- 18 May 2020
- Posted by: Mark Woodward
- Categories: Assessments, Coaching, Dyslexia, Neurodiversity
My hope for this article is that it will help clarify what Dyslexia Coaching for the workplace is (and what it isn’t), and how – when applied correctly – it can make such a difference, not only to an individual’s confidence and sense of well-being, but to productivity and quality as well.
To help me explain the way Dyslexia Coaching (sometimes called ‘Strategy Training’) can help, and how I approach it, I’d like to start by sharing what dyslexia feels like for me…
“What’s it like for you being dyslexic?”
This is a question I’m often asked. I have a picture – a model if you like – of what’s going on inside my brain that helps me make sense of some of the difficulties I experience. I’d like to share this picture with you to help explain how I approach coaching and how I feel coaching can help the dyslexic mind…
Imagine the part of our brain that actually does work, like remembering things for a short while, looking for things in our memory, working things out. Let’s imagine it is made up of boxes – and let’s imagine that the human brain has maybe six or seven of these boxes, and each box has a speciality; so, for example, some boxes may be specialists in numbers, others with words, other with visualization, etc.
But – and this is important – each box can only work on, or hold on to, one thing at a time.
For a non-dyslexic person that may mean their brain can work on six or seven different processes at once, and the boxes available will be skilled at different things – some with numbers, others with words, language, visualization, etc.
In my dyslexic brain I also have six or seven boxes, but none of my boxes work well with words or language type tasks– although I may have more boxes that are good in other areas, for example, visualisation.
This means that when my boxes have to work on tasks involving words or language, like reading or writing, my brain needs to put more than one box on that job. This means I have fewer boxes available for other tasks, and I’m in danger of running out of boxes much sooner.
Let’s take an example…
Suppose I’ve been asked to take the minutes in a meeting I’m attending. There are a few things that my boxes need to do in this situation – and remember, each box can only do one thing at a time…
• One box has to do nothing but listen to what’s being said.
• Another box has to take what is being said and work out what bits are important.
• Another box then has to decide what words to use to write these
• Another box then has to run back into my memory to recall what those words look like so that I can spell them correctly
• Another box may then have to think about whether I need any punctuation
• Yet another box then has to send all the information through my nerves and muscles to my hands to actually make the marks on paper
• And while all this is going on, I still have to listen to what’s being said
Now, if my six or seven boxes have a good range of skills, I can just about cope with one box for each of the above tasks. But…if none of my boxes are any good with the word or language type tasks my brain has to allocate more than one box to each of those tasks. This means that very quickly I don’t have enough boxes to work on all the tasks that are needed for this job, which means that I either start falling behind, my notes don’t make sense, I play it safe by trying to write everything down, or my handwriting is so bad that I can’t read what I’ve written afterwards.
Very soon I’m feeling overwhelmed and stressed – and that’s when something else happens that has a massive impact on my boxes; my brain does what it’s been developed over thousands and thousands of years to do when I feel anxious – it assumes I’m in danger and goes into survival mode. The brain is amazingly good at keeping us alive which is why human beings are still around, but it’s not that bright! When we feel threatened or scared our brain only has one response; and that’s this thing we know as the fight or flight response and one of the first things that it does is to look at my boxes and say “whatever you’re working on, drop it – because my job is to keep my human alive and that’s way more important than whatever you’re doing”, and proceeds to take a big chunk of my boxes to use for itself. This means that I now have even fewer boxes to process the tasks I was working on. It’s normally around this point you can find me rocking backwards and forwards under the table!
Incidentally, stress and anxiety, and how our brains have evolved to deal with this, has such a big impact on our bodies and the way we process information that understanding stress and how to reduce the impact of it is nearly always a part of my coaching. If we can minimise that stress response we stop our brain from needing to commandeer some of our boxes.
So, with all this in mind, how can we use this model in our coaching? Well, for me, dyslexia coaching is about developing strategies that reduce the work we put on our boxes, while making the best use of our strengths. The fewer boxes being used, and the fewer tasks that we need more than one box to work on, like words and language, the more boxes I have available to do the work that only I can do – the creative stuff, working things out, making decisions, etc.
We need to free up boxes! So how do we do this? Well, I take a three step approach to developing strategies with my clients…
- Ideally we would simply remove the need to do the tasks that take up too much processing power. Is there way of removing the need for the process – or even just the parts that cause us difficulties? In the case of our example of taking minutes in the meeting this might be fairly straightforward; it may be a perfectly reasonable adjustment that somebody else is responsible for taking the minutes. Sometimes it’s not so straightforward, and may not be possible, in which case we move to the second step…
- The second step, if we can’t remove the task, can we subcontract the task out? I’m still responsible for it but I’m not going to use my boxes to do the work.
An example of this might be using my speech recognition software to create written text. This subcontracts out all the work that my boxes would otherwise have to do around turning what I want to say into marks on a piece of paper or keypresses in the right order.
Another example of subcontracting the work out may be using another piece of assistive technology to read out to me. This frees up the boxes I would otherwise have had to use in decoding the words, putting words together to comprehend what I was reading, and so on. If all I have to do is listen then I’ve freed up more boxes to help understand what I’m hearing.
- Finally, if I can’t eliminate the task and I can’t subcontract the task out, then I have to find ways of making the task easier for me to do. This may involve changing the task slightly to suit my strengths, or it may mean changing the way that I approach the task.
For example if I’m having to regularly create text, say in a form, could I create some set responses that I can copy and paste or assign to a keystroke, or could I change the form into a series of tick boxes instead?
Another example may be that I need to develop a strategy for helping to put myself into the right frame of mind before starting the task.
In reality, effective strategies often have elements of all three steps in them.
But – and this is a big but – all this only works if the actual difficulty has been identified. For example, a client saying “I never have enough time” is not specific enough. It would be really easy at that point to start thinking in terms of strategies for time management and prioritising tasks. But that may not be the issue; unless we explore this fully with skilful questioning – and this is a crucial and skilled part of any coaching intervention – we might not discover that, actually, the issue isn’t that there’s not enough time but that instead the client is constantly becoming distracted and finds it difficult to stay focused – and that’s the process we need to develop a strategy for.
So to answer the question “what is dyslexia coaching?”…
• Coaching isn’t a coach telling a client how they should be doing something. This may be easy for the coach but it’s not helping the client develop strategies that fit in with their specific difficulties, strengths and role.
• Coaching is understanding the client’s strengths and weaknesses, and getting to the specific processes the client has difficulties with. It’s then working out with the client the options for removing or adapting those processes that take up too many boxes by using both the coach’s knowledge, and the client’s understanding of their role and the tools they have available.
In fact, probably the most important tool for any coach is their client’s brain – skilful questioning from the coach will help the client understand their own difficulties and strengths and will nearly always result in the client coming up with their own solutions and strategies.
Mark is a Senior Workplace Coach, Trainer and Needs Assessor. For more information email us on firstname.lastname@example.org