Miliband’s Dilemma

It’s never easy being leader of a Party in opposition, but poor Ed Miliband is having an unusually tough time. As if it wasn’t bad enough that a junior Shadow colleague had to make an embarrassing climbdown because he didn’t know the difference between Kent and Essex, then Ed had eggs thrown at him and he languishes dismally in the popularity polls. Furthermore, the economy seems to be, in a dithery sort of way, picking up, so those wretched Tories will get all the credit.

This is a clever and decent man who seems out of his depth. His first mistake was to compete for the job, making it appear that he had to commit fratricide in order to get it. He lacks the steely charm of Blair, the born-to-rule silky tongue of Cameron, the arrogance of Thatcher, the – well, what’s the point of going on? He’s too nice and too ordinary. He just doesn’t look real when he’s trying to be ‘tough’ and ‘statesmanlike’: you can see the spin doctor’s hands up his sleeves and moving his mouth. It will always be easy to put him down by describing him as a dork, a panda, a geek or any number of other unflattering comparisons. Meantime Labour grandees give him contradictory advice through newspaper columns while grumpy loyalists tell him to declare a strategy, any strategy, as in truth none is discernible at the moment.

As a coach I frequently work with executives in versions of Ed Miliband’s situation. They have somehow found themselves in exposed leadership roles and have discovered to their horror that nothing is what they thought it would be. The demands are relentless and irreconcilable. They don’t enjoy it. They do their best, work their socks off and then all they get is constant whining from underlings who seem continuously disappointed in them or even worse, who betray them to their boss or to the media. They don’t like having all that responsibility. The rewards seem thin for the effort that has to be put into getting them. Their only relief is when they eventually step down and as one such client put it, ‘become a civilian again’.

This man must be surrounded by advisers and he has a loyal wife, but I doubt that Ed Miliband has a coach as it rarely seems to occur to politicians that it might be helpful. How I wish that he did – so that he could ponder these dilemmas with a sympathetic but challenging outsider who has absolutely no personal or political agenda. Does he really want to go on with it? Do the benefits outstrip the personal costs? Where does his real duty lie? What other kinds of career or role might be possible? My instinct is that if he had this kind of help, his torture might come swiftly to some kind of face-saving end.


Alan Partridge and Motivation at Work

Along with a cinema full of other devotees, I laughed helplessly throughout Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa. There he is, vain pout intact. We watch, cringing and snorting at his crassness, knowing that he may, albeit ever so dimly, be aware of his own disastrous proneness to failure. Alan is at his mindless best exchanging mid-morning banalities on North Norfolk Digital, a tiny radio station, with Fred from Fakenham about ‘which monger is worst – fish, iron, rumour or war’. It helps a bit if, like everyone in my party, you know Norfolk, where according to urban myth, doctors would write NFN on patients’ notes – Normal For Norfolk. This joke, by the way, is one that Norfolk people often like telling, which may also be NFN.

But as someone who earns a living working as a coach to people in organizations what struck me as the most enjoyable gag was the overall satire: corporate life is so bizarrely dysfunctional that until it is pointed out in a film like this we barely notice. The corporate smoothies who arrive to take the station over have no idea what they are doing, though they have all the right words plus the flip charts, the spread sheets and the snazzy suits, but then neither do the staff. Faced with an incompetently mounted siege by a crazy, sacked DJ, Alan along with everyone else misses every easy opportunity to bring the siege to an end, including just walking out of a back door.

If you look out for it there is a blissful moment where one of the hostages is seen holding a real book called Who Moved My Cheese? This is a Janet and John book for adults set in huge type. It is about Change. A maze contains cheese, a metaphor for what you want in life. There are four characters, two mice and two Littlepeople. One day the cheese is gone, but wait!  One of the mice has cleverly found his way into the new cheese because he’s kept his little snout twitching and alert to Change!  Meanwhile the Littlepeople just sit there whining, hungry, feeling sorry for themselves and using the word Change in every sentence.  Losers!  They’re in denial and called Hem and Haw – ingenious, eh?

