If you thought you were organised – think again

In the last month I have realised a lot, I hesitate from saying ‘learned a lot’. It is more that I now understand what my Advisor said to me 2 months ago. She said, once you have finished this module someone else could pick it up and do the project. I now get it and, most importantly, believe that I can deliver such a project proposal.

Initially, I didn’t start because I didn’t know what to do which was daunting. Finally I thought that re-reading the module manual was better than doing nothing. It worked as things that seemed meaningless three weeks earlier now made sense and were helpful. I discovered the book “Doing Work Based Research” (Costley et al) which covers this module well. It also explains, in ‘a nutshell’, some of the larger words that academia is fond of. Although however many times I read the definitions of Ontology and Epistemology, I still don’t understand what ‘your epistemological perspective’ means. Initially I wasn’t bothered until I remembered that there are 3 aspects to this doctorate: Firstly I need to meet the required academic standards. Then there’s personal development in building and presenting sound arguments as well as designing and completing projects. Thirdly, and importantly, is the contribution it makes to my profession and that’s easy to neglect.

I can readily talk about my doctorate and people are enthusiastic: I talk about how I’m planning this module, the questions I have and the structure of the doctorate. But I’ve realised that when someone asks me ‘so what is the doctorate on?’ I get anxious. This happened yesterday when my coachee asked me that very question. I felt apprehensive and this is the reason: I say I am creating a neurobiological model of ‘Themselves’ which is about your brain and how you can create change in it. Each time I get a similar reaction – it’s a smile and an enthusiastic acknowledgement of what’s been said, coupled with a look which says “I haven’t really got a clue what you just said but I want to be polite about it”. So I reflected on what drove me to do this project: In simple terms, what difference do I want to make? And I came up with: “Would you like to know more about what’s going on inside there (point to head) so that you can do things that you want to do and currently don’t? And in making that change, knowing it’s going to work and be sustainable”. It is not about me robotically changing them. It is about us having a knowledge-based understanding so we can make informed decisions about the coaching required. The model is to ’inform change’ not to ‘do change’.

I’ve also started to receive interesting articles and book recommendations. One that grabbed my attention was about Prof Ian Robinson. His book “The Stress Test” is about why some people thrive under pressure while others go to pieces. It really aligns with some of the principles in Dan Siegel’s ‘Mindsight’ and Dan Goleman’s podcast ‘On Focus’. It talks about getting in control of your emotions, maintaining focus on your task, keeping going when things get tough and the ability to view things as challenges rather than threats. The article states that the fear response in physical terms is close to that of excitement. Therefore you can ‘rebrand’ your symptoms as excitement and that results in a change of brain chemistry and behaviour. For me discovering Prof Ian Robinson has been very useful and he’s on my list to talk to. So I’m really thankful to Kate for sharing the article with me (us).

I am now appreciating how much time I need to put into this project. During the last three weeks I have put days into it and have found that understanding has emerged and patterns are forming. This is mainly down to being able to scan read an article or book to find out key concepts and methodologies. If it seems useful I read it more thoroughly. In this way I have covered off one manual, 3 books, 16 articles and numerous web-pages generating over 50 pages of notes.

With so much going on in my head, information on research methods everywhere and the neuroscience snippets, I need to be exceptionally organised otherwise I just have lots of bits all congregating in various formats. So the big difference has been getting organised, which I thought I was but now I’ve had to shift up a whole level. Firstly to save the planet’s forests I have downloaded the app SmartNote for my Kindle Fire which is excellent: Even better with a writing stylus. I can merrily take as many handwritten notes as I want and it converts them to text which I email to myself. Incidentally, whilst investigating smart-pens I found an article by Pam Mueller (Princeton) looking at how handwriting improves information retention. http://pss.sagepub.com/content/25/6/1159 Another related article is http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/03/science/whats-lost-as-handwriting-fades.html?_r=0

Next I invested in a scanning pen for taking sections directly from text although it is a bit slow and variable. I also created a master spreadsheet file to log everything in so it’s in one place (people, books. youtube, websites and my thoughts). Overall I feel much better as I have an easy way to capture information and a central place to put it. That has freed me up to focus on planning the project in detail. Now I have the first of four plans (2x2m paper and lots of sticky notes). Eventually they’ll become spreadsheets although I think more fluidly this way.

