Making sense of how the detail of behaviour works in Coaching – and forming greater awareness of this most important frontier for progress in Coaching by Jeremy Ridge

Part 1: Introduction

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I still find important gaps between my awareness of what actual Coaching practice involves, and what standards, or level of understanding, I believe is needed, that I can use to keep my awareness high about what matters in my practice.  

I will refer, here, to some direction towards the sort of standards that work best for me. The important focus I look for is one that helps to appreciate the ‘explosion’ of detail about behaviour data available in any living second in any Coaching Dialogue.

  • This behaviour may be at the level of both verbal and non verbal; and each behaviour may have ambiguities to be interpreted, and understood.  
  • And then, as well, each behaviour moves at a massive pace … second by second.

Continuing exercise of awareness, about my own behaviours, as well as the important interpretation of others’ behaviours are really key to my continuing best practice.

I may readily believe in how I practice, but it would also be useful to know where I stand in relation to what others do. Standards are one of the concepts that is often used to find such common perspectives.

1.1. I believe that behaviour is the fundamental focus, and evidence, to work with

As I see it, there are some fundamentals to Coaching, or what coaching may yet evolve into, that will last for ever,

  1. It is about behaviour, and
  2. Its interpretation by either of the two people involved.

What causes the behaviours that take place is central. But, until Coaches take their brain scanning machines into the session with them, and as long as people are not exercising choice, the only way to understand the sequences of causes, and effects, is through interpreting behaviours, and how they interact with each other, that is readily available as data.

This task of ‘code breaking’ of the meaning displayed by the immediate behaviours will always be there. And, the outcome of Coaching is eventually also about the behaviour of the Coachee – outside of the Coaching dialogue.

1.2. Continuing limitations in research and understanding of behaviour

The sophistication of human behaviour still stifles research into it. This is more to do with the limitations of traditional research, than the fundamental impossibility of doing it.

For example, there is still use of this term ‘chemistry meetings’ in Coaching, which reflects the poverty of consensus on what is going on in these initial coaching meetings. We have no agreed Coaching terms, or standards, for what is acknowledged as a central feature of practice in coaching. And so, it’s simpler to use a technically defined term as a metaphor from another field of knowledge as a way to get across how this complexity is inherent but still too challenging to define!

1.3. The challenges of using Behaviour as information

At any one moment, even in a single second of events, between two people there are a mass of variables all interacting.

  • Coaching is an interaction between just two people. It is more than words, given the physical proximity, and the display of all manner of other forms of nonverbal information.
  • It is also even more complex, because perception may be formed as much by prior information than current behaviours in that immediate moment. For example, another person’s previous experience in relation to the term coaching! What I think about how I behave is irrelevant. It is what is perceived by the other person that will matter.

1.4. Where is ‘best practice’ in making sense of the detail of behaviour up to? 

There is a huge list of all manner of frameworks and models [see the plethora shared in academia and consulting].  As summed up in a Wikipedia article [1] on psychotherapy alone.

“There are hundreds of psychotherapy approaches or schools of thought. By 1980 there were more than 250; by 1996 more than 450; and at the start of the 21st century there were over a thousand different named psychotherapies.”

Psychotherapy has had some opportunities to be a more studied field of practice, than Coaching, as it does deal with problems, due to repetitive, ( i.e. stable, ) albeit dysfunctional, forms of behaviours which make them easier to study.

Taking some opportunity to review the various, and immense, fields of learning relevant to coaching, helps to form a view about the understanding of this sophistication that makes most sense for me.

For example, my period of Doctoral study [2] was an important opportunity for enabling a thorough review on an interdisciplinary basis, rather than being locked in to one field in particular that reduces it to what can be simply measured. This then enabled me to carry out research that demonstrates the possibilities for achieving a basis for mapping out this understanding of the real complexities involved.

My post doctoral work continued as further investigation of setting up practice in the professional sense. The good coach has become that context that gives me, and other practitioners, the opportunity to work towards the rigour of reporting on this.


Part 2: Two cases to illustrate the nature, and importance of why this detail of behaviour matter

I hold two recent case examples that illustrate the issue in practical terms.

2.1. Case 1: Understanding the detail of behaviour is not (yet) an area Coaches lead in.

A private conversation was held recently with some leaders of a major (executive) coaching initiative in a Division of a major organisation. This was a combined initiative between internal as well as external executive coaches, and was being lead and co-ordinated by an internal Senior team of executive coaches

The Coaches involved in the initiative were talking about how to deal with a real surprise that they had come across.  Towards the conclusion of the initial cycle of the executive coaching programme that the coaches had initiated and resourced, they were faced with how to report on progress achieved. They had had real difficulty with knowing how to report on this, especially in a manner that would convince senior management of the added value of the initiative.

After a while, they took the courage to actually raise their difficulty with the Head of the Division, directly. They were then quite surprised to hear from the Director concerned that the Director had already carried out the evaluation for themselves; and they were very impressed by the progress they had found.

The question was raised – how did you find this? And the Director answered that they regularly work with, talk to, and observe people in the Division concerned, as a natural way of working. The Director had noticed many small, but significant, changes in patterns of behaviour amongst individuals receiving coaching. Of course, these changes were nearly always very small, even almost invisible, adjustments to on-going behaviours of the people concerned, but the Director was confident that this sort of progress, they themselves had noticed, was highly significant and very important to making an important contribution to overall results in many important ways. (more detail about this was offered – but, apparently, it was not requested by the Coaches involved!)

The Director was even able to give clear and specific evidence of a large number of quite small behavioural events that they considered very significant, from a wide range of people. The Director had not asked the people concerned for this evidence. They had taken it from observation during normal working.

I was able to pick up with the Director about the sort of detailed behaviours involved, and their context, more easily than trying to talk at this level with the other coaches who showed some lack of confidence about engaging in such detail about behaviours.

2.2 Case 2: Limitations around the leading edge in the field

Recently a colleague shared a personal experience with me. They had a very well established Practice in executive coaching. This person had recently been failed in an application for ‘accreditation/credentialing’ with one of the current coaching bodies. The cause of the failure stemmed from what was called a “real play” exercise (where a real person brings a real problem for a short opportunity for a coach to demonstrate their coaching.)

The reasons given for the result were to do with the coach having failed to give the observers the evidence they were looking for.

