The unexpected gift

It seems to have been raining, muddy and cold for weeks now – I can barely bring myself to watch the news or look beyond what we’re having for tea that day. It’s pretty bleak in the UK right now. But it’s not all bad and holding onto the positive outcomes and possibilities definitely helps me. 

Last year I learned a new technique for finding those ‘silver linings’ that we all need to keep us going on a pilot for a new coach training programme based around the Positive Intelligence model.

It’s very simple, and old as the hills, but we are simply invited to find the ‘gift’ in an apparently difficult situation by asking one of the following questions:

‘If you could take something good – a gift – from this situation, what would that be?’

‘For you to be able to look back on this situation and in hindsight to have learned something new, what would that be?’

Simple, not new, but useful.

Positive thinking isn’t a panacea and doesn’t change that sh*t happens, but it offers us a tool to motivate ourselves to keep going when the going is tough. 

I’ve started using the ‘gift’ question in some coaching sessions recently and have been humbled when clients who’ve been made redundant find the courage to find a gift of pursuing a better work/life balance or more creative fulfilment in their next roles. I’ve also seen a possible gift enable fresh thinking about what is possible in a situation which felt hopeless. 

Positive thinking has served me well in the past. Many years ago during one of the endless restructures that happens at the Arts Council I experienced a major career disappointment; I had been acting Team Leader for around a year but when the post was advertised internally I was not appointed to the permanent role. Adding insult to injury I had been acting up alongside doing my original job so was working ridiculous hours, and continued to be expected to ‘act up’ whilst the post was externally advertised. It felt like a very public humiliation, as well as big disappointment to me personally. Going into work each day those months after my unsuccessful interview felt really tough. But I managed to focus on supporting my team through the restructure as best I could and when I was interviewed for a dream job at British Council a few months later I was told by the panel that experience of leading change helped me land that role. 

In terms of CV19, I was reaching a bit of a low spot earlier today looking at the relentless rain outside and wondering when I’d ever get out of these four walls. So I started to think about what ‘gifts’ I have been offered by Lock Down that I want to keep after restrictions are lifted and I came up with a few, as follows:

  1. More time with my children in the evenings as I’m travelling less
  2. Wild camping in UK last summer after my hiking trip to France cancelled
  3. Working with a wider and larger range of coachees
  4. Opportunities to run more training and facilitation online in future
  5. Time spent birdwatching with my daughter on our daily walks to the allotment
  6. Chance to (almost) complete my Wainwrights in 2020 
  7. Discovering a new favourite corner of the Lakes after rescheduling our summer holidays

Those seven gifts came up for me quite quickly, and I know I’m not alone in finding some ‘gifts’ in Lock Down – time and again I hear coachees tell me there have been unexpected upsides to the disruption (notably for many greater flexibility for home-working) which they are keen to hold onto.

But the real power in the ‘gift’ technique is to look forwards, not backwards, and to find an opportunity in what first seems like a bad situation. So right now I’ve got a minor running injury that’s meant I’ve had to pull out of my first race of the season, but the ‘gift’ I’ve found is that I can focus on doing a period of weight-based conditioning instead which should prevent injuries in future and enable me to do more running later in the season. In a work context, I’ve got some time on my hands as I’m doing less training delivery than usual due to CV19 but finding the gift of researching new materials and redesigning my training resources so the course I am running will be improved quality.

I’m not suggesting it’s easy to find the ‘gift’ or that these gifts offset the bad stuff, but I find it helps. So – what gifts could 2021 offer you? 

Will we ever go back to face-to-face coaching?

Writing from my home office on the bleak depths of a second national Lock Down it feels unlikely that I’ll be able to meet coaching clients face-to-face in the near future. And I find myself wondering will we ever go back to meeting face-to-face for coaching sessions or has something shifted for good?

‘Good’ is the operative word here, as from my perspective I’m preferring online coaching for lots of reasons – both as a coachee and as coach. But as a coach I’m always driven by what’s best for the coachee so very conscious that not everyone is as comfortable online as I have become.

So what are the benefits of online coaching? And when would it be better meet in person instead, once circumstances allow. And, given we are likely to be mainly online for the foreseeable future, how can we make the most of this way of working for coaching specifically?

Let’s start with the benefits –

Coaching online saves time travelling to and from a place of meeting for coach and coachee, and it also eliminates the financial and environmental costs of travel. Very simply, online coaching costs less. In the wake of CV19 I changed my pricing for coaching to Pay What You Can – recognising how many people I knew were under-employed or unemployed and therefore would struggle to pay typical coaching rates. My individual clients now pay a wide range of rates from £10 to £80 per hr and I could not afford to work on this basis if paying the direct and indirect costs of travel and meeting room hire.

