Human dimensions
March 15, 2019

Human dimensions in coaching at Welsh Coaching Conference 2019

By Paul Laughlin

Do you focus sufficiently on human dimensions when coaching?

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of delivering a Masterclass at the largest Coaching Conference in Europe. In that, we focussed on making effective use of video conferencing in coaching, but more about that later.

You may be surprised to hear, that the event is the Welsh Coaching Conference. Now in its sixth incarnation, this 2019 event was widely rated as the best yet.

Regular readers will know that I have previously attended and reported from 2015, 2016 and the 2018 editions of this conference.

In this post, I will summarise the key messages from the sessions that I attended. There were 3 other streams to attend, with plenty of workshops & resources from exhibition stands. Hopefully this debrief helps demonstrate why this event is worth attending.

Wales as a European hotspot for coaching

As in previous years, this event was chaired by the charming & scholarly Dave Tee. He kicked us off with the encouraging news that our 2019 event had the biggest audience yet, which is why we moved to the larger venue of the beautiful Vale Resort.

Many coaches I speak to in England are surprised to hear that coaching is even more active in Wales (shown in last year’s research). They are amazed that this event is the largest coaching conference in Europe. But more delegates and speakers are coming from across the UK to attend.

As well as engaging sponsor talks, about the importance of coaching in organisations, from the University of South Wales & Academi Wales, interactive surveys were used. The first confirmed that what coaches most want from university coaching centres are opportunities to network & supervisors.

Effective use of video conferencing when coaching

Before the first of two excellent keynote presentations, I ran one of four parallel masterclasses. My focus was on both recognising where video conferencing technology can help & the potential pitfalls for coaching.

This mixture of both benefits and problems echoed the experience shared in the room. A key benefit to those attending appeared to be my recommendation to use Zoom (as too many were still limited to only trying Skype, with all its technical limitations). After this session, a number of delegates informed me that they had already downloaded Zoom on their phones.

We also covered the importance of preparation, back-up plans, having a more transactional agenda and reflective practice to boost awareness. My other technical recommendations were a Logitech HD webcam and a Jabra portable speaker & microphone.

I have shared a copy of my very minimal slides of my SlideShare account:

Human dimensions: Having Deep Impact

Our first keynote was from Julie Starr. She has been coaching for over 20 years and is the author of a number of books including The Coaching Manual. A book which the world famous Marshall Goldsmith describes as the definitive foundation textbook.

Julie was refreshingly pragmatic and transparent. In line with the theme for this event, which was “Human Dimensions“, Julie shared the need to get in touch with your “Why” as a coach. She encouraged us to feel free to focus on what we get out of coaching. Much of her advice here reminded me of Michael Hyatt’s advice in “Living Forward”.

Reflecting on the journey of competency that coaches go on, as they mature in their practice, she shared a pyramid diagram with 5 levels. From the foundation of Novice on to Competent, Skilled, Adept & finally Mastery.

It was interesting to consider two benefits of maturing as a coach. One was moving from a focus on models to reaching a state of unconscious competence or flow (as we discussed for agile working). The other is the benefit of maintaining a novice mindset (which reminded me of the principle of ‘beginners mind’ from mindfulness meditation.

Julie went on to share a model from the NLP side of coaching that I found helpful. Avid readers of my past coaching posts will know that is unusual, as I often have no time for NLP approaches or groups. But it was useful to consider the benefits of digging deeper when seeking to help clients. For instance, the need to work at the level of values & beliefs to achieve behaviour change (or deeper still until you reach the level of identity).

Much of Julie’s content & advice was very person centred. “Coach the person, not the problem“. She also gave coaches a much-needed reminder to focus sufficiently on themselves. From a foundation of self-care to investing in the CPD they want & professionalising their approach. It would be well worth checking out her books on coaching & mentoring.

Embedding your training through use of team coaching

The next masterclass that I attended was one of great relevance to me as a trainer. Vivien Kelly, who is a psychologist working for the Powys Health Authority shared her experience of using team coaching to embed training.

Like her, I have sometimes been concerned that “once and done” training (even with some action learning commitments) can fail to embed as a permanent change. She is working in the important area of pre-natal & post-natal care, especially with regards to birth trauma.

The author Brene Brown was quoted often, together with the need to embrace vulnerability. In line with that, the team coaching work was focussed on eliciting fears & feelings – i.e. getting below the rationale level again. It was a useful reminder to be challenging & encourage diverse perspectives. Allowing concerns to be shared and considered, rather than underlying scepticism to lurk unchallenged.

