It’s Conference, Jim, but not as we know it

The world was a different place when I booked my ticket in early March.

2020 was to be my first time at the UK International Coaching Federation (ICF) Conference. My diary had never cooperated in previous years, so this was going to be something completely new.

As it turns out, by the time the Conference arrived in the first week of May, we were all doing something completely new. Instead of smart clothes and name badges, we gathered remotely – all carpet slippers and jogging bottoms, children, pets, favourite tea mugs, dodgy bandwidth and Digestive biscuits.

It was rather wonderful.

Firstly, THANK YOU to the UK Chapter who moved heaven and earth to shift the whole event online in the space of a few short weeks. Impressive enough, but more so when you appreciate that all are volunteers. Along with the rest of us they were juggling businesses and families and a general sense of discombobulation in this time of Covid-19. They pulled off a stunning success: four half-days of world class content and speakers.

Let me give you a flavour.

The Conference theme could not have been more apt. Titled The New Reality, the opening keynote speaker pulled no punches in forensically detailing this New Reality for our planet and our species. Dr Emily Grossman is a founder of Scientists for Climate Emergency and a visible face of Extinction Rebellion. I thought I was pretty clued-up about this stuff, but her talk left me reeling and actually pretty depressed.  

Good. Coaches understand the power of disruption and provocation. We get how sometimes we need shaking out of our complacency.

The following speaker, Dr Barbara Mariposa, added to the overall picture of The New Reality. A compelling analysis of how, in her words, “normal was NEVER OK, it was already a crisis for many people.”

She spoke compellingly about the stresses of societal inequality; how “the pie is big enough for everybody, but it’s how we choose to cut it up.” She considered how, post-Covid, we have a unique opportunity to make ‘normal’ better for everyone.

A rich and thought-provoking, compassionate and ultimately hopeful discussion. Dr Mariposa threw down the gauntlet for the coaching profession to be among those who will step up to the plate and open up a possibility framework in the minds of the nation.

A timely, interactive session next, from Aboodi Shabi, a kind and practical discussion about resilience, endurance and how we might keep ourselves and our clients nourished in this strange New Reality. Coupled with Ingrid Pope’s final talk of the day, around de-cluttering in – oh, more contexts than you might shake a hoover at – I felt by the end of Day 1 ready to take my permitted exercise and let it all shake down.

I have the talks from Day 2 still to enjoy, as I was unable to attend. But on Wednesday I was raring to re-join the fray and found true joy in a paired presentation from Coach/Jazz Musician Christine Paulus and Coach/Improv Artist Julie Flower. We laughed! We played! We stood up in our living rooms and shouted out loud! We were encouraged to be brave and creative and spontaneous and – yes – find our Jazzy Groove in our coaching work. It sounded very like something Kim Morgan of Barefoot Coaching might say, when she encourages us to dance in the moment. It felt like coming home.

Finally, to Day 4 and what was, for me, a beautiful, positive pulling together of so many strands from the Conference so far. Charly Cox, Climate Change Coach (‘helping you get unstuck about the environment’) urged us to home in on our own social imperative. The mission, the relevant THING that will help us shape a more positive future in the New Reality for ourselves, our clients and our threatened world. She challenged us to re-examine our values: which are being left behind by the rapid pace of change? Which hold their own in a time of uncertainty? Which are in danger of dragging us back to the old ‘normal’? As we were reminded on Day 1, ‘normal’ was never OK… We were gently reminded of the need for people (us) to find a tangible sense of usefulness. What could that be?

The future for coaching, Charly says, looks better than ever. More of us are craving a meaningful direction and sustainable way of being. Doesn’t that sound a lot like we need coaching? (By this point I’m really excited – my notes are in shouty capitals). She really got to me, Charly did, in a good way.

Helping us move towards the end of an inspiring four afternoons, Dr Jonathan Ashong-Lamptey offered a talk about the need for inclusion and diversity in the coaching profession. (I write that as the distinctly over-represented white, middle-class female stereotype). He also stretched further into a challenge for coaching to fully professionalise itself as accountancy, medicine and the legal professions have done. “To collectively establish a value proposition and claim jurisdiction over the market.” Gosh, we could have talked about that all evening.

So, what were my main takeaways from this challenging, exhilarating (and slightly scary) four days?

  1. That we’re not going back to the old normal and neither should we. Even without the clear and present danger of Covid-19, we’re on an environmental knife-edge and we must fundamentally change the way we live (and what we value). Now.
  • That with these threats come unparalleled opportunities. That no one is too small to make a difference and that coaching (and coaches) must be part of the solution. (I do need to work on the ‘how’ of that some more).
  • That with the New Reality already here, it’s time to revisit my long-worn values and test which ones still have relevance. Do they need a little retailoring? Some, perhaps. And maybe I need to recognise some new ones.
  • That small, well-aimed changes can add up to a revolution.

That the pie is big enough for everybody, but it’s how we choose to cut it up.  

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