Archive | September, 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

Helping the coachee/ mentee overcome complacency

5 Sep

An implicit assumption within coaching and mentoring is that the coachee or mentee is motivated to change. That isn’t always the case and even when it is, there is a big difference between externally motivated change (doing something because you have to) and internally motivated change (doing something because you want to). Internally or intrinsically motivated desire for change will always be more powerful and more sustainable. The reluctant coachee/mentee is fairly easy to identify and therefore the issue of motivation can be confronted at an early stage. Solutions include helping them to find complementary goals that will motivate them (and on which the original, extrinsic goals can piggyback) and recontracting with all the key stakeholders. But what about when the learner exhibits enthusiasm and says they look forward to and value the sessions, but is clearly not deeply motivate to change?

When faced with someone, who appears to have little ambition to change, many coaches and mentors struggle and become frustrated. Among the symptoms that cause this frustration are:

  • Little or no sense of progress (revisiting the same conversations)
  • Lack of any sense of urgency
  • When the coachee or mentee says that they have found the session very useful, but doesn’t do anything with it – using the learning conversation as an intellectual exercise without any sense of immediate application
  • When there is little or no evidence of reflection between one session and the next
  • When the coachee or mentee doesn’t see the potential or need for substantial change

The change motivation matrix below is a simple way to establish how much energy someone is willing to invest in bringing about change in themselves and their circumstances. Someone, who has high satisfaction with their life and work, combined with a high desire for change is likely to be an “ideal” client. They will grab every challenge and every learning opportunity within their reach – then cast their eyes on other opportunities just out of reach. They typically use a coach or mentor as sounding board and source of subtle steerage, helping them bring coherence and focus to the wealth of possibilities they could pursue.

People with low satisfaction with their life or work, who have a high sense of change urgency, are also relatively easy to work with. They know what they want and why, they have the energy to invest in making it happen, but need help with the practicalities of change management.

People with low satisfaction with their life or work, who have a low sense of change urgency, pose a more complex problem. To quote Wharton professor Adam Grant[1]: “People who suffer the most from a given state of affairs are paradoxically the least likely to question, challenge, reject, or change it… people are motivated to rationalize the status quo – even if it goes directly against their interests… It’s an emotional painkiller. If the world is supposed to be this way, we don’t need to be dissatisfied with it.” The task here is to enable them to imagine the possibility of change and the benefits that change would bring. In part this involves helping them re-assess the costs of not changing. It may also involve addressing a range of self-limiting beliefs both about themselves as individuals and about their group identity.

People with high satisfaction with their life and work, along with low urgency for change, pose an even more difficult challenge. Why rock the boat? Arguments, such as that the world is changing anyway in ways that will make their lives less comfortable, will be listened to patiently, then politely ignored. One option is to discontinue the coaching or mentoring, on the grounds that it isn’t needed. Alternatively, we can seek to lift them from their complacency.

Change motivation matrix


  High satisfaction with life/ work Low satisfaction with life/ work
High sense of urgency to change Seeking continuous challenge and learning Focus on the “how” of change
Low sense of urgency to change Complacency Focus on the “why” of change and the possibility of change


The brief questionnaire below is a simple and useful way to bring these issues into the open. Simply ask the client which pair of statements most closely fits their situation. Then explore the story beneath that choice. Listen carefully for congruity – are they trying to convince themselves or you? If it doesn’t ring true, reflect this back and ask what they think is causing this impression.

  • I want to build on success
  • I see this as a great opportunity to learn and be stretched
  • I realise that I have to make some personal changes, but need help in bringing them about
  • I’m not happy with / don’t feel stretched by my current role & want to do something about it now
  • I don’t get much satisfaction from my work, but that’s just the way things are
  • Things could be (much) better, but it’s too difficult to fight the system
  • I don’t have any major issues I want to address
  • I am content with my life and work as it is

One distinction that will rapidly become clear from the narrative is between complacency that derives from a situation, where things are actually OK, and one where the client is blanking out major problems, pretending they don’t exist. We can describe these as functional complacency and dysfunctional complacency. A good example of the latter would be automatically dismissing 360-degree feedback as biased or irrelevant. The experiences of dozens of coaches in supervision provide a clear lesson here: it is far better to stop the coaching at this point, with a clear invitation to resume once they are ready to address the issues, than to plough on in hopes of a change of attitude. One practical approach is to facilitate conversations between the client and some of their stakeholders, whose opinions they respect, structured to allow them to engage with those colleagues’ perceptions and observations.

