Why have a coach?

Having decided to do one thing rather than another, it is always interesting to reflect on the choice and consider what informed it. It might come as a surprise to know that our beliefs play a big, albeit subconscious, part in our decision-making. Not only this, but what we think and feel about ourselves is all wrapped up in our beliefs as well.

Beliefs can best be likened to software that we have unconsciously written, and which runs in the background continually shaping what we think about ourselves and influencing our behaviour; they are the software for our unacknowledged auto pilot, our in-built navigational system that guides us through our lives. For most of the time the software works just fine but at other times it needs some maintenance, some seeing to. Why? From the moment we come into the world we are forming beliefs, based on inferences from experiences. And we develop beliefs as a means of keeping ourselves safe. Just imagine if we burnt ourselves on a flame and then failed to believe that flames can harm us! As we mature our beliefs do as well and are not solely focussed on physical harm but social and emotional harm too. In short, we develop more nuanced beliefs about staying safe in social environments. Our social survival, after all, depends on how well we relate to other people. So why do our beliefs, if they are so good at keeping, us safe sometimes need seeing to?

By and large our beliefs are enabling and helpful. We do, however, have a capacity to develop less helpful and sometimes quite debilitating beliefs. We might, for example, get the wrong end of the stick by giving negative meanings to other peoples’ communication. Our meaning-making brains keep us safe, most of the time but there are other times when they let us down. It is important to remember that beliefs are neither real nor independent of us: they are the outcomes of our perceptions and come from the subjective meanings we give to experience.

Perceptions are often at the root of fractured relationships. We may, for example, work with a new colleague and decide that the partnership is a good one and believe that some good work can be achieved. The basis for the belief might very well be rooted in the fact that the new colleague is very much like ourselves. We like and get on with people like ourselves. But what happens when the colleague is not like us? We might easily infer that the unfamiliar tone of voice or quirky mannerisms are his way of signalling his dislike of us … and it will be either awkward or impossible to work with him. This is a perception which solidifies into a belief with all of the accompanying uncomfortable feelings which can eat away at confidence and self-esteem.

The point here is that we are the authors of our beliefs. We generate them on the back of how we infer or choose to make meanings from our experience. We are generating the software that goes into our own navigational systems and we use the co-ordinates, usually in the form of internal self-dialogue, to make unconscious decisions which can lead to disparaging feelings about ourselves. But how easy is to think about or even acknowledge this software? Simple? Not really. Our belief systems are deeply ingrained and embedded parts of our beings. We have quite literally grown up with our beliefs and it is difficult to stand back and to be objective about them even if we were aware of them. And this is where coaching can be very helpful.

 A coach can question beliefs and, very importantly, challenge them by asking for the evidence that supports them. As humans we have at once a useful and an unhelpful capacity to generalise. Just because something happens maybe three times it does not necessarily mean it proves anything beyond doubt. We might for example get cancelled several times by our boss and then assume that she is avoiding us. But what we might not know, however, is that her partner has been hospitalised and she is having to visit, and manage childcare. A coach can engage with our beliefs and look with us for the supporting evidence. A coach can help us to see things differently. Or, put another way, start the job of re-writing the software for the guidance system with the help of actual rather than subjectively fabricated evidence.

There have been occasions when people have very animatedly described workplace and personal goals that they would like to achieve only then to be reined in when they begin to think about their capacity to attain them. Their often tenuously evidenced self-beliefs get in the way. When I hear doubt and hesitation, and I acknowledge Nancy Kline’s work here*, I will ask What are you assuming about yourself that might stop you from achieving what you want? It is at this point that the limiting self-beliefs tumble out – Nobody thinks what I have to say is important, I’ve never been listened to etc – and the enthusiasm to achieve the goal is dented. But to then ask What ideas would you have about getting what you want if you knew that people did value what you say? is a way of punching out of a self-constructed mind cell and seeing exciting, unthought of possibilities.

Asking the question What do I believe about myself? is the beginning of a significant journey. A journey that on the one hand will explain the reasons for decisions we take and on the other why we feel the way we do about ourselves. We do not spring into the world with fully formed beliefs about ourselves: beliefs are learned. They are constructs, outcomes of our inferences, our generalisations and are very often tempered by our capacity to distort information to suit our own view of the world. But anything that we have learned can be unlearned and re-learned. We do not have to subscribe to long embedded constructs that might have served us well in the past but do less so in the present. We can re-assess and decide what is helpful and what is not. We do not have to be what we think we are. A coach can help with the process of renewal.

