Unconditional positive regard

On Sunday evening whilst you were tucked up in bed I was finishing a course I’ve helped deliver in California. There have been 3 modules of 5 days and with this commitment of time also comes the chance to really get to know the delegates. It’s been a large group of approximately 45 people so naturally there will be some you get on with better than others. It’s certainly true to say that there have been frictions and fall outs in the room. However, due to the nature of the content there is an expectation that all of us will be resourceful and work through these conflicts.

When it was time to present the certificates the lead trainer said he wanted to trial something from the work of the psychologist Carl Rogers – the idea of “unconditional positive regard”. The idea being that a therapist accepts the client for what they are, even if they disagree with their actions. By accepting the natural value of the person you provide the best chance of personal growth. The management adage of “separate the person from the behaviour” is a simple expression of this approach.

We formed a circle and as your name was called you moved in to the circle and once there everyone said a word or phrase with which they would describe you. Not one at a time but all at once. The theory being that you were underneath a shower of words as people spoke, repeated themselves, had different things to say with varying lengths. Being a slightly cynical Brit I was ready to put this down to it being California and a bit hippy dippy. I was also concerned about some of the more divisive figures in the group. However as I watched person after person hold themselves a little taller, smile a little more and become visibly emotional I was ready to accept it.

As part of the delivery team we went last and even after all that I was unprepared for what it felt like to be in the middle of 40 people who all had something good to say about you. In all honesty I couldn’t pick out everyone’s words but seeing the smiling faces around me, the warmth and positivity were amazing.

Now I don’t think I’m going to start this ritual at the end of every course I deliver but it really made me think about just how generative and affirming such a process is. It made me muse on how I can better show people that I see their intrinsic worth and value. I don’t have the answer to that, I suspect it’s a process with myriad opportunities to practice so I shall go forward and see what I find out. Anyone care to join me in this experiment?

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Self help?

I bought a book over the weekend. It was all of 10p – ex stock from my local library. Except strangely it had never been loaned, it was in perfect condition. Someone had obviously thought to buy it for the library and then perhaps someone else decided there wasn’t a use for it. The book was by the popular and respected writer Tom Rath and its subtitle is “Positive strategies for life and work”. Which you’d think is a book that might be useful to someone, somewhere. Heck this is a New York Times number 1 best seller. Oprah liked it, Deepak Chopra too and if you prefer your recommendations a little more robust then Martin Seligman is also a fan.


When I worked for London Underground I was given a 360 degree appraisal. Most people in leadership roles got one. It was a useful process for me and opened my eyes to a few things. Based on my scores the L&D team had suggested a reading list, much of which was to be found in the company library. I duly trotted down to the library after work one day. Having been assessed about halfway through the corporate programme I wasn’t too optimistic that any of the books I needed would be there. Still I thought it best to get my name on the wait list.

When I got there the librarian couldn’t have been more helpful. Absolutely the books were in stock, many of them in new editions bought by the company to support this process. I selected the first 3 on my list and flicked through. None of them had been taken out.

I moved on to some of my second choices. As I recall these were hardy standards such as Covey or Drucker – the doorstop books as I like to think of them. No new editions needed here, plenty of stock already in the company. Most of them last taken out several years before. Approximately at the date of the last big corporate initiative in leadership.

Barely used.

I guess you could account for the difference between then and now saying that these days we all prefer a snappy TED talk or a colourful infographic but I think there is also something deeper at work.

There is an assumption that most people within organisations are crying out for some investment, they want the deeper knowledge, the development that good training brings.

Do they?

I mean undoubtedly some of them do but most? I’m not so sure that’s the case. I’ve seen plenty of instances where people have acted counter to the values / aims / mission of their company. Quite a few where people have knowingly failed to discharge their legal duty. Even some where people have distinctly set out to do harm to colleagues / the organisation as revenge.

So I guess my question is should we help those who won’t help themselves?

I don’t know the answer but I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.


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Fit for purpose

Since knee surgery I’ve made a slow but steady comeback on my bike. I’ve struggled with motivation but have inched forward bit by bit. I’ve returned to the sort of distances and speeds I used to turn out but something has still been wrong. Burning pain in my quadriceps after a ride. I’ve also felt my confidence in corners has not fully returned and I’m left wondering whether physically and mentally I’m not the same rider I was.