Every few pages there are slogans in even bigger type such as Old Beliefs Do Not Lead You To New Cheese!  The overall message is: change happens!  You may be worried – but get over it!  The quicker you adapt, the quicker you will find the cheese! (This is a book of many exclamation marks!) Managers have supposedly bought millions of copies of Who Moved My Cheese? perhaps believing it will magically make staff adapt to changes that could damage their lives and careers.

The Alan Partridge movie contrasts moral posturing with people’s actual behaviour. Alan’s supposed loyalty to his Irish colleague Pat is quickly abandoned when he realizes it’s Pat or him for the sack. In a wonderful throw-away line, his PA suggests he assuages his guilt by donating £50 to Sinn Fein. Naturally Alan is grateful: it seems just right.

At North Norfolk Digital the first thing the new owners do is rip down all versions of the old name, replacing it by the new meaningless one, Shape. There are slogans on all the walls – for instance Be The Brand. You think this is fanciful? Not so. I have been in many workplaces where there were large posters with similarly ‘motivational’ posters in every room. And there are companies that make what is presumably a good living from selling them. Here is a sample. The picture is of a mountain and a climber where the caption is: ‘ACHIEVEMENT. The moment you commit yourself is the moment your goal is assured.’

How is it that so many senior people believe that slick mission statements, platitudinous lists of ‘values’ or silly slogans will change behaviour? People believe what you do, not what you say which is why the ability to create trust must be at the top of any manager’s list. The fact that this trust has been broken and how to repair it as a matter of urgency is a frequent topic in my coaching room.

It may seem beyond parody that anyone can think their staff will be motivated by seeing a poster or reading a daft and patronizing book, but as the movie suggests, laughing possibly a little hysterically, nothing is as absurd, or has as much underlying sadness, as real life, where everything can apparently be sacrificed for money, fame and short term gain.

The Tendering Trap

What a hopelessly clumsy process tendering is. We now have the allegedly new and reformed NHS 111 service in disarray. NHS Direct have withdrawn from the contract because they have discovered that it is unsustainable. The pressure to put in a cheap bid quickly revealed that they were heading for financial disaster – calls took longer to deal with and remuneration was less than they hoped.

I understand the theory behind tendering.  It is meant as a bulwark against asking your uncle to supply your IT services, a commitment to transparency, to competitive prices, to benchmarking quality and a way of challenging complacency in long-standing suppliers.

Does it actually do this?  I have been on both sides of this fence.  As a commissioner I quickly discovered that tenders create huge amounts of work.  Courtesy demands acknowledging all bids, a rigorous selection process and proper feedback.  It can be challenging to distinguish the bidders’ hype from their actual track record and there is always pressure to get the best possible price and the shortest possible schedule. All of this ties up many tedious hours of staff time for the contract-letter.

From the other side, as a provider you quickly discover that some clients, secure in their regular salaries and reliable pensions, are innocent about what it costs to run an unsubsidized company. They don’t understand the concept of opportunity cost and that time spent on bids is time you could be spending elsewhere. Others assume you to be so overwhelmed by the privilege of working with them that you will work for derisory amounts.  An acquaintance running a company of highly skilled craftsmen narrowly avoided bankruptcy when his firm was ruthlessly squeezed on price by a certain branch of the royal family.

In practice I find that tendering for work can be a tricky process where all is not what it seems. A non-profit organization recently asked me to tender for some work. It sounded interesting and I was well qualified to do it. In due course the invitation came to attend a selection panel. Googling panel members in order to prepare, I was amazed to see a video of a key member of the panel speaking casually at a recent conference informing them that there was already a preferred supplier for this work, who was openly named and one of their books waved aloft, adding that unfortunately the work had to be tendered in order for the organization to be seen to be doing the correct thing.

