Archive | July, 2016

Wisdom and mentoring

29 Jul

Development mentoring’s focus on the acquisition of wisdom goes back to the original story of the mentoring relationship between Athena, the Geek Goddess of Wisdom and Odysseus, King of Ithaca and his son, Telemachus. In the guise of Mentor, and sometimes as herself, Athena helps the two men learn from their experiences, developing their insight and moral fortitude.

More than two millennia later, the French cleric, Fenelon, continued these dialogues as a form of essays aimed at developing the wisdom of the French king. In much the same way, Machiavelli attempted to guide the moral development of his Florentine rulers, although he is remembered more for his insights into political intrigue. Neither man’s efforts were greatly appreciated!

Mentoring is at least in part about using one’s own wisdom to stimulate wisdom in another person. In all the great tales of mentors, from Sir Thomas More to Yoda in Star Wars, the mentor draws upon their own inner calm and insight to help the mentee:

  • Recognise and question the values that they and others are applying
  • Develop greater insight into how they think and behave
  • Learn to temper their baser instincts through compassion for others and for themselves
  • Establish the habit of reflection upon and learning from experience
  • Develop a more complex understanding of their own identity, aspirations and fears, so they can make wiser choices.

The story of Odysseus is one of the most powerful examples of Robert Kegan’s theory of adult development. Kegan describes three stages of adult development, relating to the complexity of our thinking (our cognitive development) and to how we see ourselves in relations to the world around us (our socio-emotional development). As teenagers, we seek to express our sense of identity through the social groups, with which we associate, adopting their values and ways of interpreting the world. Some people never get past this stage, but many go on to become “self-authoring”. In this stage, we seek to create an individual identity driven by our internal values, rather than those of others. A proportion of people, who reach this stage, also progress to a point, where they become aware that they and the world around them are constantly evolving, so their identity and the way they interact with the world needs to evolve, too.

It’s in this latter stage that wisdom blossoms. Which is not to say that mentors can’t help people at earlier stages of development become wiser – it’s simply a matter of degree.

So how can a mentor help a mentee become wiser? Here are some practical tools and approaches:

  • Even if an issue the mentee brings has a simple solution, spend time helping them understand some of the complexities that surround it. For example: what does this tell us about other people’s instinctive behaviour and thought processes?
  • Help them articulate their values and how these have changed over time; then to reflect upon how their values might change in the future. Where might their assumptions and values hold them back in pursuing their dreams?
  • Listen to how they make sense of the world and draw tentative conclusions as to where they may be on the stages of adult development. Shape your questions to help them become aware of their thinking processes and to recognise that there are alternatives. So, for example:
    • What would be the benefit of taking a different perspective on this?
    • What has shaped your values and assumptions about this?
    • How can you listen more fully to your inner voice?
    • How can you find a balance between what matters for you and what matters for other people?
    • What would your best self be thinking, saying and doing right now?
  • Talk to them about the stages of adulthood and how we all have to pass through one stage to get to the next. If (as will frequently be the case) they are in transition between one stage and the next, invite them for time to time to consider, in which stage their responses to a situation might be based. Simply knowing that there are other ways of thinking and being allows people to make progress towards greater maturity.
  • Work on your own wisdom and maturity, so you better understand the transitions your mentee will be going through. Spending quality time reflecting and learning from your experiences, deliberately seeking out views and perspectives that don’t align with your own. Try to release yourself from the constraints of your own areas of expertise, which reduce your openness to original ideas. Try to obtain a better balance between doing and being in your coaching and mentoring, in your work and in your life generally.

As a supervisor of coaches and mentors, I am deeply grateful for the opportunity this role provides me with to build my own wisdom by reflecting with another person on their experiences and their experiences of their coachees or mentees. Every session brings some insight that makes me reorient my own experience and modify my own understanding of myself and my environment. When I first began to supervise, I was concerned that the process would generate some kind of hierarchy of wisdom. In reality, I find it deeply humbling and for that I am grateful.