Another benefit of online working is that when coach and coachee meet in person we need to find a mutually comfortable and convenient place to meet – and that can be tricky. Some coaches rent meeting rooms, but that pushes up costs and those kinds of rooms can feel a little clinical to me. Others, myself included, meet clients at their own home/office. Many meet in public space like cafes and vestibules; I’ve had many a London meeting in Kings Place foyer and I know others use the South Bank Centre spaces. But I often feel those spaces are not ideal in terms of confidentiality. 

The beauty of online space is that it can be intimate but it is also private. The comfort of being in our own home, unobserved and in control of our environment, can make it feel like the safest space to think and talk. Even before CV19 many of my clients chose to schedule coaching for days when they were working from home as this offered a level of privacy, comfort and focus that it can be harder to achieve in the office or a semi-public space.

There are however downsides to online coaching –

Particularly at the moment, home might not feel like the place to do our best and freshest thinking, especially if we don’t have great wifi, a quiet corner to work from or there are other family members in the house who might interrupt or overhear. Others have a strong dislike of being seen on camera, in which case I find phone coaching can work just fine.

The tendency when we don’t need to travel to meet to cram in a session between meetings, or at the end of a long day of other meetings, can mean we are not getting the most from coaching. Before CV19, I already advised new clients to schedule sessions when they feel they will be fresh, able to focus and to avoid other commitments directly before or afterwards – to give them time to prepare for a session and process it. 

As a coach we will inevitably miss some things when working online that we might have noticed face-to-face, if we can’t see the whole person and notice their body language or movements as fully.

When working online, exercises that involve the coachee moving around the space might feel slightly odd at first – not both coach and coachee. But actually my experience has been that spatial exercises can and do work pretty well online (and certainly better than in a semi-public space!). They are not however a huge part of how I work with coachees, I tend to use metaphor, writing/drawing and conversation most often and all of those techniques translate great to online. For those coaches and coaches who are more into kinetic and somatic models the online space is potentially more of a limiting factor.

I’ve always learned a lot about coaching from being coached – and to this day I work with other coaches from time to time. When I am working with my own coach I actually prefer working online. It means I can work with a coach who lives several hundred miles away easily, rather than spending half a day and £100 on train fare which would be prohibitive. And I feel more comfortable speaking from my own home than being in a less familiar space. It feels no less intimate or effective, and a lot more convenient. But I’m an introvert and generally like working online, so I’m also very conscious the coachees I work with might have very different preferences.

In my experience though, far more has been gained than lost by taking coaching online during CV19 and I hope that coachees who might previously have preferred to meet face-to-face will at least try coaching over video-conference before assuming face-to-face is going to be better for them. 

I’m wondering if what we’ll come back to after CV19 is a hybrid model – where coach and coachee might meet initially but continue their work together online. This has often been how I worked with clients based further away – we’d meet face-to-face for the ‘intake’ or first session and then follow-up by phone or video-conference. But let’s not make that the default for every coaching relationship. For a long-time I assumed I had to meet coachees face-to-face initially to be able to work together productively but after the past ten months I don’t think that’s really true for all of us, and if there is a more cost effective and planet-friendly way to do things then I hope we can give it a go.

Productivity tips from a nerd

By the way if the thought of reading a whole book about productivity seems unproductive let me reassure you I read each of these books in less than a day and they have repaid that investment many times over….

I sometimes joke that ‘one multi-task too far’ will probably be my epitaph, because I’m always trying to do too much. There are a lot of downsides to this way of being, but I’ve also learned a fair bit about productivity along the way. As a coach, mentor and co-worker I often hear others looking for tools and tips around productivity so I thought I’d share mine here in case it’s useful:


Some might be useful to you, others might not be your cup of tea – I’m not suggesting these work for everyone, they just work for me. If you have alternatives please share these – I’m always interested to hear other perspectives and ideas.

I doubt any of these are ‘my idea’ – like a magpie I take shiny ideas and techniques I spot around me that work for me and line my nest with them. I try and credit any sources when I can remember them, although sometimes original source may have been lost or my way of doing things altered the original beyond recognition!

  1. Start with the end in mind (this phrase might be from Stephen Covey, but it’s also based on the GROW model of coaching)
    I never do anything unless I’m clear why and it is aligned with my priorities. That means setting priorities or ‘goals’. I set annual goals and chunk these down into ‘termly’ goals – about 12-13 weeks in length. Being a coach I make sure my goals are clearly defined – outcomes (not activities), specific/ measurable, positive and stretching. So earlier this year this was one of mine:

Develop capacity to deliver brilliant and inclusive events online through new skills, resources and training.

I limit myself to no more than 4 goals in any term – and then develop a plan that identifies the key tasks/ actions and resources I need to make sure the goals are achievable. 