When I originally got my bike it was set up by a friend with a massive amount of expertise. He has built literally hundreds of bikes in his time. His previous job as a bike tour guide meant that he had constructed and adjusted bikes regularly for an ever changing cast of riders with all their varying fitment needs. So when I decided to get a commercial bike fit I was worried that this was somehow an insult to him but I knew that something wasn’t right.

I did some research around the net, spoke to a few friends. The general opinion was that the best bike fitters just “know”, that they can size you up as you walk in the door. Also there was a feeling that recent technological developments / systems may all be a bit smoke and mirrors. In the end I settled for a mixed approach.

I contacted a guy called Adam White. He offers the Retül system currently in use by many of the pro teams but that wasn’t why I chose him. It was more about his commitment to biomechanics and how he wanted to approach bike fitting – seeing it as an entirely personal thing. Certainly the questionnaire he sent me was incredibly detailed.

I arrived at his studio a little nervous and found a guy much younger than I expected (or maybe I’m just getting older). He explained how he had got in to bike fitting, how the process would work and how long it would take. First off was a physical assessment, see what my range of movement was. Adam had trained originally as a physio so knew his way around the human anatomy & I was impressed with his attention to detail. Next up I got on the bike to see if his initial suspicions were confirmed. Once we had done that then he attached a whole bunch of sensors to me and the system recorded me in 3D. From there he could make a judgement about where we needed to start.

20140714-061935-22775768.jpgIn essence I was collapsing from the pelvis and my balance was skewed. I seemed stretched on the bike to his eyes which was something I hadn’t noticed but made perfect sense. Rather than the bike he made the first adjustments to my shoes (I ride clipped to my pedals). I hopped back on the bike. There was a definite improvement. Next he tweaked the saddle up & forward a tiny amount. It helped even more. We moved it again, this time too far so we went back to the first adjustment. I was blown away by how 2mm of adjustment up and perhaps 1cm forward made such a difference. He was clear that there had likely been nothing wrong with my setup pre-injury but that as I healed, favouring my left leg I had imported weaknesses to my riding position.

I left Adam with strict instructions from him to try a couple of gentle rides first to allow myself to adjust. I went out on Saturday evening and right from the off the bike felt more agile and responsive, I felt more confident in the corners and able to apply power more smoothly and precisely.

Why am I telling you all this? Well it got me thinking about how we get used to things over time, how we cope and adjust to situations that aren’t terribly healthy for us mentally and emotionally, personally or professionally. Yet a tiny bit of adjustment (12mm on the bike and 1cm on my shoes in my case) may transform our lives.

Where have you allowed yourself to get bent out of shape? Where could you make a tiny adjustment in your life and transform your future?

P.S. All this cycling stuff is in a good cause. I’m just £40 from my target in my latest charity ride for Mind. Could your small donation help me get to the start line? Please support me.

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The abyss gazes also in to you

It’s one week on. This is the test. The first Monday of a new era.

My years worth of therapy ended last week. We didn’t just waffle away the last session, there were still some more learnings to come out and we went right up to the final whistle. A firm handshake (I wanted to hug her but I’m twice her size and worried I’d break her) and I emerged blinking in to the light.

When I started therapy I was mindful of the Nietzsche quote;

“Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”

I was frightened of what therapy would bring up, the dark thoughts from a life lived partly in shadow, maybe the final accounting for some of my deplorable behaviour when manic in past years. Also I was afraid that there wasn’t much hope for me. Able to function (albeit badly) I knew I had to make the most of this chance. For me it felt like everything was riding on it. I had let down too many people, hurt so many others and also hurt myself…….

……….and yet there is also a side of me which has always stood up for those less fortunate or able. I’ve been the watchman, patrolling the gates. Could I let my own guard down long enough for some help and understanding?

I have stood for a year on the edge of my own personal abyss, gazing in to it. It has gazed back with an unwavering stare. It has exposed my weaknesses, laid bare many of my defences but I have also fought back, striven to understand myself. I have tried to stop “thinking my feelings”, have tried to forgive myself and accept some situations for what they are. In some cases I have been successful, in others less so.

So that’s it. Therapy is done and I’m released back to my GP. I get a review in six months but unless there is a major relapse I’m on my own – and that scares me. I’m worried about how it goes from here. Whether the bad dreams and the terrors will return, whether I am strong enough to cope without the regular support, the release of tension that characterised my sessions. Already my sleep is disturbed but that might just be a phase.