To begin a journey of self-reflection alone is not impossible. But to have a coach alongside to ask  questions, questions that we might never even have thought about, let alone ask, can help to break out of tired loops of thinking that keep returning the same old problems and unhelpful answers. A coach’s mission is to enable fresh, generative thinking: the antidote to beliefs that all too often stop us from doing what we want and being who we want to be.

*Nancy Kline Time to Think (1999)

Ron Piper April 2021

It’s not so much the fish, more about the water they swim in

What must happen for people to be the best that they can be in the workplace? What motivates to do a great job them? It has always fascinated me that while one team can be doing very well, another team, perhaps at the end of the corridor in the same building, is mediocre at best. What is the difference that is making the difference? In many instances the team members are similar: the same experience, qualifications and, by and large, the same temperaments and outlooks. So, if it is not the people, what is the influencing variable? Very simply, the social and emotional climate in which people work is critical.

In his book Why We Do What We Do, Edward Deci argued, with the benefit of an impressive evidence base, that we are at our best when three key needs are being met: competence, autonomy, relatedness (CAR). People yearn so strongly to feel competent or effective in dealing with their environment that competence could be thought of as a human need. We must be good to survive. Initially good at hunting, now good socially and at work. Without competence at work, we will not survive. When feeling free and volitional in our actions we embrace activity with interest and commitment. We are being authentic. When controlled, we are pressured and act without personal endorsement. We are alienated. People feel the need to relate to others amid being effective and autonomous. This is the need for relatedness: the need to love and be loved, to care and be cared for. Put another way, when these three needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness are being met, we our happy, motivated, and productive.

Some team leaders are, by nature, CAR leaning. Their experiences, beliefs and successes lead them to act and behave, albeit unconsciously, in very effective ways. Indeed, if asked to explain why their teams are effective, they might be hard pushed to explain. And therefore, modelling the practice of successful team leaders and filtering what they do through a CAR lens can be so beneficial for an organisation looking to improve. It is about distilling and sharing their magic.

Granted, less effective team leaders can observe their more successful colleagues. But it is not simply a case of imitating observed behaviours. There needs to be a deeper engagement with successful practice which is to do with beliefs. The successful team believes that she must begin any project with a dialogue aimed at promoting competence: she believes that for team members to be competent, they need to have appropriate skills and resources and that it is her job to make this happen. Questions like, Tell me if there is anything else you need to know or be able to do to complete this job? and Is there something else you need to  learn before starting?  are good ones to ask at the beginning of a project. Similarly, To get a great outcome, tell me what other resources you need? is another good starting point. The effective team leader is always guarding against failure and providing the conditions for demonstrating competence. And the very act of doing this, is a measure of the care she has for her team members and the extent to which she has their psychological well-being at heart.

Less successful team leaders invariably find it challenging to let go and to trust their team members. If there is a pervasive, controlling climate of mistrust, team members will find it difficult to engage or take responsibility for outcomes. Who would when there is an assumption that everything that is done will ultimately be the result of the team leader’s actions? Offering team members, a degree of autonomy within a framework of accountability – usually agreed criteria informed milestones – is another facet of competence. Importantly, the very act of offering team members an autonomous context in which to work deepens relationships because people are being trusted. And having a sense of personal responsibility for a job or project just about guarantees a much greater degree of commitment: team members are no longer working just for the organisation; they are working for themselves and creating opportunities to showcase their worth. There is a lot in it for them.

We have much to learn from fortunate colleagues who have unconsciously assimilated the CAR mindset. However, team leaders who want to emulate their success need not feel despondent. With observation and astute questioning – What decided you to let that person work independently? and How did you decide to do the additional training? – they can tune into the thinking that gets great outcomes. Granted successful team leaders will argue that they do what they do because it is just them – It’s the way I am! But what they do is a learned behaviour (albeit an unconscious one), and anything learned can be learned by others. This aside, though, aspirant excellent team leaders can make an immediate start by looking at how they set up new projects using a CAR framework and asking questions such as:

  • How will I make sure that my team members will be able to prove their competence? What do I need to find out about my team for them to be competent? What do I need to check?
  • How much autonomy can I give to each team member? How might I help team members who are lacking in self-belief? How will I measure progress if I’m not doing the job myself?
  • How will I show on a day-today basis that I care about my team members and their well-being?

