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coaching topics, Self-reflection, Work-life balance

Balance, blend, whatever! A blog for Work-Life week 2021

In 2019 I wrote about work-life blend rather than work-life balance. I was moving towards recognising that flexibility and agility were important for me rather than a totally strict split. However, it was still pretty much work or everything else because working days and school days dictated certain patterns and separation. Wind forward 5 years and so much has evolved both in my own life and in wider society.

Personally, becoming self-employed was a really big change. It took a while to adjust and I have generally found it helpful to stick to some form of day to day working hours. But because I was working from home, it became too easy to just log on and check or do a little bit more. Yes, I was doing little “home admin” bits during my coffee breaks from work, and loving being able to visit the gym in the middle of the day, but overall the work was creeping into more of the total time than I felt comfortable with. So I’ve had to put the phone and laptop away and out of sight. My brain may still be churning away thinking about work related stuff, and I may be reading a book related to work (I alternate because there is so much to read in the diversity and inclusion world), but I’m not on social media or on my laptop. So the boundaries are not hard and fast but they are there. It’s more like merging at the edges.

I’ve also realised that experiences at work add understanding to my personal life and vice versa. This is why you will find me talking about work and personal life in posts – it just feels like both are a part of me and therefore a part of what I bring to coaching and consultancy. So my work and life blur a bit on social media too – though I am careful not to let myself make that decision for others to any large extent. Yes, I will talk about my family (even on LinkedIn), but in fairly general terms. I do still have a couple of places where I have more personal stuff and don’t bring work in, but some people know me on both, and that’s fine. I guess I am learning to be more relaxed about identifying different parts of my life and therefore removing any stress about keeping them separate.

3 images, one with a balance made of pebbles, the second with rows of red marbles weaving into rows of blue marbles and the third a swirl of red and blue inks.
Balance, blend or fluid

I often get clients asking me to work with them on work-life balance. It’s such an emotive subject as there is usually a lot going on. The first step is to say that everyone’s work-life perspective and experience of balance or blend is different. I’ve shared mine above but that will be different for everyone else. Maybe it is a clear balance for you – maybe it’s more merging at the edges with a bit of flexibility, or maybe, as in the image, it’s a more fluid messy but beautiful and unique creation.

Whatever it looks like for you now, the key is whether it works for you, or whether you’d like it to be different. Your balance point or blend will be different to mine, but the steps we take to find it may be the same. Where do you spend your time and energy? Is that how you’d like it to be? What recharges your batteries? When are the times and situations where you are likely to be most vulnerable and least resilient? Even if you can’t change the pattern now, knowing what you may be aiming for and taking tiny steps might help.

A Coachee's Guide to..., coaching, coaching tools

A Coachee’s Guide to… Metaphors

Metaphors can be a powerful tool in coaching. I know to some people that sounds a bit of a stretch from the solution focussed coaching they may be expecting, but our lives are full of metaphor so it makes sense that it would be useful in coaching too. Now metaphors are highly personal, but this week brings two metaphors that resonate with coaching for me – Balloons around the World and World Yarn Day.

A fleet of colourful hot air balloons float in a blue sky above a landscape containing mountains and forests.
Hot air balloons

Balloons are often bright and colourful. They can soar above the clouds and access the clear blue sky offering a different perspective and a different view. That’s why I chose a balloon for the logo of my coaching practice SendThemSoaring. If you follow the metaphor a bit deeper, balloon pilots have some control over where they go by heating gas and releasing weights, but they are also to some extent at the bidding of the wind and the thermals. That’s a bit similar to a coaching session or programme in some way – we might have an idea of where we want to go and how to start the journey, but along the way we may meander through a variety of different topics and approaches before we find a place to land and move forward.

There’s an image that’s around that describes working with a therapist or coach as taking a tangled mess of yarn in someone’s head and rewinding them into tidy balls. As a crocheter I know there is a great deal of satisfaction in restoring neatness to a jumble of threads, but the real excitement is that having sorted it out, you are then ready to create something new and beautiful. That’s true in coaching – a coaching session gives you the space to sort out the complex and get ready to make something brand new.