The feeling was that more therapy would be beneficial, however I’ve had all I’m allowed. They offered to find me someone who would take private clients but I can’t bear to tell my story again to a new therapist. I also know that I’m better off than many out there. Currently I can earn a living and have a large degree of autonomy in my life. I need to apply myself in order to stay healthy, I need to make that happen because as I found a few years ago it can all slip away from you very quickly.

So for now, I’ve walked away from the edge of the abyss. I’ve battled with monsters but hopefully I’ve kept that human part of me.

The watchman who stands up for others must also stand for himself.




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On air

One of the joys of working for myself is the option to choose my contracts and my colleagues. Being a “one man band” means that I do need to team up with other freelancers in order to deliver some pieces of work. I’ve been lucky to find some great people via social media and I’m pleased with the projects we have delivered for a variety of clients.

Some of the work I’ve done has been alongside Bev and Kate of the Clear Thinking Partnership. They are very interested in collaboration and how people can work better in teams and organisations. In order to research this they have been interviewing colleagues on Google Hangouts – this week they asked me to contribute my perspective.

Now it’s fair to say I’m self conscious on camera at the best of times and being interviewed doubles that discomfort so it’s a testament to Bev’s question technique that I felt comfortable talking about collaboration. It was a tough ask but I knew I could trust Bev when we went out on the air. I won’t spoil the content but I hope you find my example useful.

My final point is that whilst I wasn’t a fan of the hangout as a mechanism, there are so many tools now available to help people create, edit, share and record content that you’ll easily find one that works for you. Give it a whirl and see where it takes you – hopefully in to some great collaborative work.

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Pedantry or precision?

I notice the small stuff, the gaps between things and where the edges are. It’s a useful skill to have as a coach. Helping me see the holes in a person’s narrative, the places where they are scared to admit the full truth of situations and perhaps where they can make a difference. It’s often their words which betray them.

IMG_5857Sometimes though the skill can infuriate me. I read blog posts and note the inaccuracies and malapropisms, the spelling errors and typos. I wish I could leave these things but most of the time I feel compelled to let the author know of their mistake. Often I tell the author that I don’t want others to dismiss their excellent blog due to a simple mistake. Yet I wonder if that’s just me justifying my own pedantry – you see, I love language.

Growing up we didn’t have a lot of books in the house but there was a library van which came to our village every few weeks. Sometimes I would finish my books long before the van was due. I would read my parents’ books (a curious mixture of Georgette Heyer and Zane Gray with a few WWII true stories thrown in for good measure) but soon I had exhausted the family collection. Eventually, my mother – in frustration as much as kindness – suggested I read the dictionary. Before that point I had often read with a dictionary alongside me, checking words as I went but this was different. As a very small boy I had struggled to articulate my ideas and plans but with the dictionary came a rich and diverse stream of words. I grew fascinated by the power of description. The seemingly endless variety within the English language, agglomerative yet egalitarian. No matter where a word came from, Latin, French, old English, Gaelic, Nordic, German – all were welcome. Of course this made the spellings and phonetics a pain but I revelled in the complexity and the ability to explain myself accurately and fully.

Just as we move to a more globalised version of English with the potential to incorporate more variety, conversations across social media are being constricted by space limitations. Often brevity and simplicity win out. Simple errors such as their / they’re or your / you’re are explained away by the excuse “well you knew what I meant so what’s the problem?”. Similarly there is a drive to simplify English to make it easier to use, our functional vocabulary is reducing day by day. We talk of it being a “nice” view when there are any number of words that we could use which would be more descriptive and indeed accurate.

I understand that within organisations we need to keep our language simple and clear. The Campaign for Plain English has done superbly in their quest to reduce jargon from business communication, but for me I’d like there to be a balance. Just as art can take many forms from brutal functionalism to engaging cartoons so language needs to exist at several levels. The words in safety procedures need to be clear and unambiguous but if we are talking to teams about ideas and visions then our language needs to aim a little higher.

We need to elicit emotions, move hearts and minds – use words that will inspire and uplift. For those words to work they need to be precise and carefully chosen but above all rich in meaning and evocation.

I will leave you with the words of the author Melina Marchetta -

“Because without our language, we have lost ourselves. Who are we without our words?”




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cloudI raced down the hill trying to stay close to Jo’s back wheel. He’s fast, far faster than me but also kind enough to drop back and help me slipstream him to join the others because he knew that I was struggling. We lean in to the soft right hand curve and I feel the rear wheel start to slide out. I shift my weight to compensate but then the front wheel goes in the opposite direction via a tree root. I stand on the pedals fighting for a line but it’s too late. The brake levers clip a tree trunk and I’m airborne, over the handlebars and falling forward.