The answers to these questions will shape work practices for the better, deepen relationships and create an altogether different, enabling architecture. It is, after all, not about the fish, more the water they swim in.

Ron Piper March 2021

What’s Your Sentence?

Retirement brings with it the opportunity to reflect, to take account and above all to ask the question, So, what was that all about? I retired from a career in education which included working as a classroom English teacher, heading up a large department, working as a senior leader and finally, training teachers. In all that time – nearly 40 years – I worked passionately, with great conviction and ever driven by what I see and understand now to have been an unconscious and unarticulated pro-social intent. However, whether because of lack of time (I’m sure many teachers can understand this one!) or just knowing that I was just good at my job, I never took the opportunity to fully explain to myself, my mission or purpose. The weeks leading to my retirement, though, prompted me to focus on this question.

Clare Boothe Luce, an adviser to J F Kennedy, once said to him that A great man is one sentence. Without a single sentence to shape thinking and behaviour, the greater the chances of becoming distracted, confused and being less impactful. So, what was my single, and hitherto unarticulated sentence? What was the single sentence that had lain dormant, nestling beneath a vague pro-social intent that had got me out of bed every morning to suffer inept political interference and to work with some very challenging and often unappreciative students? After some reflection it came down to this: I’m here to help people to find – or re-discover – their voice. Once I repeated this to myself, my career made perfect sense. This is what I had been doing. And formulating this sentence was very timely and important to my new career as a coach and trainer. Clarity around mission and purpose is an essential part not only of business success but also to personal well-being. In my case, helping people to find or re-discover their voices will guide and shape the ethos of my business and make me a very happy person at the same time.

I didn’t of course manage to crystallise my one sentence unaided. I am indebted to Robert Dilts and the logical levels. Looking back on my career, I must confess to spending far too much time concerning myself with the lower, skills and behaviour levels at the expense of looking upward. Schools, after all, work on a medical model of diagnosing teachers’ skills deficits and then remediating them. But without looking upwards to see who we are and what it is we are doing, and for what purpose, we can so easily become disillusioned and frustrated which can have hugely detrimental consequences in the classroom. Perhaps schools need to pay equal attention to up-thinking as well as upskilling? And what better way to do this than using NLP tools in a coaching styled learning environment? Teacher education and teacher support need to take this thinking into account. I think I was fortunate in that for all my career I had embraced a pro-social intent, albeit unconsciously, which served as a driver. But I tend to think now how much better I would have been had I planned every lesson, designed every scheme of work and trained every teacher with I am here to help people to find – or re-discover – their voice at the very forefront of my thinking; written at the top of every planning page. I could then have evaluated the plan far more easily: Does this lesson plan help pupils to find their voice? No … then throw it out. The time that could have been saved!

Come the Autumn I will again be training school mentors with responsibility for trainee teachers on teaching practice. My belief is that a trainee teacher’s experience of her PGCE course is only as good as the relationship she has with her mentor. But that relationship is largely influenced by the mentor’s sense of mission and identity: What is it that I’m doing and for what purpose? And what is my single sentence? The mentor’s thinking around, and the answer to these questions, will have a direct bearing on the success and well-being of the trainee teacher. Thoughts prompt emotions which create actions that get responses. Everything starts and ends with what you think. But for some mentors attending my trainings, my focus on the mentor/trainee relationships comes as something of a surprise. There is often an expectation that I will guide them through a handbook brim-full of administrative details which cover the frequency of lesson observations, assignment requirements and the report deadlines which can so easily eclipse the teacher consciousness forming conversations.

Thinking of my own ‘sentence,’ I often begin a mentor training meeting by asking Who are you when you are mentoring your trainee teacher? The range of responses is interesting and fully explains the variation in trainees’ experiences of their PGCE courses. For some mentors, the job is seen as overseeing the progress and development of trainees using the Teachers’ Standards as a framework for reference. For others, the job is about creating the next generation of teachers and passing on a little bit of my teaching DNA. Opportunity for professional immortality! If Alexander Pope was right in saying that language is the dress of thought, then clearly with these two examples, it is possible to see the huge divergence of thinking around identity and how, of course, this would impact a mentor/trainee relationship.

