A warm reception for hot stone coaching

31 Mar

Coaching works best when the client is relaxed and attentive to both the conversation and to themselves. Hot stone coaching has been proposed as a means of heightening the client’s attention to their inner world and their general mindfulness. Unlike normal coaching, where the client and coach sit opposite to each other, in hot stone coaching the coach sits to the side of the client, while the client lies face down, or behind their head, if the client is lying face up, so there is no eye contact. This separation is claimed to enhance the purity of the coaching conversation and the feeling of trust between coach and client. The client may be fully clothed or with the top half of their body exposed.

Practitioners of hot stone coaching insist that the stones are an important part of the process. A typical set of stones will range from relatively large to quite small. Usually they are highly polished and contain fossils – it is claimed that the incorporation of former living creatures enhances the “connection” between coach and client, although no mechanism has been suggested as to how this might work. Stones are placed at strategic places, broadly equivalent to acupuncture points. The size of stone selected is in accordance with the importance of the organ it covers. Two stones of different chakras are usually used on the forehead, one to denote intellect, the other emotion. These again may vary in size, with the smallest stones commonly used for people from purchasing departments, bank managers and Uber drivers.

Although this approach is relatively new, some empirical evidence has been gathered as to its efficacy. One case study has found that hot stone coaching has a statistically significant impact in curing stupidity. It should be noted that the stones in this case were heated to more than 90 degrees Centigrade. Another study, in which the clients were all politicians, used a control group (8 clients, 8 controls) and found no significant differences between the two groups. The researchers in this study suggest that dermatological density may have had a mediating effect here.

Enthusiasts for hot stone coaching maintain that there are eight key guiding principles to effective, client-centred practice. These are:

  • Timelessness – it is important that the client feels you have all the time in the world for them and that they are released from the pressures of time
  • Inquisitiveness – coach and client allow the conversation to find its own path, in the knowledge that this path will lead them back to the goal in its own time and manner
  • Happiness – the coach promotes spiritual healing in the client through their own “inner smiles”. In Thailand, from where hot stone coaching appears to derive, the language recognises 13 different types of smile.
  • Stillness – the absence of movement promotes mental and physical relaxation
  • Love – the coach communicates in both verbal and non-verbal ways the fact that they care about the client and their aspirations
  • Life flow – the sense of communion between mind and body
  • Unconditional positive regard – the essential Rogerian position
  • Belief – in the process and in the client’s ability to find their own way, if they can relax sufficiently

No doubt at some point someone will come up with a suitable acronym for these qualities.


1st April 2017

© David Clutterbuck, 2017

Cross mentoring – Mentoring between companies

8 Mar

Most formal mentoring takes place between people within the same organisation, but this isn’t the only possibility. It is hard, for example, to create effective mentoring relationships within small national branch offices – people are often too close and the choice of mentor is too limited. While distance mentoring, using mentors from the same company but from different countries, is a partial solution, many people still prefer to experience mentoring face to face.

The first recorded example of cross-mentoring was the Irish Post Office. It wanted to launch an ambitious programme to support career advancement for women in junior and middle management, but concluded it did not have sufficient potential mentors within its senior management. So it reached out to its supply chain – some of its biggest customers and biggest suppliers – asking if they could provide mentors.

A similar situation occurred in a large UK-based bank. It wanted its regional directors to become more commercially aware – while they all had strong banking skills, their understanding of business generally was weak. So, it sought mentors from a range of customer businesses, including MacDonalds.

Over time, we have seen a variety of cross-mentoring models emerge. The two examples above illustrate non-reciprocal cross-mentoring – the flow of mentors is just one way. Another model of this kind of cross-mentoring is rooted in a large company’s corporate social responsibility and reputation marketing. For example, British Telecom launched a programme, in which directors and senior managers from one of its divisions mentored the owners of small businesses. A subsidiary motive in this programme was that the mentors learnt a lot about the challenges of running a small company. In another case, a small group of mainly service-based companies provided mentors to prison governors.

In reciprocal cross-mentoring, there is a two-way flow of mentors and mentees. The earliest recorded example of this is Petronas, the Malaysian oil company. As one of the largest employers in the country, it has multiple divisions. Its mentoring programme provided middle managers with two mentors: one from their own division and one from another division. More than three-quarters of mentees found the mentor from another division to be the most useful, because they were able to offer a different perspective.

More difficult to arrange, but at least as powerful, are exchanges of mentors and mentees between consortia of completely different companies. Sometimes this happens under the aegis of a professional body – for example, the UK Institute of Practitioners in advertising initiated a scheme that linked young owners of advertising agencies with older, more experienced peers. Similarly, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has a programme that links highly experienced Human Resource directors with aspiring HR directors in other companies; and the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales has for some years now had a similar programme for aspiring Finance Directors.

