top of page

AoEC Spotlight Interview

We spoke to recent AoEC Practitioner Diploma graduate Dr Julia Nightingale about her experience on the programme.

What introduced you to coaching and led to you to signing up for the Practitioner Diploma in Executive Coaching Programme with AoEC NI/Ire?


Viktor Frankl said, ‘One can make a victory of any experience, turning life into an inner triumph or one can ignore the challenge and simply vegetate’. This quote really resonates with me because in late 2018 I realised that I had started to vegetate.


I originally decided I wanted to be a doctor around the age of five. I knew that I wanted to ‘make people better.’ This decision mapped out a clear pathway which I pursued successfully for many years, culminating in a consultant job in a teaching hospital in 2005 which for many years was challenging but hugely satisfying.  However, in 2018 I started to feel increasingly tired and resentful and found myself telling friends that I wanted a job that ‘felt more meaningful’.  ‘Medicine is a hugely meaningful job,’ my friends argued but somehow, for me, the meaning had become less apparent.  It felt like time for a change, but I was unclear about which direction I wanted to go.


 I took a sabbatical to spend some time figuring out where my purpose lay and to experiment with ‘being different’ by going slower, having no agenda, enjoying things that I don’t excel at and generally trying to loosen control on life. I started my sabbatical feeling embittered and tight-hearted. By sitting with this unease in meditation, I faced a number of things I had not previously wanted to acknowledge; that I had become bored in my role and that I was increasingly tired of being in an environment of insufficient resource which left me feeling that I personally was ‘insufficient’. Whilst on silent retreat I learned a number of important things about myself. Firstly, I had spent almost my entire career putting the needs of others (patients, team members and then my children, husband and even the dog!) ahead of my own needs and that had led to me avoiding my own emotional responses and being increasingly hard on myself. I didn’t much like the current version of myself, and my self-talk was hard and unfriendly. Continuously being on the receiving end of criticism and dislike is exhausting. Secondly, that self-talk is extremely powerful and that the words we use to ourselves can be enabling or severely disabling.  And finally, that I was stuck with myself and so had better decide to make friends with all parts of myself. I realised that I needed to work on self-compassion and acceptance as a priority.


Throughout my career I have been interested in developing peers and have had roles as a medical student tutor, educational supervisor to junior doctors, mentor, and peer appraiser. I wondered whether coaching might be a next step. During my sabbatical I attended a two-day coaching course and was very energised by the positivity (a welcome contrast to the poor old NHS!) and so decided I wanted to explore coaching further. I returned to work sooner than planned (due to the unexpected covid epidemic) and was fortunate enough to receive an offer of free coaching. The coach I worked with was excellent and when I expressed my interest in developing as a coach, he recommended speaking to Wendy Robinson at AoEC.  On my initial zoom call with Wendy, we discussed two possible programmes. When she explained the experiential nature of the practitioner diploma, I felt profoundly scared, and this fear told me that there was a lot of learning for me here. I had a real fear of ‘not being good enough’ but I was aware that I would not improve without ‘having a go’. My own coaching had convinced me of the power of ‘going fearward’ [a term I really like - picked up from Barbara Turner-Vesselago’s book, Writing without a parachute: The art of freefall].


What were some of the positives and challenges you experienced whilst doing the diploma?

The main challenge for me was my own fear. Having spent almost thirty years gaining experience and expertise as a doctor, to go back to a ‘beginner’ space felt very daunting. I was still feeling frightened at the start of the course but aware that the fear was mixed with excitement. I was worried about having ‘to perform’ and possibly being judged as inadequate (by myself as well as others), that I would have to sit with being messy and unpolished (and not perfect!) but also aware that it is ‘mess’ that allows learning and growth. In reality, the fear was completely unfounded as the group were uniformly supportive and the safe space created by the facilitators really encouraged us all to practice, free to fail, learn, and grow. The connections that developed within the group was a huge positive for me. Additionally, the space for reflection and to really consider the question of ‘who am I as a coach?’ was highly valuable for me as it inevitably leads to deeper reflection about ‘who am I’ as a person and how am I showing up in the world?

Another unexpected positive for me was that considering the question of ‘who am I?’ also lead to me becoming a children’s author! For me, this is a real testament to the power of coaching to help us achieve things we might not think we are capable of. Shortly after finishing the diploma, my youngest son (then aged 9) asked me to tell him a story. I have often told stories but usually they have not been very good. I found myself telling him about a small dog called Dylan who was trying to work out who he was and to my surprise this story felt different. It felt like Dylan’s story rather than my story.  I am sure this was triggered by the deep reflection I had done on the question of ‘Who am I?’ during the coaching training.

