Coaching and all that jazz

louisThere are three levels of listening in the Co-Active Coaching model developed by CTI and used by coaches around the world.

  • Level 1 is when your awareness is on yourself – your thoughts, your judgements, your feelings.
  • Level 2 is when you’re focused on someone else – not just on what they’re saying, but on their tone of voice, body language, underlying intentions and emotions.
  • Level 3 is when your awareness encompasses not just you and the other person but the total environment you find yourselves in – “as though you were surrounded by a force field that contains you, the client, and an environment of information” (Co-Active Coaching, Kimsey-House et. al.)

But I didn’t learn these three levels of listening as a coach – I learned them as a jazz musician, before I became a coach.

So I thought it might be fun to look at how these three levels of listening show up in coaching and in jazz.

Level 1: “It’s all about me”

To become a proficient jazz musician requires practice, and the best way to practice is to be firmly rooted in Level 1 listening.

You’re under no obligation to anyone else, you can experiment as you see fit – because it’s all about you.

But God help you if you show up on the bandstand in Level 1.

A horn player or a singer may be able to get away with it for a while – so long as the rhythm section is firmly rooted in Levels 2 and 3. But if the band is to sound like a band, as opposed to a bunch of individuals all doing their own thing, everyone needs to get out of Level 1 and start listening at levels 2 and 3.

Only when all members of the band are listening at levels 2 and 3 does the music become more than the sum of its parts and really take off.

If everyone is listening at level 1 it may be a tour de force demonstration of technical facility – but as The Lips in Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments says, it’s “tosser music” – musical masturbation. It may be stimulating for the players, but it doesn’t offer much of anything to anyone else (except, maybe, musical voyeurs).

Level 2: “It’s all about the interplay”

One of the most difficult skills to develop as a jazz musician is not level 2 listening per se (although that’s not necessarily easy) but level 2 listening while playing your instrument.

The same can be said for coaches. It’s one thing to be able to listen with empathy and understanding – quite another to do so when you know you have to respond in a timely, professional manner.

The temptation is to listen with a view to responding – to still be half in Level 1, even while doing your best to be in Level 2.

The inexperienced jazz musician suffers the same fate. He gets so caught up in his solo that he stops listening to the band, which ironically denies him one of the greatest resources from which to draw for inspiration – the music being created right then and there by his fellow musicians.

The thought of being front and center stage with nothing to say is so terrifying that he turns back on himself, drawing on old or pre-rehearsed motifs, instead of being with whatever arises in the moment.

Similarly, the fear of having nothing interesting or useful to say in response to a client leads the inexperienced coach to be constantly thinking ‘What am I going to say next?’ rather than simply being with the client.

It takes a significant degree of self-trust to be able to listen at level 2, on the bandstand or in a coaching session. You have to know, in your innermost being, that if you let go and really listen, you will be more rather than less effective.

You have to trust your native impulses, and know that inspiration is indiscriminate with respect to effort. It’s as likely to strike when you’re trying really hard, as when you’re not trying at all.

Level 3: “It’s all about transcendence”

Listen to Bill Evans’ album ‘Live at the Village Vanguard’ and you’ll hear the clinking of glasses and various other sounds emitted by audience members and bar staff at the club where it was recorded. But what is remarkable about these sounds is how little they disrupt the music. In fact, you could say they add to the music, because in some way they are a part of the music.

How is this possible?

Because the musicians are so adept at listening at Level 3 they are able to incorporate environmental sounds into the music they’re making. This possibility is unique to jazz and other improvisatory forms (like stand-up comedy) and is the reason why a truly great live jazz performance seems to transcend time and space. It is immediacy made manifest in sound.

As Michael Ondaatje puts it, in his fictionalized account of Buddy Bolden, the jazz cornettist who never recorded a note:

It is good you never heard him play on recordings. If you never heard him play some place where the weather for instance could change the next series of notes – then you should never have heard him at all.

Coaching is, like jazz, an improvisatory art, so when a coach listens at Level 3 everything is grist for the mill. Things that go unnoticed or seem irrelevant from a Level 1 or 2 perspective take on new meaning at Level 3 and become incorporated in to the coaching. As a result, new insights emerge, new energies are released, and transformation becomes possible.

It’s all about what’s possible

In his book Musicking: the meanings of performing and listening, Christopher Small claims music’s power derives from its ability to represent relationships in sonic form. It should come as no surprise, then, that what is true of listening in musical contexts is equally true of listening in interpersonal contexts, including coaching.