Less frequently, several companies come together in a reciprocal arrangement. The arguments for doing so are several:

  • It splits the cost of training mentors and mentees – making the programme much more affordable
  • It gives the mentees access to very different perspectives and sometimes to expertise that doesn’t exist in their own companies
  • It stimulates innovation within both companies in a pairing, as mentors and mentees share ideas and ways of doing things

Examples of this approach can be seen across the UK, where public sector bodies, such as the health service, local government, police and fire services have developed collaboration agreements that allow them to train coaches and mentors together and offer people in their organisations a coach or mentor from a pool. It is up to the mentee whether they choose a mentor within their organisation or outside, but most prefer to take an external mentor.

In the context of leadership development, cross-mentoring can be part of a larger programme of leader development. In one design currently planned, for example, six companies each provide two mentees and two mentors. The 12 mentees are divided into two action learning sets with one person from each of six companies. Each set works on one issue for each of its members and shares accountability for the results. They present their results at the end of the project to all the sponsors together – with the sponsors in most cases being the CEO or another member of the Exco. The combination of mentoring and action learning seems to be a particularly powerful way of speeding up the development of leadership capability.

In other cases, where there is not an organised collective development element, consortia can encourage mentors and mentees to set up peer support groups.

However, this kind of cross-mentoring requires all relationships to begin and formally end (though they may continue informally) on an agreed common schedule. What many companies want is a more ad hoc arrangement, whereby mentees can find a mentor from another company when they are ready. In this case, member companies have to accept that there will be sometimes be some imbalance in the reciprocity, with one company providing more mentors than another for a time.

Among lessons learned so far in this emerging concept of cross-mentoring are:

  • Training together in the roles of mentor and mentee is essential. Having a common understanding and expectation of mentoring provides a foundation for managing different perspectives that arise from each company’s culture and business style
  • Very clear agreements are needed from the start about issues such as confidentiality and non-poaching. In general, consortia reduce potential problems here by ensuring that members are from non-competitive sectors. Indeed, the more innovatively consortium thinks about who potential partner organisations might be, the better!
  • Participants need support – both online resources they can draw upon and someone to talk to about the mentoring relationship. Having a neutral programme manager (someone from outside the participating companies) makes this a lot easier
  • There must be a mechanism for ensuring that all partner companies feel fairly treated, in terms of giving and receiving mentoring. We recommend that there is a steering group of sponsors, tasked among other things with having open dialogue about such issues.

The concept of cross-mentoring is still quite young – not much more than 20 years old. However, it has great potential and is clearly a growing trend.

© David Clutterbuck, 2017

Working with SUIs (Significant Unresolved Issues)

8 Mar

The concept of Significant Unresolved Issues arose from David Clutterbuck’s unpublished research in the 1990s on what issues mentees brought to their mentors for discussion. Participants in workshops were asked to write down and reflect upon all the issues, about which they felt a level of anxiety that they had not resolved them, or found time to think through. Comparing these lists with how people felt about their levels of stress and ability to focus on their work, a very rough and ready guide emerged that most people in professional and managerial roles, who were mature, stable in personality, and mentally healthy, could cope with between 25 and 35 SUI’s before they noticed a severe impact on their ability to cope.

Of course, this crude indicator couldn’t take into account the intensity of the SUIs – just one major issue (for example, a life-threatening health matter) could have the same effect. What’s more, people vary considerably in terms of their personal resilience. So over the years, the approach has been refined so that the person listing their SUIs assigns them an anxiety score of 1-10, with 1 indicating “I am not worried about this at all” and 10 indicating “I am in total panic about this”. Multiplying the score for each item by itself and adding these secondary scores together gives an overall score. So 5 SUIs at an anxiety strength of 6, would give a score of 5 X 36 = 180. A score of 10 on one issue would equal 100 SUI points.

For a coachee or mentee under stress, it is helpful to help them work through this analysis until they have an understanding of the scope and pattern things they need to think through. If they have an issues with an initial score of 10 (so 100 SUI points), it is normally necessary to help them reduce their anxiety level about this first, by establishing some control of the situation, before they can attend to lesser issues.

As a tool of self-management, reviewing SUIs in this way helps people decide what they want to focus attention on first. Many people use the tactic of “rewarding” themselves for dealing with a relatively high-point issue (say 36 or above) by allocating the next hour or so to working through a batch of lower scoring items – this can be very satisfying! The process also helps them to work out when to seek help – “When I see my total points going over 150, I know I’m in trouble…”  — and to become aware of repeating patterns of SUIs.