It’s easy to lose the emphasis of mentoring (and of transformational or transpersonal coaching, which cover similar territory) in the urgency to resolve short-term issues. When we measure the success of a mentoring relationship, it’s most common to look at what changed for the mentee in terms of their career or their job-related learning. In a really effective mentoring relationship, however, a critical outcome is “How much wiser is this person than before?”

© David Clutterbuck, 2016

The core traits of truly effective coaches, mentors and leaders

27 Jul

A vast amount has been written about the competencies of coaches and mentors, and even more about the qualities of great leaders. Much of this is contradictory and dependent on circumstance or context. Research into the desirable traits of both coaches and leaders, for example, shows significant differences of expectations and perspective arising from cultural factors. There seems to be a whole industry devoted to creating new descriptors of these traits: authenticity, connectedness, learning agility …. And so on.

Some time ago, I set myself the task of cutting through the fog. My question for research and reflection was What lies at the core of an optimally functional human being, who is tasked with (or takes upon the themselves the task of) influencing others to achieve a greater good? There are, of course, potentially limiting assumptions in this question. Not all leaders have a greater good in mind – many on the sociopathic spectrum seek only personal advantage. Moreover, the greater good is in itself a slippery concept. Optimal functioning is also a concept, which may have different interpretations. I have taken for granted, for example, the inclusion within this term of a reasonable level of intelligence, as well as a lack of any serious mental disease, but ignored any aspects of physical disability.

These constraints accepted, in my reading and conversations, especially with coaches, who I supervise in their professional practice, I have sought a consistent pattern that integrates multiple perspectives (philosophy, religion, the science of adult development, well-being and the literature of coaching, mentoring and leadership). What emerged is a triad of core virtuous traits or qualities, which seem to underpin optimally functioning coaches, mentors and leaders. These are:

  • Compassion is a much more positive and useful trait than empathy. Empathy is about feeling with someone, and can easily lead to emotional overload, distancing and in extreme, desensitization. Compassion is feeling for another person and brings with it the desire to alleviate their pain. Key components of compassion are self-awareness, kindness, self-compassion, acceptance and equanimity. In a current study of high performing teams, one of the key observations is that the leaders of these teams tend to have a much greater sense of personal security than their counterparts in less successful teams. They have confidence both in themselves and in others, are forgiving of mistakes (their own or other people’s) and, because they have trust in themselves, are able to extend trust to others, empowering them to take decisions and self-manage.
  • Curiosity incorporates creativity, for an incurious mind does not easily put concepts together to generate new ideas. Curiosity causes us to explore our inner worlds (why and how do I think, feel, behave and function?), how we interface with the world outside of us, and how that world itself functions. Key components of curiosity include mindfulness, higher order reasoning, and learning orientation.
  • Courage is the capacity to do the right thing, while being aware of the personal and wider risks. Key components of courage include clarity of one’s own values, a deep sense of ethicality, being positively self-critical, being able to let go and move on, resilience to setbacks. Courage also encompasses the will to work with dreams (generated or espoused through Curiosity) until they become reality. It allows us to take tough decisions, to have conversations and to avoid dealing with issues we would rather avoid, and to behave in ways closer to the person we aspire to be.

Whether we are acting as coach, mentor or leader, our primary role is to help people make better sense of their internal and external worlds, so that they have more constructive choices for decisions they make about themselves and on behalf of others. In effect, we use our compassion, curiosity and courage to stimulate and support theirs. When we see failures of leadership, while the attributed cause may be related to lack of knowledge or skill, the root cause in every case I have examined can be attributed to a lack of one or more of these three core qualities. Poor decisions, for example, typically come from not wanting to acknowledge alternative perspectives or information (lack of Curiosity) and / or inability to challenge myopic thinking (lack of Courage) and/or ignoring or underestimating the impact upon stakeholders (lack of Compassion).