A thought bubble containing tangled yarn connected by an arrow pointing towards a thought bubble containing multi-coloured neatly wound balls of yarn
Coaching as untangling

When I was training, a couple of coachees volunteered their own metaphors and I learnt to go with them when they showed up, but explicitly directing coachees to use metaphors felt a little awkward probably because metaphors are so personal. However, as a coach I undergo supervision and I recently attended a session where we were asked much more explicitly to use metaphor – describing our life and coaching approach in terms of a journey – choice of mode of transport etc. I didn’t feel awkward at all as the image of a river came into my head with a small kayak or canoe. So many dimensions in terms of changing pace, size etc of the river, being carried along at some points, and free to explore and control direction at others. It was fascinating and really powerful in understanding myself and I got an insight into how being asked about metaphor feels and it wasn’t as awkward as I expected. Whilst I might not ask explicitly in a first session I do think it might be useful when a different perspective might help. Which brings me right back to my balloon.

A Coachee's Guide to..., coaching, coaching tools, strengths

A Coachee’s Guide to.. Finding your strengths

Although we often think about strengths in terms of skills and tasks or activities that you feel you are good at, the broader idea of Strengths, or Character Strengths, comes from Positive Psychology. They are described as “built in capacities for particular ways of thinking, feeling and behaving”.  Identifying your relative strengths and weaknesses can help you develop more self-confidence and self-awareness.

Let’s think about strengths in the broadest sense: Think about someone you admire – a friend, family member, colleague or anyone that you know reasonably well. List all the personal and / or skills-based strengths that you believe this person has (are they brave, wise, funny, caring, loud, a team player, take charge, great with numbers). Now list their weaknesses.

Now repeat this exercise thinking about yourself.

Did you list a similar balance of strengths and weaknesses for yourself as you did for the other person?

Most people find it easier to list strengths for other people and weaknesses for themselves.

Listing your strengths and weaknesses can:

•          Build your self-awareness

•          Help you understand other perspectives

•          Allow you to identify areas for improvement

•          Increase your positive vocabulary and positive self-talk

•          Bring greater appreciation for areas you may have previously undervalued.

So let’s focus a little more on your strengths. Positive Psychology theory (Seligman, 2002) suggests that we all possess distinct character strengths that are associated with one of six “virtues” as shown in the figure.

Actually finding your Strengths can be done in several different ways. One way is to use an online toolcalled the VIA Character Strengths Inventory. It is a short questionnaire, made up of a series of statements to which you respond. Your results then rank the character strengths in order of your strongest to your weakest. Try to answer with your “gut instinct” – don’t overthink it.

Find the VIA Institute on Character at viacharacter.org You’ll need to “Take the Free Survey”. Now, it does ask you to register to do this but you can opt out of the newsletter etc. There is a screen at the end of the survey where they ask for more information about you but this is optional so skip through and get your results. They will try to sell you a detailed report – YOU DO NOT NEED THIS!

Remember:

  • What is unique about your profile is the position of each strength. Strengths near the top are likely to be those most representative of the “real you”.
  • Everyone has all 24 strengths, just in different amounts.
  • In this context, the strengths near the bottom of the profile are not weaknesses. They are strengths that come to you less naturally and require more effort to use.

What did you come up with? Do they make sense? Are there any surprises? Do you utilise those strengths in your life?

Self-reflection, Work-life balance

On life as a working parent.

Three things I often wanted my employer and colleagues to understand about me as a working parent:

1. By the time the official working day starts around 9am, I am likely to have been up since 6.30, getting children up and dressed and ready for school/nursery, dropping them off on an extended journey and then getting in to work myself. So yes, i do need that coffee at the 9am meeting;

2. After lunch, on days when I do the school run, I start to get panicky because my time is running out. I always try to cram too much in and am invariable late for pick-up. Please don’t try to stop me if you see me running down the stairs at 3.10pm;

3. After I have finally got the kids to bed (and mine were actually pretty good at this), the last thing I can face doing is to switch on my laptop. Pretty much the only thing I can face at that point is my pillow. please don’t send me the papers for tomorrow morning’s meeting at 9pm today.

