Monthly Archives: June 2013

Not Really About Nigella

Over the years I have worked as an executive coach I have had a small but regularly recurring number of clients who have confided in me about experiencing domestic abuse: men with other men, women with other women, men attacked by women, women attacked by men. The abuse was more often mental than physical, though sometimes both and always startling for its virulent spite.

What my clients have described was a pattern which began as ‘taking care of you’. This was possible because the abused person was temporarily needy, felt helpless after some crisis in their lives had robbed them of feeling resourceful. This might have been the sudden loss of a job, a partner abruptly leaving, the death of a close family member or a massive disappointment like having a PhD thesis rejected. Whatever it was, it left them feeling diminished and vulnerable.

The abused person has usually been intelligent, successful, good looking, nicely dressed: someone to show off, a prize. It starts slowly with the abuser suggesting that friends are not good enough for the partner and that he/she is a better protector and confidant. Doubts about the friends’ loyalty or suitability as companions are seeded and they are usually plausible enough to be believed. The abuser says that life is better when ‘it’s just the two of us’, playing to the growing insecurity of the partner. Thus the partner becomes steadily isolated.

The abuser is both fascinated and repelled by the victim. It is so easy to upset them! And so easy to explain it all away by the allegedly overwhelming nature of the love they feel or by just having had a little too much to drink and it will never happen again, or it was just a joke that got a bit out of hand. The more the victim tries to appease, the more seductive it is to do it again – such power, especially if it is over someone the rest of the world sees as desirable!

All this is not a secret to those who know the couple. They will have witnessed the open put downs, the red face and bulging eyes of suppressed or open anger. What they will not know is the distress of the abused person who, to protect his or her pride, will usually brush it all off.

The celebrated Irish writer Edna O’Brien recently published her memoir Country Girl in which she describes herself as a very young woman in an abusive marriage to another writer, Ernest Gélber. As with many of these man-woman relationships he was much older and began as her devoted lover and rescuer, patronising her with faint praise for her ‘scribbling’. As she became more and more successful his jealous rage grew. Demanding that she make over a cheque for film rights to him, on her refusal he ordered her upstairs.
‘He rushed towards me, almost soundless, and sat me on the bed. His hand came around my throat, a clasp so sudden that I thought I was already dead, yet cravenly fighting for words, the words still stuck in my craw, but waiting to be said. The word yes, yes.’

Edna ran away, and in a deadpan account, describes getting custody of her children from a judge who saw through Ernest’s accusatory ravings in court.

Psychologically this is what is happening: the abuser’s overwhelming need is for control. He or she had an aloof and dominating parent and decided that the only way to freedom was to be more dominating than the parent. The need for control is linked to the question, ‘Am I competent?’ In terror that the answer might be no, the need is to exert authority over everything. There is what Edna O’Brien described in her former husband: ‘an on-going fury with the world’.

The abused partners have commonly grown up with a different kind of parent: one who alternated critical harshness with affection. The parent withheld approval for reasons that are capricious and inexplicable to the child. The child learnt to placate in the hope of getting a few crumbs of love. The question the adult asks is ‘Am I loveable?’ It is intolerable to consider that the answer might be no, so, especially in an emotional crisis, the person seeks opportunities to find people who will offer love, even when, as with the parent, it is conditional on ‘good’ behaviour defined by someone else.

This clashing mix of needs is what makes these adult partnerships so toxic. The abuser doesn’t want or need affection – which is the coinage their victim offers. The abuser’s wish for control is easily mistaken for a wish to care and protect. The victim’s need for love can be misinterpreted as a wish to be controlled. Neither can get what they want. It is impossible to achieve complete control over another human being. It is impossible to win love through appeasement.

‘Why does he/she stay?’ is derided as a naive question by those who specialise in domestic abuse, but it is actually still a good question. The answer is that personal, financial and emotional ties are tangled, especially where children are involved. And who gets custody of the friends and the dog or cat? Untangling takes time, money and legal help. Doing it is daunting and it can be easier to procrastinate in the vain hope that it might get better. Can couple-counselling help? Probably not, except in the aftermath of a decision to separate.

From the perspective of the abused, the tipping point has often been abruptly seeing the abuser as an object of pity not fear. Alison Lurie’s novel Truth and Consequences opens with the heroine unexpectedly seeing her husband against hazy sunshine and not recognizing the old man he suddenly resembled: ‘an aging man with slumped shoulders, a sunken chest and a protruding belly leaning on a cane’.

