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If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

I disrupt, I confront, I provoke


That’s how I often introduce myself at networking events when people ask me what I do. I tell them “I disrupt, I confront, I provoke”. And then I pause … before I continue to talk about my twenty-two year old passion of employee, team, and leadership development. During the pause I look at people’s non-verbal responses. I’m sure you can picture the many different reactions to my introduction. Despite the variety of responses they are always pretty strong, ranging from laughter, surprise, shock, curiosity to nervousness.

This post is about provocative coaching and it is specifically for colleagues who coach and train, whether in private practice or in business settings. I will share which behaviors and techniques I use – and I use them because they work for my customers. Just one word of warning, a strong word of warning. Before you start using provocative techniques with people, make sure you really understand this approach, feel comfortable with the techniques, and that you have integrated it into your beliefs and your style. Provocative coaching used merely as a tool without grasping the meaning and the finesse of this approach will easily turn into plain rudeness and ineffective interventions. Needless to say this is completely undesirable.


Provocative Therapy and Provocative Coaching

Provocative therapy by American therapist Frank Farrelly forms the foundation for provocative coaching – no surprise there. The principles and techniques of provocative therapy can be applied to many areas including business, sport, coaching, and art. The Latin word "provocare" literally means to "call forth", or to elicit. Provocative therapy and provocative coaching are example of the NLP belief (NLP stands for Neurolinguistic Programming) that "the meaning of your communication is the response you elicit".
My fellow Dutchman Jaap Hollander, whose training Provocative Coaching I attended quite a few years ago, defined 39 Farrelly Factors as Jaap calls them. These 39 factors are very practical behaviors, strategic patterns and mental activities that the provocative therapist or coach does, feels, and thinks when working with a client.
The main goal of the provocative coach is to create environments and conditions that result in the client discovering solutions and insights into matters which were previously considered problematic. How I see it, the coach plays an active role as a brutally candid and direct coach who doesn’t shy away from confrontation, conflict, or provocation – better yet, he seeks them out wherever beneficial for the growth of the customer. On a different level, my goal with provocative coaching is always to increase resilience, courage, adaptability, and accountability.
In pure provocative therapy the therapist never suggests a solution to the client, regardless of how blindingly obvious one might appear to be! That is not how I operate, however I do use many of the 39 factors and I believe in seven of the central assumptions underlying provocative work:

1.    People change and grow in response to challenges.
2.    People can change if they choose to do so.

3.    People have greater ability to change than is often assumed by coaches, therapists and the like. 

4.    The psychological fragility of people is frequently overstated by both themselves and others.

5.    People’s unproductive behaviors can be drastically altered, no matter how seemingly severe.

6.    A person’s behavior with the coach is a relatively accurate reflection of their habitual behaviors.

7.    The key messages between people are non-verbal.

Certainly not every coaching situation, not every coachee, and not every issue requires provocative coaching or benefits from it. If they do, the behaviors and strategies used might vary. With some customers I use many of the techniques, with others just some. Below you find some of the Frank Farrelly Factors as described by Jaap Hollander that I regularly use with my customers, in order to benefit their growth, resilience, adaptability, courage, and accountability.

Emotional involvement – emotional responses
Go for the emotion. If the customer shows low emotional involvement, then vary your own behavior until you elicit a strong nonverbal reaction. Emotional involvement is paramount in provocative coaching. Simply try to get as strong an emotional reaction as you can (anything short of the customer getting up and leaving).

Describe the customer’s strong nonverbal reactions

If the customer shows strong nonverbal reactions, describe these nonverbal reactions to the customer and/or ask to specify feelings and thoughts.
"You blush, you throw you body backwards in the chair, what???"

Ask for specification

If the customer doesn't finish a sentence or gives a vague statement, then ask for specification.
"What???" "What are you saying? I can't hear you!"
"You say you have reasons for this behavior. Name three!"

Reflect and exaggerate incongruence

Reflect the person’s incongruence in your own behavior. For instance when the customer says he wants to exercise more, but he says it without any nonverbal expressions of being motivated, say in a tired tone of voice: "Yes, sigh, you are so motivated", exaggerating the tired non-verbals in your own body language.

Mimic the customer in a theatrical fashion.

Illustrate the impact of the customer’s behavior on others

React very strongly, in a theatrical fashion to the behaviors of the customer. For instance, when she has a very authoritarian, self-important air, act very insecure and impressed ('I don't hardly dare to say anything to someone of your stature').