In general, the greater the level of anxiety someone feels about not having dealt with an issue, the more important it is to have a reflective conversation about it, both with themselves and with someone else, who can help them with the quality of their thinking about it. We therefore now recommend that coachees and mentees include some time for this in their preparations for coaching and mentoring sessions.

We have only anecdotal evidence for the impact this has on building a person’s resilience, but it appears that regularly reviewing SUIs leads people to develop better tactics for self-management, become more skilled at knowing when to say “No”, and to re-establish more rapidly a sense of being in control when anxiety-producing issues mount up. With practice, people learn recalibrate their own thresholds, such as when it is important to take time out and step away from single problems and examine their SUIs from a wider perspective.


© David Clutterbuck, 2017


Helping your coachee develop resilience

8 Mar

In challenging working environments, resilience is increasingly an essential competence. People, who are resilient, are better able to cope with unexpected change, with setbacks and disappointments, with high stress environments and with periods of excessive workload. The signs of low resilience are generally easy to spot. They include inability to make decisions, frequent minor physical ailments, reduced self-confidence, feeling overwhelmed, lower tolerance and short temper. Coaches and mentors can help in two main ways:

  • Enabling the coachee or mentee to cope with current situations (resilience in the moment)
  • Building their overall level of resilience (resilience capacity)

In the first of these two situations, the primary focus is on reducing the stressors that are causing them to feel that their work life is out of control. The simplest way of doing this is to develop with them a list of all the things that are putting them under pressure, then to work through each item examining what they could do practically to ease that pressure. Frequently, the solution lies in a mixture of conversations they have so far avoided with other people (about the level of stress their expectations or behaviour are causing) and with themselves (for example, having greater clarity about when and how to say no).

It’s also helpful to refocus their attention on what is good about life. When we feel overwhelmed, we tend to be aware only of the negatives. Useful questions include:

  • What can you be grateful for?
  • Where can you still find joy in your life?

This subtle shift of attention can be remarkably effective in increasing resilience in the here and now.

When it comes to helping them build resilience, a good starting point is to clarify the characteristics of highly resilient people and explore with them how they might absorb some or all of these characteristics into their own way of thinking. A helpful overview of resilience characteristics comes from Proctor[1], who describes them as:

  • Optimism – expecting change to have positive outcomes, as long as you look for them
  • Self-assuredness – a strong, realistic view of their own capabilities to manage new or difficult situations
  • Focus – being able to establish and work to clear priorities, even in the midst of uncertainty
  • Openness to ideas – they look for and are positive about applying new thinking
  • Willing to ask for support – they are not afraid to ask for help when they need it
  • Structured – they step back from problems or changes and envision flexible plans to address them (for example, with alternative scenarios)
  • Being proactive – they prefer to initiate change rather than be overtaken by it.

Even a very brief conversation can establish which of these characteristics are least developed and which the coachee would like to work on. Simply clarifying these concepts is a first step towards building resilience.

Developing optimism requires a shift in attention, from noticing all the problems and barriers around them to noticing more of the pleasures and opportunities. Keeping a “joy diary” – a daily record of things you are grateful for – is one practical method. Also helpful is choosing to associate with people who are optimistic – pessimists tend to attract pessimists and repel optimists. Seeking out situations and surrounding oneself with things that amuse also promotes optimism – environments with laughter tend to be more optimistic and more creative.

Self-assuredness comes from a justified self-belief. Regularly recording accomplishments and learning can help here, though seeking praise from others can have the opposite effect. On simple technique is to establish at the beginning of each day, each week and each month one small but meaningful thing you will accomplish that will make you respect and/or like yourself more and to invest effort in making that happen. Another is to ensure that you do at least one act of kindness every day.

Being focused can be difficult when you are under stress. It helps here to step away from the stress-causing environment (preferably literally by, for example, taking a walk) and having quiet contemplative time to work out what is really important and why. Meditation works in a similar way for some people. And of course, the coaching conversation is a safe and protected environment where this kind of constructive , purposeful thinking can take place.

Being open to new ideas requires yet another mind shift that can be helped by simple tools, such as the three layers of learning. Most intentional learning tends to happen by focusing on knowledge or skills needs directly related to the job role a person has. But there is also great benefit to be derived from acquiring peripheral learning that widens understanding of things that impact the core role; and ad hoc learning that has no immediate connection to the core role. The most significant new ideas and insights come from these two latter areas. To access these, we can widen the network of people we interact with and the range of topics that we read about. A useful coaching question here is: How many conversations have you had this week that have given you significant new insights?