Outside the session, independently, and unknown to the observers, the real play volunteer came up to the coach / applicant, and thanked them for the session, saying “that was the most effective and useful 15 minutes coaching they have had on the issue from anyone, ever.”

Yet they had been failed by the ‘system’ – specifically for this exercise. Yet this coach was also able to well evidence a very successful, and long established Practice.

The executive coach concerned went on to explain to me …. “I know what I did was probably invisible to the observers. They just didn't notice the way I smiled, kept sincere eye contact and nodded as the coachee told their story. I used their words back to them. I didn't need to use coaching words as I could see that my attention to their words convinced them of my sincerity, and depth of appreciation in my understanding of them. It’s about the timing of nods and smiles; and the calibration of them in line with the coachee’s own caution and readiness, I got this right, and their reflection just took them further, without my overt and obvious direction.”

The coach went on to say “Thank goodness there are clients who appreciate the sophistication of what is involved ...that starts from evidence of outputs, rather than idealistic but superficial frameworks of inputs without reference to the major variable of how to interpret where the coachee is starting from, and how the coach can most effectively support progress. Thank you for enabling me to even tell this story. No one else has, They are all telling me what I should do, but which I have difficulty in getting to work.”

The levels of effectiveness achieved by the behaviours involved in this real play were so high, they had been apparently completely invisible to the nominated experts / observers.

2.3. Other examples where appreciation of the detail of behaviour can be shared

I do find that there can seem to be greater appreciation of the detail of behaviour among many people who are not necessarily experts.

  • Peer group conversation among experienced people – NB who may not be calling themselves coaches
  • Sharing observations with colleagues, ( and others who may be directly involved ) when the experience is shared. Eg working as a team in team coaching – yes, where the coaches are working as a team, with a client team, and so have common access to the detail.
  • Appreciating that depth of detail at the level of behaviours:
  • that integrates both the non-verbal and verbal communications into meaningful words
  • that captures the complexities of each moment alongside the broader context and 
  • is that higher level of awareness of practice that I’m looking to maintain.

Evidence from experience based on outcomes from the real end users of coaching, has informed me that this is what is required to be both effective and efficient.

Evidence, to me, continues to fall short, however, in much of current academic, and other coaching literature, about what are really meaningful examples of best practice for how behaviour works in Coaching.  However there is one line of work that I have found to hold important prospects of starting a basis for the research and understanding required.


Part 3. The research outline that I find explains most of the behaviours that matter in Coaching

3.1. The importance of a research approach in forming shared knowledge

An important benefit of scientific approaches to research are being able to stand on the shoulders of other people’s learning, without having always to start from scratch. It is what makes our human society so rich.

The research approach, that has helped me the most has been extensively compiled by Robert Carkhuff [3].  This is a deliberate attempt to be integrative in a field that has still some considerable scope for being more integrative, than inventive. In particular, it provides some important technical language, ( and definition, ) for the detail that matters most about the behaviours that matter in Coaching.

I will summarise Carkuff’s research schema, and reach some examples of how I consider it was intended to continue the work as a basis for more extensive appreciation of this elusive detail of events taking place between people in this sort of coaching context. The research involved is not the final solution. But it is an important step along the road.

3.2. Where this research sits in the overall schema of our understanding, to date - The humanistic ‘school!’

I am still curious how the term humanistic is seen as a school, implying it is something of a limited approach only considered as important by some people – and not by others.

A useful summary of schools – in contemporary Psychology is highlighted in https://www.verywell.com/psychology-schools-of-thought-2795247 [4]. This is a useful summary of how the wider field of Psychology, as the study of behaviour, and its causes, shows how research methodology constraints may still determine what a school is based on, rather than the practical scale of the issues involved. What gets studied is limited by what can be measured; and the methodologies of measurement can become more important than the relevance to practical opportunities to appreciate how behaviour works in something as living and dynamic as what Coaching aims to address.

Research into the humanistic approach followed the writings of Carl Rogers, in particular [4]. This approach is often referred to more as a form of philosophy because it lacks methodology. However, it is the recognition of the vision, rather than the proof, that appears to still catch the mood in Coaching.

For example, the Director in Case 1 was able to be fully articulate about their learning – in their own language - but you need to understand their language to research it. People tend to have their own definitions of words they use.

3.3. Robert Carkhuff’s lead towards an integrative approach

Carkhuff’s work was a compilation of research, and it went as far as it could go at that time. Even so, it resulted in identification of a range of key factors that appealed to me for my own experience, as well as my more formal research in this area.

The approach lead to a detailed framework of the major, priority, behaviours, and their interaction. (N.B. The general term ‘helping ‘ was still in use at the time of the research. The adaptation of the term Coaching was still to emerge)

This framework opens up access to the detail of the hidden gateways about how another person can open the gates in their interaction with another person, towards what Coaching aims to achieve, and how to leverage that elusive ‘transformational’ dialogue with detailed appreciation and understanding of what behaviours are involved.

Most importantly, this framework helped me start to put all the data about my practice, and even formal research, into a form that started to explain what was otherwise done intuitively.

It has also left a number of questions requiring further attention.

3.4. The Carkhuff research framework

The Carkhuff research framework is about the appreciation of the eight major areas of behaviour involved [5] that are each distinct types of behaviour that are all needed for the interaction to grow which is fundamental in coaching. Out of the eight behaviours only one focusses on the Coachee; and the other seven for the Coach.

It was acknowleged that each type of behaviour is still more of a category, than explicit description. But there are some behaviours that matter more than others, and it is important to appreciate this. Each type of behaviour is also described very simply using a scale format – meaning to have more of and less of it.

The complexity of behaviour, and its measurement in this context is made even more complex because behaviour is measured more by how it is perceived, than its intention. Hence whether a behaviour had an effect can only be measured by the reaction of the other person.

3.4.1    The Coachee Behaviour

The primary driver is the behaviour of the Coachee that matters, which is termed SELF EXPLORATION. In effect this is a term that refers to the Coachee’s tendency to value having effective support for their continued learning.

3.4.2    The Coach behaviours

This is relevant to the support of the process are categorised into two sets. The behaviours that matter at first are described as facilitative. When the foundations have been created, the later behaviours move to an emphasis on action oriented.

            Facilitative:   

EMPATHY
RESPECT
GENUINENESS
SELF DISCLOSURE

            Action Oriented:

SPECIFICITY
CONFRONTATION
IMMEDIACY

These terms are open to very different forms of usage. For example, confrontation is about behaviours that enable the coachee to confront themselves (for example, suddenly realising the assumptions they may have been making about a matter, that were worth checking) not for the coach to be confronting.