Just as a really great musical performance has the capacity to move a person to tears, so a really great coaching session has the capacity to move a person to tears.

And what are those tears about?

In both instances, I believe, they are about what’s possible. What’s possible for us as individuals, and what’s possible for us collectively, as human beings in relationship with one another, and with our world.

If you would like to explore what’s possible for you, through personalized, one-on-one coaching that includes Level 3 listening, it would be my pleasure to serve you.


The real cause of your overwhelm

screamingwomanWhether at work, buried under an inbox of superfluous emails, or at home, accosted by gadgets of every shape and size, it seems we can’t escape the insatiable demands of life in the digital age.

A recent article by Daniel Levitin in The Observer claims this is the result of a battle raging between our ancient limbic system and our more modern prefrontal cortex. He writes:

Each time we check a Twitter feed or Facebook update, we encounter something novel and feel more connected socially (in a kind of weird, impersonal cyber way) and get another dollop of reward hormones. But remember, it is the dumb, novelty-seeking portion of the brain driving the limbic system that induces this feeling of pleasure, not the planning, scheduling, high-level thought centres in the prefrontal cortex. Make no mistake: email-, Facebook- and Twitter-checking constitute a neural addiction

Our brains, it seems, are literally at war with themselves.

Being a coach and not a neuroscientist, I use a different vocabulary to describe this same tension. Instead of a battle raging between my ancient limbic system and my more modern pre-frontal cortex, I see it as a battle between my core mission, and everything that distracts me from that core mission.

The trick is being able to distinguish between them; and that’s easier said than done.

One of the problems of living in a distraction-rich era is that there’s so much going on we no longer know what our core mission is. With the world literally at our fingertips, our core mission languishes in obscurity, shut out by the noisy impositions of others.

It takes time to get to know your core mission – your values, strengths, and unique ways of looking at the world. And then you have to have the courage to actually act on that core mission, to really be who you are in the world. It’s so much easier to Tweet and Facebook and read the news.

So I’d like to challenge you to think differently about overwhelm. Instead of complaining about how many emails you get in a day, or how busy you are with this or that, or how you never have time to [fill in the blank], ask yourself, ‘Who is really responsible for that overwhelm?’

And surely the answer will come back to you loud and clear. “I am.” Whether you think of that “I” as your limbic system or everything that distracts you from your core mission, you are responsible. You can act differently, if you set your mind to it.

So why don’t more people turn off technology and tune in to themselves?

From my own personal experience, as well as my experience as a coach, I believe it’s because we’re frightened of what we might find. All that distraction serves a purpose. It prevents us having to deal with what’s there when we’re not distracted. Feelings of disillusion, worthlessness, self-loathing, and disappointment. All those heavy emotions we’d rather not deal with.

The real cause of your overwhelm is you

But it’s dealing with those heavy emotions that gets you to your core mission. Acknowledging your disillusion brings hope. Getting to grips with worthlessness brings self-regard. Grappling with self-loathing brings self-love. Accepting your disappointment brings possibility.

But it’s not easy. It’s painful. And so we’d rather, in the immortal words of Neil Postman, amuse ourselves to death.

Or console ourselves with narratives like this:

So long as I’m professional, competent and meeting my financial goals and obligations, I’m OK. I’m not an addict. I’m simply enjoying the opportunities for entertainment and connection that modern-day technology offers. I’ve earned them, surely, these simple pleasures, by putting in a hard day’s work.

If that sounds like you, ask yourself these three questions:

What would happen if I put that narrative aside and faced the pain of my existence head on?

What would I find there, on the other side of those heavy emotions?

What might my core mission be, when it’s revealed to me in all its glory?


How much skiving goes on under your watch?

chickennothingI’ve been a long-time fan of The Economist, partly because they use words like ‘skiving,’ which reminds me of my British roots, and partly because they bring a sense of humour to topics that aren’t in and of themselves very funny.

This article, for instance, is ostensibly about how to skive (or shirk in the American parlance) at work, without getting caught.  But really it’s about helping managers understand what they need to do to prevent low or no productivity under their watch.

The author outlines four principles for appearing to work hard while actually doing very little.