As a trusting person with little time for conspiracy theories, I decided to give the organization the benefit of the doubt not least because I had already put in many hours on writing the bid. After a poorly conducted interview, dominated by the person who had expressed the strong preference for another supplier, it was little surprise to open an abrupt email informing me that I had not got the work.

This work did indeed go to the favoured firm, people I know and respect who I am sure will do a good job. But the experience leaves a bad taste. As ever, it is difficult to complain without looking arrogant or sulky. And it would be perfectly possible to justify the choice on spuriously ‘objective’ grounds, adding further humiliation for the losers.

Tendering is a rough and ready solution to the problems of procurement. It depends on procurers knowing what they are procuring, when often they don’t have anything like the expertise of the bidders because their lack of in-house expertise is why they are putting the work out to tender in the first place. It depends on buyers having sophisticated selection procedures and skills. It depends on realism about costs on both sides rather than a shared pretence that prices can be driven down and schedules shortened without compromising quality. It relies on people behaving scrupulously. Alas, a lot of the time these basic conditions are unmet in practice. Perversely, as with the 111 service, the successful bid often ends up costing more and delivering poorer quality than it would if the buying had been done in more sensible ways in the first place.


Bullying, the CQC and Creating a Coaching Culture

The recent report from People Opportunities into the culture of the Care Quality Commission (CQC) makes for depressing reading with 92% of those interviewed saying they had experienced bullying. The report describes people being ridiculed in team meetings because the pace of their work was allegedly too slow, being too terrified to complain because no one had faith in the grievance procedures and some managers owning up to the fact that they had been guilty of bullying behaviour themselves.

Of course they were – bullying arises directly out of organisation culture and usually starts at the top. The ‘one bad apple’ excuse, espoused for instance by the US military after Abu Ghraib, is a fiction.  When invited to behave in a way that will harm others, two classic 20th c experiments show how readily we will abandon personal moral values and do what we are told.  Many of Stanley Milgram’s naïve subjects administered what they believed (wrongly) were fatal electric shocks to others, and Philip Zimbardo’s nicely brought up students swiftly became abusive ‘guards’ in his Stanford Prison experiments.  In both cases this was because ‘someone in authority’ said it was OK.

Most bullies believe themselves to be people who are only doing their duty.  They are responding to bosses unable to manage the anxiety created by demands from their bosses.  The only unusual thing about the CQC is that its culture has been exposed as a result of its failure to raise concerns about poor performance in hospitals like Stafford. This is ironic when you read the People Opportunities report where obsession with performance was the overt reason for the bullying. So this was an organization whose only purpose is to manage performance yet could not do it effectively either externally or internally.

Is bullying more prevalent in the NHS than elsewhere?  Comparable statistics are hard to find, but it seems unlikely.  However, the political status of the NHS does make for unique difficulties.  Ministers, desperate to show that they can be trusted with the NHS, fear press attacks; senior civil servants fear ministerial censure; trust chief executives fear rebukes.  The more senior you are, the more you may believe you need tangible statistical proof, hence the importance of targets – and the unbridled pressure that may follow.

Many managers don’t understand why pressurising doesn’t work.  The taken-for-granted principles of organisation life are based on fatally flawed assumptions so familiar that we have stopped noticing them. But eighty years of research has shown not only that they have never worked but that they never could. So senior people don’t exclusively know best.  Fear leads to compliance but not commitment.  Financial incentives do not increase work satisfaction.  Performance appraisals do not improve performance, in fact in about one third of cases it worsens.  Threats of punishment merely mean we get better at evasion.  Goals set by others are not motivating.

Yet the idea that cascading command-control is the way to get results survives intact in most organisations, including the NHS, despite nods to ‘empowerment’ and ‘involvement’.  When people miss their targets the belief is not that the principles are wrong but that they need to be applied with yet more ‘firmness’ – the kind that can easily degenerate into bullying.

