Always aware

One of the joys of social media has been the ability to connect swiftly and easily with many points of view, so much informed debate and critical thought. My chosen channels are awash with information but it is the quality of the connections which brings this information alive and turns it in to useful knowledge.

Much of my work is within the field of health and organisational wellbeing. There is a plethora of resources shared within this area and then also there are specific awareness days / weeks. One of the criticisms often levelled at these events is that we should be speaking about the subject year round, not just on World Mental Health Day (10th October is the date for your diary). I understand this but I still see the worth more generally.

Next week it is Mental Health Awareness Week and sure enough I’m delivering a talk for the CIPD North Yorkshire branch but in a wonderful moment of serendipity it’s also International Coaching Week.

This led me to a conversation with my good friend and colleague David Goddin and he had a great idea. Harnessing the power of social media and the energy of an awareness week to host a series of bitesize tweet chats about issues within coaching. Obviously with the crossover to Mental / Emotional Health that will be one of the series but we have tried to think more broadly.

We would love you to get involved so every morning next week you can join us on the hashtag #ICWbites at 0900 BST.

MONDAY 16th – “Social Media in Coaching”

TUESDAY 17th – “Coaching for Emotional Health”*

WEDNESDAY 18th – “Coaching and Leadership”

THURSDAY 19th – “The Democratisation of Coaching”

FRIDAY 20th – “Coach Development”

There will be 4 quick questions in each chat and we won’t dwell too long so don’t be late! Hopefully they will start conversations which last long beyond the awareness week.

Awareness Concept - Golden Compass Needle on a Black Field Pointing.

Awareness Concept – Golden Compass Needle on a Black Field Pointing.


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Day one, 

Scene – a mediation

First there was the anger, the reiteration of old slights and hurts. The litany of infractions, some real, some imagined. Half forgotten meetings and misremembered conversations. The inevitable grievances. Then came the dossier, the email trails to prove a point, passages highlighted for emphasis – a quest to justify and convert the listener. 

A second voice is added. The accusations fly, point and counter point. Claims and rebuttals. Contention and conflict. The other side of the equation, another perspective but no less entrenched, just different. The conversation expands to fill all the available space in the room. A claustrophobic situation, the released energy heating us all but no windows can be opened as we continue our confidential session, discordant and exhausting.

“Is this betrayal of trust something we can work from? The place we draw the line under?”

Slowly but surely it shifts. A certain mutual respect is evident, it’s grudging but it’s there – like it always is. Sometimes I wonder whether it’s just the time of day, the prospect of an end to this fighting, a chance to go home and lick the wounds before rejoining battle. Yet in the next thought I know it’s not. It’s deeper, a more visceral response. 

“I just needed to be heard.”

That’s the moment it changes, the moment where a resolution becomes possible. It’s not always stated as clearly as it was that day but it’s what happens. Being heard – in turn it allows them to see themselves differently. They don’t have to occupy their previous positions. Five years of intractable conflict starts to become the basis for resolution, not perhaps a reconciliation but maybe a new narrative that they can co-create. 

Day two

Scene – a resilience course arranged for a group of people at risk of redundancy.

The formal session is over. The afternoon is rotating cast of characters entering and leaving for their “coaching”. The only constant is a man with one question. 

“How can I help you today?”

The answers fly thick and fast, often a question in reply

“It’s the weed mainly, that and my marriage”.

“Should my cv hide my work as a union rep?”

“I don’t know. What have others wanted from you?”

“How did I get trapped here?”

“It’s my second redundancy – is it just me?”

“Well my two children are in a special school and I really need the job.”

“I’m full of anger, what can you do with that then eh? What can we do with 20 minutes?”

“I’m gonna be ok but I want to be able to help my colleagues.”

Keep listening, two ears, one mouth is the mantra. Rinse and repeat. Person after person. It’s hard, no break, no time to really reflect. I try to give each of them a little more time than their allocation. I’d make a terrible doctor, always running late as I listen for one more word, one more silence. There’s always time to allow one more tear, another moment to compose themselves before they step out. 

I’ll never know the stories, how it all turns out for them. All I know is that they were heard. How do I know? It’s in the handshake, in the final look we exchange. 

