Coaching, Performance Management and Reflecting on Reflections


It has been delightful working with two groups of senior civil servants from the Indonesian Government over the last three weeks. They had come to the UK to explore issues of Strategic Performance Management and Coaching and Mentoring for Trainers. It has been a pleasure for ATi to host these delegates, these programs again running in partnership with Middlesex University Business School.

As well as supporting our delegates to further enhance their subject knowledge, one of the things that we particularly focused upon was the importance of reflections. It occurred to me that as English was not their first language, from time to time some individuals used an online dictionary to check the meaning of words – “reflections” being potentially quite ambiguous.

Take the idea of reflections being what you see when you look in the mirror. This was appropriate as one of the focal points of their training was to encourage people to look at themselves in terms of their actions, skills, knowledge, approaches, behaviours, and emotional control (my ‘ASK ABE’ model, published back in 2007). This work quite well, although culturally this is something that does not come naturally to individuals in South East Asia, where people are often more interested in the relationships with other people than in examining themselves. Reflections in a mirror therefore fits quite well with looking internally to see what actions could enhance each individual and their interpersonal behaviour and performance.

Reflections can also be taken to mean reviewing. In this sense we were encouraging people to review the systems and processes policies and procedures and the way in which these were utilised in their organisation to look for the strengths weaknesses opportunities and threats in order that they might identify areas that could be changed to optimise their operations.

Reflections can also be considered an important part of many religious faiths – reflecting on the world at large, life in general, and the current situation and context of the individual and groups. The majority of our guests were of the Muslim religion, and it was very clear, especially as Friday prayers were approaching, that reflection would form an important part of their prayer meetings.

Each Friday for our groups we allowed some additional time in the afternoon following Friday prayers for training programme and workplace reflection. We did not specify, however, where this should take place. For our guests this was mainly their first visit to the UK, and whatever spare time they had was taken in sightseeing and shopping. A new meaning was added to my idea of reflections when one of our participants told me they were going to reflect as they walked around, and that they had a number of shopping bags with them in which to put their “reflection notes”!

So what is reflection? There are many writers providing self-help books, life coaching books and online processes for CPD, all referring to reflection. For me reflection is about looking at what has recently occurred and asking myself – What happened? Why did that happen? Was this good or could it have been better? What needed to happen to improve or enhance it? What were the key points that I learnt from it? How could I use this learning to be more effective next time this or something very similar crops up?…… and so on.

Michael Jackson had it about right with his 1988 hit Man in the Mirror (lyrics by Garrett and Ballard), that clearly sends the message “…if you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and then make a change”. I too firmly believe that change starts within.

And then of course, ideally we should reflect on reflections…… Thinking about how well did we just reflect? Did we genuinely pick out the good the bad and the ugly from recent activities? Did we truly look at the learning points? Did we really take the time to examine a range of options to enhance this next time? Did we make notes or something similar to be sure that next time the activity occurs we really did learn from last time? Or were we simply reflecting in passing whilst shopping or sightseeing?   And, of course, for those who must keep or like keeping CPD records, how has this reflection been recorded?

Ultimately we all need to reflect effectively, and reflecting on our reflection skills must surely therefore fall into the categories of essential life skills as well as management skills.

So what are your reflections on my thoughts? More importantly, what have you learnt from this, and how will you use this learning?  All our participants seem to gain significantly from their visit to Middlesex University in London and I’d like to thank all my ATi and University colleagues and associates for their hard work and contributions to the programme. We all wish our new friends in the Indonesian Civil Service the very best of luck with the challenges that lie ahead!



It IS still what you say


It is not what you say that matters but the manner in which you say it.

W.C. Williams American Poet, 1883-1963


If this is true, then a major consideration must these days be the cultural aspect of both the phrases being used and the intonation an emphasis we put on the words and phrases we use.  One of my last blogs looked at how this depends on the individual words that we use.

Many years ago I first encountered the importance of this when running a residential training course for a multinational group who had flown in to the Heathrow hotel from several parts of the world to be with me.  The first day’s sessions were on time management and the importance of planning. I closed one of the sessions by confirming that ‘a stitch in time saves nine’. The result – a room full of bewildered people all wondering what sewing had to do with the day’s topic!

It gets worse when we consider the large number of proverbs and sayings that are in common use. Of course most cultures have their sayings, but translating them can be completely meaningless, as it is not the words themselves, but the concept that is being conveyed by the phrases.

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There are several websites that explore such sayings – with, thankfully, the underlying meanings or intentions explained to support the translations. Here are a couple of my favorites about Chinese Proverbs.  Without the explanation, what might we assume from the phrase “The Changjiang River waves behind drive the waves ahead”?

Indian proverbs also make interesting reading.  For example “A dog will not make himself look like a horse, just by cutting off his tail”.