So I’m over that initial phase of uncertainty –again – and on a roll: Learning to jump in sooner as one thing leads to another. Therefore, the icing on the cake has been receiving the assessment letters back from my first 2 modules. I was nervous, it just became very real, and I passed them both with encouraging feedback: Delighted, relieved and back to the four project plans and my epistemological perspective.

A model of ‘Themselves’

I’ve submitted my first module which is about how I became the coach I am today and my coaching ethos; the subtext being “are you able to take on a doctorate?” It was fascinating to draw a timeline from school to the present day, mapping out key events, work situations and learning that developed my coaching. It’s a really interesting exercise to do; very thought-provoking.
Now I am onto the second module and, boy oh boy, it is daunting. It’s the “what, why and how” part. Interestingly the questions “What makes you think this research is worth doing?” and “What impact do you want to have?” are the most challenging. I thought their answers were obvious but when I came to articulate them, they weren’t. Eventually, I realised my problem was around the phrase “The Self” or “a concept of the Self”. Each time I thought about this I went into a trance and, in practical, terms my coachees don’t talk about ‘The Self’. In reviewing my coachees over the last 12months (What did they want and what was hindering them?) I concluded that most often a coachee cites themselves as the main obstacle to change: A coachee talks about ‘themselves’. This was a big breakthrough in being able to write about my research topic.
My current thinking is that I’d like to use neuroscience knowledge to create a model of ‘Themselves’ (yep, I know this is grammatically awkward but ‘themselves’ is what my coachees talk about). I think it would be great to have a predictive model where we had knowledge to understand what would or wouldn’t work for a coachee and to be able to talk knowledgably with organisations about what was possible, or not, given the number of sessions paid for. Also how much coaching work is unnecessary when something else would work better – how can I know that? And finally, can I know what will create a sustainable change for the coachee?
I think about the differences between a doctor, a professional personal trainer and the client. A professional personal trainer is not a doctor but has knowledge about the body pertinent to the work they do (usually more than the client exercising). I can follow exercises in books or videos but I’m never sure if I’ve got it right and on one occasion I strained a muscle badly. Now I have a personal trainer I get the difference, and it’s a big difference. He understands muscles, ligaments and the skeleton far better than me so between us, we understand what my body can and can’t handle. Initially, we had a pragmatic discussion about what was actually possible given my condition, my commitment to exercising and what I wanted: No one has naive expectations. And that’s what we’re working on, in a predictable way, not hoping or following generic techniques. It’s tailored each time with his underpinning knowledge and my experience. Now I know what my previous exercises should have been achieving – it’s a big difference in many ways.
Dan Siegel seems to have gone a long way down this predictive path with his ‘Mindsight’ work. (His book is enlightening.) Someone said it is a modern view on Attachment Theory and the more I read about Attachment Theory the more relevant I feel it is to my coaching; “A general theory of love” (Lewis, Amini & Lannon, 2000) is a good place to start. Attachment Theory was quite a wakeup call around how important building a relationship with my coachee is as well as how they have been shaped by their early life. Also I reflected on how my Attachment affects my ability to build a relationship with coachees.
Dan Siegel uses a lot of mindfulness type practices to great effect along with his knowledge of Attachment. In many ways his techniques are around quietening the emotional response using, what many coaches may call, a detachment method. This allows his clients to be more reasoned before reacting which some people do quite ‘naturally’ as part of who they are.
These are some other interesting points from his book:
• We take in information all the time: Explicit Memories go through the Hippocampus thus we feel they are memories. In times of stress, anxiety, rage or fear the Hippocampus appears to shut down, so what’s happening goes straight in as Implicit Memories: This information isn’t recalled as memories, it just seems to be part of us (p.155). It could mean that when people are very angry they don’t recollect the event as they cannot recall it as a memory. Also anxious people may not recollect the event but get anxious without knowing why if a similar event is discussed.