  1. Leave a coat on the back of your chair, so it always looks like you’ve momentarily stepped away from your desk
  2. Use information technology to appear busy, when actually you’re ‘frolicking in the cyber-waves’ (that’s another reason I love The Economist – because they come up with expressions like that!)
  3. Get a job where there’s no clear relationship between input and output
  4. Be ambitious. Studies show higher earners skive off more than middle earners.

Seriously, though, what’s an employer to make of all this?

I believe what an employer should make of all this is that there’s no substitute for actively engaging employees in the core mission of the organization, so they actually want to work, rather than simply have to work.  If you communicate openly and honestly with employees, build trust that is personal and real, and bring all of who you are to the relationships you have with them, they respond in kind.

Most people would rather work hard than do nothing – so long as they feel their work matters.  And the best way to create and sustain the feeling that their work matters is to have it acknowledged by their immediate boss, by their boss’s superiors, and the customers the company exists to serve.  And, ultimately, by the employee themselves.

That’s why building trust, up and down and across the organization, is so fundamentally important.


I help organizations build trust, both internally and externally, using a proprietary High Trust Relationship Model that brings conscious awareness to how commitments are made and kept, and how assessments are made and used. If you would like to know more about the model, including what other people are saying about it and how you can put it to work in your organization, please contact me.


How sweet it tasted!

tiger-strawberryFrom Zen Flesh, Zen Bones:

A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger.  He fled, the tiger after him.  Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge.  The tiger sniffed at him from above.  Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him.  Only the vine sustained him.

Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine.  The man saw a luscious strawberry near him.  Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other.  How sweet it tasted!


Is parenting really the hardest job in the world?

ct-sc-fam-1224-parenthood-reso-jpg-20131223I’m a parent of a six-year-old boy and a three-year-old girl, and for the most part I love parenting.

Sure, the little brats can be difficult at times, barely letting you get a word in edgewise with your partner, and making a godawful mess that you then have to wrestle with them to clean up.  And that’s just when they’re young.  I have no idea what more difficult challenges await me as they grow up.

But is parenting really the hardest job in the world, as many well-meaning folks (men, mostly) are wont to say?

In this wonderfully spirited debate on parenting, Frank Furedi suggests it most definitely is not.  In fact he argues that it’s only difficult if you a) lose touch with your natural parenting instincts and b) listen to all the endless parenting advice that circulates so freely online and in the mainstream media.

That’s not to say there aren’t real choices to be made as a parent, and some of those choices aren’t easy.  Do you push your child to do what you want them to do, or do you leave them to their own devices and hope they’ll discover their true passion for themselves?  This is obviously a bit of a false dichotomy, but I do think there’s a real choice to be made here.  And I know where I stand on the issue (hint: my 6-year-old son is on a competitive swim team, plays the cello, and is a member of his school’s chess club).

No matter where you stand on the issue, though, you’ll find lots to enjoy in this debate between Tiger mom Amy Chua, parenting blogger Justine Roberts, academic Frank Furedi, and the terrifically amusing, shamelessly old school, stereotypically English writer and psychologist Theodore Dalrymple.

You can watch the full debate here or download the audio podcast here.


Confronting myself with Metta meditation

metta.001For the past month I’ve been doing a Metta meditation course at the Toronto Zen Centre.

Metta is the Pali word most often translated as Loving-kindness, and the process works like this.

Every day you engage in a meditation that includes four ‘requests.’  They are:

May I be well
May I be safe
May I be happy
May I be at ease

You expand on these as you so choose, including the inverse form of expression for each (i.e. May I be free of sickness, May I be free of danger, May I be free of suffering etc.), spending maybe 10-15 minutes building Metta, which I experience as a kind of warm-burning fire in the belly.

But where this exercise gets really interesting is when, as the course progresses, you start including more – and more challenging – people in the embrace of your Loving-kindness.

So in the first week of the course you wish these qualities for yourself.  In the second week you wish them for yourself and a ‘benefactor’ (someone you feel indebted to – a mentor, teacher, parent or similar).  In week three you wish them for yourself and a ‘loved one’ – a friend, partner, or confidante.  In week four you wish them for yourself and a ‘neutral’ person – someone you don’t really know and don’t have any strong feelings for either way.  And in week five you wish them for yourself and a ‘difficult’ person – an enemy, no less.

This exercise yields more interesting insights than you might think.

