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Reflections triggered by something that pissed me off the other day!

A few days ago, I was with a delightful group of coaches in one of our occasional virtual conversations. One of our number was describing some leadership training that they were doing. For one of the sessions, they had been forewarned they would be looking at their ‘triggers’. Apparently, the session started and my friend described how they described their triggers. They found themselves doing that sharing with a depth of emotion they had not anticipated. Their reflection was that the other members of the group were ill at ease; that there was no sense of a safety net having been created in the contracting for the conversation, and there was no tangible wrap up ensuring that everyone was in a safe place after the experience.

I was not alone in feeling uneasy about this story. It appeared to be an example of someone leading without taking care that their group was comfortable with the boundaries that they should collectively work within. In fact, had there been any boundaries at all?!

What came next really pulled my trigger! My friend described how at the end of this group experience the session lead asked to have a moment in private. They offered my friend coaching to help them with the trauma apparent only a few minutes earlier. They offered to resolve this at what I considered to be an extortionate price for a single coaching session.

My friend’s enquiry to all of us in the conversation was ‘should I give it a go?’ Being a group of coaches, everyone tried not to be directive in their responses, although that behaviour did slip as the preference for being honest established precedence! One of our number googled the credentials of the coach/ facilitator and found oodles of evidence of professionalism and coaching credentials, but none whatsoever of experience in anything relating to therapy.

It was interesting witnessing the increasingly energetic response from the group in response to this story, and to realise that I for one was royally pissed off too. I recall wondering where this anger came from. After all, noticing a trigger for anger is such a clear signpost to matters that are truly important. In this case, to me. Anger is of course an emotion that comes about when we believe something is wrong and unjust. I would like to think that mine came only from a place of concern that here was someone who was not abiding by the first rule of any conversational intervention: do no harm. If I am honest, I think there was also a grudging appreciation of the opportunism being shown by the coach/ facilitator, and the self confidence implied by their astronomical (in my view) fee. Perhaps there was a little guilt in realising that while I was angry about their process, I had some admiration for their courage!

Anyway, what I actually did at the time has led to some interesting reflection and learning once the anger had passed. Given that I felt that some of the fundamentals of coaching were being ignored, my contribution to the conversation was to strip back coaching to its bare essentials, and to describe what they were. I then proceeded to capture my basics of a coaching approach on the smallest Post-it note I had available. I wafted it in front of my camera to share with the group as part of our proceedings, and our conversation ebbed and flowed in an increasingly more measured fashion as we shared our thoughts and feelings. I still have that Post-it note and share it below.

Coaching on a Post-it. How do your reduce down what you do in a way that allows you to reconstitute it in all its detail when you have a need to? And how do you do that? Is it like...'just add water'?

Ordinarily I would be keen to explore the validity of this list of coaching basics. I do believe it to be a version of the truth, but not the only version. It would be interesting to know how you would capture coaching ‘on the back of a postage stamp’. A further reflection is how your summary might have changed over time and with experience.

However, what I am more curious about right now is how I relate to experiences that feel, or are reductive vs those that feel, or are expansive. At the time of writing this particular Post-it, my anger allowed me to be comfortable with thinking that was reductive, more binary, perhaps simplistic. However, I recall that even immediately after writing and sharing my Post-it I had an almost overpowering urge to add more detail, to be more expansive. It was an interesting moment.

Since then, I have thought more about where I am on the continuum that connects reductive and expansive. Human System Dynamics would call these two an interdependent pair. Others might call them polarities, or paradox. What interested me is to think where my ‘natural state’ is on the continuum that connects the two? Likewise, I have also thought more on what influences my movement across this continuum, in one direction or another? Or perhaps what triggers me to choose to move?

My musings on these questions are that my natural tendency is towards the expansive. I experience the light side of this as being open to possibility, comfortable with emergence, explorative of difference. The shadow side, which I also recognise, feels like losing sight of the path, drowning in the detail, confused by apparently competing possibilities. I have learned to consciously navigate my way from expansive to reductive when a sharp focus is required, as much in my coaching practice as in my own self-management. I remember the pleasure and pain of trying to describe any activity with which I was engaged inside an 18-word limit, something that came up when I was first exposed to the language of process efficiency. I am grateful to Frank Wright for his partnership at the time, in delivering a long series of workshops on process efficiency. I found myself being expansive on the value of reducing something down to its bare essentials, when inside my being was screaming ‘let’s get complex!’ My strengthening of this reductive muscle was evidence for the well-used saying that ‘the best way of learning is to teach it to others’.

This is all against the backdrop to the instantaneous transition from being expansive to reductive that is a core part of everyone’s response to threat. We automatically shut down possibilities to pursue the only thing of importance when feeling threatened…..survival. The experience above amply demonstrates how this defence response, designed to save us when we feel physically threatened, manifests itself much more commonly in situations of social threat.

Something that comes up for me as I write, is other closely related interdependent pairs, referred to in passing above. For example, simplicity/ complexity and summary/ detail. Similar, but not the same as reductive/ expansive. Perhaps it might be of interest to you to think about the language we attach to each end of an interdependent pair, and how central it is to our experience of the behaviour associated with it.

There we go then. A journey through triggers, anger, stripping back what I do to basics, my relationship with reductionism and expansionism, social threat, and interdependent pairs. Here are some reflective enquiries that connect with the narrative above.

  • How would you capture the essential basics of what you do on a Post-it? (Don’t cheat and use a big one!)?

  • What is there to learn in stripping back your professional/ personal responsibilities to their essential basics?

  • What is your relationship with being reductive or expansive and how does it play out in your life?

  • Think of a recent situation where you have felt anger or frustration towards another person. What are these emotions telling you about what IS important to you?

If the exploration implied in these enquiries interests you, or you are curious about how enquiry on something that is particularly topical for you might be helpful, please do get in touch with me.

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