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The “What if … ” Game

Plan for unknown, risky or even magnificent situations using the “What if … ” game. A tool for helping people venture into the unknown with their eyes open

I like my coaching with my clients to be rooted in real, tangible results, and to relate to actual experience.

So at first sight, the “What if … ” game might seem very different to that – abstract and make-believe. But here’s why it’s such a useful tool both for getting real results and for helping people to properly ‘live’ their day-to-day life and work.


First, people sometimes fail to take action, or fail to really be ‘present’ to their actual experiences, out of fear, embarrassment and shame around what could go wrong, or where they don’t feel good enough, or out of self-criticism about how things ‘should’ be.

At those times, the “What if …” game can be a great way of safely looking at and planning for the scary stuff together.

Leaders and coaches can ask:

What if your situation IS as bad as you think – what would you do about it?

What if you DID actually need to get better at doing X; how would you go about that?

What is actually the worst that could happen – and what’s the first thing you’d do if it did?

Nine times out ten, asking these kind of “What if … ” questions results in somebody really quickly reconnecting with their choice and personal agency (ability to get into action). You’ll get answers like, “Actually, if that did really happen, I’d just do X;” or, “The worst isn’t really as bad as I imagined, the really bad stuff is way, way beyond where I am!” On the tenth time, you might find someone who isn’t ready to re-empower themselves just yet, and the “What if … ” game will just get vague, non-concrete answers. Best strategy then is to simply explore more about what’s currently going on: “Tell me some more about how things are for you right now?” Give it time and space.

The 'What if ...' game can be a great way of safely looking at and planning for the scary stuff together. Click To Tweet

Second (and just as often), we can fail to take action, or forget to be in the moment, because our big, audacious goals, if achieved, would result in radical changes to our situations. This is true even though it seems really counter-intuitive – why would we not take action to make a radical change, or fail to fully experience the process of doing it, when it’s something that we wanted all along!?

But any kind of change, even positive change or growth is by definition scary – it lies deep into the unknown territory.

At those times, leaders and coaches can use the “What if … ” game as a way of safely exploring that unknown territory together. We can ask:

“What if this actually works – then what happens?”

“What if you find yourself changed in some way – how would that be?”

“What if you can’t tell how it will be until you get there?”

Any kind of change, even positive change or growth is by definition scary - it lies deep into the unknown territory. Click To Tweet

It’s human nature to either see only the outcomes we want or, more often, to not look at outcomes at all, because there’s a chance they’ll be unpleasant, scary or beyond our capabilities.

The “What if … ” game is a great tool for exploring what we might find and how we might feel when we do choose to venture into the unknown. And to go there with our eyes open to the risks and the benefits and our ability to deal with them.

Let me know if you’ve used the “What if … ” game, or something like it yourself please? What did you find?

Please leave a comment below if they’re still open at the time of reading, or tweet me @nickrobcoach

Leaders and coaches can help people to reconnect with their choice and personal agency using the 'What if ...' game Click To Tweet

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Efficient + Effective = Elegant

Why a stripped-back approach and a deep understanding of function is the most graceful way to empower people

I’ve been aiming to follow the formula in the title of this post for as long as I can remember but it was first put into words for me by the brilliant Derek Jackson and Fran Burgess who are now, unfortunately for the rest of us, retired from their training work.


Efficient + Effective = Elegant

Fran and Derek sketched it out on their whiteboard, talking about how:

  • Efficiencyworking with speed and economy; would combine with
  • Effectivenessbeing capable of producing the desired result; to produce
  • Elegancesimultaneously excellent and graceful.

This state of elegance was what I’d been after in my work, well, for ever!

I remembered a couple of occasions, back when I had a proper job, when I’d come close to this. Leading a team handling some really complex and high-pressure tasks where we were really getting great results with limited resources and where it’d felt just … easy.

Looking at Fran and Derek’s whiteboard in that classroom, I wasn’t really seeing their notes, but was remembering that experience at work which had felt – and I say this as a 6’2″, 100kg clumsy person – like doing ballet!


My wife is a designer and this combination of Efficiency + Effectiveness = Elegance is something you often come across in the worlds of design and architecture.

At the time of my studies with Derek and Fran, the Millau Viaduct – which is featured at the top of this post – was just being completed by Foster and Partners. This stunning bridge, still the world’s tallest at the time of writing, is part of the French autoroute from Paris to Béziers across the Massif Central, crossing the River Tarn between two high plateaux. In describing the bridge, Foster talks about a fascination with the relationship between function, technology and aesthetics in a graceful structural form. Foster and Partners said that they had a choice between two possible structural approaches: (1) to cross the river; or (2) to span the 2.46 kilometres from one plateau to the other. They wrote that although geologically it was the river that created the landscape, it is very narrow at that point, and so it was the second option, to go plateau to plateau, that provided the most economical and elegant solution.