The People Opportunities report rightly concentrates on recommendations about changing the culture at the CQC – for instance introducing training in coaching and other approaches to having ‘difficult’ conversations that would combine high challenge with high support. But no-one ever changes an organization’s culture by trying to change the culture or ever does it quickly. It flows slowly and cautiously from changes at the top with leaders who are brave enough and skilled enough to model the right behaviour themselves and who are in it for the long term. As the report acknowledges, having a ‘coaching culture’ is more than just running a few training courses and hoping for the best. It involves every single aspect of how the organization conducts itself including all that invisible stuff about what people believe will be rewarded and punished.

It also means that for the CQC, its senior leaders must know how to manage ministers, the press and the recipients of CQC’s inspections: a tall order indeed. Will they do it? We can only wish them the very best of luck.

Forgiving Yourself

Most of us make at least one major blunder in our lives and sometimes we make more than one. A major blunder is defined as something that actually or potentially harms someone else physically or mentally or both, regardless of whether or not that was our intent.

This incident is typically followed by excruciating feelings of regret, guilt, shame and constantly returning to the event, framing it as ‘if only I’d…’  We may have dreams and nightmares where versions of the traumatic event are vividly replayed. Our minds can be flooded by repeated unwanted imagery of the worst aspect of the event – its sounds, sights, smells arousing the same feelings of panic that accompanied the event itself. Often the feelings are disproportionate to whatever our own contribution actually was to whatever went wrong and sometimes they are entirely irrational as even with hindsight there may have been nothing we could have done to prevent it. Being able to tell yourself that all of this is irrational does not usually help and the thoughts can be intrusive, leaking into feelings of wellbeing and affecting performance at work. Other typical feelings will include constantly trying to turn the clock back, ruminating on the horror of it, obsessing about your motivation, fearing doing it again, getting it out of perspective and failing to ask how much any of it will matter in x years’ time.

Irrational beliefs that prevent self-forgiveness

I am sick with self-loathing so how can I ever expect to be forgiven?

I don’t deserve kindness or compassion

If people really knew what I was like they would shun me

It’s better for me to hide so that I don’t hurt myself or anyone else ever again

How self-forgiveness helps

Self forgiveness is a process of acknowledging whatever wrong you did, if you did, and being able to move on. Note that it is not about ‘closure’ which is an unrealisable goal where any loss or trauma is concerned, but it is about management. There is nothing that human beings can do that cannot be forgiven. By following these steps you gradually reduce the impact of the event and its damaging effects.

What to do

Accept that human beings are essentially imperfect: all major religions have this as their core and you do not need to believe in any of them to see the truth in the assertion. Perfection is impossible. Practise self-acceptance: you don’t need forgiveness for being you.

  • Distinguish between shame and guilt. Shame involves blaming your whole self, castigating yourself as ‘a bad person’. This is not helpful. Your mistake does not define you. It is most unlikely that you are a bad person and in itself this is an example of the all-or-nothing thinking that can take us over in the aftermath of trauma. Guilt by contrast involves feeling bad about some aspect of our behaviour and its aftermath. Guilt is associated with remorse: feelings of genuine regret about what happened and yearning for forgiveness
  • Release destructive feelings of shame but maintain appropriate levels of guilt and remorse
  • Avoid talking too much about the event as this will recreate it in your mind
  • Avoid the trap of blaming the person you harmed. They may indeed be responsible for some of what happened, but that is for them to acknowledge and manage
  • Remind yourself of your many good qualities: eg loyalty, a gift for friendship, persistence, patience
  • Sort what happened into three areas: moral faults, lack of skill and everything else. Moral faults are more deserving of remorse and guilt than mere lack of skill which calls for correction or learning, no more
  • Own up: acknowledge to a trusted other person that you got something wrong. You did make a mistake. Say in your mind or out loud, I am responsible for…………. and ………. Let yourself feel it. Then say, I am not responsible for………. and………. For example you are not responsible for the misinterpretations and over-reactions of others. Let the relief of what you are NOT responsible for sink in
  • Make amends if you can. This may be tricky as it is often difficult to know what would be appropriate. So for instance it may be easy enough to replace a small piece of property if you damaged it, not so easy if you said something hurtful and slighting to another person. It’s up to you to decide what level of reparation is enough. Any self-punishment should be mild and time-limited
  • Acknowledge what you have already done to make amends. This may already be enough. Next, decide what, if anything still needs to be done and do it
  • Don’t overdo the empathy. In the early stages there is often a great deal of empathy for the victim. However, as self-forgiveness increases, empathy decreases. This is healthy
  • And now actively forgive yourself. Say in your mind or out loud or to others, I forgive myself for………. and………. I have taken responsibility and done what I can to make amends
  • Keep a journal tracking your progress, noting improvements
  • See self-forgiveness as a journey not a destination – self forgiveness does not have a timetable. Let it happen in gradual stages
  • Ask yourself what learning there is even in these horrible experiences – there will always be some
  • Go through any of these steps again if you think they would help.

