Why should anyone be coached by me? By Alan Robertson


The good coach invited me to think more broadly and explicitly about how I coach and where that approach comes from. That's what this blog is about. It's a bit longer, but I have some debts to acknowledge and that takes a bit of space and explanation.

New acquaintances can be disturbing. There was a time when I’d have kept them at arm’s length for that reason, but these days –somewhat to my own surprise, but probably because I’m conscious that time is running out – I find that’s part of their attraction. I’ve become more of a networker. People who work in the same domain can be particularly unsettling, not so much when they introduce you to a new idea or author or approach, but when they say something that suddenly jolts your own thinking.

The editors (blogitors) of the good coach did it recently. They were reviewing my last blog. They liked it, I’m pleased to say, and they published it, but they all had a similar comment about it. ‘I could infer how you managed to shift the conditions from one of resistance to opportunity. Perhaps in another blog you might share in more detail how you did that.’ [1] A similar suggestion, I now noticed, had been made about my earlier blogs.

More details about how I did it? Hmm… Even supposing that I could articulate an answer to that question, and perhaps I could, if I turned my mind to it, I wondered if it would be an honest answer. At the time, in that particular coaching session that I had been describing, I wasn’t using a piece of conscious technique. I was improvising. I was reacting to what was happening in the interaction in the moment.

I don’t want to retro-fit explanations, when I reflect on past coaching assignments. I’m not sure how much help that would be, either to me or to anyone else finding themselves in the fleeting moment of a similar situation in the future. But I’m also unsure whether that is a brutally honest response to the blogitors’ invitation or simply an evasive one, so in this blog I’m going to endeavour to answer their question. How do I do it? What is my approach to coaching and where does it come from?

I have no formal qualification in coaching. That’s quite a risky admission these days, when clients seem to be increasingly keen to screen prospective coaches on the basis of their formal qualifications. But I don’t have one, and with 40 years’ experience of working with people, I don’t feel inclined to spend any of such time as I might have left in acquiring one. I’ll take my chance on personal referrals continuing to provide opportunities to coach.

In the absence of a particular school, course or qualification, I have no ready headline to describe my way of coaching. In any case I have something close to abhorrence to be being technique-driven or to subjecting people to pre-defined procedures. I find it de-humanising whenever I’m ‘processed’ and I try not to do it to others. It’s the coachee as a unique individual who has to be the centre of attention, not whatever might be in the coach’s rattle bag. [2]

I take the view that the coachee is already in motion and it’s my responsibility to catch up with them and their story, with where they’re trying to go and how they’re trying to get there, as they see it. [3] If I can do that, then there’s some prospect that I might become a useful travelling companion for them for a while. I’m Dr Watson to their Sherlock Holmes. I endeavour to be helpful, but the coachee is the central character and the one who ultimately has to figure things out.

My approach to coaching is largely intuitive. Until I started blogging about it (and until those provocative blogitors started encouraging me to think about it even more explicitly), I hadn’t realise just how much I rely on intuition. But what does that mean? I’d like to think that intuition is the mark of a quick, agile and penetrating mind, but we’ve already established that’s Holmes’ department and what we’re trying to nurture in the coachee. I’m not sure you need it to be a good coach, although I’m sure it helps.

What I can’t claim is that my mind feels invariably quick, agile and penetrating when I coach. On the contrary, much like the well-meaning but often slightly bewildered Dr Watson, I spend much of the time gradually uncovering things that might or might not be relevant, discussing them with the coachee, wondering what they might mean, and how they might be pieced together into something that the coachee is willing to take away and try and then prepared to come back and talk about until, between you, you’ve either made some progress with the coachee’s issues or recognised that you can’t.

It’s a puzzling process, literally and metaphorically. It’s not tidy. It’s iterative. 

So I’m an intuitive (Myers Briggs INFJ, if anyone’s interested). And I’ve just done what intuitives do: came up with an imaginative notion and pursued it to see where it might lead. I do that a lot when I coach. It’s a way of opening up possibilities for the coachee to explore, a way of enabling them to step outside their existing pattern of thinking (often a source of stuckness) and consider their issues in a new light. However they are sensing and experiencing their reality, I’m confident that I can generate some alternative ways of looking at it. I don’t expect these perspectives to provide or to be the answers, but rather to unlock and stimulate the coachee’s way of thinking about and tackling their challenges.

I aim to generate fresh sense of possibilities for thought and action.

But I can hear the blogitors in my mind’s ear. ‘All right, Alan, but how do you actually do that?’ 
By talking. So let me squeeze one more insight out of Holmes and Watson and why I like them so much as an analogy for the coaching relationship. The two of them do a lot of talking. That’s how they figure stuff out. And beyond the talking there’s a world of action where the drama plays out to its conclusion. That’s true for coaching too. But the talking is pivotal.