The first four facilitative behaviours are part of a critical initial process. This is an important foundation, and psychological contract building process – like building trust – that is required before the Coachee builds their confidence in disclosing their intimate details relevant to the use of more action oriented dimensions involved in specificity, confrontation and action orientation

The work provides detailed examination of how these processes often work in relation to each other. However, despite the considerable detail in the way the material is written up in (1) and (2), there are still quite a lot of opportunities to consider developing the framework further and in more detail that aligns with Carkhuff’s original intention for doing this research.

The reality of practice brings these details into awareness on a regular basis; and in turn informs and adds extra insights into the how the detail works, or not.


Part Four: How Practice needs this framework to make sense of events, and how Practice can generate further stages of understanding of how the framework operates.

If we take the structure of the Carkhuff findings there are a number of important focus points that need to be continued both in research, as well as helping to stimulate and guide my attention to reviewing Practice.

First:  The challenge is greatest when trying to understand the most appropriate way of behaving with Coaching’s prime target audience – Individuals who are healthy and effective already.

Dealing with healthy people is a real dilemma for research. This is still almost a forgotten major issue. It is still too complex for available methodologies. We can achieve some statistical groupings around some sort of stimulus. But it is still a challenge to deal with the one, rather than large sample groups.

Second:   The importance that coaching starts with the behaviour of the other person, and then lead from this. It is about what is perceived, and how it was received, not just what was intended.

Third: The term self-exploration was used as a generic term for a complexity we are still exploring with many other terms. For example, learning has been a major area of study for Psychology. Yet it is scarcely referred to in Coaching.

Fourth:   the overall process: facilitative to action oriented. Why is facilitation so important? What invisible factors are so important here?

Fifth:  The complexity of ‘re-visiting’ by the coachee .

The whole process is not a simple linear one. People always introduce behaviours throughout that can aim to go back, to check, or build even further, on some of the facilitative behaviours they are looking for from the Coach

It could be called trust building – one of those concepts that everyone agrees is key – but again – so difficult to research.

Sixth:  At any one moment of behaviour, the Coach has to also keep the context of the whole relationship in mind.

For example, people often revisit different phases of the dialogue – as they build their own concentration around it.

Seventh:  How do the different components of behaviour involved function separately

For example, self-disclosure is a particularly intriguing form of behaviour to explain in greater detail.

Eighth:  How to go beyond a simple scale – where next? - particularly in terms of significance of the outcomes.  A scale simplifies the idea, but there is a great deal more that can be possible in the identification, and measurement of significance. How do different sequences of behaviour matter, in relation to the whole?

Ninth: How to integrate the factor of ‘perceived scale’ by the coachee, rather than ‘intended’ function of the behaviour used by the Coach.  How to interpret the Coachee’s framework for making their perceptions of behaviours by the Coach? For example, a smile may intend good will, but it may be perceived so very differently.

And this is only a short list of the further opportunities for building more insight into this whole area! As well as making sense of the detail of my practice.   I look forward to the chance to move beyond being able to have such further dialogues with peers, colleagues and - even ordinary friends


Part 5. Conclusions and Next Steps

It has been very valuable to find expression for making sense of the areas that are of such importance in keeping my own practice sharp. I can feel like one of those athletes who have to keep on training, even when previous performance suggests they are already performing well.

The potential value of an Integrative framework for all the differences in approaches in the Coaching Field remains important.

The difficulty with a framework such as mentioned here is that it it is still likely to be too complex for the levels of interest many people would have for the subject. After all it is easier just to get on with doing it – intuitively – rather than painting the abstract picture of how and why it was all happening in the way it happened …

The next steps, involved, for myself, is to celebrate the space created by the good coach for others to paint their picture of how it makes sense to them.

To connect with Jeremy Ridge

References and Foot notes
1  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychotherapy
2 Ridge, J. (1975) The Development and Operation of the Effective Interpersonal Relationship Skills relevant to Career Development Problems from Staff Assessment at an Industrial Research Laboratory, PhD, The University of Aston (Available to download https://www.the-goodcoach.academy/)
3 Helping and Human Relations: A Primer for Lay and Professional Helpers, Vol. 1: Selection and Training (v. 1) Robert R. Carkhuff ISBN 10: 0030812143 / ISBN13:  9780030812149  Published by Thomson Learning, 1969; Helping and Human Relations: v. 2 (Helping & Human Relations) Robert R. Carkhuff ISBN 10: 0030812151 / ISBN 13: 9780030812156 Published by Thomson Learning, 1969
4 https://www.verywell.com/psychology-schools-of-thought-2795247
5 Full detail can be accessed through original works reported by Robert Carkhuff, (1) and (2) , (or, access to my Doctoral thesis (3))

Soaring to a wider attention span again – freeing up strongly focussed leaders by Laurent Terseur

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I often work with strongly focused leaders, who operate in intense, highly competitive contexts and within very powerful organisational cultures. They are strong achievers, hold high standards and are usually incredibly skilled when it comes to observing, analysing, processing and coming up with powerful ideas.

I observe that as a recurring pattern, the circumstances of their lives have lead them to be incredibly driven, to a point it might require them to wake-up and break free from an excessive focus. 


The pattern – and how it shows up

These “natural born thinkers” gradually lose some of their thinking capacity when they increasingly let their focus be taken over by a reduced number of attention points. Typically, as they keep driving ever faster, the beam of their headlights intensifies, get sharper and it also tends to get narrower. It may shed an ever-increasingly intense and far-reaching light, yet mostly if not only in the same and repeated very specific direction: they grow the exciting habit of thinking faster and deeper – but always in the same way.

It can even turn into a form of obsession - when a same idea that keeps being ruminated or that same area keeps being front and centre. They put in considerable efforts - as if they were applying more and more force to open the lid stuck to the jam jar, or struggling with a painfully resisting DIY task, - with the growing frustration of little/no change as one would expect in both cases. This is what I call 'lock-in'. Lighter versions of lock-in exists. And it's the recurring use of the same formulations or reasonings that lead to the same outcomes are one of the many subtle tells. High levels of tiredness and stress will also act as powerful compounding factors.

With the fundamental belief that there is something resisting us it is often telling us that there is probably a more efficient and less damaging alternative way to be considered. I became increasingly interested in using that pattern as an important potential for my clients to tap into during our coaching conversations, for them to start thinking differently.