This is my job – to hear people.


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Lost in the system

It’s uncomfortable, confusing and dispiriting. You’ve volunteered for this. You want to be part of an elite, handpicked and trained to a different level. So how come this experience is tearing up the models you’ve been taught? The investigation is getting difficult, no logical pattern to the events. Random, disparate information yet you sense a connection, if only you could find it.

You go back to the start, check with colleagues, test your ideas and re-examine the evidence. You begin to see beyond the information, slowly but surely you notice what is missing.

You were so deep in the data you forgot to bring yourself. The human factor that they always mention. You thought the term meant mistakes by the people you’re investigating. Which it does, but it’s only part of the system. We can’t investigate this incident without you. We need the messy, conflicted and confused you. The person who remembers what it was to be frightened or complacent or distracted. Who recalls the pressure of the role, the pride of the job and the continual battle with unrealistic deadlines or budgets.

In the end, no model works, no theory lasts. Someone always breaks the rules and something always goes wrong. There’s a saying by Mao Tse tung – “Everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent.” That’s the world we are working in – are you ready?


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Low voltage

This is how it is, my mind oscillating gently. The depression as the foundations on which the agitation is built. My fingers twitch and spasm, holding anything is difficult and yet the feeling comes and goes. Sometimes I can use a knife to cut my food, others I can’t even pick up a glass. The energy courses through me but on a low voltage. A constant circuit which never seems enough to power me but manages to disable and isolate me from the world.

81DRkJ9R5AL._SL1500_It’s hard to explain it and its embarrassing, this endless fidget which comes in waves. It’s hard to settle and the constant need to move some part of me leads to an afternoon of alternating between activities. Reading a book, playing a game on my phone to use the twitching positively or perhaps trying to use the smooth focus of building something in Lego. By the end of the day I have several chapters finished, a good score on the cricket game and a Police helicopter built but still the circuit keeps completing.

When I started the lamotrigine I had two weeks of twitching legs (ironic for a medication primarily used for epilepsy) so it could be the recent increase in the medication but it’s happened plenty of times when I’m not on tablets.

Maybe it’s the result of a couple of very busy weeks on the road. I’ve stopped but my body hasn’t realised yet. I wish I knew the reason, so far this symptom defies classification or calibration. Long walks seem to help but riding a bike feels beyond me. I think I prefer the anxiety attacks, at least they pass relatively quickly even if they do come in clusters. They seem easier to predict and manage. The next few weeks are similarly busy so perhaps amping up the intensity will help me overload and somehow blow the fuse in the circuit.

Hardly seems like an ideal plan though.



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How many values do you need?

I was in a room with all the HR team, the senior Health and Safety Manger and the Chief Operations Officer. It was a real coup having the COO in the room and to my mind showed how seriously they took the issues surrounding emotional and mental health.

I was there to help the HR team learn how to manage complex cases of staff attendance (or lack of). Amongst that we were also deciding their approach, how their policy should be interpreted and how to best use the Mental Health First Aiders I had been training for them.

The discussion was broad and interesting, constructive for the most part and we were definitely making progress. The policy was a colossal 18 pages thick including appendices, it is detailed and comprehensive. I want to be clear that it is probably the most inclusive and best policy I’ve come across in the past few years but somehow it isn’t enough, its sheer size is acting as an impediment to staff usage.

In order to cut through some of the debate the COO suggested we use the organisational values as a filter to determine our next steps.

I paused and asked if everyone knew the values. The COO leapt in saying that everyone did.

I paused again and told everyone to look at me rather than the COO, then I asked the question again. I could tell from their eyes that not everyone could name them all instantly and certainly not with the COO listening. Several people seemed to be imploring me not to choose them to speak. To their credit the COO did not take offence and instead chose to focus on one value which they described as the most important, certainly in this context.


It was the jolt the room needed. Your senior leader telling you to approach every case with compassion? How different to approaching from a budgetary or efficiency standpoint.What a change from talking about flexibility or dynamism. Suddenly the conversation came more easily to everyone. Problems which had been intractable before seemed to drop in to a resolution.