One of my favourite writers, Ernest Hemingway, describes how his writing process is similar in that he would ruthlessly go back over his work and remove “whatever didn’t need to be there”. He talked about how he would sometimes strip away the unnecessary almost to the point where readers would need to invent some of the details for themselves. Hemingway’s writing, for me anyway, has a kind of aliveness I feel can almost touch, whether it’s in a small but “clean and well-lighted” cafe, or hiking over a Spanish hill with a heavy pack.

I love this kind of stripping back and removing the unnecessary. Or as Foster might put it, reading the landscape well enough to see what combination of technology and aesthetics would provide the right function in the most economical and elegant structure. This approach is what I want for my coaching work. It’s why I’ve had to boil down and boil down what I know until the real essence appears.

This is also why I don’t introduce a complex model of how to do something, when a simple coaching question will get the same result. Instead of a slow, laborious trudge, it’s just being sufficiently curious about how somebody might achieve something to begin unleashing their potential – and not showing-off mine.

It’s also why there are lots of times when I don’t even need to ask that simple coaching question. In the right relationship, with the right degree of trust and respect, I often find that a simple shift of my head or a slightly raised eyebrow is as good as asking the most brilliant question. Sometimes, I even think my eyebrow is better at asking the right question than my brain is!


The best thing about the Millau Viaduct isn’t that it’s a brilliant piece of architecture. It isn’t Foster and Partners that are making the crossing. The best thing about that Viaduct is that it enables you and I to cross from one high plateau to the next. And to enjoy the experience and to feel alive.


As usual, please leave me a comment if they’re still open below, or tweet me @NickRobCoach.


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You are amazing

When you get to really see people for who they are, their light and their dark, they are truly inspiring!

Maybe I’m just in a good mood at the moment (although it’s lasted quite a long time if that’s the case) but I’ve been finding lots of my coaching clients very inspirational just lately. And for a man who’s a natural cynic, that’s a nice place to be.

I love my work and one of the great gifts it brings is the opportunity to see people for who they really are. By which I mean to notice and understand the whole person (to the extent that you ever can). Their light and their dark together.

I frequently find myself thinking how amazing this person sitting in one of my client chairs actually is. Not because of what they are doing in their life and work – although lots of my clients do do amazing things. And not because they’re a ‘good’ person either.

For me it’s a kind of gut sensation. As we’re coaching together, if you’re lucky, you build up a picture of somebody: their light and dark, their strength and weakness, their kindness and cruelty, their aspirations and their fears.

Often in the coaching I get the chance to say what I’m seeing – we call this a ‘Recognition’, and it might go something like this:

“I see your commitment to this project you’re leading, even though you sometimes doubt your abilities and don’t know how it’ll work out. That’s courage, right there.”

And for every one of those Recognitions I’m able to say out loud, there are several times when a bit of my brain is lost in wonder at the sum of somebody’s parts.

I often think that mine is one of those jobs where you don’t really need to look too hard for inspiration. It comes and sits in one of my client chairs and is ready to reveal itself if I look and listen well enough.

Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter

Yoda

As usual, please leave me a comment if they’re still open below, or tweet me @NickRobCoach. What inspiration or other qualities do you see in people if you look?


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Capability – Part 1

Why teaching new skills isn’t enough by itself to make people more capable or to generate new behaviours at work

This is part one of a two-part article looking at the topic of Capability at work.

This first part explores what kind of approaches you can take if you want to help individuals to change their behaviours or to be more capable. In part two, I look at why you should really sit-up and pay attention if you’re hearing a lot of “I don’t know hows” in your business and what’s needed if you want everyone to feel more capable.


When I was about ten or eleven years old I discovered the fantastic “Teach Yourself…” book series in our local library. This series has been going since the 1930s and was originally published in distinctive yellow or blue and yellow dust jackets. They covered a really wide range of subjects, from practical stuff like brick-laying through to economics, calculus and even Esperanto, which I once spent a whole summer playing around with.

Take a look at this collector’s website for some great information about the series and its various imprints.

When I discovered those books, it felt like something clicked inside me.
If you come from the kind of background I did, your horizons can sometimes seem a little limited, the options constrained, some choices perhaps already made for you. But I thought that here in these books was one of the main gateways to the world – knowledge and the capability that it imparts – made plain and accessible to anyone who wanted it.