The coaching opportunity with this pattern

My ongoing observation with these very driven leaders is that a vast proportion of the decisive shifts in their coaching journeys happen when we manage to create a disruption that help them break free from that intensity of focus; they can get off the throttle, soar and widen their attention span again.

Among other examples, I think of:

  • this entrepreneur exploring a past success to find resources that they could apply to a present situation. They were remembering all what they did to make that success happen. The big insight came to them when being asked what they had not done that had allowed that success to happen.
  • this leader feeling impaired as they were losing hope to find the way to open their “jam jar”, and went back to operating at their best when asked how they would do without this specific jam and found out they didn't need bother opening that specific jar either any more.
  • this high performer who was reaching a glass ceiling and was told but not convinced of the benefits of using a more listening leadership style, who had a deeply moving insight when asked about the costs instead.
  • this front-office team struggling to make more impact with “C-suite” clients, who powerfully changed the nature of their conversations by shifting the focus on learning from the client instead of focusing with anxiety on their own performance, when asked about the impact they were trying to make on themselves.
  • the many leaders I worked with, who leap-frogged nearer the change they desired when they were asked about what they wanted to let go of, as opposed to what they could do more of.

Some of these interventions could qualify as a form of  “reframing [1]” yet I feel that in most of the cases there are more ways to make these highly driven and focused leaders suddenly feel relieved and experience a burst of creative energy revealing completely different places for them to explore by focusing on:

  • opposites (missing/desired, excess/lack, more/less, soft/hard, dark/clear, fast/slow, etc.)
  • alternatives (the scenic route instead of straight “A” to “B”, etc.)
  • missing or gone parts of the picture
  • different perspectives or dynamics (inside-out to outside-in, etc)
  • the one odd out, etc.

In neurosciences terms, such shifts help to create or access completely different neuronal connections. The intention here is to switch on the light on brand new neuronal fields that are just to the side or in front of the ones that have been so far privileged and hardwired by repeatedly activating them[2]

This gets those very driven leaders out of the focus, and sometimes even the obsession, they might have gradually been locking themselves in too. As they restore for themselves a broader vision and pay attention in a way they don't usually in their life they create new connections that are uniquely powerful to them.

What strikes me is how much they actually make such a great use of the new perspectives and come up with powerful, immediately defining, important insights – for they are great thinkers !


How to help them get into the mindset of waking up to themselves? 

I find 'the art' to be about coming to a point when they are ready to embrace disruption.

Considering how these strong leaders have been painstakingly working at building their own robust “chains” they have so far very well resisted breaking loose from them. Also considering that they display very high levels of assertiveness, energy and drive, and have hardwired a tight and “efficient” approach of their time management, getting them to slow down and profoundly open up is not a straight-forward thing.

All the pressure they have been receiving from their role, their organisation and its culture, the challenges of their wider context, and of course also the pressure they've been creating for themselves - they can all stand in their way and contribute to hold them back from breathing, soaring or opening up. I observe this is, by the way, one of the main reasons for them to seek external support.

Having reflected on how our conversations manage to create the conditions for making possible these shocks that allow them to break loose, I came up with the following observations.

I notice that a lot of the work I'm doing with them in our conversation is around creating from the outset (and then maintaining) a “quietly powerful” atmosphere for our conversations.

In specific terms, I find this is about establishing a genuinely warm and direct connection from the start, and then further consolidating the levels of trust, by quickly creating a space and starting to shield it from the pressures from the outside, so they can first lay down arms and take a breathe.

It's also about finding the right blend of warmth and directness, so they feel encouraged to start listening to themselves again (most often after years, if not more, of not listening to themselves) and to confront their own avoidance strategies, so that what truly matters to them can surface.

At that point and from there on, we have a compass helping to hold the attention. As the process unfolds, I find myself posing an ongoing series of instant diagnosis that in real time helps in offering interventions to take the conversation forward (in respect of the subtle above-mentioned equilibriums), and start exploring opportunities for constructive disruptions aiming at lighting up those new neuronal fields.

And then “we tango”, in a constant trial and explore process to allow the shock of setting them free of their own intensity. Just as it takes a sophisticated and acutely sensitive combination of oil additions and relevant moves applications to gently loosen a rusted bolt and unlock it without breaking it... that bolt is free again!

These are the steps I have crystallised in my mind so far...

  1. (Create and) maintain the connected, trusted, warm and direct atmosphere.
  2. Maintain the right blend of support and challenge.
  3. Constantly hold the attention to what truly matters to them.
  4. When a form of lock-in or “forcing focus” is surfacing,
  5. Get the conversation to pause and offer disruption. 
  6. Leave them to soar and think!
  7. Get them to dwell on the resulting insights.
  8. Continue the journey.

...and I enjoy the idea of looking at it as work in progress as I keep learning every day in that space. 

To connect with Laurent Terseur

Footnotes:
[1] Definition of REFRAMING (Psychology Dictionary, https://psychologydictionary.org): Developing a new conceptual or emotional outlook relating to situations experienced, and putting it into another frame which follows the facts or evidence equally well, changing its whole definition. Reconstruction of a subject's experiential view to impart a more positive view of it. Method for changing self-defeating thought processes by consciously inserting more positive ones.
[2] Amongst other reads : “MINDSIGHT”, Pr. Daniel Siegel, Oneworld editions, 2011

To what extent do we consider biases in our practice as coaches? by Lynne Hindmarch

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In this blog-article I will discuss areas of cognitive bias that I have come across consistently in my coaching practice, my experience of transference, and the implications for coaching.  The focus is quite narrow; the number of biases is large, and I have restricted this article to those which I have observed most frequently,

  1. ‘Blind spot’ bias,
  2. Halo effect,
  3. Self-serving’ bias,
  4. Catastrophizing, and
  5. Transference.

What do I mean by cognitive bias? 

Cognitive biases may help us to process information more quickly and efficiently; however, they can lead to serious mistakes or errors in judgement.  It is a flaw in cognitive processing (such as reasoning, evaluating or remembering).  Humans have many hundreds of biases, and as coaches, we need to be aware of these, both to attend to our own biases, and help our clients attend to theirs.

Biases come into play from the outset of the coaching relationship, with expectations on both sides which may be unrealistic.  The discussions around the coaching agreement (‘how shall we work together?’) provide an opportunity to explore and resolve some of these issues. 