I often bemuse trainees at the beginning of their PGCE courses by asking What do you want pupils to say about you when you retire or How do you want pupils to remember you in years to come when they have long left school? After the shock of thinking about their retirement at the beginning of their training course, trainees respond in very similar ways. No trainees ever say they want to be remembered for their outstanding differentiation and neither do they want to hear a pupil say that their assessment for learning is awesome. And yet how much of a premium do PGCE courses and the Teachers’ Standards place on these aspects of teacher education? Most trainees want to hear things such as Mr Smith always had time to explain or Ms Smith never made me feel like an idiot in class. My next question to the trainees is So, if you know what you want to hear at the end of your career, what will you do on a daily, lesson by lesson basis, to make it happen? It is this question that provides the start point for thinking about What’s my sentence?

Ron Piper September 2021

So what, exactly, is NLP?

The letters stand for Neuro Linguistic Programming. The Neuro Linguistic part is about the language of the mind: pictures, sounds, feelings, tastes, smells and self-talk which are stored away in our brain circuitry and used to make our way in, and to make sense of, the world. The Programming part is to do with the embedded patterns of thinking, behaviour and beliefs which we all have and operate on. For instance, if someone is asked to speak in public and they are not used to doing this, they may have a nervous response, which is a pattern of behaviour they run. A trained NLP practitioner draws upon techniques and approaches to help people change their default patterns of behaviour and communication, so they can have more of what they want and less of what they don’t want. In the case of the above example, an NLP practitioner would help the person to stop running a nervous response at the prospect of public speaking and move them to start thinking about the opportunities that are being offered. And so achieve a totally different and more beneficial outcome.

As well as being a powerful technology for bringing about personal change, NLP is also to do with modelling or, more simply perhaps, describing the difference that makes the difference. Have you ever wondered why one person can perform a skill so much better than another? What is it that the successful person does differently which gets such great outcomes? Simply saying They’re just good at it isn’t very helpful to those of us who would like to get better at a particular skill. NLP technology provides the means to make visible what it is that successful people do. Using NLP modelling techniques, trained practitioners are able to make transparent the thinking, beliefs, behaviours and language of successful people which are the differences that makes the difference. Understanding the difference can have significant impact on how we can then develop ourselves. Some people have, in fact, called NLP the new science of success and a way to getter better results, faster.

What is NLP in a line? NLP is about achieving the changes you want in your life.

Ron Piper January 2021

The Lesson Thought and the Lesson Taught

Training to be a teacher can be an emotional roller
coaster: lesson triumphs can quickly melt away
following classroom car crashes and dismal failures
can be rapidly followed by the sunny uplands of success. And
of course, a persistent flow of well-intentioned advice from
seasoned colleagues, each of whom is operating from their own
experientially developed model of learning, can sometimes add
to a disintegrating sense of self based on thoughts such as “Now
why didn’t I do that? Why didn’t I see that?” and “I must be so
stupid not to have thought of that!” Advice implies a better way, a
way that, in many trainees’ experience, is understandably absent
from their practice. So, what is the alternative? Just how do we
help a trainee teacher to construct a model of good teaching and
learning for themselves? And what, specifically, is the role of the
established colleague in the process of helping a trainee in all of
this? In short, how should we be thinking about feedback?

NLP assumes that we have all the resources we need. With this
thought in mind and after observing trainee teachers, I always
invite them to compare, either as a reflection or in discussion, the
lesson they taught with the lesson they had in mind. After this,
I ask trainees to think about the changes that they would make,
in the light of experience, to the lesson just taught. It is always
interesting to hear about the changes and then, with the logical
levels to hand, locate any issues. For instance, a trainee might
identify questioning as a change area but feel that she is not very
skilled in asking questions. Alternatively, the trainee might find
the role of the questioner an uncomfortable fit with how she sees herself in the classroom. In both examples, using the logical levels
as a template for coaching helps the trainee to critically evolve
her own construct of good teaching and learning and what she
needs to do to deliver it. My role, as the established colleague,
rather than to offer my construct of teaching and learning as
the gold standard, is to ask the questions that prompt critically
framed thinking. In my experience, trainees are very adept at
realising what needs to change for improved student outcomes.
Or, put another way, understanding the differences that will make
the difference.