It’s maybe no surprise then that one of my favourite aspects of my coaching work is around the level of Capability.

In the kind of coaching I do, I lay out those ‘levels’ like this:

1EnvironmentRefers to the Where and the When of whatever you’re doing and reveals what external constraints you might be operating under.
2BehavioursRefers to the What it is that you’re doing and reveals itself in your actions. 
3CapabilitiesRefers to How you go about doing things and reveals what approaches you might take now or in the future.
4Beliefs and ValuesRefers to the Why behind what you’re doing and reveals your motivations and self-imposed limits. 
5IdentityAnswers questions about and establishes Who you are. It’s both revealed by and satisfied by the missions you might undertake.
6ConnectionAnswers questions about your Vision or Higher Purpose – that is, in the larger system of which you’re part, it addresses for who and towards what cause your actions are directed.

For now, it’s important to realise that there’s a hierarchy to the levels as I’ve set them out above. For example, I’m often asked to coach people around operating more effective Behaviours at work, either as a team member or a leader, or often both. You can see from the table, that Behaviours are at level two. However, in order to operate new Behaviours, people usually need new approaches, new ways of going about things – and those new approaches require new Capabilities, a level three aspect!

It’s quite usual to have to explore two, three or even more levels deeper whenever any significant kind of change is required. New Behaviours (level two) usually need new Capabilities (level three), and acquiring new Capabilities often needs a shift in self-imposed limits and a rediscovery of motivations – a level four Beliefs and Values shift. And a really significant shift in those self-imposed limits, or a re-alignment or rediscovery of motivations, often requires a long hard look at just who we really are – right down at level five, Identity.


This is why, as we’ll explore more in the subsequent article, you’ve got to address cultural aspects around values and ways of doing things, as well as individual motivations and limiting beliefs in order to have more capable people in your business. Just trying to teach them new skills or sending them on a management training course may not always work!


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Empowering Beliefs (part 1)

Empowerment: How to reveal the unconscious thought processes that can either really help or really hinder you

If you want to adopt ways of thinking and behaving that get great results and satisfaction (to empower yourself), or to help other people do the same, one very useful approach is to reveal some of the unconscious processes that can either really help or really hinder you.

In my kind of coaching, we call these unconscious processes ‘beliefs’ and I’m going to show you how to work with them to make sure that they are as empowering as you can get them.

This article takes a brief look at what are called ‘Cause-Effects’. These are the connections we unconsciously establish when we perceive that something consistently and predictably leads to something else. A shorthand I often use is “this causes that”.

Let’s explore some examples.

1. To start with, think of something that’s important to you in your work: _________________ ?

Suppose you say that: “Success” is important to you in your work.

Now that we know what’s important to you, we next want to know what your life experiences have taught you about how to satisfy that. First, we’ll ask:

2. What enables someone to have [success] _________________ ?

To which you might answer: “Hard work”.

Next, we want to know what would make someone take action, to actually take steps to satisfy their important thing. Using the example above, why would someone put in “hard work” in order to have “success”? We’ll ask this question:

3. What does [success] lead to or make possible _________________ ?

To which you might answer: “Security”.

Now we’ve got a really significant part of the pattern that your unconscious mind uses in regard to “success” at work:

Using this example, we can see that this person is unconsciously saying to themselves, something like this:

“If I work hard, I’ll be successful; and I want to be successful, because that makes me secure”.

4. From here, we can start to explore deeper.

First the “Enabling” part.

Here’s a few simple examples of questions that can really get breakthroughs in people’s thinking and behaviour:

  • Does hard work always enable success for you?
  • What else does hard work create?
  • What do you do when hard work isn’t enough?
  • Could success for you also come from some other factor than hard work?
  • What else do you need, to be able to have success?
  • What other reasons might you have for working hard?
  • Which other people are important for success?

And then the “Motivating” part:

  • Does success always lead to security for you?
  • Is there anything that’s more important to you than security?
  • How much security do you want?
  • What other routes to security might there be?
  • Does success ever actually get in the way of security?
  • What did you learn about yourself when you didn’t have security?
  • Who else is part of this?

The answers to questions like these will reinforce how working towards “success” is something that helps empower you and others. They’ll also help you to spot when that isn’t enough and to be on guard for how the unconscious assumptions that (in this example, hard work -> success -> security), can actually be disempowering or produce unwanted results and behaviours.


You can also use this approach for negative behaviours that you’d like to change. Put that behaviour in the “Important Thing” box and work through the process above.

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