Book review: Are You Listening? Stories from a Coaching Life, by Jenny Rogers. 2021, Penguin.
Are You Listening? by Jenny Rogers is a collection of stories from her 30 years as a coaching professional. It occupies a similar place in relation to coaching as do, to psychotherapy, Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life or Irvin Yalom’s Love’s Executioner.
Given that Rogers is a doyenne of the profession, you might expect this book to be a catalogue of triumphant interventions. There are successes, but it’s more nuanced than that. She shares the compromises and failings that are inevitable companions on a coaching journey.
On Tuesday afternoon, a friend in Boston emailed to acknowledge that my country was now officially more embarrassing than his. This had been a bone of contention between us: him cringing at how Trump was eviscerating the reputation of the United States; me pointing to Brexit. But the elevation of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson to Prime Minister of the UK had tipped the scales in our favour. Thus was my attempted sabbatical from political engagement brought to an unwelcome end.
On Wednesday, I had a disturbed night. I kept waking to the anxious residues of Johnson’s first day in office, as I absorbed the seizure of government by a clique of “nepotists, chancers, fools, flunkeys, flatterers, hypocrites, braggarts and whiners“ – as Nick Cohen put it, with uncharacteristic understatement.
When you begin work with a coach, the first session can have a significant influence on the how the coaching programme as a whole plays out. It is the coach’s responsibility to facilitate a constructive session. But, for a client, it can by useful to understand the potential dynamics of your first session. This can help you both to evaluate how your coach is doing and to optimise your contribution to making the coaching a success.
For many coaches, their main objective in the first session is to establish rapport with the client and the foundation of a relationship based on mutual trust and respect. You might be forgiven for bringing a little scepticism to such aspirations. Is there any kind of professional who wouldn’t claim to aspire to trust and rapport with their clients? Coaching is different, though. Professions such as lawyers, doctors, architects even many kinds of therapist, are trading on the expertise that they can apply to fixing a client’s problem. This implies a degree of inherent disrespect for their clients – that is to say, a conviction that the client lacks resources to address their issue. Coaches’ expertise is not applied to solving a client’s problem but to helping the client find their own strategy or solution to whatever challenge they face. In short, they trust the client’s resourcefulness, the client’s expertise in their own situation.
How is personal development achieved? It’s a concept that is central to coaching, an assumed outcome for both coach and client. But the ways in which coaching supports personal development are not clearly understood by clients – at least when they first contemplate coaching. This is partly because of the way coaches market what they do.
Before you work with a coach, you should aim to meet two or three before deciding which to appoint. In part 3 of this series, I argued that you should never be choosing from a field of one.
When it comes to the meeting, your main purpose is to establish whether there is the potential for a good working connection between you both. At one level, this is a job interview and you are the recruiter. There is a certain amount that you have to ascertain in order to make an informed decision. You have to be clear in advance what information you need to get out of the meeting.
Coaching is a young profession and not well understood. The barriers to entry are low and the standards and methodologies variable. No surprise, then, that I find that people who approach me for coaching often have little idea what to expect.
So this is the first of a series of posts for people who are thinking of working with a coach. It will try to shed light on what coaching is and how to use a coach. Among other things, we’ll look at criteria to use when choosing a coach and how to get the best out of coaching once you begin. But we’ll start with exploring how coaching can help you and when it might benefit you to work with a coach.
Let’s try first of all to pin down what coaching is – a surprisingly difficult question to answer. If you have explored coaching at all, you will have found that no-one ever seems to call themselves simply a coach. There are life coaches and executive coaches, NLP coaches, ontological coaches, co-active coaches, performance coaches, wellbeing coaches, fertility coaches. I could go on. I don’t intend to get into the distinctions in approach between the various methodologies or niches within the profession. Having explored a variety of philosophical traditions in coaching, I can see that they all offer a certain wisdom. I’m more interested here in some of the common factors which underlie coaching, whatever tradition in which it’s rooted. The reason for this is that, for prospective clients, the label given to a particular kind of coaching is less important than the quality and professionalism that a coach has to offer.