Lamely protest claims of progress

Sadly suggest, with deep sighs, that "it's soooo difficult to change".
 Ineptly deny or regret ludicrously any progress the customer reports.
Use whatever kind of ridiculous reasons you can come up with to claim that the client will never change will never reach his/her goal, etcetera.
If the customer reports improvements don't believe it. It's just a temporary relapse into sanity. Soon the problems will return with renewed vigor. Humor is absolutely crucial here!

Do some more of that, think or feel some more of that!
Encourage problematic behaviors, thoughts and moods by describing absurd advantages (or absurd disadvantages of changing them) or overemphasizing the customer’s capability to cope.

Reverse the blame between customer and life

Teasingly blame the customer if the customer blames leadership, life, the system, or society. Bombastically blame life (if the customer blames him/her self). Change this around if the customer changes, always staying in the opposite position.
To a business coach who complains that he doesn't focus on the needs of his clients enough: pounding his fist on the arm of the chair "That's the trouble with business these days! If only the damned customers would stay away and wouldn't interfere, businesses could operate much more smoothly".

Act crazier than the customer

Take sides in an extreme manner
And don’t allow the customer to switch sides. Exaggerate the absurdities of only looking at things with one pair of glasses, from only one, always limited perspective.

With credits and many thanks to Frank Farrelly and Jaap Hollander.





Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Death by e-mail, death by PowerPoint, death by distance


You have heard it, you have read it, and you have experienced it. Business relationships that are build over e-mail, lacking the personal touch of face-to-face meetings, missing out on the power and personal touch of a drop-in and walk-by conversation, and lacking the richness of authentically connecting in a personal manner where a touch, a smile, a frown, or a nod can speak so much better than your average written word.

I’m convinced you have experienced presentations that leave you bombarded with slides – slides that are stuffed with data, that hurt your eyes, that leave you puzzled. Slides that either bore you to death, irritate you tremendously or make you nervous because you can’t follow the story line – if there is any.  

You might think it is failure-proof, it’s the new way of doing business, it is convenient, and it’s efficient to resort to e-mails and slides. It isn’t. It isn’t any of these things. Whether it be old-fashioned e-mails or texts, whether it be yammer, whether it be slides or any other tool – it is exactly that: a tool. And tools should not take over or replace, they should enrich, enhance, and enable. A tool is supposed to aid in accomplishing a task. So lets look at emails, PowerPoint and the like as exactly that: tools that need to be embedded in personal connections and authentic relationships.

I suggest we all start re-using elements such as improvisation, walk-by, humor, eye-contact, personal stories, simile, contrast, alliteration, and metaphor in order to really relate and accomplish by investing in others, getting to know others, and inspiring others. Make it fun, make it real, and don't take yourself too seriously - the bigger picture is genuinely the better picture such as using mistakes you might make to show yourself human and flexible. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Discomfort leads to Avoidance – But it doesn’t have to.


You missed your step while walking down the stairs to your basement. You hurt your left knee - badly. The next few days you’ll be working hard to relieve your left knee by putting most of the load on your right leg and knee.

You hit your right shoulder real hard at the office when a colleague opened a door unexpectedly and slammed it right into you. Of course you are doing everything with your left arm now, in a determined effort to spare your right arm and shoulder.

You slipped on a muddy path while walking your dog in the woods and fell. You hurt your tailbone and are now trying to minimize the pain by using your body differently – That was me, yesterday.

We all know what the problem is with these examples: In your efforts to minimize pain and discomfort you step into avoidance mode. To a certain extent this is necessary for your body to heal – every physician will tell you this. You also know, however, that those body parts that are supposed to help you avoid discomfort stemming from the injured limb, they will be over-used. They will be strained to a point where they create their own discomfort and problems. You know this and you act upon it, or so you should.

Why is it then that we think it’s so different in communication and collaboration? Why is it that so many people avoid the discomfort of having that bold conversation with their peer about underperformance that has hardly gone unnoticed? Every such conversation that is left ‘not held’, is creating new problems or exacerbating the original problem. Why is it that so many employees do not provide candid feedback upwards and so many managers don’t provide it downwards? Every feedback being held back is a chance missed to increase trust, collaboration, and effectiveness. Why is it that bad leadership goes unchallenged for so long?

Leaders know that many of the people around them don’t dare to be honest with them. Most the leaders participating in my coaching programs tell me during our conversations - which are, of course, candid, direct, confrontational, provocative and disruptive as needed - that this is lonely and counterproductive. Many other leaders belief that their people do tell them the truth about what’s happening in the organization and about how they perceive their leaders, which they generally don’t, given the nature of a leader’s authority and power. Leaders will have to actively seek candid feedback and, when they get it, respond with an open mind and with curiosity. You don’t necessarily have to feel on top of the world and be all happy when you receive negative feedback. You can however make it a ‘habit of attitude’ to welcome candid feedback for the sake of learning about others and yourself.

