Tell me

“When you hear someone – or you – talking about who is right, their primary concern is about power. When they  talk about what is right, then you’re talking about values.”

That’s the phrase that popped into my head when I was thinking about why discourse, the dialogue of ideas, has given way to the slanging match that so often ends in threats, and I include name calling in my definition of a threat.  Have the social media  caused  this ya boo sucks way of talking with our world or is it simply the ideal medium for the way we have been taught to think? After all, even in the heyday of newspapers did we ever have millions of readers clamouring to comment on the pages of the New York Times, the Guardian or Die Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, where some semblance of thoughtfulness was demanded by editors?  The social media are perfect for “who is right”. Not only because of the (perceived) anonymity of those commenting but because there is no need to think. There is only a need to take sides. Read most, if not all, of the threads on Twitter and you will discover someone who will insert him or herself with a variation of “I’m right and you’re wrong, arsehole.” And that sentence all by itself means nothing more than “I have no need to think about what you said because you are an arsehole and I am not. You may be Pope, prime minister, president or a chief Brexiteer but you have no power over me. I can take you down again and again simply by not thinking about what you’re saying.” And, of course when people with authority and power join in and refuse to accept any evidence apart from their own infallibility then the Rights and Rights line up against each other, identifying the enemy not just as Obama, Trump, Putin, Netanyahu or Khaled Mashal but as Liberals, Democrats, Republicans, Russians, Israelis, Jews, Palestinians, Arabs and Moslems.

We mass allies around us and range them against our massed enemies. And we know as little about either our allies and our enemies. Why? Because we know nothing about their values. Because those values are not what we have been squabbling over. If they were, we would notice very quickly that the Liberals, Republicans, Israelis and Palestinians hold many differing values within their communities; some of them perhaps close to our own.  What we have been doing is jostling for power, positioning ourselves with those blocs that we think – we imagine – can provide us with the greater influence. Why else would Alabama Evangelists back a man accused of  sexually assaulting teenage girls in the 70’s? Why else was the Brexit campaign conducted with so little information and impact evaluation on either side? Because ethics,ideas, justness, what is right – were not important. Power – winning – was. And history shows it can only get worse if we do not discuss what is right. If we do not cross the battle lines to understand both the values that bind us and the foundations of the values that divide us. The “enemy” morphs from, Clinton or Trump to Democrats and Republicans, and then to gender, race, religion and nationality.

So, is there a way out of this? Back to that phrase at the top of the page.

Talking about who is right is about power. Talking about what is right is about values. By “who” I mean individuals insisting that they, their countries, political parties, religions or races -or in fact any branded entity – are right. By “what” I mean ideas, values, morality, sense of justness. The former cuts short discussion. It’s the ideal arena for ya boo sucks. After all, if I tell you that you are wrong and I am right, then you have a limited number of choices. You could walk away;  or you could tell me, and the world, that as I am a buffoon, whatever I believe is invalid; or (inversely) since you have the backing of the British people, Christianity, Islam or the Koch Brothers you have the authority of credibility on your side. All of those are about power – even walking away.

You have one more choice. You could  say, “Tell me…”

You could say, “Tell me something about what is right for us all about your stance. Tell me something about how you formed the ideas behind your belief that you (or your allies) are right. Tell me about your values, what is important to you. And why you think they could be important for me.”

There’s nothing like “Tell me..” to make people think about what they are doing and who they are. There’s nothing like “Tell me…” to make two people realise they are human. And incidentally, “Tell me about why you think your belief is good for us all” is well short of 140 characters.

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Beware of coaches bearing assumptions

Coaching is about change. You get coached (whether in sport, work or elsewhere) to change performance, perception, or relationships. And, in my experience, the most effective change occurs as a result of the client’s self discovery; self-discovering her need for change, identifying her goals and developing the strengths and skills to achieve those goals.

And what is the greatest danger to self discovered change? Judgements. Assumptions. First you’ll get the judgements of the client about himself and about the coaching process. This could vary from ‘I’m just not a good manager’ to ‘I’m being coached as punishment; they’re telling me I’m not good enough’.

Then you’ll get the judgements and assumptions of the coach. These could range from: ‘ this guy’s not a good manager’ to ‘ my psychology training tells me that he’s depressed; until I know better I’m going to have to assume that’s the case’.