And the point is that the sense of possibilities is not generated by me personally but by the conversation. The possibilities emerge spontaneously from the conversation that I’m having with the coachee, in the moment, as we’re talking.

I have a particular fascination with talk. This might seem strange for an MBTI introvert and may deserve a blog of its own, but the more immediate point to explore here is the question of where I learned to use talk in the way that I do. Because there’s no doubt in my mind that the way I talk is central to the way I coach.

I’m also inclined to believe that much of what we call intuition is actually past experience which has been very thoroughly assimilated into general principles about how to think and how to behave, that have become automatic and function below the level of conscious awareness. So here, I think, I’m probing back in time to see how my way of talking was born from experience.

It started round the Robertson dining table when I was young. We talked a lot at meal times. My wife tells me it astonished her when she first came for a meal. In her family people ate at mealtimes. In mine we ate and talked. It’s a miracle that we didn’t all choke to death and my grown-up children still worry that I might. At my Father’s table we reported on our day, we told stories and jokes, we quizzed each other and teased each other. We laughed a lot. It was a formative experience. It gave me the habit of listening to other people and enjoying what they have to say, of expecting and respecting differences of view and opinion. It taught me how to relate. It also showed me a way of getting over taking myself too seriously – an important lesson, because I’ve always been prone to that – and fortunately a lesson in which my own family continue to give me remedial classes.

My next lessons in how to hold productive conversations came at Oxford. I had the good fortune to be there as a history undergraduate and the even greater good fortune to be taught by two outstanding tutors, Harry Pitt and James Campbell. Sadly they’re both dead now, but their teaching lives on in the way I coach.

At its best an Oxford tutorial is extraordinarily like a coaching session. Two, or sometimes in specialist subjects only one student has a dedicated hour once a week with their don, the subject matter expert. The student brings the essay, his or her attempt to make sense of a question, reads it to the tutor and then engages in a deeper discussion of the topic, the student’s efforts to get to grips with it, and whatever other questions and issues arise.

One of the things you very quickly learn from studying history is that, as the saying goes, ‘there is no such thing as history; there are only historians.’ There is no single, objective truth, only perspectives and interpretations, any of which can be maintained with great passion and commitment by its holder. It’s a valuable lesson to take into working with people and life more generally.

Tutorials with Harry Pitt were lively affairs. Sixteen years before he started tutoring me he’d been fighting in the Battle of Normandy and he retained a young tank commander’s relish for swivelling his aim towards the weakest part of your argument. It could have been learning by humiliation, but Harry ensured that it never felt like that. He engaged with you with great gusto, good humour and respect for your opinion, however strongly he held his own. ‘Yes, but what do you make of this…’ ‘I don’t personally agree with you on that and here’s why…’

Harry treated you like an intelligent equal even when you clearly weren’t and it was massively encouraging. You worked hard for Harry because you wanted to deserve the good opinion that he already seemed to have of you.

Tutorials with James Campbell were altogether more daunting. You worked hard for him because you didn’t want to sound or feel idiotic, as you presented your thinking and waited for his response.

James’ capacity to listen and absorb what you were saying was phenomenal. Sometimes he would sit still while you were talking, but more commonly he was busy. Stoking, lighting and re-lighting his pipe, going over to his bookshelves to look something up, or fussing over his cats, all of which were named after Anglo-Saxon kings and queens. (I once had six kittens clambering over me while I was trying to read an essay). But when you finished he’d say, ‘Let me see if I’ve understood.’ ‘What you seem to be saying is…’ He would then provide a detailed and lucid summary that was usually more articulate and finessed than the original. Then, because he generally started on a positive note, he’d say, ‘Yes. That’s quite good. ’ There would be a pause.  ‘But…’ And he would then proceed to suggest various ways in which your analysis and conclusions might be questioned, re-examined and improved. The breadth and depth of his own scholarship was awe-inspiring, but he never used it to dominate his pupils. His intention always was to provoke you to push your own thinking harder and further. That’s the development that he was looking to nurture and encourage from one week to the next.

I try to emulate my own tutors when I coach. Outside the formalities of tutorials both Harry and James were very personable, approachable, witty and entertaining. I used to lunch with James once a year during the last decade of his life and he never stopped being intensely interested in what you were doing and how you were thinking about what you were doing. He and Harry were wonderful role models for how to conduct conversations to enable others to think for themselves. 

Trade union shop stewards were the next test and development for the talking skills that I use today. I became the Industrial Relations Manager in a heavily-unionised factory in a major international industry, at that time, the unusually young age of 27. For nearly two years I’d witnessed my predecessor battling with the shop stewards. The relationships were terrible. The discussions, not only between management and unions but also among the different unions, were combative, distrustful, painfully protracted and too often unproductive. 