Willingness to ask for support is often a matter of confidence. If we are afraid to be vulnerable, or to look stupid, we often try to struggle on, on our own. The secret here is to start by giving support to others, which makes it much easier to ask people to reciprocate. It’s like building a bank of helpfulness – the more in credit you are, the easier it is to get a loan when you need it. The coach can help the coachee recognise the real or potential support networks they have, then to plan how to both expand and strengthen these.

Structured thinking and planning. For most people, careers are a series of unmanaged and unconsidered changes. Careers happen to them, rather than happen as a result of their imagination and intentional action. The coach can help the coachee create and work with a flexible plan of strategic opportunism, reviewing it frequently against the coachee’s personal development and evolving opportunities in the world around them. Knowing that you have a fall-back plan (or several) increases confidence in the face of threatening change – you simply start to invest more energy into paths that you have already mapped out.

Being proactive. Coaches can’t easily teach coachees to become more proactive – that stems from a deep internal motivation. But they can help the coachee develop the habit of anticipating change and looking for ways to meet it with innovative changes of their own that give them more sense of control over what is happening. Simple tools, such as a personal SWOT[2] analysis, start the thinking process, and lay the ground for imagining different futures, which in turn can create a stimulus for proactivity.

Seeing clients grow in resilience is one of the most gratifying parts of being a coach. In short-term assignments, we don’t often see the full impact of these changes, because they can take a while to bear fruit. But when we keep in touch over the longer time, we frequently find that the coachee has gradually learned to embrace and thrive on change that would previously have stressed or diminished them.

© David Clutterbuck, 2017

[1] Proctor, A (2014) Increase your resilience to change http://www.linkedin.com/ pulse/20121209100529-8521084-increase-your-resilience-to-change, accessed 6 Feb 2017

[2] Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats

Parallel processing in coaching and mentoring

8 Mar

Parallel processing happens when a coach, mentor or therapist reproduces a behaviour or emotion within their client, or more subtly, when they conflate the client’s experiences and issues with their own. It can distort the coaching or mentoring conversation, so that it focuses – usually unconsciously – on the coach or mentor’s agenda, rather than the client’s.

Professional coaches are generally taught to recognise parallel processing (which takes quite a lot of self-awareness) and to park it. At more advanced levels of competence, the coach brings his or her own emotional and physical reactions into the open, to stimulate awareness in the client of what is going on for them. Overall, however, parallel processing is depicted as a “trap” of unconscious collusion that the unwary coach can fall into.

Experienced mentors, however, can and do use parallel processing much more frequently to help them help the mentee. Recognising and emphasising with what the mentee is saying allows the mentor to consider how their own experience may be relevant and to choose whether or when they should share knowledge, which will inform and enhance the mentee’s thinking.

It will often happen that the mentor realises that they have a similar issue or dilemma to that presented by the mentee. Rather than regard this as interference in the learning dialogue, the mentor welcomes the opportunity firstly to gain clues as to what is going on in the mentee’s mind, and secondly to use the conversation to stimulate insights into their own issue. The key to managing this process is curiosity – with questions such as the following constantly in the mentor’s mind:

  • What is the mentee’s understanding of the situation?
  • How does that differ from my understanding of my own comparable experience?
  • What aspects or perspectives does my own experience suggest they may be missing?
  • What is significantly different in their overall narrative to my own?
  • What can we learn from each other’s experience and perspective?

A key skill for the mentor is recognising when to introduce their own experience – judging if and when it will be helpful to the mentee’s thinking – and how to do so. Ideally, this should be a joint decision, with the mentor making an offer – for example, “Would it be helpful if I share what happened when I had a similar challenge?” They should not launch into sharing their own experience without first seeking permission from the mentee. With the mentee’s assent, the mentor should check in at intervals that both of them perceive the sharing as relevant and helpful. It is important never to lose sight of the intention of sharing – to inform and enrich the mentee’s thinking, so they can work towards solutions and understanding that is truly valid in their context, rather than a reflection of what the mentor would have done in their circumstances.

An indication that the mentor is using parallel process well is that they are able to say at the end “In exploring this issue with you, I have learnt some things about myself or my situation.”

© David Clutterbuck, 2017

Why coaches and mentors shouldn’t beat themselves up when client change doesn’t happen

16 Jan

Every beginner coach or mentor goes through a phase of questioning their own competence, based upon a sense that they could (or should) have had so much more impact. Even very experienced coaches and mentors sometimes feel that they have “failed” their client. While there are some professional coaches and mentors, who think they are worth far more than they are paid, it’s more common for effective coaches to harbour doubts about whether they are giving good money’s worth.