• Dan Siegel talks about us being “anticipation machines” (p.148) where we are predominantly driven by our collection of experiences and memories. Mostly we are reacting from this anticipation rather than from what is actually happening. So the phrase “if you believe it will or won’t happen then you’ll be right”, could be truer and more far reaching than we thought. On page 203, he takes this further by discussing how previous experiences colour the way we view reality. One situation might be over-reacted to due to the person’s previous experiences. For example, someone raising their hand quickly can be for various reasons. If you were bullied, are a dancer or student your initial responses to it will differ greatly.

• On page 225 he talks about Ambivalent and Avoidant Attachment research: It found that Ambivalent attachment seems to create sensitivity to negative feedback, such as seeing an angry face, whereby their amygdala triggers quickly. Conversely, Avoidant attachment can reduce responses to smiling faces, dampening the social reward systems, so there is almost a resistance to connecting with people.

If you have any thoughts as to the benefits to coaches, coachees and the client organisation of having a knowledge-based neurobiological model of ‘themselves’ then I’d love to hear from you.

Why a doctorate? Why a blog?

In 2014 Mark and I went on a walking safari in Zambia. One of our guides was very enthusiastic about how clever animals were and how adaptive they could be. He recommended a book called “The Brain that changes itself” (Doidge, 2007). I bought the book as soon as we came home and that was my introduction into Neuroscience. If you have not read it, it is a fascinating read of 11 astounding case studies demonstrating the plasticity of the brain. As a coach this was music to my ears and a real leap forwards in my belief of how adaptive the brain could be.

So in 2015 I undertook the Association of Coaching’s “The Science of the Art of Coaching” (Neurobehavioural Modelling) Programme which I loved. It introduced me to a whole new world of exciting research and the possibility as a coach to really uplift my practice. It was out of this programme that I decided to start my doctorate.

Having looked at a number of options I decided upon Middlesex University. I like its fully practical approach focussed on, effectively, making your work a research programme. Also there is an advisor who helps someone who is not freshly out of university with the dynamics of creating a full doctoral-level research project. I suggest that if you undertake such a doctorate that you find an advisor you really get on with. They are a key part of your success and will work with you for 3 to 5 years, or more. The book “The Professional Doctorate” (Fulton, 2013) outlines beautifully the extent of the professional doctorate of which there are many nowadays. If you are thinking of starting a doctorate then this is a useful read as it covers everything well.

So why the doctorate? Three things really, I read a lot (you may have noticed) and I love turning my reading or my new understanding from colleagues and courses into practical uses that help my coachees.  Also as my Advisor said, a professional doctorate is about being a ‘frustrated scholarly practitioner’ and I immediately related to that. I was at a stage where I was really wondering (bordering frustrated) about coachees that zoomed ahead and made changes versus those that got it logically and yet seemed to do little about it. I was saddened that some coachees seemed unable to embrace what others do willingly and yet excited about the possibility of enabling some change for them towards that goal. The prospect of being able to make a difference for coaching and coachees through using the emerging neuroscience really excited me although I was very nervous about the enormity of the undertaking.

Once I embraced the doctorate I have realised that it has opened up a very different style of working: A doctorate is inclusive of others and encourages sharing and discussion. It is about connecting and discovering. Overall it is about adding to the collective jigsaw of knowledge alongside others and that is why I decided to write this blog.

My intention with this blog is to share with you things that I am finding out that I feel may help your coaching practice. Also I, and other readers, would love to hear what you are finding out in the arena of neuroscience and coaching. Together I am sure that we can create a wonderful conversation and make a difference to our coachees (coaching). From a Thinking Partner session that I had, I came out with this mantra to help me prepare for a coaching session: “Enjoy the process of discovery unfolding before my eyes and savour the delight of their new realisations and insights” – maybe we could do that too?