I came into the job with a clear sense that my priority was to create more trust in the relationships and that the only way to do that was through a different way of talking. I remember announcing, in my first meeting in the chair, ‘Industrial Relations in this factory are now under new management. There will be no more empty promises. And there will be no empty threats. I will do what I say I will do.’ Seeing it in print nearly 40 years later, it all sounds rather muscular and over-dramatic, and of course the shop stewards thought it was just another piece of empty managerial rhetoric. But time and experience showed them that I was prepared to stand by what I had said. They could trust that. 

What I was calling for was plain speaking on both sides. I was also making the point that we don’t just talk for the sake of talking; as far as I was (and still am) concerned the purpose of talking is to surface and resolve problems, to move things forward. The trade unions came to appreciate the immediacy, authenticity and value of that. Over a period of years the posturing and rhetorical displays gradually disappeared. Negotiations which had previously taken months came to be resolved first in weeks and then in days. We still had grievances, disputes, disagreements and occasional strikes. But we sorted them out.  

The other lesson that industrial relations taught me was that what I had to say was only ever part of the process. Moving things forward is a collaborative activity. What the other party says and how they say it, the quality of how you listen to those things, how you choose to respond, and the nature of the dialogue that emerges from the interaction of all these different variables: these are all parts of what makes talk productive.

So I’d like to acknowledge the people who taught me how to listen when I was a young man, and an industrial relations manager, and initially at least over-endowed with self-assurance. Some of these people were my managers and some were people who worked for me; others were people I had to interview, some were people I hired and some were people I had to fire. But I learned most from the shop stewards with whom I worked over a period of years, co-creating a new way of working together that contributed to us winning major industry awards on a regular basis and an enviable reputation for the quality of our industrial relations.

Thank you: 
Joe, doggedly diligent as the convenor, probably the hardest job in industrial relations; 
Angus, who’d stepped down but never ceased to counsel all sides to think clearly and act with moderation;
Jimmy, the radical who both charmed and was charmed by Margaret Thatcher when she visited the factory; 
wee Geordie, who always folded his cap and sat on it to keep it warm when he came to meetings and earned respect by giving it; 
big Hughie with the piratical grin and the missing teeth who always got straight to the point; 
Jimmy who felt he hadn’t done his job if he didn’t start by making a demand that he knew you’d reject because you both understood that it was unreasonable; 
Pearl who pushed her colleagues at least as hard as she pushed management and always towards making agreements; 
Bobbie, the most open-minded, rational and productive of negotiators; 
Tom, who understood the value of maintaining room to manoeuvre; 
Jack and Tommy, the double-act whose anger over injustice was a force which served us all well.

I can still see your faces. I can still hear your voices. I can hear the different ways you spoke and spoke for others.  I can still remember specifics from many of the high stakes conversations that we had. It wasn’t your job to teach me. You set out to represent your people. What I learned from you was not just how to listen, but more importantly to appreciate how very different individuals can be, even when they are all ostensibly of a type or in the same role. You taught me how it takes time and patience, and the open-minded exchange of questions and views, to hear each other’s uniqueness and individuality.

Auld Acquaintance is not forgot.

But I’m going to close this piece as I started it, with reference to another relatively new acquaintance. The day before yesterday she too disturbed my equilibrium through something she said.[4] She was telling me how she uses that phrase ‘Why should anyone be led by you?’ to encourage leaders that she is coaching to think deep and hard about what they bring to being a leader.[5] It prompted me to think that as a coach I have a similar responsibility to be able to answer the corresponding question, ‘Why should you be coached by me?’

And that, it seems to me, is perhaps the question that the good coach is inviting us all to address, and the question that I have been endeavouring to answer in this blog.

Of course, it is for the coachee to decide whether the answer feels satisfactory, but speaking for myself – and I can’t claim to do any more than that – it has felt useful to set out a more clearly articulated answer for myself and for my prospective coachees to consider.

To connect with Alan Robertson

[1]  Sue Young, The Good Coach,  personal email correspondence
[2] The Rattle Bag is the title of an anthology of personally inspiring poems compiled by the two great poets, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney
[3] I got the image of the coach having to catch up with the journey that the coachee is already on from James Flaherty’s book, ‘Coaching: evoking excellence in others’,  Butterworth-Heinemann, 1999
[4] Credit and thanks for this unexpected provocation go to Gwen Stirling of Seeds of Transformation.
[5] The reference is to the paper, ‘Why should anyone be led by you?’ by Robert Goffee & Gareth Jones in the September-October 2000 issue of Harvard Business review.