I stick these goals where I can see them (they are in front of my desk) – and I also have a pictorial version that I’ve sketched which is a more fun way to convey a sense of direction.

2. Develop your own systems to keep you on track

I have 4 main systems for managing my time productively:

Firstly, I use a daily planner based on the ‘Self Journal’ template. I don’t use that particular journal in its entirety, but I like the day planner which means I block out my time daily (usually the night before or over breakfast before I start work) so I’m clear what I’m doing when. It also encourages you to identify 3 targets each day – this is often difficult as I can usually think of at least 5; but it reminds me to focus on the key 3 things…

Secondly, I use task management software called ‘Toodledo’ which was suggested in a book about productivity which I highly recommend (How to be a productivity ninja – by Graham Allcott). Toodledo is where I keep my ‘to do’ list which I can segment into different categories (Home/ Finance/ Work/ Waiting On) and organise into sub-folders like projects, importance or urgency. There’s an art to writing a good task – specific, doable – which Graham explains in his book. And he suggests you should never add a task to a list that takes less than 2 mins to do – just do it. Having somewhere I can reliably ‘park’ the millions of things I think of to do each day keeps me focussed and means I don’t forget to do too many things. I also have managed to stop worrying about forgetting to do things. There’s an app and desktop version.

Thirdly, my email ‘filing’ system is based on these same folders too – Waiting On/ Home/ Receipts/ Action. If there’s something I need to do, I put the email in ‘Action’ and write it on my task list. If I need the info saving, it gets saved in a folder. Otherwise I delete emails to keep my inbox as close to empty as possible (and periodically I tidy it up and delete anything that slips through on a bad day). 

Fourthly, I use my calendar to block out time to do work – for example, anytime I book in work I make sure I block the time I need to prepare/ follow-up as well as deliver the work (for example if it’s to facilitate an event I’ll block a half-day to draft the plan etc). The vast majority of what I need to do is blocked into my calendar at the point I commit to doing it so I can see at a glance whether and when I have space to do things. (I have quite a few other systems for planning my work but will stop sharing now as I’m picturing getting weird looks already).

3. Focus on cultivating habits

Jim Richardson recommended this book Atomic Habits in a tweet once and I really like it too. For years I’d been using the technique of setting goals and identifying specific tasks but the regular things you do daily or weekly don’t fit well do well into that model of planning. James Clear makes a strong case for the power of cultivating positive habits, and offers some very practical advice (backed up by neuroscience) about how to break bad ones and make the ones you know you should do but find hard to stick to a bit easier.

4. Active reflection

Research shows that as little as 15 mins a day reflecting on how things have gone and how to apply that learning to future action can increase productivity by 20%. I try and make a habit to set aside an hour for reflection once a week – and I keep a very simple log of any insights/ observations about what has worked/ not worked so well and how I plan to use that learning in future. 

I’m slightly conscious as I share this how nerdy this might sound – but it works for me. I hope there’s something in this that might work for you too… 

How to have ‘difficult’ conversations: top tips from a mediator

When I work as a mediator, in effect what I’m doing is facilitating a difficult conversation between two people who want to improve their relationship. Usually by the time people come to mediation the relationship has reached a point where it’s getting in the way of being able to work together. Very often, I hear how distressing the situation has become for those involved; causing impacts that ripple far beyond the workplace. And sadly, the situation has often been going on for quite a while before it has been addressed. 

Only a small percentage of professional relationships end up in mediation, but I know from my wider experience that relationship tensions at work are widespread and can be very stressful and disruptive. Many people tell me they lack the skills and tools to tackle difficult conversations when they first arise – often waiting until things have become far more serious before action is taken to resolve the problem. So whilst mediation has a valuable role to play, far better we develop our skills to be able to have difficult conversations more effectively and readily.

When we need to have conversations about a problem or a concern, then I find the following principles help us to do so constructively – ensuring we tackle and resolve the issue, without damaging the relationship:

Avoid blame and be constructive – start from position of wanting to improve the situation or avoid the problem arising again by understanding what’s happened and why. Blame isn’t helpful – it tends to lead only to defensiveness and conflict rather than resolution. Be careful the language you used doesn’t imply blame and sound critical – try and stick to describing the facts objectively.

Avoid jumping to conclusions – there’s usually a fair amount of misunderstanding or lack of awareness at play in most disagreements or problems. It’s important to keep an open mind about what has happened and why – try and establish the facts and be open to you having things to learn as well as the other party. Also it’s important to share information – that includes the impact of problem is on you. That’s not about blaming or shaming – but sharing information about consequences of an action or behaviour, you might be surprised how often people are simply not aware their behaviour is causing issues for others.