Much the same appears to hold true in coaching and mentoring. In observing hundreds of coaches, we observe a broad correlation between evidence of self-awareness and self-compassion and the depth and quality of the coaching/mentoring conversation. The most effective coaches and mentors are deeply interested in the other person and how they see their circumstances – the client is not a problem to be solved, but a world to explore together. And they have the courage both to release control of the conversation and to ask those difficult and penetrating questions that access the “beneficially painful” aspects of the client’s world.

Becoming Compassionate, Curious and Courageous doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time, reflection and practice. I have started to ask myself regularly What did I do today or this week) that made me more compassionate, more curious and more courageous? I conclude that I am still a “work in progress”!


ã David Clutterbuck 2016

Empathy vs compassion as a coach

4 Jul

Coaching textbooks are full of advice for coaches to develop their skills of empathy. It might seem to make common sense, but this advice doesn’t seem to be based on any credible evidence. In fact, the contrary may be true — empathy may be a dangerous and unhealthy addiction for the coach and an unhelpful distraction for the client. Research into the nature and impact of empathy as recently reported in New Scientist (14 May 2016, pages 33-35) reveals that modern living is causing an “empathy epidemic” and that people in the helping professions, which includes coaching and mentoring, are particular prone to “catching” stress from those they work with. Symptoms recorded for employees in hospitals include desensitisation to others’ feelings, increased anger and anxiety, and greater absenteeism. Other studies relate empathy to burnout.


The problem is much wider, however. Researchers have coined the term “emotional contagion” to describe how distress exhibited by one person — even a stranger or a fictional character in a movie — causes negative emotional and physical reactions in another. Empathetic overload can cause us to avoid helping situations, because we cannot cope with the effects upon ourselves.

Effective coaches and mentors deal with clients’ distress all the time. Indeed, we are often instrumental in bringing these feelings to the surface, so they can be addressed. The greater the emotional arousal that our empathy provokes in us, the harder it becomes to be objective and hence the harder to be genuinely helpful.

What is needed in these situations is not empathy, but compassion. Whereas empathy is about feeling with another person, compassion is about feeling for them. Neurologically, empathy and compassion use different brain resources.

Being compassionate allows us to take a step back in terms of emotional entanglement, focusing on both the person and their situation. Empathy traps us in the mode of “how would I feel and what would I do, if this happened to me?” and pushes us towards solutions that alleviate our own anxiety or distress. Compassion focuses our attention on relieving their suffering.

Compassion leads us towards considerations, such as:

  • What does this person most need right now?
  • What has to change for them to progress out of this situation?
  • What resources do they have within themselves to climb back to normality?
  • What positive change is possible in the client’s context?

So how can you develop compassion? Various approaches to compassion training have emerged in recent years, based on a mixture of perspectives and practice from neuroscience, Buddhist meditation and mindfulness. Central to all these approaches is that compassion is less an emotion than a mindset. The lesson from all of these is that compassion can be learned and enhanced. Experiments with clinicians and students in secondary and tertiary education also point to significant health benefits from becoming more compassionate, ranging from improved cardiovascular function, to enhanced immune systems and reduced inflammation.

We can categorise the process of developing compassion into three elements:

  • Widening the scope of who we are compassionate towards
  • Learning to be more self-compassionate. (Self-compassion gives us emotional strength and resilience, so we recover more quickly from embarrassment and bruised ego. That in turn makes it easier for us to admit and address our failings.
  • Creating the environment, where we can be compassionate towards others and ourselves.

Widening the scope of who we are compassionate towards

In general, the wider the scope of our compassion, the easier it is to adopt a compassionate approach as a coach. Neurological studies suggest that we find it easier to be compassionate to “in-groups” – family, friends, people we perceive to be like us. The more distant or “alien” to us, the less attention we pay to suffering and the more judgemental we tend to be. So sympathy for refugees can be muted by rationalisations such as, “Why can’t they sort the problem themselves?”

We can widen the scope of our compassion by seeking to understand the perspectives of out-groups, who are suffering. The best way to do this is to engage in dialogue with them, showing “empathetic curiosity” about them as individuals and about the situation, in which they find themselves. Listening to their stories has a powerful and durable impact on our emotional memory.