One of the restorative functions of professional supervision is to help restore a realistic balance between learning from every assignment and managing expectations about what it is reasonable to achieve in a given time period or a given number of meetings.

The key issues to consider here begin with the purpose of the coaching/mentoring relationship and the purpose of coaching and mentoring in general. It’s a common misassumption that the purpose of coaching or mentoring generally is to resolve a client’s problem or issue. The dangers with such an assumption are that it shifts responsibility subtly from the client to the coach/mentor and that it encourages the coach/mentor to do too much. In reality, the purpose of coaching and mentoring are to help the client become more aware – of themselves, of the world around them and of the interaction between these – and as result be able to make better informed decisions and take more control of their circumstances.

The purpose of the mentoring conversation equally is not to come to decision. It is to advance the client’s thinking to the point where they can either make a decision, or have a shift of perception, on which they can reflect – when they are ready to do so. Jumping to solutions too early is not helpful for the client – and the “right” time for decisions and resulting change may be well into the future. A while ago, someone, who I had given some brief coaching to 15 years before, wrote to thank me for the questions I had asked, explaining that it had taken him most of that time to answer them to his satisfaction and then to make significant changes in his life and work.

What we can achieve through coaching and mentoring is limited by many factors, among them:

  • What the client is capable of (their physical, emotional, intellectual and other resources)
  • The client’s interests and motivations
  • The many systems of which the client is a part. When a client does not implement changes they say they want to happen, the reason is often that there are strong forces preventing them from doing so. These might include colleagues, who are resistant to change, or a boss, who doesn’t want to provide support when it is needed.

When two or more of these limiters operate together (for example, when a manager keeps getting involved in the detail, because that’s what she enjoys, and her team go along with it, because it is easier for them to delegate responsibility upwards), then the task of the coach or mentor becomes much harder. While you can be helpful to them in developing greater understanding of these systems and systemic ways of bringing about change, some systems are just too powerful to change through coaching or mentoring alone. The coach or mentor has little opportunity to exert direct influence on the situation.

In measuring the success of our coaching or mentoring, therefore, we can look to the question What has changed in the client’s capability to self-manage the issues we have explored together? Measuring whether specific goals have been achieved is, of course, often valid – but we should not confuse these relatively simple, relatively easily delivered impacts with the deeper learning that takes place in the truly effective coaching or mentoring conversation.

And if our conversations do not bring about these simple achievement goals? Rather than beat ourselves up about what we did or didn’t do, better to reflect upon:

  • What learning can we draw from the factors, that limited the client’s ability to bring about the desired changes?
  • What is it about the client’s systems that inhibits change?
  • If the systems inhibiting change are too powerful to overcome with coaching or mentoring, what can the client do to move to a more supportive environment, where they can break ingrained dysfunctional behaviours and ways of thinking?
  • What will you leave them with, which will make them more self-aware and more capable of facing future challenges?

Above all, it is important to be compassionate towards ourselves for our imperfections as coaches or mentors. Remember that every coaching or mentoring conversation that delivers lasting change is an experiment  — one of a series of trials that progressively develop the insight and knowledge the client needs to fulfil their aspirations. If we can let go of the need to be perfect, the need to demonstrate that we are adding value and the need to help the client find immediate answers, we can be much more relaxed and attentive in our coaching and mentoring. And that allows us to grow our own capabilities as agents of change.


© David Clutterbuck, 2017



When to refer a coachee or mentee for professional counselling or therapy

16 Jan

Suggesting to someone else that they need counselling takes courage. As a coach or mentor, you will in most cases not be a qualified therapist – and even if you were, there are potential conflicts of role between mentoring/coaching and therapy. The two key questions here are:

  • How can you tell if the other person needs therapeutic support?
  • How can you broach the subject without damaging the mentoring/coaching relationship?

What to watch out for

Signs that the person will benefit from therapy include:

  • When they have a constant depressed mood (as opposed to a temporary “down” related to a specific setback)
  • If they have problems of alcohol or drug abuse
  • If they are long-term lonely
  • If they have difficulty setting or achieving goals, or simply concentrating on the task in hand
  • If they have been getting uncharacteristic negative feedback from work colleagues
  • If they are constantly angry or show other signs of not being able to control their emotions
  • If they exhibit abnormally high levels of anxiety that affect their performance
  • Sexual dysfunction (yes, it does occasionally come up in the intimacy of disclosure within mentoring/coaching)
  • When the mentee/coachee reveals a traumatic event (such as sexual abuse), which they have not been able to deal with (this may be some considerable time in the past); or, if it is a recent event, when they can’t stop thinking about it
  • When they show the same pattern of destructive or dysfunctional behaviour repeatedly. (For example, some people appear to be functioning well in a job role or relationship, then sabotage their efforts, as if they are afraid of success)
  • When the person can’t form relationships
  • Breakdown of relationships
  • Unexplained health problems, such as recurrent headaches or stomach problems that don’t appear to have a physical cause – for example, neck pain is a common symptom of distress
  • Frequent and severe mood swings
  • Frequent panic attacks
  • Disconnection from activities they used to enjoy at work or outside
  • Friends are concerned about them

This is by no means an exhaustive list!

How to broach the subject

The guiding principle here is that the mentee/coachee needs to feel safe both in admitting they need help and in seeking it. Telling them bluntly “You need help!” probably won’t achieve that. Instead, share the responsibility with them — “I am feeling that this situation needs more expertise than I have. What other sources of help have you considered?”

Express your concern – “I’m worried that this problem could get worse, if you don’t deal with it.” Point out that seeking help at the early stages of a problem is a sign of strength. Thank them for the trust they have placed in you by sharing the situation with you.

If they have fears about therapy, you can explain that the vast majority of people, who go to counselling, are normal, mentally healthy individuals, who want to learn some better coping mechanisms. For these people, counselling is essentially a more specialised, personalised form of consultancy – it just places more emphasis on our skills of managing emotions.

If they don’t want to know…

That’s their choice. Accept it, but make it clear you are willing to revisit the subject, if or when they wish. If you eventually think that they cannot be mentored/coached effectively until they do address the issue – which will only sometimes be the case — then be prepared to say so and suggest you suspend mentoring/coaching until they can take full advantage of it. Don’t fall into the trap of feeling guilty about not helping them enough; or worse, the trap of becoming an amateur psychologist.


© David Clutterbuck, 2017



What if the coachee says ‘I don’t know’

16 Dec

There comes a point at least once in a coaching conversation, where the coach feels instinctively that the issue is clear enough to pose a powerful question – one that will really make the coachee think and open up new perspectives. Many times, that is exactly what happens, but occasionally the coachee simply responds with “I don’t know”. For the coach, this can be very frustrating and it is easy to form the view that the coachee is just being obstructive. However, the “I don’t know” response can be one of the most powerful triggers for helping the coachee achieve self-insight.

There are several reasons for “I don’t know” and each of them needs a different response. The coachee may mean:

·     “I genuinely don’t know, but I am curious to explore the issue further”

·     “I don’t want to think about this – it’s too painful or too difficult”

·     “I don’t know, but I have a strong perception”

·     “I don’t think (or feel) that is the right question” (So can we work on what the right question would be?)

The first step in moving the conversation on is to demonstrate interest in their state on not knowing. You might, for example, describe the four meanings above and ask: “Which of these kinds of not knowing do you feel we dealing with here?” Expressing the question in terms of feelings is important, because it distances the conversation from any hint of judgement or criticism of their thinking. It also helps to say: “Don’t respond immediately. Take a few moments to reflect.”

In the first situation, where they genuinely don’t know, but are curious, you can help them focus first on what they do know. A simple technique is to draw a jigsaw puzzle, with blank pieces. Invite them to label pieces, starting either at the edges or in the middle, with relevant things they do know. Now you can together, using a different colour pen, identify all the relevant things they don’t know and explore how they could find out.

In the second situation, which is basically one of avoidance, start by acknowledging – and hence validating — their pain. Then gently prompt them to explore:

·     What is it about this question or issue that makes it so painful?

·     What kind of pain is this?

·     Where do you feel this pain?

If you meet continued resistance, be careful! You may be on the edge of a deep-seated psychological trauma or personality disorder, which is outside the scope of coaching. Give them space and gently enquire whether they feel ready to tackle this issue? If not – and particularly if the same issue recurs at other points in the coaching conversations, consider broaching the subject of whether they would like you to refer them on to a therapist.

Many times, however, the coachee will feel able (and relieved) to discuss the issue, because they now have a structure for doing so. It can be a bit like getting into a cool swimming pool. It is uncomfortable getting in, but you every soon acclimatise.

In the third situation, where the coachee distinguishes between what they truly know and what they perceive, they have already started the hardest part of the process. Useful questions include:

·     What created your assumptions about this?

·     What do you want to know about this and what would you rather not know?

·     How could you test your assumptions?

·     How would other people, whose opinions you value, see this?