Apparently when someone falls from their bike they tend to go one of two ways, either they are vocal and chattery, pick themselves up and get back on. Or they go quiet, subdued and shocked.

I was quiet. Riding clipped in meant that my bike had followed me through my fall, complicating my landing. I could feel a throbbing in my finger (later found to be fractured) and I had done something to my knee.

The next morning, back in the UK I gave in and went to the hospital. So began the tests and exams which confirmed cartilage damage and the need for surgery.

At the time I was also waiting for psychotherapy. In fact the knee operation would come before I could start therapy – so much for “parity of esteem”

Due to the fall I was robbed of one of the things which helped my mental health – good physical exercise. I wasn’t allowed to ride any more than gentle spins on the turbo trainer or errands to town. I couldn’t walk terribly far and because I can only swim breaststroke I was stranded. Even as the knee healed (unfortunately I won’t regain full function) I couldn’t find much enthusiasm for being on the bike. I would go out and ride some miles but would invariably feel the knee tighten so played safe. Also, as I went deeper in to therapy it became apparent that being out on the bike was a way to escape from my problems rather than confront them and examine their intensity and impact on me. There was a feeling that I needed to be still and be “with” my thoughts.

A couple of months ago a good friend of mine, Olly,  turned 40. His party was to be a bike weekend in the Peak District. It had been in the diary for ages, looming large every time I spoke with friends. It was something they were all looking forward to. Me? I was dreading it. Out with the same group that I had been riding with at the time of the accident, all the attendant questions that would bring. I also didn’t have the right bike for the terrain, my cyclocross bike is pretty versatile but I would need the gearing and tyres of a mountain bike – something I didn’t own. With a week to go I still didn’t have one. I talked about my dilemma in therapy and it was clear that I needed to honour Olly (he’s been incredibly kind throughout this period) and that whatever else I was going to attend. I called another friend and managed to get a bike. It came in a box and the Friday afternoon saw Jo and I building it before setting off for the Peak District. I hadn’t even ridden it and on the way Jo and I talked about what was holding me back and my fears about falling out of love with cycling.

The next day dawned bright and clear, we did last tweaks to the bike and set off. Now I’m used to being the slowest amongst this (universally kind and patient) group, it comprises bike tour guides, bike skills instructors, bike journalists and 24 hour enduro racers. Worse than that though was the fact I hadn’t ridden off road since the accident. I was very very scared. As we started to go uphill I slipped farther and farther back, slowly plodding along through the mud. I was painfully aware of holding the group back. We came to the first major descent, a really tricky rock chute about half a mile long. I let everyone else go first so as not to slow them up but Jo hung back. He discussed the best line, how he thought I should approach it and then told me he would follow me down. I made my way down tentatively, heavy on the brakes, balance all askew, constantly over correcting. The big tyres seeming to find some grip and traction no matter what I did. I was panting, trying to remember Jo’s advice “look where you want the bike to go, lift the front wheel and let it flow over the rocks”.

As you can guess, I made it safely to the bottom and then safely over the next hill and through more descents, more trails and chutes until the day was done. I didn’t ride the next day – I could feel the knee protesting so I took it easy. On the journey back I spoke with Jo about my experience both on the bike and in therapy. The pictures you see in this blog are his artwork and they reflect that conversation and also how he has experienced me in the last few years. At times towing that huge dark cloud behind me but when on the bike somehow stronger. Admittedly slow but determined to keep going. Using my strength to drive me forward.



Therapy hasn’t been easy and it ends in a few weeks. I’ve certainly not resolved all that is going on for me. A year of therapy sounds like a lot but in actual fact it equates to about 38-40 hours – a working week. My therapist is painfully aware that we have barely scratched the surface but there isn’t any more provision for me. Ironically we are just starting to make headway but I will have to wait for a review in 6 months time to see if I can have more. This week was a troubling session and so it was a timely reminder to get Jo’s pictures in the post. Showing me the differences he has seen and also where I show up well in the world – on a bike, slowly turning those gears over.

I’m still not back up to speed either mentally or on my bike. In two months I’m meant to be riding 100 miles for Mind (please sponsor me) and right now I’m not sure I’ll make it. I can only do about 50 miles before the knee gives up. I haven’t even tried much in the way of hill training. It has seemed pointless – but then so did therapy when I started and slowly but surely it has started to pay off. Bit by bit, mile by mile I’m gaining traction……

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