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 ( 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.

Blubbing coaches?

A recent report from the US contained the astonishing information that about 70% of the therapists in the survey said they had cried during sessions with clients. Since what therapists have done yesterday is what coaches may feel they can do tomorrow, how do we respond?

‘Ah ha!’ cries the coach who enjoys her own tears and likes the idea of sharing emotion, ‘This gives me the chance to be real!’

If you are not ‘real’ with your clients then you should not be in coaching at all, and bringing your authentic presence to every engagement is essential, but how would it help to join in with a crying client’s tears? The argument might go that by crying you demonstrate how moved you are by the client’s story, you show fellow feeling, you create empathy. And yes, we have moved on from Dr Freud lurking behind his patient so that no hint of human reaction could get in the way of the process.

All of this could be true. But before giving way to blubbing, ask yourself what the downsides would be. First, by crying you are getting so involved that you have imagined yourself being in the same situation as your client and have become overwhelmed. Your limbic system sends a flood of cortisol to your prefrontal cortex, just as the client’s has to his or hers, shutting down your higher cerebral processes. What is the result? You can’t think clearly, you fumble for the right question, you and your client are floundering together, not a good place for any coach and client to be.

Just as importantly, many clients come to us because their emotions are in a mess. They have failed to get the job they longed for, they have been made redundant in a particularly brutal way, they have a boss who is a terrifying bully, their marriage is failing, they have just had a frightening diagnosis involving a serious health problem.

No client ever gives this openly as a reason for choosing one coach over another, but it is pretty clear to me that they are looking for maturity, wisdom and calm. They want proof through how we are with them, not through what we say, that it is possible to survive and manage emotional shock and disappointment. If we cry with them we convey that we, too, find it difficult.

I once did a supervision session with an inexperienced coach who had joined in her client’s tears and was aware that the session had gone, as she put it, ‘horribly wrong’ from that point on. In fact it became clear that what had happened was that, seeing the tears, the client had tried to coach the coach, reassuring her that she (the client) would be fine, not to worry. I advise against this kind of role-swapping. It’s not what coaching is for.

In coaching we are doing empathy, not sympathy. I might indeed cry with a friend, and have, for instance in the aftermath of a hideous bereavement. But I have never cried with a client. I remind myself that I am there to be useful and that the more upset I become the less likely I am to be useful. I have held a client’s hand, I have very sincerely expressed my sorrow for their difficulties, I have listened carefully. Equally, I’m well aware of the dangers of offering stupidly trivializing clichés about feeling their pain, time healing and so on. What does a client want when they cry with us? Mostly I believe it is to feel understood and accepted, not to be judged or told to cheer up – or to have someone join in. If you join in what does it say? One message might be, ‘Yes, it truly is hopeless and that’s why I’m crying along with you. I am as helpless as you’.

Quietly listening, offering warmth and acceptance, creating a still, calm space will, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, mean that the client soon stops crying and is able to get centred again. Then you can coach.