how to change the world

Me, Socrates, and a young man called Dean

By John-Paul Flintoff

I recently did a talk at TEDx Athens, on How To Change The World. Immediately afterwards, several people from the audience approached me and said something like this: ‘Did you know that what you are doing is a bit like coaching…?’

Actually, yes, I had already realised that – but only because I’d been coached in the summer by a friend who was in training.

I’d discovered that having somebody force you to answer questions about yourself, and actually listen to the answers, can be very powerful.

In my own case, being coached by my friend Fenella Rouse led directly to several significant and satisfying achievements, and to a (slightly) different sense of myself too. I decided to train as a coach, and started to coach people.

In Athens, one of my new Greek friends told me that Socrates, if he was living now, would be working as a coach.

At first, this seemed like a self-serving remark: the woman who said it is a coach herself. But I sensed that there was more to what she said. After all, Socrates is the philosopher who said that the unexamined life is not worth living – and if coaching does anything, it requires us to examine ourselves. Alain de Botton, who founded The School of Life, where I am on the faculty, said something similar when I saw him last: philosophy at its best is a practical aid to living well.

To be clear: coaching is not therapy. It’s about looking at now, and the future, rather than the past. But like therapy, it’s entirely confidential. And this makes it strikingly different from journalism, which I’ve been doing for nearly two decades.

And for several reasons I find that I’m increasingly inclined towards a new way of working with the skills I’ve got.

For instance: last summer, a prominent man I had interviewed for The Sunday Times told me afterwards that, if he had seemed defensive when we met, that was because, “all journalists are friendly, so it’s very hard to tell in advance who will say something rude about you… it’s like meeting someone at a party who then stands on a table, asks everyone to be quiet and then passes public judgement on you.”

It’s very rare for journalists to get this kind of critical feedback from the people we interview. And what that man said made me feel more uncomfortable, believe it or not, than anything dredged up by the Leverson Inquiry. It made me examine my life, as Socrates might have put it.

Now, I have no intention of giving up journalism. But I do feel strongly drawn towards coaching as a means to talk to people, at a deep level, in a way that might actually be helpful to them.

I realise that many people won’t “get it”. I recently sent an email to a friend, and tried to explain my enthusiasm for coaching. His reply was sceptical.

“You want to become a coach, but for what? Talking to you is wonderful, I know, but where should it lead? And someone would pay you?”

Well, yes, people pay – because it’s helpful. They pay because all too often they have nobody else to discuss some things with: a recent study, distressingly, stated that one in four Americans have nobody with whom to share things that are important to them.

A coach is there to listen and encourage, but also to be fiercely critical, as necessary.

Last year, on my first weekend of training as a coach, we were asked to line up somebody willing to be coached in the evening. I had failed to ask anybody, so ventured into the streets nearby – in Hatton Garden. As a journalist, I’m not afraid to approach strangers and ask questions, but few were willing to give me the time. It was early evening, and it was dark, and cold.

So I went into a pub, and looked for anybody sitting alone. I found a young man eating chips, with a pint of beer, who said his girlfriend would be joining him in 15 minutes. I asked if he minded if I sat down, and told him I was training to be a coach, and would like to coach him for ten minutes. I promised that, if his girlfriend arrived early, I would leave.

He can’t have understood what coaching means, but he was very polite, and moved along the sofa for me. His name was Dean. He was 19. He’d worked a little as a builder. I’m not going to tell you what we talked about, but afterwards (as required as part of my training) I asked him to give me a testimonial. Sure, he said.

“You do need somebody to…” he started, then stopped and started again. “You need that little push to open up to someone. Talking to you has made me see the light in my life. You made me think. And I feel like loads of weight has been lifted off my shoulders.”

And I have to say that I’m very happy about that.

Posted: January 2, 2013