In the fourth situation, you have again been given a good starting point for further exploration. You might use techniques such as:

·     Reversing the question (e.g. From What do you want? to What do you not want?)

·     Adding and subtracting words to test the impact of different questions

·     Changing the emphasis of the words

·     Ask the coachee to select one of Who? Where? When? Which? What? Why? How? Then a verb such as can, be, have, want, wish, will and so on. Then some nouns (peace, fulfilment, love, contentment, promotion and so on) and finally some adjectives or other descriptive phrases (e.g. happy, successful, in control). Now play with these until they have a question that is truly meaningful for them. You might set them the homework of refining the question to make it even more meaningful.

Coaches report that working effectively with not knowing contributes to building trust within the relationship – not least because it shows the coachee that they (not the coach) are in charge of their internal reflections.

© David Clutterbuck, 2016

Working with ethical dilemmas

2 Dec

Many of the issues that coaches and mentors encounter can be classified as ethical dilemmas. These occur when a person either feels that they are being asked to do things that are against their moral values, or when they have a conflict between two or more of their own values. An example of the former would be where someone working in a pharmaceutical company is asked to consent to overcharging a hospital. An example of the latter would be where a doctor is conflicted between duty to colleagues and duty of care to the patients.

The key to working through such issues is a six-step process. The steps are:

  • Articulate the problem
  • Consider the context
  • Consider the implications
  • What other opinions/ perspectives may be relevant?
  • Balance the arguments
  • The final check 

Articulate the problem

This step is vital, because the person may not have had time to think the issue through on their own, or may be avoiding doing so, because the conflict is too painful. It’s common to rationalise away the conflict, in the hopes that the discomfort will fade. The starting point for the coachee or mentee is often therefore that they are deeply confused. They may not understand the consequences of their behaviour / decisions. The unethical behaviour may appear to be the norm in this organization and they may feel that they are the one out of step.

In helping them understand and describe the issue, we can ask questions such as:

  • Who does it affect, how and why?
  • What is the nature of the conflict of interest?
  • What specific personal, organizational and /or societal values are involved?
  • What are the conflicts that you feel within yourself? (What is making you feel uncomfortable?) 

Consider the context

Here we try to understand the scope of the issue and the environment, in which it takes place, using questions such as:

  • Who is involved, directly and indirectly?
  • Is this a new issue, or an old one in a new guise?
  • What are your specific and general responsibilities?
  • Who has been consulted?
  • Who needs to be consulted?
  • Is there a relevant code of conduct or guideline?
  • What is the general ethical climate here?

Consider the implications

Now we can begin to explore what will or is likely to happen as a result of following one path or another. Very often, the person’s attention is focused on the small picture and the short-term. By widening their view and looking to the longer term, we begin to create a different perspective.

  • What risks are involved? (Safety, financial, reputational etc)
  • What precedents may be set by this decision?
  • What would be the impact if this were done on a much larger scale?
  • Would the implications be different if this were played out publicly v privately

What other options or perspective may be relevant?

Here we are widening the perspective even further, using questions such as

  • What might you be avoiding acknowledging?
  • Who might provide a robust challenge to your thinking?
  • How can you make other people feel more comfortable about speaking up?
  • Have you genuinely sought and listened to dissenting views?

A useful approach here is to explore the issue from the perspective of people, who are affected by it. “Walking in someone else’s shoes” helps us appreciate how they might feel – and how we might feel in their place.

Balance the arguments

By now, the issue will have become both more complex (in the sense that there is a lot more information to consider) and simpler — because the choices, while they may be finely balanced, are much clearer. We can make a choice about what is the right thing to do by comparing choices both rationally and emotionally. We realise that no decision is going to be purely right or wrong, but that an ethical decision is one that tries to achieve a fair and compassionate balance. Useful questions include:

  • What would an impartial adviser see as fair?
  • What priorities should we apply to conflicting objectives and values?
  • What are the “zones of ethical acceptability” and what lies outside them?

The final check

This last step is equally important, but easy to miss out, because it requires an extra burst of energy and self-honesty at the end of what is likely to have been a gruelling and painful conversation. Useful questions we can ask include:

  • What decision-making biases might you be applying without realising?
  • How honest are you being with yourself? (How pure are your motives?)
  • Do you truly feel this is the right thing to do?
  • If we were to give this issue more time, would we come to a different conclusion?

Implementing the decision about the most ethical way forward poses its own problems. When someone takes an ethical stance, the reaction of other people is often very negative, because now their integrity is being questioned. The instinctive responses are fear and resentment. So the coach or mentor may also need to help the other person develop a strategy for helping others overcome their instinctive hostility and engage in open, considerate dialogue.