1. ‘Blind spot’ bias

Indeed, one of our biases is the ‘blind spot’ bias, in that we see ourselves as rational beings, and are blind to our biases.  We tend to hang on to biases (beliefs), even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary. 

I can hold my hand up here.  Some years ago I was working with a small group (about 10) of city traders.  Whilst using a personality assessment with this group, I noticed what appeared to be a particular character trait emerging consistently across the group. I thought this was interesting as it might, for example, have relevance to the career path they had chosen.  I mentioned this to a fellow psychologist who is better at the statistical analysis than I am, and he did the number crunching.  He told me that there was no statistical significance in what I had observed. In other words, my reasoning was faulty, and the stats didn’t back it up.  However, in the face of this clear evidence, for some days I maintained my position, until I realised that I was hanging on to an unhelpful belief, and ditched it.

The more we can be aware of our cognitive biases the better.

2. ‘Halo effect’

Indeed, one area I work in (using personality assessments in selection) is to help disrupt the tendency to make selection decisions based on biases in judgement, such as the ‘halo effect’.   This bias emerges when our overall impression of a person influences how we feel and think about his or her character.  In selection decisions, this is commonly expressed as ‘I can tell within the first few seconds if this person is going to be any good or not’.  Careful selection processes, which focus on gathering evidence, can help to challenge the halo effect.   I have seen the consequences of the halo bias when it is left unchallenged, with unsuitable candidates hired with all the difficulty and expense that a poor decision can make.  Not only that, another consequence can be that the unsuitable hire has been kept on, even when they are underperforming, because the hirer is reluctant to admit that their judgement was wrong. 

Understanding biases, both in ourselves and in our clients, is very important.  Indeed, one useful function of the coaching process is to help clients understand more clearly the place that biases play in ourselves and others.  We are all subject to them.  Bringing these biases more fully into consciousness (while accepting that full awareness in unlikely) can be a vital part of the coaching process.

3. Self-serving bias

This is one of the most common biases, the self-serving bias.  This is a tendency to attribute positive events to our own character but attribute negative events to external factors.  For example, a client may believe that their success at chairing a meeting was due to their own particular skill set, or a poorly received presentation was caused by a hostile audience, or a poor time slot, or uncomfortable seating. 

However, I have observed that on occasion the self-serving bias is flipped, or turned on its head, and can be a sign of low self-belief.  In my early days of coaching I recall a client telling me about her part in a successful project, but her attributions were inverted; she was understating her part in the project, putting it down to a variety of environmental factors (even though I knew that her contribution had been significant), while extolling the cleverness of other team members.  Using the self-serving bias as a framework, we were able to discuss how her language revealed her underlying lack of confidence, and take steps to address it.  Helping people to recognise the bias in their thinking can help them begin to identify their own strengths and build their beliefs in their own abilities.

On the other hand, the self-serving bias, if it is held very firmly, can be a block to development, as the person sees no need for it.  They can explain away lack of career advancement, for instance, by stating it is down to environmental factors, such as office politics, or favouritism, or a bit of bad luck.  This person is less likely to learn from their mistakes.  This can also be career-limiting, as the person may not respond well to coaching.  However, if the client is prepared to engage with the process, the coach can help them to be more clear-sighted about their strengths and weaknesses.  Personality assessments can provide a powerful framework for those kinds of conversation. 

4. Catastrophising

This may be observed in clients who are experiencing stress, and of course catastrophising makes it far worse.  It can be especially noticeable in clients who are very structured in their approach (planned, well-organised) and like a good deal of control.  Confronted by a situation where there is a good deal of ambiguity, very little certainty and a feeling of lack of control, their imagination can run riot and anxiety is heightened.  I worked with a client who was looking for another role after being made redundant from a senior position, where he had experienced a good deal of success and moved smoothly up the career ladder.  Although he still had a year’s salary to live on, mentally and emotionally he moved quickly in his imagination to having no money, losing his house and family, divorce, homelessness and living on the streets.   To counteract this kind of ‘catastrophising’ it can be helpful to gently point out the biases in their thinking, to encourage the client to think about other potential outcomes that are more positive, and to ask them to consider the likelihood, realistically, of the catastrophic event actually happening.  A frequent question of mine, when confronting biases, is: ‘Where’s the evidence for that?’.

5. Transference

In the final part of this piece, I want to explore the area of transference, which is a form of bias.  This was first identified by Freud, and is still mostly related to psychoanalysis.   Transference occurs when the client redirects feelings from a person in their past (usually termed a ‘significant other’) on to the therapist (the example most regularly cited is the client directing feelings about the mother on to the therapist).  The therapist needs to be aware that they may reciprocate with counter-transference, that is, for example, responding to the maternal transference by treating the client as a child.  I have been the recipient of transference, and as I am not a therapist, I took it to supervision, where we discussed the situation in some depth.  I guess most coaches have experienced it.  However, what I am more interested in exploring here is the idea (not widely reported but possible) that transference is a lot more common than is often acknowledged.  Miranda et al (2007) argue that ‘transference occurs in everyday life, when such representations of significant others are triggered, and that it is thus a process by which people re-experience past relationships in their everyday social relationships and interactions.’  In this context, Miranda et al define significant others as:  ‘family members, romantic partners, friends, or others whom individuals consider important and who have had an impact on their lives. This may include people whom they like or love (i.e., whom they regard positively), along with those whom they regard negatively, whether currently or no longer in their lives.’

The idea of transference being an everyday occurrence leads me to describe an event that took place with a female client, whom I was profiling using personality assessments.  This involved two sessions: the first was meeting her, gathering some background information, and administering the assessments.  I was sitting opposite her for this meeting.  The second meeting, a week or so later, was the feedback session to discuss the results. This time I was sitting next to her.  The immediate and powerful thing that struck me was that in profile she looked very much like a woman I had been very friendly with some years previously.  Face on, the resemblance was not obvious – only in profile.  The person I connected this to was the mother of a friend of my son, and we had spent quite a bit of time together some years’ previously, when the boys were small.  In actual fact (because I had the profile in front of me) the client was nothing like my friend in personality.  But the transference was quite strong, and even though I knew intellectually what was happening, it was hard not to react as I would have done if my friend had actually been present.  The point here is that the transference triggered a form of bias.  I was reacting to this person based on their physical resemblance to someone in my past; even with their profile in front of me I was struggling to make an accurate assessment of their character.  In this case the transference was positive, but it could just as easily have been negative.

