On becoming an Author and a Conference Speaker

Well November has been a great month. Yes, an excellent month because my book is now available to buy (via Amazon or Blackwells) and it is everything I hoped it would be. A wonderful comprehensive collection of viable and practical exercises, meeting formats, tools and techniques for managers, with 52 chapters that help managers bring out the best in their people and improve business results. Each chapter is designed to give an informative read and practical application through exercises, reflection, methods and templates. The book has three parts:

Part I is about mindsets that bring about trust and openness, and how to develop them

Part II is about practicing skills which enable you to connect with people

Part III is about using applications that create engagement and participation

I also think it is a great reference book if you attend any Line Manager training as sometimes that covers a lot quite quickly, so hopefully this book will help you consolidate and build on that training. It’s not a book to read cover to cover but it is designed for people to dip into when they are wondering ‘How do I …’. The feedback so far has been encouraging.

Also, it contains useful exercises to help coaches with their coachees. There are chapters on building relationships, maintaining momentum and working with others. So, lots for everyone, I hope.

Secondly, I gave my first formal university conference presentation at the UWTSD inaugural Coaching Conference and it was very well received. Now I can officially say that I am a conference speaker. I was pleased with the feedback from people and noted that one lady had a cram-packed page full of notes, like a mind-map of circles with my name in the centre.

It was really useful to present. I was anxious although I was also very excited to share the story I had put together of how I use neuroscience within my coaching practice. I think that that was the most valuable thing – being forced to think about how to do that and to have to do it. I am somewhat kicking myself as when I practiced it, it fitted into the time slot but in reality I had to cut it short. At least I now know how it goes: I am going to rearrange a few sections then the key parts get said regardless of time slippage. I liked my slide deck too – Ok I admit I am biased – but university faculty seem to think that text heavy, black and white slides work. Although I think they use them as their script, whereas I have a separate script. I also learned that if someone is going to wave helpful yellow (5mins left) and red (2 mins left) flags at me, then they need to be sitting directly in front of me, not at the side as I missed them completely. Anyway, it was great to hear that so many people found it fascinating to listen to: What a great word to hear.

The Coaching Conference itself, was insightful with a rich variety of speakers and topics, including Prof Stephen Palmer and Dr Peggy Marshall who successfully embedded a coaching culture within her US Fortune 66 company. Also Dr Annette Fillery-Travis has started a Coaching Society based from the university and her aim is to create a vibrant community of practice and research.

On the DProf, things have been quiet as work has been hectic – in a rich and energising way – and it has allowed me to think about how I more overtly bring neuroscience into my coaching. I thought about how I need to broach it in a way that doesn’t sound strange or as if I want to show how much I know. In the end, when relevant, I decided to ask them how their brain knows it needs to create that emotion. Usually they look rather quizzically at me and then I say, ‘in there (pointing to my head and theirs), how does your brain know to make that emotion?’ Usually they are curious and it allows me to talk about their brain and how the emotion they are feeling may not have much to do with the current situation on its own but that it is linked to lots of other memories. In this way, I find they are ok to have a conversation that doesn’t feel like therapy but one that allows us to talk about ‘that feeling’ in a more detached manner and how to handle it.

Now I am doing the correct Literature review I am exploring if there is anything else on Self-hindering coachees. This is both exciting and nerve-racking as you’re always worried about finding someone who’s already done the research. So, I was a bit apprehensive in reading Stephen Palmer’s work on Procrastination. However, after reading some research papers I decided that procrastination doesn’t describe the coachees that I have described as self-hindering and I feel able to defend my argument on that. Phew!

I am hoping to get through the Ethics committee soon though as I’d like to start again in January.

I loved this article, “Twenty things I wish I’d known when I started my PhD” as it rang so true. I particularly liked number 5 about needing to record everything and even if you think you’ve done that enough, like her, I have found I haven’t. And I now agree with number 14 about presenting your work. It has helped me structure my thoughts and turn data into information.

And I am finally on Twitter (@DeniLyall) as I wanted to follow someone who Tweets on leading digital transformations. My tweets mainly fall into: ones on neuroscience and ones on digital transformation. I am trying to keep them relevant and I really like how easy it is to pass stuff on.