Over the past few weeks I’ve come face to face with:

  • My seemingly desperate need to change people – even those I love and feel indebted to
  • How my judgements about people are based on mostly invalid assumptions, skewed towards protecting my own sense of superiority
  • My intolerance for selfishness
  • My insecurities around money

Before doing this course I had strong suspicions about all four of these.  But they didn’t confront me in the way they did when doing Metta meditation.

You can learn more about the science behind Metta in this TED talk and about the Toronto Zen Centre’s Metta course here.


Is porn good for you?

I have to confess that despite being extremely liberal in my outlook on sex, I remain somewhat ambivalent about pornography – despite (or maybe because of) having consumed quite a bit of it myself.

And I’m not the only one.  Porn-related advice appears frequently in Dan Savage’s Savage Love column, and this TED talk, by the wonderful Cindy Gallup, has received over a million hits on YouTube.

So it was with interest that I listened to the motion ‘Pornography is good for us: without it we would be a far more repressed society’ being debated by a porn producer, a porn researcher, an addictions counselor, and a leading feminist in this podcast.

The live audience was polled before the debate and 45% were for the motion, 22% against and 33% undecided.  At the end of the debate only 6% were undecided.  So you’ll likely get some clarity around how you feel about pornography by listening to this debate.

The big surprise for me was Germaine Greer, whose work I’ve been following, on and off, since I discovered ‘The Female Eunuch’ on my sister’s bookshelf when I was a young lad of thirteen or so. In this debate not only did I learn that she was once a porn star herself (albeit with a political agenda) but also that she’s really quite out of it when it comes to contemporary popular culture (she believes most people get their pornography through the TV – their ‘hotel room’ TV at that – which is so far from the truth it’s not even funny).

Nevertheless, a debate worth having.  And with your partner, too, if this is something you struggle with in your relationship.


How to be happy in four (unfortunately not-so-easy) steps

3d-stone-test-renderWe all want to be happy.  But instead of directly pursuing happiness, most of us pin the goal of happiness on the attainment of other goals.  A loving wife, a great career, a bigger house etc. etc.

While it’s unrealistic to say there’s no relationship between the attainment of specific life goals and happiness, it is fair to say that the relationship is overstated.  Studies have shown baseline levels of happiness are resistant to changes in external circumstances.  People who win the lottery, while experiencing short-term euphoria, soon return to their previous levels of happiness (or unhappiness).  And people who are left paraplegic after an accident, although experiencing more negative emotions in the short term, soon return to their baseline levels.

If you’ve been around the block you’ll probably have had the experience of pinning your happiness on the attainment of specific life goals, only to then achieve those life goals and discover that they actually didn’t make you happy in the way you expected.  There may be some exceptions – studies suggest that building a healthy, happy marriage does permanently increase happiness levels, but this could be because happiness is part of the explicit goal of a ‘happy marriage.’

One of the reasons people don’t explicitly and directly focus on happiness as a goal is because they don’t know what steps to take to achieve it.  So here is my best effort at articulating, in four (unfortunately not-so-easy) steps, the path to greater happiness.

1. Get rid of distraction

And I don’t mean turning off your cell phone for a couple of hours every day.

I mean ALL distraction.  Even the distraction you’re not currently aware of as distraction.  In fact, particularly distraction you’re not currently aware of as distraction.

For example:

  • Thoughts that distract you from other thoughts (e.g. judgment instead of curiosity)
  • Emotions that distract you from other emotions (e.g. anger instead of sadness)
  • Actions that distract you from experience (e.g. busyness instead of present, moment-to-moment awareness)

To get rid of distraction means to live every moment in its entirety, fully embracing everything there is for you in that moment, good and bad.

It is to burn up every moment so all that’s left is ash.

2. Get rid of delusion

Get rid of distraction and delusion will surely follow.

So long as you’re distracted, you’re not seeing the world as it really is.

I used to think there was no such thing as seeing the world as it really is.  We’re always seeing it from a perspective, and that perspective is usually our own.

But when you avoid distraction, including the distraction of thought, you experience the world as it really is – unmediated by sign systems, including language.

As a result the delusion of ‘I’ and ‘them,’ along with all other binary distinctions, falls away.

You no longer see yourself as a separate entity, set apart from the world.  Nor do you see yourself as the most important person in your world.   You are the world, just as the world is you. (Even this language doesn’t capture the reality, it simply points to it.)

3. Get rid of clinging

Once you no longer see yourself as a discrete entity, set apart from the world, you no longer cling to the idea that your happiness is anything other than the happiness you are capable of experiencing in THIS moment.