As schools in the UK go back, working parents lives change. For some it gets easier, for others harder. Depends on the parent, child, school and childcare arrangements.

If you manage working parents, please check in with them over the next few weeks to see how they are and whether they or you need to change anything to be most effective.

If you are a working parent, please consider your boundaries, and let go of a) perfection and b) being able to do everything. It isn’t going to happen, and that’s ok. You are enough.

Goal setting, Inspiration, Self-reflection

On motivation, goals, and how they don’t always link the way you would expect.

Ellie outside on a tree-lined path in the rain, smiling to the camera
Ellie outside on a tree-lined path in the rain, smiling to the camera

This is the consequence of taking on a 25km, 16 km bridge walk – the Thames Bridges Trek. This isn’t the day itself (which was sunny and to be honest a little too warm). This is today. 3 days later, in the pouring rain, round the corner from home.

I signed up for a 25km walk over 18 months ago but for obvious reasons it got delayed and moved and altered. During lockdown I walked every morning in the peace and quiet. Virtual challenges ( 100km per month etc) kept me going mentally and physically. When my younger son returned to primary school I walked with him and then carried on. But I’ll be honest, over the summer, my motivation to walk nose-dived. Two weeks ago I really REALLY didn’t want to do the event. I didn’t want to walk and I definitely didn’t want to do trains into London. I thought I would do it because I had promised a friend and had done all the training, and then I’d be done.

But a weird thing happened. The event itself was hard (especially 19-23 km which was hot, seemingly endless concrete and crowds). My feet hurt. On Sunday I didn’t do much, though I didn’t get any other after effects. Yesterday I didn’t walk – busy working, but during the day I was aware that my legs and my brain were itching to be out again. So today, DESPITE having achieved the goal I was working towards, I set off for a quick stroll round the block in the pouring rain.

I guess I’m writing this as a reflection that goals, motivation and actions don’t always link and follow in the way you expect. My motivation really dropped as my goal became closer and has picked up again afterwards, even though I haven’t yet got another similar goal in mind. I suspect this isn’t news to some people – it’s why the UltraChallenge company who run the events immediately email us with discounts for signing up for next year! But, if your motivation has gone missing as you approach your goal, it might be the time when you just have to say “I’ve come this far now so I’m going to see it through whatever” and then use the motivation bounce after you reach the goal to set the next one.

Ellie holding up a medal in the sunshine at the finish line of the Thames Bridges Trek
Ellie holding up a medal in the sunshine at the finish line of the Thames Bridges Trek
coaching, coaching tools, Self-reflection

What would you write to yourself?

She manages to be a top quality student without being at all boring or a SWOT“. Classic letter writing there from my undergraduate tutor to my prospective PhD supervisors.

Today is World Letter Writing Day! What’s been the most memorable letter you’ve received?

The ones that stick with me are usually handwritten, and these days few and far between. But then I don’t write many either. My grandfather, who passed away a couple of months ago, was really the only person to whom I still wrote conventional letters.

My other memorable “letter experiences” include:

1. My mum writing to me weekly when I was an undergraduate – and occasionally including a “Guiness cake” that was so heavy it cost more to post than to make;

2. A series of postcards and letters from undergraduate students telling me what they were up to after graduating;

3. A letter from a Dutch amateur atmospheric chemist telling me all about his pollution measuring bicycle and addressed to “lady Eleanor”. Accompanied by hand-drawn illustrations.

I have been fortunate enough never to have received hate-mail unlike many climate and diversity and inclusion colleagues, though no-one likes rejection letters and I’ve had a few of those.