Yes, this is a variation of watching oneself in a movie and then
thinking about what needs to change. But the central cognitive
principle here, and indeed in the movie watching, is contrastive
analysis: how is the idealised (planned lesson) different from
the reality of the delivered one? Teachers of all stripes are very
familiar with AoL (assessment of learning) and AfL (assessment
for learning). Now it strikes me that the thinking processes
involved in contrastive analysis exactly correlate with AoL and
AfL: this is where I am, and this is what I need to do to change.
And isn’t this, after all, how coaching works? From our earliest
years, indeed from the moment we are born, we are continually
making comparisons – some conscious but most of them
unconscious – with our actions and outcomes and then pondering
our actions and how they might change to get us what we want.
Assessment is hardwired into our genes: this is what has possibly
made us the most successful species on the planet. We can
imagine a desired future and then cognitively engage with how
we can achieve it. Sure, a bit of feedback from somebody who
has been successful in the past is helpful, but for the experience
of learning to be meaningful and uniquely useful, we are better
off if we come to realisations and actions because of our own
thinking. If we are aware of what works for us, we are then able to
generalise outcomes to other situations with a comforting degree
of confidence. The ability to assess is already a firmly established
part of how we operate. We need, then, to tap into this with our
coaching-styled approach with trainee teachers.

The great benefit of a coaching-styled approach to feedback is
that trainees identify and have ownership of their future teaching
goals: goals that are unique to their own development and which
are the outcomes of critically reflective thinking. Yes, I could tell a
trainee how they could improve, but the advice would be coming
from my own, subjectively developed model of learning: my own
construct of good teaching and learning. Trainees, like the rest
of us, know when a lesson is not going well: they process the
somatic information, they engage emotionally. Self-awareness
in the classroom is rich currency; without it, trainees will remain
oblivious to the need for change. However, using the movie/
contrastive analysis approach enables trainees to turn these
emotionally charged experiences into goals. They are the experts
on themselves: they know what needs to change. And it is a
given, that the only thing the trainee can change in the classroom
is themselves.

In my experience, trainee teachers are quite willing and expert
in telling observers what needs to change, and they do it often
with complete disregard to their ego. They want to learn and to
improve their practice. The difficulty is getting the trainees to
limit their self-criticism to just several key points. A coaching-styled approach, however, calls for some hard, focussed thinking and helps to make the process of developing a construct of good teaching and learning manageable and specific: And thinking
about the observations you have made, which of them would
you act upon? And if you acted upon just one, what do you
think the impact would be? And is it possible to take this action
immediately? What would stop you from taking this action?

We want our students to be critically minded, self-evaluating
citizens. It makes a great deal of sense, therefore, to have the
same intention for our trainee teachers. They can model the
process for students on the back of their experiences. Providing a
framework for thinking and critical reflection in a coaching-styled
environment affords trainee teachers the opportunity to evolve
their own construct of good teaching and learning; moreover, it
builds confidence and lays the foundations for producing teachers
who have capacity for reflection and self-leadership. And aren’t
these the very teachers we want in our classrooms?

Ron Piper November 2021

I’m no good until you’re good

Teamwork is a critical factor in organisational and business success. But some teams seem to work better than others and I would argue that the quality of the relationships within teams is likely the key difference that makes the difference.

In some teams, inevitably perhaps, there are those for whom a team role chafes with the impulse to be the standout star: ego can be hard to manage despite the team talks. This is a function of a culture that continually rewards individual success, and it is what we are used to and accept as the norm. In fact, we might feel downright cheated if our boss failed to shine a light on our personal achievements. And to some extent you might be justified. Yes, there is a place to applaud individual achievements (how else will we feel competent in the workplace?), but for long lasting, and on-going achievement and success, I wonder if the applause should be louder for what the team achieves?

Subverting ego and dampening down a culture of individual achievement is not easy. However, in some cultures it is a received cultural practice. In South Africa, for example, the word “ubuntu” describes a philosophy that considers the success of the group above that of the individual. * Here, people acknowledge the inter-related nature of their beings; everything they do is connected to other people. What they do exists only because of how other people experience it. Ubunto grows out of the belief that I’m no good until you’re good. The bigger achievement is not for the self, but rather for the collective achievement. Ubunto, though, is not about doing something, it is more about how you are. How you think about and how you relate to the people around you. What you do is for their good.

With a mindset that emphasises the collective good, instead of the individual, organisational and business relationships deepen and mature. People feel connected and motivated. In short, they feel cared for.

* Lundin and Nelson Ubuntu! An Inspiring Story About an African Tradition of Teamwork and Collaboration (New York: Broadway Books)

Ron Piper February 2021