And what would our international friends understand from many of our own English or western sayings, such as:

  • No such thing as a free lunch
  • Too many cooks spoil the broth
  • Don’t put all your eggs in one basket
  • You can lead a horse to the water but you can’t make it drink
  • Don’t count your chickens before they hatch

The lesson here for us all is probably to try not to use too many sayings or proverbs, or when we do, make sure we explain what the key messages are that we are intending to convey.

So….I’ll ‘keep my fingers crossed’ that you will remember that ‘it is better to be late than never’ to change your approach!



It IS what we say….or is it?

It is what we say….or is it?

Thank you!

“It is not what you say that matters but the manner in which you say it.”  (W.C. Williams American Poet, 18831963).

But is that actually true? Have you ever thought how much we depend on language – that is to say the actual words themselves?

Back in 1971 Mehrabian told us that only 7% of the meaning is actually carried by the words, 23% carried by the tone of voice.  This however is a very specific piece of research undertaken in a very specific context.  It would be wrong to generalise from this and state it as ‘fact’ across all communications (something these days often taken as such by the wider media and marketing gurus).

Language actually lies at the root of much of what we do 

It occurred to me the other day while writing some material for a programme I am leading during the summer that at work, at home and at play, language actually lies at the root of much of what we do.  Of course for this to be true, everything relies on the words that we are using being understood and having the meaning we intend when received by those who are listening to us, or reading what we have written.

This became very clear to me when working with some international students recently. We were considering the work of Belbin and his ideas about each person having ‘Preferences’ for the ‘Role’ they will naturally take when working in teams.  A simple concept, but one that can be completely misunderstood and misconstrued when these two key words are interpreted differently by different people.


Take the word ‘Preference’, for example.  Belbin, I think, intended the meaning to be something along the lines of ‘a natural characteristic’ or ‘automatic natural skill’. The UK’s Oxford English Dictionary however gives a meaning of “A greater liking for one alternative over another”, and the Cambridge On-line Dictionary says “the fact that you like something or someone more than another thing or person”.

Both of these definitions mention ‘liking’ which seems to me to introduce some idea about choice (incidentally, ‘like’ it seems to be defined as “find agreeable, want”). Belbin was not talking about what people like, or want, but much more that we each had inbuilt natural characteristics.

So, no wonder this was misunderstood by several people where English is not their first language; when they then used a dictionary to translate the word it stood a very good chance of being interpreted in a misleading way.


The other key word that Belbin uses that is key to his theory is ‘Roles’: ”A person’s function in a particular situation” says the Oxford English Dictionary. How would this translate to other languages? Many of my students did actually translate this to mean task roles at work as allocated by the manager – almost the complete opposite of what Dr Belbin was trying to illustrate in his ideas.

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It strikes me that under many circumstances, the words we use are even more critical to peoples understanding that we might think. We should use words carefully, with due regard for how people of different nationalities, languages and cultures might interpret them.  To make matters worse, in the English language, we can actually draw some meaning from words that do not exist, when they are correctly used in a grammatical sense. Try this:

“…the strinklings gastipulatexed frobenaticly”

Meaningless……or is it? The strinklings, being obviously people or things, were undertaking the activity of gastipulatexing, in a manner that was frobenatic.

So, the American poet Williams’ idea that “It is not what you say that matters but the manner in which you say it” may not be strictly correct – but then we all know this instinctively, don’t we?  So what do I suggest then?  When writing, speaking (or listening):

  1. Be proactive – to truly speak or write clearly, ask yourself first “what is the point I am making, what I am trying to get across?”  Sounds basic, but how many of actually do this well?
  2. Be honest, self-aware and slightly self-critical: identify how the words you like to use or intend on using that could be misinterpreted. Could you swap them for different ones? Use a thesaurus yes, but don’t just pick complex fancy-sounding words for the sake of it!  Often, straightforward is best.
  3. Be careful when using emotive words – are these rousing the emotions in your audiences that you think they will? Do you even intend these reactions in the first place?
  4. If writing or speaking for a specific purpose (e.g. at a seminar or preparing a report) get someone independent to test drive your language by asking them to summarise what they have understood. Can they explain the meaning you intended, how different is their interpretation?
  5. If hearing or reading something that is new, unfamiliar or just doesn’t sound quite right, don’t just accept it – check that your interpretation and understanding is the one intended by perhaps carrying out further research or by asking for a contextual example

In today’s busy multi-cultural world where different languages are everywhere, do we really pay that much attention to the individual words we use? We should, because it matters more than we might realise, especially if we want to be understood!

This article is part one of two – in my next blog I will look at the way in which phrases and local expressions can also add to the fun and diversity of multicultural communication.


Belbin R.M. (1981): Management teams, why they succeed or fail, Butterworth Heinemann, Oxford UK
Mehrabian A (1971): Silent messages, Wadsworth, Belmont California

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