In a recent coaching conversation, my client declared ‘things are getting worse’. Whilst acknowledging his progress in being more skilful and human in his leadership, he was experiencing more occasions of regret, discomfort, awkwardness or embarrassment about his interactions with others. For me, this indicates that things are getting better!
A complication of raising awareness of our internal narratives and our effect on others is that we notice things we’ve previously been oblivious to. So, for instance, we realise that our ‘robust’ questioning of a proposal feels to others like criticism and obstruction. Then we see that their defence or resistance prompts even greater sharpness and persistence in us! Things get worse…
With our radar more finely tuned, we pick up more data and begin to recognise that our approach sometimes stymies our desired outcomes. And then, if we resolve to make changes in that approach, we’re on untested ground. This too adds to a sense of things ‘getting worse’.
The process shows up clearly in elite sports – a bowler changes his or her action, and their deliveries become more erratic, or a golfer changes their putter and becomes more inconsistent on the green. During the transition to a new ‘form’ they may have nagging concerns that their game won’t improve. Perhaps they’re tempted to return to the more familiar way of doing things. It requires courage to weather a ‘dip’ in performance while potential benefits remain unrealised.
So it is with leadership development.
Such matters are in my mind as I launch my next dialogue practice development programme. I’m thoughtful about how I support participants in the difficult process of changing practice whilst in the spotlight of a leadership role. As they adjust the way they contribute to conversations, a leader may feel unsure of their skill and effectiveness. Whilst transitory, the very prospect of such uncertainty can be a deterrent to changing practice.
In the programme, we explore the factors that influence the shape and quality of conversations and examine our personal contribution to the way things turn out. Typically, we encounter two pitfalls:
• It can be hard on the ego to realise that something we’ve been doing for years isn’t always helpful; and
• We can be self-conscious when trying out something new and, in our efforts to disguise this, we may overthink our approach or be too casual.
My role is to inspire confidence that the long-term benefits of changing practice will outweigh any initial snags.
To equip leaders for this bumpy terrain, I draw on principles from martial arts. I introduce embodied practices that assist us to ‘hold steady’ in moments of messiness, and to access sufficient perspective to view testing circumstances with lightness, and even humour!
In creating a shift in our relationship to unexpected events, we can accelerate the integration of new ways of working. Two previous participants describe this:
‘When something ‘doesn’t work’, I no longer think: I’m using the wrong technique. Instead, I think: I need more practice…’ Finance Director
‘I now prepare for challenging conversations differently. I ask: what completely different pebble could I throw into this pool to get a new pattern of ripples?’ HR Director
To further support participants, I strongly suggest that new skills are tried out in LOW RISK SITUATIONS (capitalising as I speak). Everyone ignores this – which provides material for reflective practice, and enriches learning for the group. It also stimulates a collective smile – the desire to fast-track runs deep in us all.
And so, my programme promises that your conversations will get worse! Can I tempt you to participate?