The experience made me consider how often transference happens and the implications for coaching.  If my experience of transference in this instance was conscious, how often does it happen unconsciously, below the level of awareness?  How common is transference in these everyday situations, just because an individual resembles another person in some way? What does this mean in our practice as coaches – both in how we react to clients, and also how our clients react to us?  Not only that, but what does it mean in the stories clients relate to us about their difficulties with others?  Is one possibility to consider that negative transference is taking place? It suggests the value of asking a simple question, either to oneself or to the client: ‘To what extent does X remind you of another person in your past?’. 


To summarize

In this article I have explored some of the biases I have come across in my work with clients, mainly in coaching, but also in selection.  I have also discussed my experience of transference, and how it may be more common than is typically recognised. 

  • To what extent have you come across biases in your coaching practices and how have you managed them? 
  • And what is your view of the frequency of transference, not only in the helping relationship, but in everyday life?

To connect with Lynne Hindmarch

References:
Miranda, R., & Andersen, S. M. (2007). The therapeutic relationship: Implications from social cognition and transference. In P. Gilbert & R. L. Leahy (Eds.), The therapeutic relationship in the cognitive behavioral psychotherapies (pp. 63-89). New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

Further reading:
Davidovich, D (2017). Are we biased? Exploring Biases in Coaching Practice.
http://www.instituteofcoaching.org/blogs/are-we-biased-exploring-biases-coaching-practice
Kahneman, D (2012) Thinking, Fast and Slow. Penguin Books Ltd. London

Defining my transitional space as part of my career transition by Caroline-Lucie Ulbrich (guest)

Credit Image: Caroline-Lucie Ulbrich

Credit Image: Caroline-Lucie Ulbrich

Career transition is a hot topic these days. People talk about it, engage in it, and fail at it. Only few seem to be aware of the breadth of coaching which could help them master this – after all, it is a long-term endeavor. Particularly coaching that facilitates access to one’s “intuitive” knowledge is underleveraged. Yet, using it could provide the support and learning space for a more playful career transition – after all, play can help make transitions easier!

One of the transitional spaces I’ve used as part of my career transition is participating in an Executive Master’s program (in organizational psychology). It helped me become more aware of some of the limitations that exist in academic knowledge and to overcome them to add value to coaching practice. I know what I am talking about because I continue to be fully immersed in a career transition myself, and assessed one coaching tool: transitional space.


A little background on transitional spaces

Donald Winnicott, a psychoanalyst, originally termed the notion of transitional space it in the 1960ies, referring to “a psychological reorientation that people have to go through before the change can work” (Mitchell, Bridges, 2003, p. 2). The ability to endure the “transitional space”, a time of considerable psychological stress, is crucial to a successful career transition (Reid, West, 2011, p. 178). Unless one has it all mapped out, a career transition requires one to sustain periods of self-doubt, uncertainty and a more fluid concept of (professional) identity.

Why, you might ask?

In our modern world, people identify with their professional role to a certain extent – changing professional roles includes changing part of your identity. The last time this happened was probably during puberty when one had to deal with an array of confusing emotions, identity questions and evolving roles. And for most, this was a very confusing moment in their life!

How did I leverage this existing concept, transitional space?

The notion of a “psychological reorientation” resonated with me, yet appeared a bit abstract. I strived to make it more practical and more easily understandable for a coachee. I wondered: which actual features constitute a transitional space? Several professionals I interviewed helped me shed light on this.

  • They said that their psychological reorientation had consisted of engaging in experiments (testing potential future professional roles), it had been made possible by support (from a friend, a coach, a significant other).
  • All agreed: the main feature was the doing, not the thinking. (This reminded me of the current bible of entrepreneurs: “The lean startup”, whose main message is to create a minimum viable product, an MVP, and have it tested by customers as quickly as possible – the future professional self is such a minimum viable product).

Based on these insights, I defined transitional space as a psychological space which allows a professional to reconnect to his / her creativity while embracing uncertainty; engaging in creativity experiments (changing behaviors, engaging in (identity) play, being open to novel ideas, possessing an elevated level of autonomy) (Mitchell, Bridges, 2003, p. 2; Reid, West, 2011, p. 177, Ibarra, Petriglieri, 2010, p. 10).

Let me be more specific: the reference being made is to creativity inherent to learning (“mini c” creativity).


Creativity is integral to enabling transitional spaces

Ok, now … creativity, I hear you asking? I believe that creativity plays an outstanding (and undervalued) role in the context of transitional space. The professional and personal growth that takes place in the transitional space can be likened to adult learning – one acquires new knowledge and implements it – in this case, knowledge applied to one’s professional identity (substitute identity for role or persona if you can relate to this more easily). Note: professional and personal change go hand in hand.

For shorthand, this is my equation:

Creativity inherent to learning -> adult learning -> professional and personal identity; transitional space-> an arena for professional and personal identity change.

Defining one’s transitional space is a creative exercise in and by itself. Depending on one’s preferences, a transitional space could consist of:

  • writing an Executive Master’s thesis (this was one of my transitional spaces),
  • taking an interior design class (one interviewee did so to validate an emerging professional identity as interior designer), or
  • reflective journaling encouraged by a friendly coach.

The sky is the limit with respect to transitional space. Other examples I happened upon were: taking voice lessons, watching Koi fish on a regular basis in the early morning (guilty – another one of my transitional spaces) or gardening. The below vignette captures how I used a combination of reflective writing and daydreaming as part of my self-coaching when considering my transitional space. Rereading the vignette helped me understand that the Koi fish represented an emerging sense of different (future) professional selves to me.

Koi vignette

What do the fish present to me?

I don’t know what the fish present to me. Maybe they are objects representative of elegance and tranquility. I very much enjoy watching them. It is interesting to see how they behave differently based on time of the day and climatic conditions.

In the mornings, they are usually active and swim quickly. At noon time and in the afternoons, they are slower. Sometimes, they seem to be lazy, idly swimming through the water, one elegant move of their tail ensuing the other.

J. referred to them as “the guys”. At first, I thought he alluded to all of them being male. After having discussed this impression with him, I realized he was simply referring to them as being part of a bigger group.