I do write letters to myself sometimes (though I try not to make those hate-mail either!). I had one on my wall at work reminding me of all the good things about my previous role. Writing to ourselves can be more effective than giving ourselves a good talking to. What would you write to yourself?

Self-reflection, Work-life balance

Post holiday struggles

This week has been hard. Last week we were in the west of Scotland, 8 miles down a single track road, surrounded by water, trees and hills. Yes, it was a little rainy, yes we did get lost on walks a few times and do some unnecessary hills, but there was a sense of space. Now we still appear to be down a single track road but that’s due to the number of cars parked along our road, and although I am fortunate to have a garden to look out on, there are fences, and hedges and roads. I feel hemmed in. Hemmed in by the surroundings, but also by my diary, and email and the looming new school terms with commitments and schedules. In the grand scheme I know there are bigger problems in the world, but it is possible for it to be simultaneously true that there are people in much worse situations AND for me to be struggling with my own situation.

Loch Goil from the Drymsine Holiday Estate

Mostly on holiday I read fiction – and not all “great” fiction either – it’s good to escape to other places sometimes and books have always been the way I do that. At the start of the week though I finally got around to reading Atomic Habits by James Clear. Whilst a lot of it to be honest were things I had read before about habit forming, one thing has stuck. He points out that lots of people can have the same goal, but the people who had developed good systems pointing towards that goal were the people that achieved their goal. And that although systems can at first glance appear constraining, they can also be free-ing.

On my return to my desk, I was pleased to find that one system I set up before I went away was indeed working to free me up in some way. I finally got around to setting up a booking system for phone calls for clients – through my calendly link people can book discovery calls or coaching sessions without the to-and-fro of emails. Setting up the system has forced me to block out some clear time for these calls and therefore other clear times for undisturbed client work too. And several people had booked calls for the next 2 weeks. One small step towards implementing a system that helps me spend more time on the interesting bits of work and less on the admin!

This weekend’s task is therefore to look for systems that might be useful around the house. In theory we have systems but they have probably be viewed as optional vague ideas by some members of the household. I think I need to present them as “this is what you will do when this happens” instead!

A Coachee's Guide to..., coaching, Self-reflection

How do you know when to end coaching?

This is a really difficult one, but just like other parts of life most coaching partnerships need to end eventually. But how do you know when that is?

Sometimes, it’s clear in the sense that the coaching was aimed at a very particular challenge or issue and the coachee has reached their goal, made progress or at least done enough new thinking to be able to move forward.

Often however, coaching that started out being about one thing, ended up being about something else, and that evolves and needs longer to think about. People who come to coaching because they have reached something of a crisis point often spend some sessions “downloading” their thoughts about their current situation before being able to look at alternatives and options. This can extend the coaching process but is very valuable. However if the thinking doesn’t at some point move on, this can be a signal that something different is needed and that this particular coaching arrangement has run its course. It’s really difficult to raise this as a coach if you know that your client doesn’t talk about the issues anywhere else, but if you are aiming to be useful to your clients, it’s a conversation that has to be had.

As a coach, I generally suggest a minimum of three sessions with clients unless there is a very specific objective for the coaching. This is because there is usually a session where we clarify what the goal is for the coaching and assess the reality of the current situation. The other two sessions are usually used for considering options in different ways and identifying strategies for next steps. Sometimes clients will book 6 sessions to either explore more deeply, or possibly consider 2 or more different challenges. I’ve been working with a couple of clients for nearly a year – but sessions are perhaps less frequent than the shorter term partnerships I’ve been involved in. Perhaps my most fulfilling way of working is when someone does perhaps 3 sessions initially and then several months later comes back for a top-up session to explore what’s happened on their issue.

There’s no set time to think about ending or changing coach but some things clients might want to consider include:

  • Am I using my coach as a general listener and are they the best person to do this?
  • Are the sessions still useful – do they leave me with different thoughts and reflections about my challenges? Or am I stuck in the same thought processes – in which case a different coach might approach things differently and lead to new insights.
  • Would a different professional be more useful e.g. a counsellor, therapist, or mentor?