Most of the clients who have described such abuse to me have been reflecting on the past. Like Edna O’Brien, they have escaped and have been able to learn from the experience. I have also many times worked with senior executive clients whose need for control is painfully evident. Some have confessed to being accused of abuse by former partners, and have hotly denied it. They have often seemed bewildered and lost, not realising how and when the balance of power had shifted: the ‘victim’ out-achieved them, their own health deteriorated, they went too far in public, they did the same behaviour at work and were accused of bullying. They believe that they have acted only in the best interests of others; they have been misunderstood. This will normally be the crisis that has brought them to coaching; a kind of last chance from the organization to understand and change their behaviour.

Is it appropriate for us to coach a client on these matters? Yes, as long as you feel you are within your own professional boundaries of skill and comfort. Personally I trust clients to be right on this matter: if they judge that we can help them, we probably can.

Delia and me – and life purpose

Two women are meeting to plan the first programme in a cookery series.

Woman 1: Since the first programme is about eggs, I think we ought to start with how to boil an egg

Woman 2: Surely everyone already knows how to do that? I think we’ll be laughed at if that’s what we do. How about omelettes instead?

Woman 1 was Delia Smith and Woman 2 was me, her first producer on Delia Smith’s Cookery Course, the series (and book) which made her name and fortune.

At that time, there was no ‘lifestyle’ programming. Delia was not a celeb. She was writing a popular cookery column in the London Evening Standard but her last TV appearance had been four years previously. In pitching my idea for a 3 x 10 programme series with accompanying books on how to cook, I met patronising male indifference

‘Delia Smith? That boring unsexy woman – oh please no.’ (Controller, BBC-2)

‘A book on how to cook? Why? Doesn’t everyone already know?’ (Head of BBC Books)

Despite this, the series was commissioned. I had my way on Programme 1. It did not include a sequence about how to boil an egg, but I recall a rather frosty conversation and there was probably quite a bit of haughty hair-tossing on both sides, the first of many such discussions.

At the recent BAFTA event where Delia was presented with a Lifetime Award, I once more heard her state her passionate belief in the value of learning how to cook well with simple ingredients, her understanding that many people are timid about cooking and her dislike of TV cooking that is ‘theatre’ – more about the presenter than about the food.

When our series was first broadcast, the reactions included many that are now familiar: the sneering from chefs, the accusations that she oversimplified. But the programmes instantly won an audience of 3 million against EastEnders, ‘One I prepared earlier’ became a catchphrase and we generated the first recorded instance of The Delia Effect when the national stock of lemon zesters disappeared in a day after we featured one in the programme.

For all Mr BBC Books’ doubts and grumbles, the first printing, where he had reluctantly agreed a run of 50,000, sold out in three days and the ultimate sales figures are in millions – in fact they kept BBC Books afloat for many years.

I did not truly understand then what I see very clearly now, that Delia was and is a woman on a mission. As a coach I frequently work with people on career issues and use Delia as a case study in the importance and value of identifying your life purpose. Once you know this everything becomes simple: decisions about direction are easy; moral dilemmas can be resolved in a trice; the chances are that you will be successful because the first principle of getting other people to believe in you is to believe in yourself.

Delia is also a perfect example of understanding that as a person you are a brand and that it is better to differentiate yourself than to try to be all things to all people. Delia flourishes on the very weaknesses that those lordly BBC mandarins identified. Her apparent boringness translates into ‘someone just like us’, her lack of obvious charisma conveys, ‘if I can do it anyone can’. Her perfectionism and stubbornness produces recipes that are reliable. She is consistently and authentically herself.

She has now said that she will never do another TV cookery series and has launched her own online cookery school (www.deliaonline.com) where she can be free of those pesky producers, editors or supermarket bosses and have total control, specialising in a careful step by step approach – a little old-fashioned perhaps, just as our series now seems – which will show you just how to make a perfect Victoria sponge.

Seven years after producing the Cookery Course I left TV behind without regret. I was about to discover my own life purpose: the coaching and writing career I have pursued ever since. In 1998 Delia presented what was, in effect, a remake of our series. It was called How to Cook. Programme 1 started with how to boil an egg. The uproar was exactly as I had predicted. And she was exactly right in predicting how many people would confess that up till then they had not known.

Job Interview Success: be your own coach

Job Interview Success: be your own coach“If every candidate absorbed Jenny Rogers’ wonderfully down-to-earth wisdom, the success rate of every selection process would improve dramatically”
Jeremy Bullmore, The Guardian Work Section

‘If you’ve ever wondered what interviewers really want to know, Job Interview Success gives you all the answers’.
Clare Whitmell, CVs and Interviews expert for Guardian Careers

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