Ticking over

The email from the client had all the usual pleasantries about summer and “how are you?” – I answered “ticking over”. I don’t really like the British defaults such as “not bad” or “mustn’t grumble” so I did give my answer some thought and I found it accurate.

The client is also someone I know socially and we have shared an occasional beer and a couple of working lunches. I certainly know them sufficiently to be honest and open about my mental health. Their response was to state that my “ticking over” sounded like their “well enough” which hints at more but is a perfectly acceptable response in order to be pleasant. Our emails pinged back and forth and it forced me to think carefully about my turn of phrase.

Even allowing for the fact that emails lack tone and nuance I think we all tend to give stock responses, particularly in a business conversation. However I know this client better than many so I don’t need to give an evasive / simplistic answer. So what did I mean? Ticking over isn’t a common phrase for me but it was how I had judged my mood when asked. To me it spoke of a measured calm, rhythmic and steady progress but there was no way that my client would know that. I thought of other phrases I use (and knowingly deploy to give a socially acceptable answer).

  • There is “trundling along” which is closer to the “well enough” my client used.
  • I use “I’m on transmit” as an apology if I feel I’m going too fast / am dominating conversation.
  • In conversation I might say “I’m slow today” as a way to explain a sluggishness of thought but also a low mood or depressive phase.
  • Another one is “fizzy” to describe an elated mood state, less powerful than “on transmit” but also full of (generally positive) agitated feelings. Sometimes a good state for planning / brainstorming.

I could go on but you get the idea. I’m very open about my mental health, it’s a facet of my business after all. I help some people be more open about their mental health, I help others learn the listening skills of Mental Health First Aid. I deliver an exercise about building a mood scale, sharing it with colleagues or loved ones so that you can understand each other easily yet even I give standardised responses. I try not to give evasive or dismissive answers or even avoid the question all together but it’s hard to find something which is a brief nugget to go alongside comments about the weather.

Building a shared language is difficult when working as a freelancer. You don’t share an office or go to the same meetings so that an understanding can be built. Often it is brief calls or email exchanges, particularly with long standing, trusted clients. Many of my client contacts aren’t on social media so also lose that measure of how I’m showing up in the world.

I’m glad we had the email conversation about what I meant. It gave me pause for thought, in both what I say and what the other person thought I might mean (wrongly in this case). I speak a certain code which makes sense to me and to those who know me well. At times I use it to avoid a longer response or as a shorthand but these days I never actually lie about my health. However I realise that I’ve probably sanitised my answers more times than I would have liked.

Later that day I had a client call booked with two contacts in another organisation and when I was asked how I was I replied “a little tired but my mood is balanced and steady”. And yes I know that is also incredibly clunky but the clients know me well enough and deserve an honest answer. Anyway, perhaps I’ll think of a better way to say these things the next time I’m “fizzy”.

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Niche proposition

I fell in to being self employed. It wasn’t part of my plan (not that I ever had much of a plan for my career). I’d seen self employment make my father very ill and experienced the precariousness of his fluctuating income when I was younger. Having said all that I’ve grown to rather enjoy the experience. The flexibility gained and the variety of employers keep it interesting so that what started as a few odd jobs whilst I waited for my next operations role has built in to a small business.

Early on I was encouraged by a number of people, many of them also small business owners. It was suggested that I needed a “niche” – something that I am known for, the “go to guy” for that particular discipline. For a long time I resisted that as I like the variety of differing work. As time has gone on though my work has started to fall in to two main areas. One based on my operational experience and the other based on helping organisations and individuals with their emotional health. The only departure from that is some occasional mediation and generalist associate work.

career_directionI’m currently taking advantage of a few quiet weeks to do some business development (between the Tour de France and the upcoming Olympics / Paralympics I think I timed this well). Seriously though, I’m working on what my narrative is, what I actually do for my clients and I’ve managed to identify an underlying process which works across a variety of my offerings. Right now, anecdotally at least, it’s a tough time for small independent providers and it’s tempting to try to offer more, be all things to all people in an effort to drive business. I’m trying to update my website and display my niche skills whilst still providing visibility to other services I provide……

…..and it’s not easy.

Another variable is that my (perhaps) best known niche is in the area of Mental Health. I make some of my living as an “Expert by Experience” and herein lies the challenge. Does working in this niche actually help my own mental health? It’s a problem I’ve wrestled with before and there don’t seem to be easy answers.

Where does that leave my business development? I’m working in an area where I’m unlikely to go out of business imminently (though it does feel that way often – you have to kiss a lot more frogs than you’d think). However, whilst it’s great helping organisations make changes to the way they look after their staff it does come at a cost to me.

I’m not unique in finding myself in a niche which isn’t where I started / wanted to go – that describes many people in employment. I imagine there are others amongst the self employed who would like to be known for much more than a narrow strand of their capabilities but the reality is that it’s hard enough to get the work, do the work and get paid on time before you think about diversifying.

I don’t have a particular reason for writing this blog, it was just on my mind as I work. Maybe though there is a resonance for both the employed and self employed. What niche have you ended up stuck in and what (if anything) are you doing to break out? I’d be interested to read your stories / comments.



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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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