I’m sure it wouldn’t work everywhere and I’m also pretty sure that the COO has to overcome some deeply embedded resistance to that word or others like it but the people in the room got it and worked with it. An HR team with compassion? I think we would all like that.

compassion verb

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Across the divide

I’m not a fan of division, of excluding others and forming cliques, of social inequality or discrimination. When I work I try to bring a variety of views in to the room. For example when delivering mental health training I need to acknowledge medical models and social ones, balancing the discussion across medication or therapy. After all no one size fits all.

This week has challenged my training delivery in a different way. Working across a linguistic divide meant that the models and idioms contained within the Anglo version of the course were never going to “land”. In fact there is a good example, the very idea that a model “lands” was alien to the delegates. As were phrases such as “can’t see the wood for the trees” or indeed concepts such as “Eat that frog”. Some phrases have translations, team spirit was one that worked very well but it was a rarity.

Additionally my pace had to vary quite dramatically. Pausing a lot longer after questions became essential and really understanding the cultural needs around break times, a salutary lesson on a Time Management course. I learned that while group exercises take a lot longer to set up, a well designed, sparse PowerPoint goes a long way.

I’m delivering for the same organisation again in a few months. I shall definitely ” go back to drawing board” examining the materials with “a fine tooth comb” which shows I can “think outside the box” and use a “holistic approach”. That way we can really “get the best of both worlds” and the course will “cut the mustard”.

Or maybe I will use clarity and simplicity to help my delegates learn.


Image credit – Ethan Rilly

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Whither goest thou?

There have been a raft of articles of late predicting the end of Twitter. Predominantly it seems because of its failure to make enough money for shareholders (though recent changes to the system such as moving to hearts for liking something and the new algorithmic timeline are infuriating to many – myself included).

When sites like this were still called “social networking” rather than social media I joined a site called 43 Things. This site revolved around setting up a list of things you wanted to do and then the site encouraged like minded people to cheer each other on. Friendships formed over this virtual bucket list. Like many other start ups it failed. I also have a Flickr account which used to enthuse and inspire me with the random, open nature of it but it fell behind to quicker, more innovative photo sharing sites. Bit by bit the attraction dwindled though I still like to post and view others pictures there. Both of these sites were for my down time, not my business. After all, who needs another photo of a training room?

Which left me with Twitter and blogging as the simplest way to reach out to colleagues, be they fellow freelancers or company employees. Now, I’ve had a lot of fun engaging with and learning from my network so recently I looked at who I follow and I noticed how different a list it was to the one I started out with. Many of the people I initially connected with I have “unfollowed”. This isn’t a personal slight, more that I have a limited amount of time for social media and want to use it in a way which is generative and constructive for me. The point being I made my own choice.

All of which leaves me wondering what will happen if Twitter either goes the way of all those other failed startups or enforces algorithmic timelines. The joy of connecting with others, not necessarily of like mind is one of the draws of Twitter for me. If this powerful and broad communication tool changes where will I go? Certainly other platforms are racing ahead but I for one have no desire to join Facebook or any wish to accompany everything I say with a photo on Instagram. Not least because my Twitter presence is a business account.

Much is made of collaborative working tools and I’m a fan of such approaches. As a freelancer they have been invaluable to me, keeping costs low to non-existent whilst allowing a professional image to be maintained. I use Trello, Skype, Zoom, Dropbox, Google Drive, Linked In, WeTransfer and Notability amongst others. I hear people suddenly rushing to Slack as the latest shiny new thing and all of these are great but many of them are closed / invitational systems. You only have to look at the failure of Path to see how apps limited to your immediate address book (or reliant on your clients wanting to make another login / password in that case) were always doomed to failure or at least the echo chamber of confirmation bias.

sorry-were-closedAnd if where we go is where others will not follow, to the closed systems, the algorithims, the corporate might of investment bank funded organisations  – do we lose the opportunity to get those fresh perspectives? Will our dream of a social, interconnected world just become a group of gated communities, inward looking and self referential? We’ve had so much for free but are we ready for the monetised, commodified version? Will we be able to seek out the difference we need in order to thrive?

I get the feeling that we may be about to find out.

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