Working with a complacent client isn’t easy, so don’t expect 100% success. It may be that they are getting all the excitement and fulfilment they want from their life outside work and would rather invest their energy there. Our objective is to open their minds to the positive outcomes that could flow from stepping outside of their comfort zone.

Here are some powerful questions and approaches that may bring about a shift in mindset.


  • Where do you find the fun in your work? (When is the last time you really laughed at work?)
  • If you were to reinvent yourself, what would be different?
  • When did you last feel you had done something really special?
  • What could you do today or this week that would take you outside of your comfort zone?
  • What’s your strategy for avoiding boredom?
  • What’s the legacy you want to leave here at work?
  • What do you most regret not having done in your working life? What’s preventing you sorting that now?


  • Looking back on your career, what’s the difference you have made? How could you make a bigger difference in the next five years than you have in the past 30?
  • How would you describe your energy level at work? What would a high energy state look like? How would that make you feel about yourself?
  • Research into plateaued managers finds that many people, who are freewheeling, re-energise their careers when they become mentor to a younger person, who challenges and stretches them. Energy contagion of this kind can be powerful!

Checking your own assumptions

“Complacency” is a very negative label and one to be used with care. You might well choose to use other language – for example, referring to low energy states. Or invite the client to find their own descriptor as in “I’m reluctant to describe this as complacency, because I think it’s more complex than that. What words would you use?” The advantage of this is that it allows them to explore their situation without feeling judged or defensive – and it brings into the open factors, which might not otherwise have emerged.

If your heart sinks at the thought of the next meeting with a “complacent” coachee or mentee, reflect upon your own expectations. Instead of assuming that you have failed, if they don’t re-energise themselves, consider that a positive outcome of the learning dialogue may be a deeper understanding on the client’s part of what gives them their sense of contentment and how they might retain that in the midst of inevitable change. And that might be all that is needed to switch them back on to the value of continuing personal growth.


© David Clutterbuck, 2016

[1] Adam Grant (2016) Originals: How non-conformists changed the world, Viking, New York

Helping the coachee or mentee interpret behaviour

5 Sep

One of the common and dangerous misunderstandings of managers in organisations is called correspondence bias[1]. We tend to assuming that someone else’s behaviour (positive or negative) can be attributed to fixed personality traits (for example, the need to control, or risk aversion), while explaining our own bad behaviour as a reaction to circumstances. Gilbert identifies four root causes for our misinterpretation of other people’s behaviour:

  • We lack full awareness of the situation
  • We have unrealistic expectations of them
  • We make exaggerated assessments of behaviour
  • We fail to correct our initial assumptions

Correspondence bias is closely allied to two other unhelpful patterns of thinking: attribution bias and confirmation bias. Attribution bias occurs when we make unevidenced assumptions about other people’s motivations or character. So we tend, for example, to assume that competitors are less moral or hard-working than we are. In the case of direct reports or working colleagues, we often project on them unconscious motivations of our own, which we would prefer not to have or are ashamed of. Confirmation bias occurs when we only notice behaviour that reinforces an opinion we have about someone and ignore all the evidence to the contrary.

As a coach or mentor, we can help clients overcome these narrow and judgemental mindset by helping them to become more self-aware of how these biases arise and play out in their interactions with colleagues.

A first step is to normalise the process, by which these biases arise – for example, with some examples of your own. An example might be: “When I see you take time to answer my questions, my first instinct is to assume that you are avoiding being honest with yourself, because that is what I have encountered with another client. But I know that an alternative explanation (one of many possibles) is that you are actually doing the opposite – taking time to reflect deeply and take a good look at what is going on for you inside.”

Knowing that we all regularly fall into these biases allows the client to give themselves permission to explore key relationships in their own workplace.

Next, you can encourage them to name one or two positive and negative traits they ascribe to colleagues, who they see as difficult. Now ask them to provide at least 10 recent examples of these traits in action, both positive and negative. They may struggle to do this, in which case this can be a homework task for them. Stress that it’s important to be looking for examples of both.

Continue with this line of enquiry with questions, such as:

  • What stops you noticing information and examples that disconfirm your perception of this person?
  • How much are you influenced by other people’s perceptions and biases?
  • What broad group(s) would you place this person in? What are your conscious or unconscious assumptions about that group? In what ways might you be confusing your assumptions about that group, with your expectations of the individual?
  • What commonalities of circumstance are there when this person appears to exhibiting the negative trait, and more positive traits?
  • What is the positive side of the negative trait? (Behaviour that annoys us in another person is often the result of over-use of a useful strength.)
  • Who else values this person? What do they see in them that’s different to what you see?
  • What other interpretations (more positive or more negative) might explain their behaviour? What makes each of these explanations more or less credible than others, including the perspective you started with?
  • How could you get to know the values that drive this person? (What’s the conversation you would need to have to find out?)