Instead of clinging to happiness – past, present, and future – you are happy in THIS moment.

This is not some weird, mystical BS.  This is a proven fact (see this TED talk by Mark Killingsworth).

Clinging to moments takes you out of THIS moment – and out of any potential happiness there is to be had in this moment.

And if there is no happiness in this moment, then there is no happiness for you right now.  And life is a series of THIS moments.  So if you’re not happy in THIS moment, when will you be happy?

So long as you are clinging to prior experiences of happiness and trying to recreate them in this moment, you are distancing yourself from the unique possibilities and opportunities for happiness in this moment.

So long as you are clinging to future experiences of happiness and trying to pre-create them in this moment, you are distancing yourself from the unique possibilities and opportunities for happiness in this moment.

Getting rid of clinging means you can be fully present in this moment, and now this moment, and now this moment … with all that these moments have to offer.

4. Get rid of craving

When you commit to experiencing all there is to experience in each passing moment, you no longer crave anything outside that moment.

You will not say:

“Once I [fill in the blank] I will be happy”


“I was happy when [fill in the blank]”

You will be happy now, and want other people to be happy now too.

Happiness will no longer be something you situate ‘out there,’ but something ‘in here,’ always already available to you.

That’s not to say you can’t achieve extraordinary things.  It’s not to say you can’t have goals, aspirations, or passions.  It simply means you recognize those goals, aspirations and passions as real for you in THIS moment.  And maybe also subsequent moments.  But always in THIS moment.

So there you have it.  How to be happy in 4 (unfortunately not-so-easy) steps.

Why are they not so easy? Because

  1. Almost everything in our culture encourages the distraction-delusion-clinging-craving approach to happiness.
  2. The being-in-the-moment approach to happiness needs to be practised.  It isn’t something that can be rationally understood and then simply implemented based on that rational understanding.  Just as understanding that running 6km a day is likely to lead to greater happiness is not enough to actually achieve greater happiness, so the understanding that being present in the moment is likely to lead to greater happiness is not enough to actually achieve it.  You need to practise being in the moment, over and over again, to realize the benefits.  Just as you need to run, over and over again, day after day, to realize its benefits.
  3. You will remain unconvinced that the distraction-delusion-clinging-craving approach to happiness is not the best approach until you have had enough personal experience to conclude this for yourself. If you have said to yourself, “Once I [fill in the blank] then I will be happy” and you have then achieved your goal, only to discover that it didn’t make you happy in the way that you expected, then you may be willing to try an alternative approach.  Or not.  Some people repeat the cycle over and over and over again, endlessly chasing an illusory happiness.  But the wise person will take a cold hard look at their actions and the results of their actions, and conclude that there may be a better way.  And then take the time to experiment.

There is nothing in this 4-step approach that you need to accept on faith.  You can try it for yourself and see what happens.

If you would like me to support you in that process, it would be my pleasure to do so.


How much sex are you having?

sexEnough, not enough, or more than enough?

Relationship coach Michele Weiner-Davis argues in this TED talk that in a committed, monogamous relationship the partner with the lower sex drive is in a position of power with respect to the higher sex drive partner, simply by virtue of being in possession of a scarce, in-demand resource.

And the lower sex drive partner can wield that power in different ways.

They can either diminish the importance of the higher sex drive partner’s needs, seeing those needs as a nuisance that their partner is responsible for dealing with in whatever way works (albeit still within the confines of the monogamous relationship).

Or they can dignify the higher sex drive partner’s needs as worthy of respect, and do whatever is within their power to match or even exceed them.  And if that’s not possible, at least go along with things, in the hope that by doing so genuine desire will kick in.

I can see why this perspective is challenging to some people (as evidenced in the comments posted on the YouTube video), with some comparing the idea that a lower sex drive partner should just go along with the higher sex drive partner’s needs as akin to rape.  And men reading this may well wonder how ‘going along with things’ is even possible (this assumption raises questions about what constitutes ‘sex,’ but that’s another question).

But if you can get past the sex negativity that pervades our culture and see sex as just one more legitimate human need, worthy of respect like any other, then attempting to satisfy your partner’s sexual needs is no different than attempting to satisfy their social and emotional needs.

We respect and admire people who do their best to satisfy their partner’s social and emotional needs.  Why should sex be any different?