Respect autonomy – nobody likes to be told what to do, however most of us are very reasonable if faced with a clear request and we understand why we are being asked. Demands, orders, emotional blackmail are less effective (and frankly who wants to treat another person like that?). It’s important to respect autonomy in terms of how these conversations happen too – don’t just pounce on someone, suggest instead you’d like a chat about a specific topic and then ask when and where would be a good time for them?

Be clear – be prepared to be very clear and specific about what you are asking the other person to do less of/ more of or differently – as if you are writing a stage direction, as often misunderstandings about what’s expected can arise when things are less too general. 

With these principles in mind, you might like to try a 3-step process along these lines:

  1. Open up: state your intention and ask permission to proceed
  2. Explore: discuss and uncover the issues, keeping an open mind, looking for solutions
  3. Agree Actions: that each of you will take, and how you will follow-up if necessary

Some examples of ‘openers

“I don’t think that either of us is completely happy with how this is going at the moment – I’d like us to work together to work out what’s not working and identify a way forward… is that something we could focus on today in our meeting?” 

“I’m concerned we aren’t delivering at the level that we need to and we need to do something about that… Can we talk about this – when would suit you?” 

Some examples of ‘exploring

“How are you feeling about how things are going?”

“What would you like me to do differently? Is there anything I could do more of, or less of, that would help you?” 

“What questions do you think we need to be asking to get to the bottom of this?”

“What suggestions and ideas do you have about how to sort this out?”

Some examples of ‘agreeing actions

“What actions do you think I need to take, and what do you think needs to come from you?” 

“So, having thought it through together, what actions are you proposing?” 

“What will we need to put in place, to ensure that this doesn’t happen again?” 

“I think it would be helpful if we jotted down the key things we’ve agreed will happen, are you happy to do that in an email?”

Finally, if you’re interested in healthy relationships watch out for the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse – sounds bad doesn’t it, and it is! According to relationship experts the Gottman Institute there are 4 main ways in which our relationships become toxic – know the signs and spot them – then act quickly. 

What is Coaching? the C-words

Recently trying to renew my car insurance I realise no-one really knows what my kind of coaching is…

Fairly regularly I find myself explaining what coach is – and isn’t – as many of the people I work with are new to coaching and it’s a term that’s often misunderstood and even elicits a negative response in some – hence me jokingly referring to coaching as the ‘c-word’ at times.  

I like to describe coaching as ‘thinking space’ or ‘time to think aloud’ because both of these phrases capture the self-directed or coachee-led essence of the process; it’s your agenda, your ideas that we focus on, I am there to facilitate your thinking through actively listening and asking questions that offer you insights.

A coach also brings challenge to the process; too often we limit our thinking by making assumptions about ourselves or others and as a coach I help you notice any limiting beliefs that might be narrowing your perspective or restricting the range of options ahead. The coach is by your side, inviting you to be deeply honest about what you individually want to achieve or change; reminding you of what’s important to you; inviting you to be courageous in your thinking. How would you love it to be? What if there were no limits?

Slightly stretching my point about c-words, coaching can be enCouraging. We perform better with stretch andsupport – there is a coach at my running club who cleverly positions himself on the corner of the home straight of the track and when I’m flagging and shouts encouragement for the final push; I know he’ll be there and will notice if I’m easing off so I grit my teeth and dig in… Equally, a good coach is encouraging because they have confidence in your ability to achieve your goals – if you’re willing to put the work in. So thinking about a coach I work with myself, when I recently told her a very ambitious running goal I’ve set myself her response was: ‘great, let’s talk about how you’re going to build up your strength and endurance to achieve that’

Clarity in itself can sometimes feel challenging and it’s a favourite tool in my toolbox as a coach. What does ‘better’ look like to you? How will you know you’ve been successful? What will you see or hear when you’ve achieved your goal? Eliciting a very specific and measurable goal generates not just clarity but excitement and momentum. 

At the heart of coaching is the process of finding your own solutions – developing your problem-solving capacity and confidence in your own abilities or judgment. When you discover your own solutions you’re also more likely to be committed to them than if someone else has told you how to achieve your goals. Also given the complexity of the challenges we’re often exploring in coaching, and premised on the belief that you are expert in your own life/ situation, then the solutions you generate for yourself are more likely to work for you, than the ones that may have worked for me or others. 

Another key aspect of coaching is that it is constructive. Your coach helps you focus on what you can do, to take responsibility for your choices rather than blame others or circumstances. 

Finally, and very importantly, coaching is capacity-building – as a coach I support people to learn how to coach themselves better, to generate fresh insights and ways of seeing that don’t just solve the problem immediately in front of them, but which also continue to be useful long after a coaching conversation.