The aim of this exploration is not necessarily to change their opinion of the other person and their behaviour. It is rather to help them understand that behaviour and develop different strategies for working with it, with a wider range of choices about how they react. If we view the person as having fixed traits, then we close our minds to the possibilities of assisting them to change their behaviours. Taking a situational, contextual perspective enables us to see them as capable of change (which most people are) and to focus on practical ways to assist them in doing so.

The coach-mentor can also act as a role model for the kind of conversation the client can have with colleagues about behaviour. In particular, we can help them become comfortable with differentiating between behavioural intent (the outcome we want to achieve from our behaviour) and behavioural impact (the reactions and interpretations of other people). Having these conversations about their own behaviour equips them with the mental patterns to have similar conversations with direct reports and colleagues, or even with family members.


© David Clutterbuck, 2016

[1] Daniel Gilber & Patrick Malone (1995) The Correspondence Bias, Psychological Bulletin 1171) pp21-38

Five modes of questioning

5 Sep

Asking questions is something we do all the time. It’s essential to how we learn, how we keep safe, how we collaborate with other people, how we make decisions, and so on… It’s a core skill of being human, yet few people stop to think about how they ask questions or whether they could be better at doing so.

One simple way to help people become more aware of how they use questions is to acquaint them with the five modes of questioning. These are:

  1. Questioning to demonstrate superiority or undermine. For example: “You thought that would work, did you?” or “What else would you expect from someone like that?” With such questions, the answer – usually highly judgemental – is implied. Ego-driven, in this mode the questioner is neither expecting nor listening for an answer.
  2. Questioning to elicit specific information. This is about plugging predictable, bounded gaps in what we already know. These questions tend to be precise and based on pre-existing assumptions about an issue. While less ego-focused than questions to demonstrate superiority, our motivation is our focused on our own knowledge and intentions, not those of the other person. Even when asking about the other person’s opinions or feelings, it is in service of our own goals.
  3. Questioning for self-curiosity. Here we don’t have a fixed agenda for our enquiry. We are acting on the instinct that this might be interesting, useful or both – not just for ourselves, but for other people in the conversation. This is the territory of co-learning.
  4. Questioning for other-curiosity. This is at the heart of good coaching and mentoring. Here we use questions to help the other person structure their reflection and creative thinking. We move from ego to “we-go” – the exploration together of ideas the learner has not previously considered deeply.
  5. Seeking the right question. A useful coaching or mentoring question is “What’s the question you can ask yourself that might change the way you see this?” or some variation on the same theme. In each of the previous modes, we are able to draw on experience that gives context to the questions that come to mind. In this mode, however, the context itself is ill-defined. The “right” question will only emerge by questioning the assumptions behind the questions that have gone before. In this mode, no-one knows the answer and each question that does arise may simply be a stepping stone to a better question, with even greater insight-provoking potential. To achieve this, the coach-mentor and the client both have to let go of their egos, engaging with each other’s curiosity.

Consigning the “demonstrating superiority” mode of questioning to our behavioural trash can, while achieving more of a balance between the other four modes has substantial benefits, not just for the quality of coaching and mentoring, but also for workplace conversations more generally. Having the self-awareness and flexibility to move into the other-curiosity and seeking the right question modes can enhance engagement, teamwork and collective creativity – all of which are related to higher productivity and team performance.


© David Clutterbuck, 2016

Helping the coachee/ mentee develop a wider community of support

5 Sep

One of the most common questions in coaching and mentoring is “Who can you get to support you in achieving this goal?” When people struggle to respond, as is often the case, or feel that they are on their own, it may indicate that they haven’t invested sufficiently in creating their community of support. Research in recent years into what makes people support each other (through projects such as the international Human Generosity Project) provide useful clues on how we build strong communities of support.

Knowing lots of people doesn’t create a support network. You can have thousands of friends on Facebook or connections on Linked In, but that doesn’t mean you have the kind of relationship with them that will cause them to respond to your request for help. It’s the quality of the relationships that count and the key to this appears to be your own generosity towards others.

It turns out that expecting reciprocity isn’t how the system works. In less modernised societies, members of communities support each other in case of need, without any expectation of payback. Having a positive reputation as someone who helps others in need increases the chances that others will be generous towards you, if you are in future need, but it may not be the people you helped, who will then help you. In an article examining current research in this area[1], Bob Holmes cites several examples of the generosity concept, including the Masai tradition of osotua (literally, umbilical cord) where anyone in need can ask for and automatically receive help from their network of friends and neighbours.