We can also raise our awareness of our own compassion limits. When we find ourselves irritated by a client’s attitudes or behaviours (or those of anyone we encounter), we can ask ourselves: Would I be feeling like this, if I were more compassionate towards them? How might greater compassion on my part help them think and behave differently?


More generally, we can develop wider compassion by reflecting on:

  • What kindness could I offer to someone, towards whom I feel disapproval?
  • How compassionate is my ideal self?
  • What’s the most generous thing I could think or do right now?


Learning to be more self-compassionate

We all tend to beat ourselves up about our weaknesses and mistakes – being “our own worst critic”. Even people, who seem to have high self-esteem, have agonising conversations with their inner critic. Being self-compassionate is not about silencing our inner critic; it evolved as a tool of survival and continues to play a valuable role in our development as individuals. However, like any other organ or system in human beings, the inner critic becomes dysfunctional, if it becomes overactive.

You can enhance self-compassion not by ignoring your inner critic (it will still be hard at work in your sub-conscious!) but changing how you listen to it. Assign it a name and a personality – treat it as if it were a real person. (This is even more powerful if you use an avatar in a virtual world like ProReal.) Approach the conversation with curiosity – “I want to understand what you are telling me and why.” Make it as real a dialogue as you can. Now thank your inner critic for their attempt to be helpful and tell them why you aren’t going to accept their advice or point of view this time. Shift now to a dialogue with your self-compassionate self – the very opposite of your inner critic. Finally, if you still feel anxious, use your coaching skills to facilitate a conversation between your inner critic and your self-compassionate self.

Being self-compassionate isn’t about denying our mistakes, bad thoughts or weaknesses. Rather, it is about coming to terms with them and accepting that we are all “works in progress” – organisms developing through trial and error. If we are not making mistakes, we are not growing. Focusing on how we let ourselves or other people down or didn’t live up to our values doesn’t help us to grow and improve (which is what the inner critic is supposed to support). Much more effective is to do what we would do with a client – focus on what learning can be extracted from the experience.

Useful questions to ask ourselves from time to time, when we reflect on our practice or when we experience a period of self-doubt, include:

  • What can I forgive myself for?
  • What simple kindness can I do for myself today (or in this situation)?
  • What would someone, who deeply loves me, say to me right now?


Creating the environment, where we can be compassionate towards ourselves and others

By environment, I don’t mean here a physical location. You can be compassionate towards other people anywhere. The environment is mainly to do with what is happening, both within you as a coach and immediately around you and the coachee. Compassion flourishes best in a state of calm, so the compassionate coach nurtures calm, even in the midst of chaos.

To provide a place of calm for our client, we have to establish calm within ourselves. Many coaches routinely undertake breathing exercises or brief meditation before a session and this clearly helps. However we do it, we want to bring balance and equanimity. Additionally, we can try to increase the level and quality of our patience, both with the client and ourselves, by aiming to slow down the coaching conversation, to say less and to place less emphasis on our own expectations from the session and from the client.

Within the place of calm, it becomes easier to be fully present with the client. In this moment, we offer two gifts to the client. One is our total attention, which allows them to feel sufficiently supported to attend more mindfully to their own feelings and their internal critic. The other is our wisdom – the knowledge by both coach and client that there is a resource of supportive experience and knowledge to call upon. Together our attention (mindfulness) and wisdom help us to resist over-identifying with the client and their situation.

In a compassionate coaching conversation, we might explore:

  • Thinking about how we think (metacognition)
  • Thinking about how we feel
  • Feeling about how we think
  • Feeling about how we feel (meta-emotion)

Each of these modes provides a different perspective. The greater the coach’s compassion, the deeper each perspective can be explored.

Useful questions for reflection include:

  • What might I and my client bring into the room that would undermine our compassion towards others?
  • What might I and my client bring into the room that would undermine our self-compassion?
  • How can I help my client find the space and the courage to be self-compassionate?