Most coaches are not, contrary to what you might read in some places, trying to keep clients booking more and more sessions in order to make more income. I have no doubt that there are some coaches who do that, but for me, if the usefulness has ended, then that’s the time to end the coaching. At least for a while.

Just like other endings though, it’s important to end the coaching relationship well. This doesn’t always happen – sometimes people drift away and stop responding to emails, and sometimes it can quickly turn into months since you have heard from someone. This isn’t always a problem so long as it’s agreed that a pause is consciously happening – things come up that mean that someone isn’t in the right place to continue coaching for the time being. Generally I’ll reach out to someone a few times and then try to let them go if they don’t respond. When I do get a chance to work with the client on a proper ending, we’ll look at what’s been achieved so far and plan the next steps. I’ll make it clear how to get in touch with me in the future and I’ll usually ask the client if they want to be kept briefed on offers and updates via email. It’s absolutely fine if not, but some people do.

And then I close the file mentally and physically and wish them well.

coaching, coaching tools, coaching topics

Wheel of Life Exercise

This exercise helps you to identify what you are most happy with and where you might want to make changes.

The Wheel of Life exercise is a way to visualise all the different parts of your life and to balance up how you feel about each area.

Start by drawing a circle-ish shape, then divide it into segments or slices that represent different parts of your life. Typical categories that are used might include:

Finances                                                          Fun

Friends and Family                                         Personal development/learning

Creativity                                                        Adventure

Relationship                                                   Physical environment

Health (including mental wellbeing)              Spiritual

Work / Career                                                 Community

Or you could look at different parts of your working life.

Next, taking the centre of the wheel as 0 and the outer edge as 10, rank your level of satisfaction with each area out of 10 by drawing a straight or curved line to create a new outer edge (see example). You can colour the segments in if it makes it easier for you to visualise. The new perimeter of the circle represents your ‘Wheel of Life’. Is it a bumpy ride?

A wheel of life split into segments for Community, work, finances, my health, family, hobbies. Lines are drawn in each segment current situation and dashed lines for desired future situation.

Then you can start to think about what needs to change to get back to a more comfortable, even ride.

academics, Self-reflection

What will you take with you?

Almost exactly 2 years ago I had probably the only truly “good” ending I have had in my life when I left my university job after 26 years. Why was it good? I think that’s a combination of having been able to plan it and be in control of much of it, leaving myself time to enjoy the bits of it I was going to miss, and the sheer physical task of clearing an office after that long meant that it was all very real. Sometimes I spend so much time in my head that physical cues and meaning are especially meaningful. And yes, work did throw me two send-offs where they said nice things, and I hosted one myself – all pre-pandemic – which definitely helped.

A great friend and former colleague of mine is leaving his role this week after a similar length of time. These would be my tips for him and anyone else making this kind of move:

  • Accept that you will never finish everything as neat and tidily as you would like. Pick the three things that are most important for you to leave well and sort those. Then make time for conversations with the people you will miss, and for processing your own thoughts and emotions.
  • All the nice things that people say in the next few weeks and genuine, authentic and true. Practice receiving them generously and don’t downplay your contribution. It might get overwhelming. Truth be told, I can’t remember the details of everything lovely that was said at my leaving do’s, but I do remember a general feeling of warmth, appreciation and love in it’s broadest sense. In both directions! My oh-so-wise research group made sure that I had copies of the presentations and the videos that my former students had made as I definitely couldn’t take them in at the time.
  • Just like you choose what to take with you from your office (in this case this is relevant but it may not be for those working from home or with a different working environment), you can choose what to take with you in your head and your heart. What will you take, and what will you leave behind?

Starting a new role or adventure is a great opportunity to make changes. I’m not saying you should feel that you have to reinvent yourself, but you can choose how you want to start out (and if you feel you can’t because you feel you have to behave in a certain way to fit in, then we need to have a chat about where you are moving to and why!).