The limitation of these concepts in practice is that this kind of generosity is dependent on knowing the recipient as an individual. By contrast, in developed societies, where there is often less sense of community, people tend to be generous towards distant groups, such as victims of famine or earthquake, but less likely to give to beggars on the local streets.

So what are the implications of this for helping coachees or mentees build their own communities of support? A generosity-based strategy involves four steps:

  • Identifying the communities, which you are already a part of or would value being part of
  • Establishing what needs members of these communities have, which you can help with. These needs aren’t usually monetary; they are more commonly information, encouragement, moral support, connections or access to resources
  • Allocating time (planned or ad hoc) to be generous – giving of time is often seen as a particularly generous act
  • Being brave in admitting when you need help and asking for it

If people in these communities know you as someone who is appropriately generous, then at least some of them will respond positively.

Some useful coaching/ mentoring questions include:

  • How does knowing you affect other people’s willingness to support you?
  • What could you do to ensure that people, whose support you need, know and value you?
  • Who is there around those people, whose positive opinion of you would influence those people you want to be more supportive of you?
  • How can you build your reputation as someone generous with their time, knowledge etc?
  • How can you make others aware of your needs for support? (What’s stopping you from asking?)
  • How could you be more generous to yourself?


© David Clutterbuck, 2016

[1] Holmes, Bob (2016) Generous by nature, New Scientist 13 August pp26-28

Helping the coachee or mentee pitch an original idea

5 Sep

A common misconception in organisations is that it’s easy to sell a good idea. The reality, as detailed in the book Originals, by Adam Grant, is quite the opposite. Among the misconceptions his and other research identify are that:

  • Good new ideas are generally welcomed. The evidence says the opposite. In one study across manufacturing, service, retail, and non-profit setting, the more frequently employees voiced concerns and ideas upward, the less likely they were to receive raises and promotions over a two-year period.
  • You should look for people, who are friendly and agreeable. In practice, it is disagreeable people, who provide better feedback on original ideas. (Agreeable people have a tendency not to want to upset the status quo. Disagreeable people are more likely to take the idea on board, once they have worked it through and found any flaws.)
  • You should look for support from middle management. In reality, it is people at the top and bottom of organisations, who are more likely to listen to new ideas with an open mind, because they have less to lose. Middle managers most often default to the status quo.

So when a coachee or mentee complains that their ideas are not being listened to, here are some ways you can help:

  • Explore with them how they could put their idea to its most rigorous test, by taking it to people, who are most likely to oppose it and by asking them what’s needed to make it feasible and/or beneficial. Making the conversation with these stakeholders a process of enquiry (comparable to market research) makes it more likely people will listen to and engage with the concept, than if they feel they are being sold to. Help them prepare for these conversations firstly by taking the role of critic themselves and secondly by practising how they will respond positively to criticism, by separating criticism of the idea from criticism of themselves. The ideal accolade from this kind of conversation is that it was “thought-provoking”.
  • Help them list who else might share their frustration, with a view to building a movement – a loose network of other people, who can provide moral support and engage with their bosses and stakeholders not as lone voices, but as a common interest group. When the same message comes from multiple sources, individuals are less likely to be labelled as troublemakers. Once a decision-maker has heard the same idea a dozen times from different directions, they are much more likely to consider it seriously. Many times, they will find that the idea is not as original as they thought – other people have the same thoughts and are equally frustrated at not being able to gain traction with it.
  • Discuss with them how to let go of the need to retain personal ownership of the idea, seeing it instead as a gift to the organisation and to colleagues. Ask: “Is it more important to you that this idea gets used, or that you have the kudos?”

Some useful questions include:

  • Who ultimately has the authority to make this decision? What would make them want to break with the status quo?
  • How could you gain permission to demonstrate your idea on a small scale, ideally within your own area of responsibility?
  • Who else cares about this issue and why? What is preventing them from using their voice?
  • How can you turn your idea from a proposed solution to a captivating question? For example: “Why can’t we routinely see every patient within 15 minutes of their appointment time?” “How much waste is really inevitable?” “What would it look like, if we halved the time from order to delivery?” This helps to open up the dialogue to even better solutions. It also protects the idea-holder from being dismissed as obsessive – it’s a lot easier to gain agreement that there is room for improvement than to promote a specific, first-thought solution.
  • What can you and your network do to create a sense of urgency about this issue? A study of hundreds of managers and employees promoting green agendas in their organisations found that the critical factor for success was not whether the issue was seen as a threat or opportunity, but the urgency, with which it needed to be addressed.


© David Clutterbuck, 2016