On that theme, these couple of articles caught my eye:

Nature: How automation is changing work

‘Frontiers in Psychology’ article on Neuro Myths

Enjoy 😊

Researching at last

July has been a refreshing DProf month for researching and reading. I have now completed two sets of pilot interviews. The first set were people known to my supervisor. They weren’t totally in my area but they were really valuable for learning about the interview process. Apart from valuable research information, they also gave feedback on the process and logistical aspects. The second set of pilots were with two neuroscience Professors who responded to my invitation email – 2 from 35 invitations isn’t bad.

My learning so far: The embedded link to Skype-for-Business isn’t as user friendly as I thought but I need to use it as the recording facility is reliable. With 3 out of 4 interviewees struggling with it initially I’ll need to put in some simple guidelines on connecting to it. Actually, I could do a side piece of research on the profile of who can and can’t easily use the link in the invitation! I reckon you can all guess which stereotype finds it easiest as it’s the one I think we’d all guess it to be when it comes to being tech-savvy.

I also refined opening the interview by reiterating the invitation email and situating my research in the coaching of change-hesitant coachees. The latter helped me focus the conversation much better so I am glad I was forced to get my head around it. In fact, both the Professors referred to it which helped to guide and anchor the discussion.

Everyone was very generous with their time. Having asked for just 20 minutes, all gave around 40-45. I was very grateful for that as 20 minutes on this topic only just gets people warmed up. I am going to regret it when I type up the transcripts though. I have found that initially the conversation is quite conceptual and I have had to push it down in to ‘So how does that actually happen in the brain?’. I then noticed a little pause – almost of surprise – and then they give me what I am really looking for and talk about a variety of mechanisms and caveats. I am really pleased that I read that Neuroscience textbook last year as it made the conversations much easier.

There are two things I have really loved about having these conversations so far: Firstly, it is just a conversation where ideas are given, explored and questions are proffered and answered. As someone commented, it must be nice not to have to talk in words of just one syllable – so right (lol). Secondly, they are very down to earth people and are clear about the constraints of their research and how animal research is difficult to use for hypothesizing about human aspects. A refreshing change from all the neuro-hype.

On the down-to-earth and refreshing reading side, my supervisor recommended ‘Neuro’ by Rose and Abi-Rached. A very different book as it is about the history of neuroscience blended with a critical review of some of its emerging themes, directions and assertions. It picks up on some of my favourite themes – medical hypes that have little foundation, neuroscience as court evidence, lab settings affecting experiments that deal with the brain and the blurring of the use of the words ‘the self’. Although I need to be careful here otherwise I might undermine the very research that I am conducting but it does bring home that neuroscience is a very interpretivistic science at the moment. (A useful reference for my Chapter 3 claims on epistemology and methodology.) One of the sadder facts is where it says that most research aimed at helping with mental illness has in fact not generated many new medical practices. Thus we are still using drugs from many years ago as they are the best we have.

Another book, which will provoke outcries, is called ‘How emotions are made’ (Lisa Feldman-Barrett) although I enjoyed it. Basically, she is differentiating between us labelling something as ‘fear’ verses it being a collection of responses due to a stimulus. It is the same as LeDoux where he splits apart the feeling of fear from the threat response. Part of their thinking is that a mouse, for example, has a threat response but we don’t know if it feels fear as we can’t ask it. We tend to ascribe fear to the mouse through our interpretation of what we see it doing but that is us ‘humanising’ things. What was fascinating is that she talks about more recent research verses older research on archetypal emotional faces. Effectively it appears that the older research which concluded that there were universal emotional faces which everyone recognised isn’t entirely true, well not true at all if you concur with Lisa. Here it links back to the ‘Neuro’ book and Lisa talks about how the research wasn’t actually as ‘clean’ as it espoused.

She believes that we learn during childhood that a certain collection of responses are labelled as ‘fear’ or ‘joy’ or ‘sadness’ and that the actual reactions for a feeling are quite diverse: Think of different joy responses such as a big smile or wide-eyed and open-mouthed. She feels that the standard faces are unusable just as the average family having 2.4 children is fairly meaningless. She also covers how feelings affect the decisions we make (don’t get a court appearance just before lunch/ make sure the interviewer holds a warm drink) and our behaviours which is worth a read. She also discusses how much the brain uses concepts to group things together such as colours in a rainbow. Most of us see it as 6 distinct bands when really it is a gradient. Russians view it as 7 distinct bands as culturally they view light blue as a different colour to dark blue, as green and blue are viewed differently. This she suggests makes colour a cultural thing not a reality.