And the trouble with assumptions and judgements is that they are a mechanism to stop change – not enable it. We make assumptions as a short cut. An assumption is a tool which says ‘as a result of my experience, I am concluding (without further enquiry) that this person is Label A or is acting according to Label B’. We conclude that this person is a snap shot of our past experience.

In assuming judgement we are saying(at best) " you’re likely to behave in this way" or (more likely) "you should behave in a way that I think you should".
When we judge in this way we’re actually making the following statements: "a) I know what you should be doing, you do not; b) I therefore know you better than you know yourself; c) Until you do what I ‘suggest’ you will be ‘in deficit’; d) Because I know what to do and you do not, and because I know you better than you know yourself, we should also assume that I have a better idea of how to do it than you do".
And, until the client does what the coach thinks, they will be in conflict; consciously or not. If, on the other hand, the client does follow the coach’s ‘advice’ she may be acting entirely at odds with the way she sees the world and therefore with the way she manages the world.

My only role as coach is to help you to a) understand your relationship with your world; b) find out how you want to manage or change that relationship and c) uncover and hone your own skills and strengths to achieve that change. If I do anything to inhibit you, as my client, from achieving those ends, I’m not doing my job. And making assumptions about you is a sure fire way to do just that; because it’s my relationship with my world that I’m ‘helping you understand’ – not yours.
Does that mean that coaches should not take any (moral, ethical) position? Of course we should. But we should be taking an ethical stand when we decide whether or not we work with(or continue to work with) a particular client. The job of a coach is to enable not convert. If it’s morally abhorrent to you as a coach to enable a client’s self discovery, then it’s time to end that relationship.
Now, so far, you’ll probably find most coaches agreeing with me in a "so what" kind of way. The problem is that we’re not always aware that we’re working according to an assumption.

I was a CEO for a decade before I became a coach. The other day I found myself saying to a client "Your experience may be different to mine, but I found -when I was a CEO – it was a good idea to act in this way…"

Despite the caveat, the message my client may have received was: "This guy was a CEO for a long time – I haven’t even got there yet – if he says it’s a good idea, then odds are, it is". What did I do that made him think that?After all I used all the right language, didn’t I? I assumed that my experience was’ superior’ to his; that he was less capable than I of finding a solution – and, like it or not, I told him so. In short: with the best will in the world, I judged that my way of seeing the world was ‘better’ than his.

It gets even more insidious than that. A coach can make assumptions and judgements based on her values. And I don’t mean only ‘moral values’ but values in the sense of priorities and world view. That means that if that coach was trained as a psychotherapist, unless she is very, very aware she could well approach each coaching session with the assumption that she is there to enable therapy: a cure; a restoration to health. That, then presupposes another assumption: that there is something wrong with the client; that the coach/therapist is there to cure with her superior knowledge. Can there be anything more inhibiting to your growth and development than an assumption that you’re ill?

Similarly, my training and experience as a professional manager came from directive, hierarchical media organisations steeped in the newsroom/production floor ethos that the editor’s word is final. Sure, there may be discussion before hand but the final vision is held by the boss. So, with that ethos in mind, I need to guard against falling back into the old rhythm of gathering all the ideas and thoughts and packaging them into an action plan for the client. But what’s wrong with that if I do it ‘with the client’s permission’? It’s a pretty democratic and even creative way of managing, isn’t it? It may be a creative way of managing but it isn’t a creative way of coaching. Instead of enabling my client to make the linkages to her own experience (so that she can learn and carry on learning), I’ve – once again – imposed my experience.

Are there any prompts that can help alert both coach and client to the danger of an assumption lurking in the room?
The most obvious one is: ‘What’s your assumption here?’ Otherwise known as ‘Where did that question come from?"

Both coach and client’s antennae could start quivering when the coach uses words like ‘I suggest’, ‘in my experience’, ‘why don’t you?’ ‘you need to’or even ‘did you not think it would be better if you…?" Statements like ‘in my experience’ are not necessarily loaded with assumption, although ‘In my experience, when I was a CEO" are.
Intuitively (as coach or client) if you sense this relationship is simply not feeling equal , then the chances are one person is imposing an assumption on the other; somebody is being inhibited or shut down. And if you feel that, say so clearly. And keep on saying it until all the assumptions are crystal clear.

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