All feedback, whether downwards, upwards, or sideways, that is being withheld, creates new problems: confusion, secrecy, underperformance, lack of alignment, hidden agendas, disengagement and much more.

Getting back to the ‘Why is it that … ‘ question, and without going into psychology too much I will say this. There are many dynamics at work besides the workings of authority and power, such as habits that were formed in a land far away, our striving for harmony, self-defense mechanisms, projecting our own desires and fears unto others whether right or not, inconsistent or unrealistic expectation management, thinking errors and more. And yes, I do know about hierarchy, about organizations where the culture is far from open let alone that candid feedback is appreciated and encouraged. I do realize that your upcoming performance feels endangered with a candid-feedback-session.

But let me ask you: What’s so bad about discomfort? Why do we act as if it were a permanent state of mind and body? Why do we often treat it as an all-or-nothing situation? What happened to having a candid, bold conversation while at the same time remaining sensitive to and actively inquiring about how our views are being perceived? What happened to correcting mid-course if the conversation isn’t working out the way you had planned it? What happened to clarifying your intentions to set the right stage? What happened to speaking from the heart to the heart?

Please, be candid – It’s the best show of respect and of a genuine connection. Please be candid – It’s the only sure route to learning, collaborating, and succeeding. Please be candid – speak out, stand up, and be the one who notices and discusses. If you do it respectfully, in a direct and transparent manner, and, if necessary, in a private setting, you’ll be surprised how many people appreciate your perspective, even if they don’t immediately acknowledge it. I’m the living proof. Ask my customers, ask my former colleagues, ask my former bosses.

If you wish to read more on this topic, two good articles are:



And last, a TED talk by Margaret Heffernan about good disagreement being central to progress: http://www.ted.com/talks/margaret_heffernan_dare_to_disagree.html?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=linkedin 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Resilience. Once again. And probably many more times to come.



More than education, more than experience, more than training, a person’s level of resilience will determine who succeeds and who fails. Your resilience will determine to what extent you succeed and fail. But more importantly, it will determine whether you perceive something as success or failure and to what extent. It’s not just beauty that is in the eye of the beholder. Success and failure like to join that party.

Some questions for you to consider: If you did not succeed in some venture, is it a total failure? Are you a total failure? Or is it the opposite: Do you still perceive it (or sell it) as a success without having learned much and with your friends calling you, usually behind your back, blind, out-of-touch and in denial? Or do you perceive it as a situation in which you did not reach your goal, which often hurts in many different ways, but do you also see it as a situation in which you learned a lot. Input that you will take with you into the next attempt, challenge, or endeavor.

Resilience is typically associated with bouncing back after adversity and with perseverance, a positive mindset, patience, persistence and the like. It is only logical to conclude that your resilience can be strengthened by education, experience and training, but this is not given, this is not an automatic process. Your mindset, your attitude, and your courage to ask yourself the tough questions, to explore the tough feedback, and to take on the hard stuff (or know what not to take on) is what fuels and drives resilience. No matter what amount of education, training, and experience, an increase in resilience is not a given. I’m sure you know at least a few people who have had ample opportunity to grow and build resilience from their experiences and training, however they seem to remain stuck without taken advantage from all that was handed them.

I have six questions for you. Questions that have served my numerous coaching clients very well. Questions to help you, or that person you know, to move the boulder that is blocking your road and that’s preventing you from building resilience:

1.    What is it that you typically avoid in difficult situations and what need(s) are you serving with that avoidance?

2.    What are good ways for others to face their fears? Really face them? Ask them. Have candid conversations and ask yourself: What can I take away from this? How can I best face my fears?

3.    Which of your strengths might be underused and which ones might be used in excess, where they turn into liabilities?

4.    Who can you actively involve in helping you increase your awareness of yourself and of others? Why didn’t you yet?

5.    Which self-descriptions and which habits do you allow to define yourself, for better and for worse? How is this serving you?

6.    Who can provide you with valuable feedback on your thinking style and patterns, the thinking mistakes you might make, and how they see this affects you?

I conclude with advice by LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner not to waste time celebrating victories or agonizing over defeats for too long. Keep focused on the task at hand, which includes learning from your life and building resilience. Weiner: "You can take a moment to reflect on what just happened, and you probably should, but you shouldn't linger too long on it," says Weiner. Yes, I do suggest to reflect and question and learn from your experiences and I suggest you make sure to move on. Don’t allow yourself to wallow in self-pity or to soak in grandiosity or self-righteousness.

Lets build that resilience – it’s a powerful and essential ingredient for a good life.