This links nicely to an article discussing how children beat computers on some tasks and how far computers have yet to go.

Being honest: Learning or just watching?

Well you’ll be pleased to hear that I have conducted the first interview for my Delphi study. I was very appreciative as well that the participant gave me some useful feedback. I have my second one next week and again the participant has kindly agreed to talk to me afterwards about the interview process. Then the week after I have a third interview with a neuroscientist who responded to my invitation. As a Course Director at Oxford put it: “If they are interested in the topic Deni they will agree to participate”. It was said in a very matter of fact way, which made me think that we are rarely like that in the world of business. Their sub text was, ‘let go of trying to persuade them to participate and concentrate on making it interesting to them’. Maybe we should do more of that in business: How much effort do we put into persuading rather than attracting – push rather than pull. Deep down we know that the latter is more effective and yet we continue with the former far too much.

Now I am sourcing the equipment for transcribing the recording as my DProf colleagues are united in the advice that doing it yourself is really valuable in helping you appreciate what was said. Which leads me nicely into the ‘A Brain for business: a brain for life’ book I mentioned last time. O’Mara has pulled together an overview of many neuroscience concepts and texts in a useful way. It also means that if you haven’t previously read much on the topic then he brings it altogether for you, citing the most pertinent aspects. I was reassured to see that he is referencing many of the books and papers that I have read. His referencing is excellent so if you want to read more you can.

I’ve got to chapter 8 on Performance and Expertise and I felt it was worth sharing. I think I have written about this before but feel the need to reiterate the message. From O’Mara’s book, the ‘Making it stick’ book (which he also references) and other papers on learning, there are some strong themes coming out:

  • Learning is not about reading and reciting. To strengthen the synaptic pathways and embed the learning, it needs to be retrieved and used and consolidated.


  • It needs practice, especially if you are changing something. We appear to mean something quite distinct when we mention ‘learning’ and yet the brain learns all the time – it practices all the time. Then we seem to think that a 30-minute online presentation means we have ‘learned something’.


  • Sleeping on it really helps.


  • Little and often works best especially when the learning is mixed up rather than completed in logical order. At first this seems counterintuitive but it makes you work harder at retrieving the information from your memory and that helps you learn better. Of course, I am assuming that long term understanding and application are your goal rather than ticking a box to say you have watched an online presentation.

Yesterday I found it useful to position the change my coachee was attempting to make akin to learning to drive. In many ways it is very applicable to many things we attempt to learn through training courses. Also most of us would agree you are unlikely to pass your driving test if we employed the same learning strategy we take with management development training.

I also think that this style of learning might suit Millennials better and to be fair, having watched two boys grow up, I think they have been saying for a long time that the way we learn at school is out dated. Self-teaching through finding out stuff on the internet and using forums etc seems to be much more prevalent.

The other thing about driving is that it has a go/ no-go point so there is a real consequence to how much effort you do or don’t put in. This is the same with undergraduates. It has always intrigued me how undergraduates are pretty much self-directed in their learning and development at University. Then at work they soon fall into the passive ‘do it for me’ style of development where others organise development and maybe some of it is taken in and used. I reckon it is about consequences again – no effort, no degree. Maybe we should think more about creating that in work and, as managers, save ourselves a lot of effort and frustration. I suppose the hard part is letting go of those consequences too as we might end up having to recruit again or have difficult conversations.

I think the doctorate certainly falls into the ‘you sort it’ category. Not just from my experiences but also from others’ experience as well. I had a ‘ah-ha’ moment about 3 weeks ago when my supervisor made a chance comment. She said “we’ll make a researcher of you yet”. Lots of pennies dropping – so that is what this is about; it is about being trained to be a researcher and not really about the research I am doing. Now all this other stuff makes more sense. To become a seasoned, credible researcher you need to be able to review other literature and synthesis what it is and isn’t saying; you need to understand the context in which your research sits – what knowledge is appropriate; you need to understand what specific question you are answering and have rigour that your method delivers that; and that you are being ethical and robust in what you do. All the thesis chapters now make sense rather than being annoying side avenues. It would have been helpful to have ‘got this’ two years ago but I suppose ‘better late than never’ comes to mind. So, once you have the Dprof then the real focus on research opens up – because you’ve demonstrated that your research is likely to be trustworthy as you know how to do it.