My son loved the story and encouraged me to send it to a publisher. This seemed a complete waste of time to me as my internal script told me: ‘I’m not an author’ but he was persistent, and I was trying to model bravery and so duly did as I was told and received two refusals. ‘Oh well’, I thought, ‘no surprise there’. That would have been the end of the story except my nine-year-old had other ideas. Some months later he asked, ‘What’s happened about your book Mum?’ I explained that it wasn’t a book but just a story and that two publishers had said no. He turned to me and gravely said, ‘Now Mum. Do you not know about growth mindset? You have to keep trying when something is important.’ It felt important to model persevering and so I sent the book to a handful more publishers fully expecting that this would lead to an opportunity to model ‘failing with grace.’ However, two of the publishers said yes! This was a very powerful lesson for me on the power of someone external holding a belief that we can achieve more than we think. This belief allows us to move past our own limiting beliefs (in my case the internal story of ‘I’m not an author’). Well, now I am!

What would be your top piece of advice for anyone thinking about doing a professional coach training programme?

I think that learning to be a coach needs us to really begin to look at ourselves, our beliefs and values and our prejudices. This work can often lead to us feeling quite vulnerable and can only really be accomplished in a safe environment. I would really advise that you find a programme where you feel safe and so comfortable enough to open up. The most important step for me was the interview that I had with Wendy before signing up for the diploma. Try and meet up with whoever is running the programme and get a feel for whether they are ‘a good fit’ for you, just like you would if you were planning to take up coaching with someone. If you are offered more than one option spend some time examining your reactions to what’s on offer. The option that you initially reject (possibly out of fear) may be the place where you have the most to learn. Finally, I think this is a really personal decision and so spend some time considering what feels right for you rather than simply going on the recommendation of someone else. What has worked well for them may not necessarily be what works best for you.


I have found this a very difficult question to answer, and I think that is because it feels as though my coaching model is still evolving. Also, the idea of a model somehow implies thinking about what I am doing as a coach, and I think that is much less important than how I am being as a coach.


The coaching model that I developed whilst doing the diploma was called HUMANkind.

The letters are an acronym for the attitudes and behaviours that I aspired to bring to my coaching:

H – honesty and the action of holding the space

U – understanding and unconditional regard (that is to say, no judgement)

M – the models of the world and human thinking that I bring to the party (based in part on Buddhism, self-compassion, neuroscience of how the human brain makes decisions, positive psychology)

A – active listening and attention to the whole person in order to facilitate acceptance, and accountability

N – facilitating the client to capture new learning in order to reach new understanding and consider next steps

I believe that the most important part of the model is kind. The foundation of the model is to remember that we are all human and apt to make mistakes and that if we can learn to meet ourselves with kindness and self-compassion then it becomes easier to let go of behaviours that no longer serve us and this in turn enables growth. It is important when sitting in a space of facilitating others to become more self-aware to always remember kindness. I think this is beautifully put by Pema Chődrőn (an American Buddhist nun in the Tibetan tradition): ‘… along with clear seeing, there’s another important element, and that’s kindness. It seems that, without clarity and honesty, we don’t progress. We just stay stuck in the same vicious cycle. But honesty without kindness makes us feel grim and mean, and pretty soon we start looking like we’ve been sucking on lemons. We become so caught up in introspection that we lose any contentment or gratitude we might have had. The sense of being irritated by ourselves and our lives and other people’s idiosyncrasies becomes overwhelming. That’s why there’s so much emphasis on kindness.’


Since the diploma, my coaching has continued to evolve. I have undertaken ‘Time to Think’ Facilitator and Thinking Partnership training. Time to Think is the work of Nancy Kline who has identified ten behaviours that allow others to do their best independent thinking by creating a ‘Thinking Environment’. This gives coaches a guide to a powerful ‘way of being’ that will best facilitate thinking in their clients. All the components are important but the ones that I like to concentrate on and actively aim to embody include attention (listening without interruption which generates thinking), equality (regarding everyone’s thinking as equal, within a coaching situation this translates into knowing that the thinker has the answers they need), feelings (not only allowing feelings to surface but encouraging thinkers to explore their feelings since unexpressed feelings can inhibit good thinking), ease (creating a sense of spaciousness to encourage thinkers to slow down, relax into and explore their thinking – not always easy in the NHS) and incisive questions (exploring assumptions and freeing thinkers from the limitations of an untrue assumption).


So, in summary, my coaching is still evolving as I continue to learn from others and reflect on coaching sessions that I have been in (as thinker and coach). My current intention is to facilitate a space where people feel respected and safe enough to fully explore themselves and the issues that they face; to foster an attitude of self-compassion and acceptance of present reality which then allows real choices about how to progress and grow.


What kind of impact is coaching having for those you are working with?

Most of my current coaching is for The Doctors Development Unit (DDU) at University Hospitals Southampton NHS Trust. I also coach for the South East Leadership Academy and have occasional private clients. The DDU offers coaching to four groups of senior doctors within our hospital: new Consultants, Consultants in new roles, Consultants seeking support and Consultants referred by management for support. It has been recognised that taking up a first Consultant post or a more senior role often requires an entire identity shift towards leadership, as well as requiring the development of new skills. Consultants in need of support bring different issues including stress, burnout, mental health or wellbeing challenges, work-life balance challenges or aspirations for career change or retirement planning. The South East Leadership Academy is an NHS institution which offers leadership development opportunities to NHS employees across the South East with a view to supporting staff to deliver better health care. Clients usually wish to work on leadership skills, but wellbeing and work life balance are also regular issues.

