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  • Writer's picturePhil

Finding my self as a coach

Having finished my training in CoActive's core coaching curriculum, I've spent a fair bit of time over the last few weeks taking stock of what I learned and the implications of that for me and for Not Neutral.

I spread the training out over 7 months, kicking off with Fundamentals in December, wrapping up with Synergy in mid June. That ran concurrently with a shift at Not Neutral, from investing the bulk of my energy in setting up a limited company, networking and strategising, to spending it working with clients. While the training course was focused on learning how to be a CoActive coach, the process of doing that involved spending time acting as a client, resulting in lots of personal learning and development.

Coming out of that I don't have a snappy list of 8, 9 or 10 big learnings or top tips to rattle through (if you want one of those Tim Minchin's and Oliver Burkeman's are my personal favourites). What I do have is one massive insight into me and my relationship with myself. An insight that is helping me take my high level, philosophical, point of view around the shift business has to make, and ground it into the practical reality of what individual leaders need and how I can help.

First, some deeply personal context. For years I've been struggling with my mental health. In 2014 that came to a head and I was diagnosed with Bipolar (II) Disorder and went onto medication. I've long since got comfortable letting people know that. But, even with my wife and the various therapists I've worked with over the years, I've always been pretty coy about what my lived reality is like...

On a regular but somewhat unpredictable basis my energy, mood, clarity of thought and ability to focus cycle from high to low.

The highs are energetic and productive. I feel good. I find myself dancing in the kitchen, humming tunes at my desk. I'm active physically, getting up and practising yoga in the morning comes easy, in the pool I churn out the laps, home HIIT sessions flow and are fun. My days are a blur of getting stuff done. Good calls making good connections. Heads down time that results in good clear ideas, blog posts completed, slide decks done and out the door.

Sometimes energetic tips over into hectic, manic. I talk too fast. I rant about stuff. I'm filled with a sense of immense, but erratic, possibility and power. I get impatient with other people - why don't they just get it? I get impatient with the world - everything wrong is so easily fixable, why don't we just do it? I find it hard to hold eye contact in conversation. I find it hard to focus on any task. I spend hours bouncing around. Meetings are do-able, if uncomfortable. Productive heads down work is beyond me.

The lows are apathetic and desolate. The trigger is usually a sense of being overwhelmed. I burn out after things started when everything feels possible pile up and I go from riding the wave to being drowned by it. Then I disappear, generally for days on end, into mindless multi-media consumption. I exhaust The Guardian app's full supply of news. I fall into massive holes on Youtube. Dashcam and helmet videos of angry drivers and cyclists have been a particular favourite over the last year. Engaging with anything that requires sustained focus, like a book, a movie or a TV series, is beyond me. Work stops completely. I move meetings again and again and eventually cancel them. As far as possible I completely disconnect from people. From friends and family. At home I only show up for meals and spend as much time as I can in the bedroom with the door shut.

By some tremendous miracle my life has never completely fallen apart as a result. I've been in a stable relationship for 21 years and counting, 16 of them as a husband. We've had two kids along the way. For much of that time I've been the main earner and brought in enough income for us to live a comfortable life, rent good homes, take holidays in beautiful places. That's been funded by a successful career. We teetered close to the edge of financial meltdown when my first go at entrepreneurship ended in failure and debt back in 2008. But since then I've risen up the ranks as an innovation consultant, receiving consistently good feedback from clients and colleagues, ending up in a senior role for a world leader in the field.

By any objective measure I've done well. But my subjective experience has been one of near constant struggle. Of feeling like the stop start nature of my productivity means I never achieve the goals I set for myself, never get closer to living the life I aspire to. Of living in fear. Fear that I'll never break that cycle, never break through to some better life. Fear that the next collapse is just round the corner and it might be the big one, the one that brings this house of cards I've constructed crashing down, that results in me being the one who falls through the cracks in our society and ends up in misery.

Over the years I've explored and experimented with countless different ways to manage this cycle. I've had the privilege of working with 5 different psychologists, 2 psychiatrists and 2 coaches over a 15 year period. We've done amazing work together and I've learned a tremendous amount, gaining lots of insight into myself along the way. But the cycle hasn't stopped.

For a long time I resisted medicalising it, but, when I finally crossed that bridge, getting onto the right medication had an instant and very positive impact and I believe it still does. But the cycle hasn't stopped.

Yoga, swimming, journalling, meditation and other mindfulness practices, I've done (and continue to do) them all. But the cycle hasn't stopped.