I am not sure they are a group. They are quite individualistic to me. They look different from each other. I am sure that if I spent even more time watching them, I would be able to tell them apart. There is one golden (yellow) Koi fish. There are also two to three grey ones. A pair of them which I call “the twins” is orange, with white patches on their back, interrupted by smaller black patches. They are all majestic, beautiful, elegant beings.

This morning, one surprised me. I was sitting on the steps close to the water, enjoying a moment of (near) calm, as most of the MBA students (who usually talk a lot) were not around. Suddenly, there was a “splash” – I did not see what happened, but the ground in front of me was wet. It seemed like one of the fish had tried to leap up (but not out?).

At times, I am amazed by the fishes’ ability to glide aimlessly, yet hardly ever bumping into each other. At other times, I find their behavior erratic, not understanding why they turn in circles. Yesterday (and I believe prior to that), I noted that one of the bigger, slightly more yellow, fish, “freestyled” it – he didn’t swim straight, but turned his body to be in a 45-degree angle. I wonder whether he (she?) finds that more comfortable.

The four turtles that inhabit the pond are their own group. I have caught them “observing” us humans occasionally. They come up close to the steps, stick their head out and watch. I am not sure they make eye contact. But they observe. At times, I find this a bit intimidating. They are good swimmers, quick, elegant as well. They like to sit on the three stones erected in the pond. At times, two or three sit there. As there isn’t enough space for two turtles to sit comfortably, they often pile up on each other. It looks like a stack of turtles.

(…)


Accepting uncertainty and giving it time

Transitional space can be leveraged as a tool to sustain uncertainty. It can consist of multifaceted activities and iterative reflection cycles. The notion of space hints at a key factor: a transitional space necessitates a certain amount of time. It is not a set period (of time), a date by which one decides on a new professional identity and hence, the career transition is concluded. Instead, it honors the fact that change is a process.

The definition of transitional space also explicitly refers to autonomy. A coachee must - based on his / her own preferences - opt for a transitional space (and career change), and it must be authentic to them. We all are familiar with the many change projects that fail simply because they never gained the buy-in of those most affected by them – autonomy is key.

To begin defining a transitional space, it’s useful to begin with the following:

  • One must acquire a certain awareness of the psychological space (psychological reorientation) that one is in and that is quite peculiar
  • One should define one’s preference for engagement patterns (as transitional spaces can take many forms and one may need to find out first which one is a suitable one) 
  • A coach can help a coachee appreciate and understand the learnings from each of the different transitional spaces as part of the bigger career change endeavor.

Where next

Transitional space is a useful concept that I’ve tweaked so that it includes a “fun” and “playful” component. Embarking in any transition, small or large, is challenging. As I reflected as I wrote of how I self-coached myself in different transitional spaces, I realized again that growth is both professional and personal. THIS insight is largely ignored and not made explicit in coaching for professionals.

And so, in my next piece I explore the activities of entering one’s transitional space, focusing on the necessary disposition of a coachee. For example:

  • What does the actual activity of “entering” entail i.e. psychological reorientation – acknowledging that a period of uncertainty occurs
  • Specifically, which mindset is required and how it can be achieved
  • Adopting and sustaining a playful attitude.
CU.jpg

“Caro, you are so cosmopolitan” – this is what I often get to hear. German-French by birth, I have spent many years working as a management consultant and am slowly transitioning into more creative industries. Reflecting on transitions, career changes and the underleveraged roles of creativity and playfulness are part of this. I have a passion for maneki nekos (“lucky cats”), sustainable fashion and Vinyasa yoga. Slowly but surely, Asia has become my second home turf.

References
Bridges, W. Managing transitions: Making the most of change. Da Capo Press 2003; 2nd ed. updated and expanded.
Ibarra, H., & Petriglieri, J. L. Identity work and play 2008. Fontainebleau. INSEAD, 2008.
Kaufman, J. C., & Beghetto, R. A. (2009). Beyond big and little: The four C model of creativity.
Knowles, M. (1978). The adult learner: A neglected species., 2nd ed. Oxford, England: Gulf Publishing.
Jonathan P. Reid (2011). Career Planning, Development, and Management: An
Annotated Bibliography (Routledge Library Editions: Human Resource Management)
(Volume 28).

Coaching from the paradigm of systematic correspondence: the heart and the mind by Simon Darnton

Credit: Photo by Marko Horvat on Unsplash

Credit: Photo by Marko Horvat on Unsplash

In the second part of this series I described how, to get a sense of this Chinese (and South East Asian) way of thinking, I had to learn a way to park my intellect. Not only that, I had to drop this idea I held about patterns appearing to be consistent and coherent - in my normal reasoned sense anyway.


The Heart and The Mind

There's no question that my life experience had yielded the development of a comfort in being in my head. I spent a lot of time there and had become pretty adept at using my intellect, especially when it came to doing my work.

Now I'd found a different space to be which necessarily involved a bit more of an inner journey, or perhaps more of an inner re-appraisal of my experience, looking at it and getting to know it from a different perspective. Because at the end of the day, my overall experience hadn't actually changed, apart from becoming aware of and engaging with a greater spectrum of it.

This brought me into a new dimension of Chinese thought which will momentarily take us away from my previous analogies with nature. It's the concept of heart-mind which is in this paradigm is central to how we as humans function in the world.

Given my typical western predisposition, I was used to referring to mind and body as if they're separate entities where the body is typically considered to be somewhat subordinate to the mind. I'd also learned a lot that made me consider the seat of consciousness and a whole host of other inner workings, such as feelings and emotions to be in the brain somewhere.

Growing fields of research such as Embodied Cognition are changing these views slightly and are in some respects taking some steps closer to the Chinese Heart-Mind concept. This is particularly in the case of considering our behaviour not to arise out of the brain (or mind) but out of a complex interaction between the brain, nervous system (whole body) its capabilities and opportunities afforded in the environment. There is also the growing number of approaches to somatic work to get us into our bodies, often referred to as embodied too.

Whilst there may be some similar strands between these 'newer' approaches in the West and the Chinese thinking, I can't stress enough how fundamentally different they really are, which is why I want to raise this now and avoid placing it into a space where it doesn't belong.


The Chinese Heart-Mind (Xin)

Some key points about the Heart-Mind function:

  • The Heart-Mind is the ruler and commander, taking charge of everything we do.
  • The Heart-Mind represents a direct connection with the environment. It is interwoven with and inseparable from mind/body/person/environment (social and natural)/universe.
  • The Heart-Mind does not create knowledge through reason, but through an active relationship with the social and natural environment (knowledge is 'out there' as well as 'in here').
  • Thinking is feeling and feeling is thinking.