I am lucky to work within a hospital that values coaching and as such commissioned an external review of the DDU. This review showed that not only do senior doctors value the coaching provided but also that the service is cost effective. It has been estimated that for consultants who benefited from the DDU by staying in their role for every £1 invested the DDU effectively supports at least three doctors each year and up to ninety doctors each year, generating, on average, between £1.47 (x3 doctors) and £44.03 (x90 doctors) in social value. For Consultants who benefited by not taking sick leave or by returning from long term sickness leave earlier, every £1 invested has a return of up to £72.80 in social value.

The current NHS is a highly stressful environment which often leaves people feeling that they are ‘not enough’, and rates of burnout are very high, the work that I am doing feels vital to give staff the headspace to consider how best to look after themselves and remain resilient as well as how best to care for patients. I try to foster self-compassion which has been proven to be helpful to prevent burnout.

Feedback from some of my clients include: 

  • Has had a positive impact on job plan and work-life balance

  • I have developed confidence in my leadership skills. I have felt supported and heard which has helped reduced work stress – very grateful for this! I have felt reassured that my experiences are common and I’m able to keep things more in perspective.

  • I am more aware of my inner dialogue and better equipped to challenge it.

  • I now understand that guilt was a major barrier to stopping me accessing self-care. I have developed strategies for overcoming the guilt and also how to self-care even when the guilt is present.

  • I have learnt how to hear my inner voice of what I need (which was completely silent prior to coaching)

  • I have started to prioritise my own needs some of the time. This has been a combination of big things such as going away with friends and also little day to day things such as getting myself a drink before diving into the to-do list.

  • I valued a safe, confidential, and supportive space to explore and understand issues.

  • I have grown in understanding about how a sense of threat can impact my own behaviours/responses. This insight now enables me to pause and consider before responding. I have also grown in understanding about how my colleagues’ behaviours are often a result of feeling threatened. This has increased my compassion towards my colleagues and keeping this in mind has helped me successfully and compassionately navigate some challenging issues with colleagues. 


What has coaching taught you about yourself and other people?

A huge amount!


The coach training taught me enormous amounts about myself, and I continue to learn more about myself from my coaching, reflection on coaching and coaching supervision. Some of my major learning has been around accepting that I don’t hold the answers for anyone other than myself. As a doctor I had been taught to search for a diagnosis and then offer a solution to people regarding their ill health. This is not a model that translates well to coaching. It has taken me quite some time to be able to step away from my habit pattern of ‘being the expert with the answers’. I have spent much of my career wishing to do a job that ‘makes a difference.' I now like to think more in terms of ‘facilitating a difference,’ as the only person able to make a difference in anyone’s life is themselves.


What I have learnt about others is that everyone is unique, fantastic, and capable of thinking deeply. After completing ‘The Time to Think’ training I spent a year facilitating ‘Thinking spaces’ for colleagues throughout the hospital where I work. I was privileged to witness people from many different roles within the hospital thinking on many different issues. Offering ‘generative attention,’ a form of powerful attention and regard that allows people to really think for themselves is almost magical. This work has shown me that given the correct conditions, all people have the most marvellous ability to think about and reflect on their situation and themselves and come up with solutions that fit perfectly for their circumstances.  



What would your autobiography be called and why?

‘Learning to fail’. I now consider myself a ‘recovering perfectionist’. I choose this term because I think a tendency to perfectionism is deeply ingrained and although it may be under control right now, it is always waiting in the background hoping to suck you back in. Whilst heathy striving to do your best is an admirable way to live life, perfectionism is not. The constant feeling of only being as good as your most recent success and the nagging worry that at some stage you are bound to fail leads to a self-belief that deep down you are ‘not enough’ which fosters a dislike of self. The concern about failure also leads to ‘playing it safe’ which in turn tends to turn into ‘playing it small’. Whilst on my sabbatical I took up pottery. I was aware that this was an area at which I had no inherent skill, but I love ceramics and thought it would be fun to have a go. I chose to allow myself to do something where I thought I would not excel. Learning to throw, turn and glaze pots has been a joy and taught me a lot about my own responses to being much less talented than almost all the others in the class. A real turning point in my throwing came about when one of the teachers said to me, ‘You are never going to progress any further until you are prepared to fail.’ She explained that a common error made by beginners in pottery is to ‘play safe’ as they are concerned about their pots collapsing but this leads to heavy, small pots. I spent the next 8 weeks deliberately ‘pushing’ every pot until it collapsed and so learnt where the limits really were – much further along than I had imagined. I think this is a really important attitude in life. I am currently trying to practise ‘failing joyfully’ (rather than a more usual ‘failing miserably’) as each failure is an opportunity to learn.


If no one was around what you like to do most?

I think the answer to this question is a bit dependent on what type of a mood I am in but probably something quiet. If I had a whole day to myself, I would probably start by spending an hour in meditation (currently meditating with a huge self-compassion slant which generally feels good). I would then have breakfast and spend some time in my garden. After lunch I might go for a walk and then settle down inside with a good book and a nice cup of coffee.



bottom of page