The key to this stage is to focus on values and on people’s sense of their ideal selves. The coachee or mentee can engage with peer or more senior colleagues by asking them to confirm the values that they and the organisation espouse and try to live up to. Helping them to work out where the organisation might not be living up to its values is less likely to evoke the sense of personal threat. And discussing how they collectively might be able to live up to the organisational values and their personal values more consistently and more thoroughly is still relatively unthreatening. But from that point it is a lot easier to focus on specific behaviours or policies, which need to be changed.

This softly, softly approach won’t always work. Sometimes blowing the whistle is the only recourse. However, the coach or mentor can be a great support in working out tactics, giving encouragement and rehearsing difficult conversations.

© David Clutterbuck, 2016

Helping the coachee or mentee work with anger

5 Sep

While anger is usually seen as an unhelpful emotion, it doesn’t have to be so. Managed anger can be a force for good, and has been a significant factor in every peaceful social change, from the abolition of slavery to equal opportunities at work and in society. While someone, who seems to be angry about everything, requires specialist help from a counsellor or psychotherapist, coaches and mentors can provide valuable support to someone, whose anger concerns a specific issue or situation.

Unmanaged anger tends to be dysfunctional, because it alienates others and reduces their willingness to support or collaborate or even listen to us, even if they are only spectators. Unmanaged anger tends to push us towards extremes – for example, “You are either with us or against us”. And it tends to make us less respected. It also makes us less able to listen to others, or to consider other perspectives.

Managed anger achieves exactly the opposite. When a black woman recorded and streamed her conversation with the white policeman, who had just shot her innocent partner, the driver of their car, it was her presence of mind and manifest control of her anger that gave her credibility and a tsunami of support across America.

So how can we help someone work with their anger to achieve positive outcomes? A practical approach involves four stages:

  • Recognise and accept the anger
  • Clarify the cause
  • Clarify the purpose
  • Make choices (about how to feel and how to behave) that are more likely to achieve positive outcomes

Recognise and accept the anger

 Much of the intensity of anger comes from or perception that are feelings, needs and views are not being taken seriously. Simply acknowledging the anger can start the process of helping them feel sufficiently supported to confront their emotions. Use language such as “I can feel just how angry you are” to establish common feeling. Then you can begin to shift their focus from simply feeling to thinking about feeling. Here is one useful approach:

  • What do you think the outcome is likely to be, if you let your anger drive you, instead of you taking control of it?
  • How could we use this anger positively?
  • Let’s explore what’s going on here and how you might gain greater control…

Clarify the cause

Anger can arise from a wide variety of sources. Among the most common are:

  • Needing to assign blame for a loss or failure
  • Feeling that something is unfair or “wrong”
  • Feeling threatened, either directly or indirectly (for example, if you feel something important to you is under threat)
  • Loss of autonomy, feeling disempowered or manipulated

It can be tempting, as the story unfolds, to challenge the assumptions the coachee/ mentee is making. However, this may simply increase their sense of frustration and anger. It’s better to help them capture the sequence of events, so that they can start to challenge themselves. The sequence will normally be:

  • Stimulus (what happened to them, what someone else said or did)
  • Instinctive unconscious reaction (what fear or other reaction occurred)
  • Conscious reaction (feeling angry)
  • Resulting behaviour
  • Outcomes (e.g. not being able to shake off the anger)

It helps to preface this process with a statement like: “Try not to be judgemental towards anyone — for example, by making assumptions about their motives. Most of all, try not to be judgemental about yourself.” This tends to promote a more balanced and open exploration.

Clarify the purpose

The key questions here are:

  • What does being angry do for you or get you?
  • What could it do for you, if you managed it constructively?

These two questions either help people understand that being angry is not going to help them achieve the outcomes they want; or it connects their anger to a broader change agenda, beyond the here and now i.e. to a higher purpose.


Depending on the purposes identified, the coachee/ mentee now has an opportunity to choose whether to replace their anger with a more positive emotion, such as forgiveness; or to manage it as a source of motivation to bring about change. If they wish to change their emotion, then you can help them identify and overcome the limiting beliefs and assumptions that cause them to feel hurt, isolated, resentful and so on. If they wish to work with and channel their anger, you can help them plan how they can engage with others to drive a wider agenda of change together.

This four-stage process provides a structure for reflection and learning beyond the immediate emotional logjam. Experience shows that coachees/mentees can quickly absorb this way of thinking into their general behavioural repertoire, so that they recognise and value their anger as an indicator of potential to bring about positive change, either in their environment, or in themselves.


© David Clutterbuck, 2016