We all completed exercises to give ourselves permission to live our values. As I am committed to empowering my clients to achieved sustainable growth, I will be experimenting more in this area. It feels like fertile territory for those of us who both train & coach. A recommended resource to follow up this session is Brene Brown’s great TED talk:

Human dimensions: a Psychodynamic approach to coaching

For the other keynote presentation, Dr Catherine Sandler shared the relevance of the Psychodynamic approach to coaching. She had been invited to do this as a result of research findings. Those had shown an over-reliance on goal orientated coaching as the model for coaching in Wales. So, last year David Drake presented on Narrative Coaching. Catherine provided another really helpful addition to best practice.

Despite such a strong academic pedigree, what made Catherine’s talk so powerful was how much she shared people’s stories. Each point was brought to life with experience from her client work.

She began by slaying a few myths. For example that this approach is therapy or you can only practice it if you are a trained therapist. It also became clear how much this is a focus on engaging with what is going on in the Unconcious Mind. As I confirmed with a question afterwards, this is akin to the work on Behavioural Economics and nudges.

Her primary focus was on identifying and helping people mitigate the effects of their psychological defences. When we are “triggered” and go into flight, fight or freeze. She helpfully helped demonstrate how active listening with clients can spot patterns in behaviour that give this away.

From all that Catherine shared, one of the most encouraging things for me as a mentor was the permission to be directive. She affirmed the appropriateness, at times, of giving advice or challenging the client on the basis of your own expertise & experience. It might be against the orthodoxy of coaching, but it can be very welcomed by clients when used prudently.

We also reflected on Transference & Counter-Transference. Both self-awareness and reflective practice, plus supervision, can help with both. A very practical tip was the importance of building trust & credibility in your first meeting as a client. I could also see the power of the “Mixed Feeling” technique in encouraging clients to express what they are suppressing (especially in the case of idealising a flawed boss).

Catherine is well worth hearing and if her book is as packed with practical applications as she is when speaking, well worth reading:

Executive Coaching: A Psychodynamic Approach

Executive Coaching is designed for executive coaches and allied professionals who would like to learn more about how psychodynamic psychology can be applied to executive coaching. While the author works mainly with senior role-holders, the ideas and techniques described are relevant to any individual who has responsibility for leading, managing or influencing others.

Are you a Tiger, a Dolphin or an Owl?

My final masterclass was a chance to continue learning from Catherine. She led a session on her “Emotional Profiles Triangle” method and how it helps when working with leaders under pressure.

In this model, 3 primary types of people are identified:

  1. Tigers = Task-orientated & high-emotion
  2. Dolphins = Relationship-orientated & high-emotion
  3. Owls = Task-orientated &n low emotion

Each personality type has both natural strengths as a leader and a “shadow side” when their defences are triggered. In other words, they can each succeed by playing to their strengths but need to beware of their stress response.

On the positive side, these types can offer their teams:

  1. Energetic, passionate and driven, these leaders excel at delivering results to the highest possible standards.
  2. Warm, inclusive and empathetic, these leaders excel at engendering trust and bringing the best out of others.
  3. Cool, calm and self-contained, these leaders excel at applying analysis and logic to solve complex problems.

Where they each have potential weaknesses is in their stress reactions. As Catherine explained in her keynote, when triggered their psychological defences can make them “less skilful” in these ways:

  1. Aggression is mobilised and they struggle to control their anger, which results in outbursts, criticism & blame, irritability or passive-aggressive behaviour.
  2. Fear us mobilised and they struggle to control their anxiety, which results in conflict avoidance and appeasement or occasionally manipulative behaviour.
  3. Feelings shut down and they struggle to engage emotionally with others, which results in withdrawl, isolation and apparent lack of empahty toward others.

It was fascinating to explore ways of helping clients be more aware of how they are triggered & how to recover if they are. As you might expect, those techniques vary per type. It is also useful to consider which type best represents your primary behaviour. You can probably tell by how you react when under pressure.

Then reflect on what unintended impact that might have on your coaching clients. For instance, if you are a tiger who coaches dolphins, are you sufficiently sensitive to any threats they might perceive to their relationships or sense of self as “good“?

A simple but powerful model that I will definitely keep in mind when helping clients with patterns of defensive reaction. I’ve learnt that it is nearly always the simplest of models that stay with me & actually prove powerful in practice. So, I’m glad to have heard this.

Human dimensions: can you afford to miss next year?

I hope that was useful as a debrief on what has proven to be, once again, an excellent conference for coaches & leaders. If you are a leadership coach operating within Wales, this really is a must attend event. I would encourage any coaches or HR leaders in the UK to attend.

The growing popularity of what is now the largest coaching conference in Europe is proof as to the value of meeting other coaches in this context. I have written above on the content shared, but I always experience at least as much benefit from the opportunities to chat with others who attend. See you there in Spring 2020?