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Life's rich tapestry - the roles we play (ITSW#15)

Our individuality is made up of a cocktail of character, experience and environment which form the values and beliefs which, in turn, direct our behaviours. While we are individuals our individuality is made up from the multiple roles that we play in different parts of our lives. For many of us these different roles afford us the balance we need to thrive and the fact that we are playing different roles is so much a part of our habits that we don’t necessarily consciously adjust when we switch between them. There are the chronologically related parts we play: our past self, current self, and aspirational future self. Then there are the context dependent roles: the work self; home self; hobby self. Each one with a different characterisation, narrative and approach to delivering their lines.

What is interesting in coaching conversations is to encourage a coachee to think whether a solution to a challenge they are facing in one part of their life can be reached through the advice from one of the other characters that they play. It is curious that while we achieve our balance through the seamless living out of these roles that there is often an impermeable barrier between them preventing the sharing of learning. Coaching can help create connections between these different roles, making the barrier between them permeable allowing adaptive learning to be shared more readily.

The reflections below, written by one of my coachees, bring to life the benefits of making use of the personal resources we discover in ourselves. It’s a great story and one I am grateful to have shared with me and the permission to share it with you. Thanks to the author, you know who you are!

Prior to my current job role I trained as a performer for several years, taking Drama as a GCSE, then undertaking a BTEC National Diploma in Acting and finally an Undergraduate Degree in Drama. For many years I drew a hard line between my performance work, hobbies and interests and my professional self at work, and even though there was significant overlap for many years, I tried my hardest to keep them divorced. In later years I have come to realise there is an important connection between my ‘past self’ and current self. The skills I learned as a teenager and young adult have informed the person I am today. In my last 3 permanent positions, in radically different companies and job roles, I have always found myself as a type of jack-of-all trades figure, never specialising in one area, but having a reasonably good knowledge of a variety of different systems and/or procedures. I’ve also been told more recently that I have a hard time saying ‘no’. Unfortunately, in the world of improvisation; something I was very keen on, the word ‘no’ is a cardinal sin. The world of theatre is all about ‘yes’ and accepting new concepts, new ideas, new identities. Another common phrase is that ‘there are no small parts, only small actors’, which basically means whatever you’re doing, you should be doing your absolute best regardless of the size of the part. Looking back, I realise my willingness to take on extra work and new tasks, and to do them as well as possible no doubt came from these principles. I was advised by one of the older students at college to study a theatre director called Konstantin Stanislavsky. To keep things brief, he is more or less the grandfather of method acting and through reading his books, I realised how difficult it would be to portray something accurately that I have never experienced. To correct this, I made a very profound effort to throw myself at every opportunity and in many ways this tied in neatly with the ‘yes’ side of things. Every time a teacher asked for a volunteer I would raise my hand, until the teacher would specifically say ‘can someone else volunteer please?’ For any new experiences I tried to spare a moment to think how they made me feel, what they did to my pulse, my jaw, my hands, did my posture or voice change at all? I think this is also why I’ve found myself as a keen volunteer for almost any task that comes my way. My current line manager is very keen that I learn the skill of saying ‘no’. I vividly remember last year I was asked if I had time to do something and I snapped ‘to be honest, no I don’t’ and much to my surprise I was told ‘thank you, that is the correct answer.’ My previous experiences informed me the likelihood of a positive response to my reply was almost non-existent, but my current role is about negotiating workloads and balancing tasks, and a ‘yes’ is not always required. I imagine without investigating and probing my past, I wouldn’t of been able to understand how I work in the present day. Thinking back on previous experiences and times can be a rewarding tool. I now have an understanding of how to move progress at work. Saying no in the theatre may be bad, but saying no in the office is okay. Through my days of training as an actor I experienced the highs and lows of group work. A common theme from my friends who studied at university is their disdain for the modules that involved group work where projects went wrong, and some of these fires still burn – brightly – a decade on. At college I recall three young men weren’t happy with the concept of the play they were working on and quit the group to form their own. You could argue they should’ve failed the module for refusing to work with their assigned group and demonstrating an incredible lack of respect for the teacher and their fellow group members, but they were allowed to go it alone and create their own show. A number of students in the year above thought their attitude was outrageous and threatened to boycott the show but the module coordinator asked they give the three men a chance and go to watch their work. It might be interesting to note that one of the three people in that group dropped out of college, and only one of them pursued the study of drama at higher education, and he dropped out after just three weeks.

Although I didn’t, and still don’t, agree with their decision, I understand their thought process at the time. Group work was and is hard, and when you feel you have no input and take little or no enjoyment from the project, it is difficult to find a way forward. I’ve always found when working on something in a group environment, I just need to find one detail or aspect of the project that appeals from me. I can home in on that and approach it from that angle. Having said that, back in those days, I always felt there was something uncomfortable about bringing an idea to the group and having it probed, examined and unpacked. What’s worse is that a good idea delivered poorly won’t generate much enthusiasm, so not only is it important the idea is good, but the pitch has to be good as well. This was all very new to me at college, I don’t think school ever really delved into group work (which as an aside, seems odd), and in addition to developing my presenting skills, I learned the importance of negotiating and compromise. I’m never one to rule an idea out at work, and I’m always happy to try a different approach. I don’t mind if it doesn’t work for the most part - at least we’ve learned something. I have a strong feeling this came from my days of drama as well. It was always instilled in us that if we had an idea, we should get up and try it, then we’d know if it worked or not. Interestingly it boils down to the saying ‘yes’ again. As long as the time allows, it’s worth trying and testing ideas. In the world of theatre, you can apply for arts council funding under the term “R&D” (Research & Development) which simply means you’re asking for funding to try ideas and begin to form the beginnings of your show. With my group in third year at university, we scored 92/100 for our group project, breaking the record for the highest scoring group project in Drama and holding onto that record for half a decade until it was finally beaten. In our debrief we were told part of our success was due to compromise, we all had radically different ideas – and none of us wanted to work together initially – but we’d come together and put on a successful show. There’s something fascinating to me about being in a group that was put together because we basically didn’t fit in anywhere else, with some opinionated chaps who wanted very clear and different outcomes (one wanted to stage a very traditional production of Accidental Death of An Anarchist and the other wanted to create a loose adaptation of a modern play called England) to ultimately come out with something totally unexpected and unique, because we said ‘yes’ to ideas, tried them all, discarded what didn’t work and retained what did work. With my current employer I improved a lot in interviews as time went on. Like any skill, I realised I needed to practice this skill to develop it. I think the ‘get up and go for it’ attitude from college and university was beneficial again here. I often think back to how scary something might be for the first time, and then later seem completely tame and normal. I also knew from my days in education that I learned lines very quickly by repeatedly speaking them out loud – reading them on a computer screen or a piece of paper did not have the same result. It occurred to me that an interview is very similar to a performance, there will be some lines I need to learn beforehand that will be delivered to an audience, there will be the option for a Q&A afterwards, and improvisation will be required. I have found I am much more successful in interviews where I treat them as a performance. I’d never proclaim that it would work for everyone, but through understanding my past, it seems to work for me.

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