18 months ago I started working with a new therapist who challenged my assumptions, who helped me reframe my experience from being a biochemically determined 'condition' to one that's also influenced by environmental factors and the patterns of thought and behaviour I follow in response to them. That led me to recognise that I needed a career change, needed to find work that motivated me on a deeper level, that aligned with my personal values and sense of purpose. I took the plunge, jumped at the opportunity presented by voluntary redundancy and launched Not Neutral. I find this work much more fulfilling, and the new freedoms and flexibility that self employment allow are very good for me. But the cycle still hasn't stopped.

The cycle hasn't stopped. It hasn't really improved. Perhaps it never will.

And it is the recognition, acceptance and loving embrace of that fact that has been my big "Ah Ha" realisation. My big, capital I, Insight.

By Insight I mean felt knowledge. I've intellectually know that this is something I "should" do for years. I've been pointed towards this truth by coaches, mentors, therapists and spiritual teachers countless times, and nodded sagely along. But there's comprehension of a concept, of what something means in theory. And then there's the deeply felt understanding I am experiencing now. An understanding that's not just in my head, it's in my whole body. One that's with me all the time, that informs my actions and which I revisit and reflect on daily.

As I live into this insight I'm discovering all kinds of things. I'm finding more compassion for myself as well as for others. I'm finding that being open about not just the concept of my mental health struggles but the reality of my experience does not drive people away, it draws them in. I'm finding that less of my time is spent in theory, in the big picture. I'm discovering that intellectual concepts, whether explored through dynamic conversation or preached to my wife in moments of rant anger, have served as an escape for me. A place to run to when the here and now has felt too hard to face. It's a long formed habit which I'm just now bringing in to conscious awareness. Instead, more of my time is being spent in practice, in the small picture of whatever is right in front of me. I'm starting to realise that these everyday activities, these tasks in which we spend the moments that make up our lived experience, carry huge value. It's in this place that I can be with whatever feelings I have on any given day. The dark and dreary just as much as the bright and bouncy. I still see tremendous value and power in theory, in engaging individually and collectively in the big picture, in concept, in the world of the mind. But now I'm able to do it more deliberately. As an active choice. And I am able to shift gears and place my focus elsewhere too. To zoom in on those little things and work at them.

This insight, and the change its driving in where I choose to place my focus, is shaping my work in the here and now, and also shaping the direction in which I'm steering Not Neutral.

Through this I've discovered that I enjoy coaching much more than consulting. Coaching as both a practice (i.e. working one to one in support of an individual's growth agenda) and as a way of being (i.e. listening deeply and asking powerful questions) that I bring to everything I do. I enjoy it more because it brings out the best in me, my ability to listen, my curiosity, my compassion, in ways that being a consultant - driving an agenda informed by best practice and my own opinions - does not. So I'm building Not Neutral as a coaching practice. My marketing efforts are focused on attracting individual coaching clients. And I'm approaching my current work - whether it be one to one or team coaching, facilitation or change program design and delivery as a coach - with a focus on listening rather than talking, empowering rather than advising.

Within my coaching practice I'm discovering that the parts of me that I've most rejected and suppressed, that I've tried to keep hidden out of view, are actually sources of deep insight and power. From what I can see, everyone struggles with self management, with their mental health. Especially those involved in driving change in the world. Every attempt at change is met by resistance, some of it from others, some from the system, but also a lot from ourselves, from our own doubts and fears. And while I do not have the answers or solutions to my clients' individual problems (hint: ultimately only they do) I am able to listen to, support and challenge them in their struggles from a position of shared experience. And that's a powerful tool. One that heals me as it helps them.

And I'm discovering that there's power in the practical. That yes the big picture of our planet and society, really, really matters. But so does today. So does this moment and what we choose to do with it. For the senior leader at a multinational struggling with how to navigate their organisation towards an agreed, inspirational purpose while delivering on their commercial responsibilities, the big picture of our ailing planet and torn social fabric matters tremendously, but it's in the day to day struggle, in finding time to breathe, let alone think, that change has to begin. For the project team leader the ultimate impact on the world of the innovation they're developing might be their legacy, but the route to that lies through working out how to manage the low energy that's making it hard to get out of bed in the morning. Ditto for the start up founder, the social entrepreneur, for all of us. Whoever we are, whatever we do, it's in the day to day, the here and now that we live and that we learn. As a coach my role is to help bring focus to those moments, to help my clients be in them and work through the every day challenges that make all the difference.

And so the next stage of my own growth, both personal and professional, is well and truly underway.

P.S. If anything you've read here resonates and you'd like to discuss how I might be able to help you as a coach feel free to get in touch. You can reach me by submitting the contact form below or by connecting with me on LinkedIn.

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