My love-hate relationship

I think I am coming around to the realisation that a doctorate is a love-hate relationship. Something I enjoy and at the same time frustrates me as well. I can hit the depths of ‘what the hell have I been doing for the past 18 months’ and the highs of, ‘wow that’s a real insight that’s popped out of being made to think about this for 18 months’. So, I hate being held to account on a pin head and yet love the result that that gets from me. Although I am working on alleviating the frustration and having more of the love moments.

I am in the process of moving to a new university, UWTSD, and one which I wish I’d found at the start as they are more structured in their approach and I can relate to them and the way they think. Overall, I feel they care about me and I am not just a means to an end. However – big however, this does mean that I have to get my research approved all over again as their process doesn’t quite align to Middlesex’s. I thought it might be relatively straight forward but I am now understanding how open the Middlesex programme was and the consequences of that. I think it would have caught me out in the end so I am glad to have hit upon it now and I think the end result will be more robust and meaningful. At least I am not going round in circles, as it’s a spiral, so I’ve been here before but this time it has shifted me to a different level.

They are still in academia and can have interesting ways of putting things. So, when I got asked to ‘situate my research in relation to existing coaching practices’, I blew a slight gasket and had a teenage moment of asking if they could put it into plain English then I might be able to do that but currently I didn’t have a clue what that meant. It turned out they meant  is quite simple and I probably should have been better at answering it a long time ago but it seems to have fallen off my radar when it should have been centre stage! The question is “what is the specific situation in your coaching that you really want this research to actually help you with? How will the research outcome help with that and enhance your coaching?” (The pin head). I’d moved on from here a long time ago when it appears I am supposed to use this as my anchor point. At last the Research proposal and the Project proposal make sense as I wondered how they differed.

Three days later, two very late nights, ten pages of scribbled notes from various ah-ha moments during my waking hours (I carry it with me now). And I eventually crafted my response: In a nutshell, I have some coachees who logically get what actions they need to take to make the change they say they want to but actually do very little towards it – they are very hesitant about the changes to be made. If I could develop a model of what mechanism is acting to maintain the status quo then I would have a chance of helping those coachees make the changes and get to where they’d like to be. Then I realised that the coaching assignments where this happens are really pushing into territory coachee’s might view as changing ‘who they are’, the Self, rather than more congruent, although stretching, changes. Given ‘who we are’ has been designed to help us navigate life safely and securely I might be a bit hesitant about changing it as well.

Yesterday I decided to listening to the AC’s latest webinars and Aboodi talks about coachee’s being “attached to their structure of interpretation”. So now I am tuned to looking at my research from a different place I am suddenly noticing different things that are relevant – or maybe I’ve just stubbled across them – a theme in this level of research I feel.

I really hope synaptic plasticity is true because mine must have been working overtime this week – hopefully in all ways. Yes, I didn’t realise that it happens in so many ways. We rave a lot about this and yet it is happening all the time. By the time you’ve read this your brain has already changed – synapse by synapse. Maybe one less-used presynaptic terminal died as it doesn’t get enough nourishment. Some post-synaptic terminals will be stronger and more effective at firing which can happen in a number of ways:

  • The pre-synaptic terminal creates more neurotransmitter or it releases its neurotransmitter for longer.
  • The post-synaptic terminal:
    • The receptors on it move to the part of the membrane closest to the pre-synaptic terminal – they gather together.
    • Receptors become more sensitive to the neurotransmitter so it is more effective.
    • It creates more receptors and sends them to the membrane edge. Also, these are held firmer by the ‘scaffolding structures’ so they stay at the membrane edge for longer. Signals are sent to the neuron’s nuclei such that more receptors are made. Having ‘tagged’ which dendritic spine needs them, they travel back to it. Overtime, this can lead to the postsynaptic terminal dividing into two followed by the presynaptic terminal, thus creating two separate synapses.
    • Also, there are silent synapses which become active.

All of this creates ‘long term potentiation’ – enhanced effectiveness which lasts for a long time. It makes me think that practising is really important within coaching as it starts to create and embed some of these changes. Serotonin is mentioned a lot so I am beginning to think about how I can affect that. When we talk about how important the relationship is in coaching, I think that is because it tends to support serotonin release which appears to enhance learning and inhibit the amygdala – makes it feel safer.