To illustrate, here is a translation from one of the classics on the process of 'becoming' a person (and learning):

'What responds to the environment is called xin (heart-mind).
What xin brings out is called yi (imagery).
What yi stores is called zhi (memory; memorization).
Because of zhi, knowledge is reorganized.
This is called si (thinking; reflection).
Because of si, one thinks for the future.
This is called lu (strategy; plan).
Because of lu, one makes decisions and takes actions.
This is called zhi (wise; wisdom).'

Neijing:Lingshu as translated in Zhang (2007, p. 41)


Thinking is feeling/Feeling is thinking

I'm going to focus on this concept of thinking as feeling and feeling as thinking in this part.

In my previous life, despite training as a humanistic counsellor, I'd been a bit of a cognitive school of thought fan. I enjoyed the psycho-technological analogies and I thought it worked quite well. I had also undertaken lots of training in aligned areas like becoming a fully fledged trainer in NLP.

When I did my research into elite motorcycle racers, which was to be the initial undoing of my fanaticism shall we say, I came across some interesting things that I couldn't get a handle on.

This motorcycle racer research I did was both formal and informal, some of which was done as part of my Master’s in Psychological Coaching. The main body of this research,  I did partly as a result of accidental happenings and curiosity.

Motorcycle racing has been as much of my Heart-Mind (Xin) as Tai Chi probably. I’ve lived a lot of my life on motorcycles. I used to race. I used to coach motorcycle racers in riding technique with the world’s foremost coaching organisation of its kind, the California Superbike School. In this role, I was an on-track riding coach, riding the circuits with my coachees to observe and demonstrate the techniques live on the motorcycle, so that was an amazing privilege and experience. My balance disorder put an end to this, but my interest in the psychology of motorcycle racers had been sown. So while I was off ill, I maintained some links with the scene. One thing led to another. As I asked some bizarre questions of motorcycle racers, I got some equally intriguing answers. Suddenly I was sucked into the fascinating world of elite motorcycle racers’ heads. It was an amazing blessing to me because it gave me something to keep my sanity during some very dark years of experiencing a paradoxical incapacity caused by a balance dysfunction. If time is the appropriate measure of experience, I’ve now spent probably 16 years in this particular domain.

The motorcycle racers I studied to begin with were world-class. Then, I was asked some questions by active amateur racers experiencing frustration with their racing and my answers seemed to help them. Things went from there.

After a few false starts with my research, especially around how I dealt with what racers were describing to me,  I began to realise that I would be wrong to try and translate what they were sayinginto alternative terminology.  What they were telling me was literally what they were experiencing.

One of the main threads of their experience was when they described the nature of their thinking while racing. They were telling me what they're thinking, which could be the same thoughts, but they'd describe how those thoughts felt different to them. Fundamentally there was a different quality about them. For example, they could have a thought about passing an opponent on a particular corner that tells them it's time to make the pass. One quality of thought would yield a mistake, sometimes even a crash, and another quality of thought would yield a successful move. When we explored this, there was a consistent pattern about the feel of those thoughts.

When we explored other areas of action, there were similar patterns. For example, a world-class rider when testing his new bike, questions whether he can actually make it round the corners he entering at the speed he was entering them. Lacking in confidence is something we often think as a negative yet here there is a clear lacking in confidence without any negative affect.

I couldn't ignore this, nor could I ignore that when I explored changing the content of the thoughts with riders, I received a stern backlash. For example, narrating their way around the circuit, telling themselves what they needed to do when in a 'normal' thinking quality slowed them down considerably and yielded more mistakes. Using their natural riding thought brought speed and consistency back, yet in its own way it was telling them what to do and when.

Fascinating.


Qualities of thought and thinking

So I began to explore the qualities of my thinking, particularly in relation to how I functioned. If I reconsider edmy thoughts to be feelings rather than thoughts, how does that change my experience of them? I noticed a significant and meaningful difference.

If I take a leaf out of the mindfulness book, and Tai Chi of course, and pay in the moment attention to my feelings, I can begin to describe them in lots of wonderful ways. I can usually identify their location somewhere in my body as well as their most apparent qualities, like sharp, fuzzy, hot, cold, heavy. Often I can sense whether they're moving or stagnant and with some I have access to even greater nuances. These qualities of feelings can lead me to be a certain way too. Like a rising pressure in my chest that has nowhere to go corresponds with a sense of frustration or a heavy lump descending in my stomach could be a sense of dread.

With thinking, it's easy to get caught up in the stream of thoughts - the content. Yet if instead I focus on the qualities, I can identify where they're coming from in my head. For example, whether they're light or heavy, do they flow or stutter, or they thin, thick, deep or light. For example, a thick and heavy feeling at the front of my head usually signifies that I'm thinking too hard about something and need to let it go for a bit!

To illustrate with the motorcycle racers, the thoughts that cause them problems typically came from the front of their head, they were more hurried, quick and somehow 'thoughtless' and pressured, with a sense of impatience and they felt unplanned. The qualities that were more reliable came from deep inside the head at the back, were quiet, assured, had gravitas and felt more rhythmical with a sense of clear calm waters and even though the action could be entirely unplanned due to the nature of what they were doing, the thoughts felt like they were planned, giving them more time. To use a phrase from a martial artist somewhere, it was like being in a place of ‘thought without thought.’ These thoughts also helped them to feel relaxed, calm, and breathe with more fulfilment.


Five-phase theory and the qualities of thinking

In the Chinese way of thinking, the cosmos has a complex, systematic and dynamic structure. This dynamic structure is mirrored within each of us. This is the human microcosm.

In this sense everything that is human can be categorised in terms of this structure, including thoughts, feelings and emotions. And it was in this way that I found an entirely new way to systematically relate to thoughts and thinking according to this paradigm of systematic correspondence.

To be continued...

To connect with Simon Darnton

me.JPG

Simon Darnton works with leaders, entrepreneurs and executives who want to explore important questions, develop themselves or their organisations, and improve performance. He draws on a unique blend of business, psychology, and extreme sports experience, working in collaboration with clients to effectively navigate their personal and professional challenges. He holds an MA in Psychological Coaching. He also teaches Tai Chi Chuan.
www.simondarnton.com
info@simondarnton.com
+44 (0)7970 022 627