Archive | March, 2017

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 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