Coming down to earth

Well it probably won’t surprise you but having completed Part 1 of the DProf I have withdrawn from Middlesex University. In my email I said that it had not been a very enjoyable 18-months, which since April is a very big understatement. Firstly, since they merged all Administration, it’s been terrible: Two of three submissions since April might still be sitting waiting if I had not phoned up and asked what was happening with them.

Second, the conduct of the people in the presentation was the final straw for me. I am still not sure how raising your eyebrows is an acceptable response to someone attempting to put across their case when ‘questioned’. Maybe it’s because ‘questioned’ is a term which I use loosely in this context: Judgmental statements with question marks seemed to feature highly which is very threatening. To be honest, I don’t think they really wanted to hear an answer, it was more like a prod to get a reaction. So, there I am, needing them to ‘pass’ my project and wondering if they understand the phrase “a productive and informative session”. To add to the situation, the written feedback I received made me wonder if the submission had been read as two items stated as missing are there.

Well, it was very informative in that it informed me that I did not want to put up with this again and that my style is different to theirs. Also, it did get a response – as a customer I am not prepared to pay them to behave like that towards me – so I am off.

As a final laugh or cry, I had to email them to get them to process my withdrawal as they seemed to have not done that since they said they would. Well at least they are predictable. I’ll let you know what’s going to happen going forwards once that’s sorted.

Yesterday I read something that made me grimace. It was the phrase ‘neuro diversity’ which seems to be being used for grouping together dyslexia, autism, dyspraxia etc. It bought up for me my ‘old chestnut’ about ‘the self’, ‘this is who I am’, ‘out of character’, ‘the real me’ and ‘mini-selves’, etc as I think these are outdated thinking – we are all neuro diverse, every single person. From the point the egg is fertilised we are being shaped and we never stop being shaped by every moment we are alive as our synapses and chemicals are constantly changing, which all add up to changes in us. As a person, we have many many facets that could and will show up at any moment due to internal and external situational combinations.  So, it is always you, you are always you. It might not be an aspect of you, you see very often or have seen before but it is you. In ‘complex systems’ it seems that some aspects have a higher probability of happening and this is what I think we call ‘who I am’. And ‘out of character’ means we’re seeing an aspect of that person we don’t usually see but it is still part of them and who they are. The impact of all their years sits in front of me as a coach and although coaching is unlikely to explore much of that, it does influence the coaching. I feel we are a blend, a continuity, we are analogue rather than discrete, packaged or one thing. So, when a coachee does something ‘out of character’ I see that as glimpsing into another aspect of them and therefore, useful information.

I have also now read ‘The myth of mirror neurons’ by Gregory Hickok. It was not too technical and an enlightening read in getting me to think about the soundness of the research that is being done. I think it was the end of any glamour or dazzlement that I had for this area. And the media have a lot to answer for as well as they grab a glamour headline, forget its limitations and put it up as a miracle answer to something complex.

Anyway, mirror neurons. Way back I read Ramachandran’s book, which was great, except that he made what I thought was an irresponsible comment about an experimental observation involving mirror neurons. And I remember thinking at the time that mirror neurons just seemed to activate because they saw another monkey picking up a nut. Ramachandran interpreted it by saying it was if the monkey had mindread the other one’s intention. The debate appears to centre around whether mirror neurons give us understanding of the intentions of others. This book is a very well written account around which research results were ignored, how many conclusions seem to make a leap of connection and how a number of the arguments for mirror neurons are circular and underpin each other. Also, very interesting was how the training of the monkeys prior to the experiments and the setup of the experiments probably contributed to the results. The experiments seemed to test for what they were looking for and did not appear to test for variations or to disprove their theories. For example, in the training and experiment set-up the monkeys saw the people pick up food and bring it to the mouth a lot. Hickok talks about the conditional training that this would have created and the fact that if there was food the experimenters always picked it up and brought it to the mouth.

He then goes on to discuss where mirror neurons do seem to help us. Imitation, which is what mirror neurons do a lot, is important as we learn so much through it quickly. Also, he says that we respond during movement better than we should be able to therefore mirror neurons maybe part of a feedforward system which allows us to adjust movement by predicting where we’ll end up and where we need to end up.

Lots of food for reflection.