Tag Archives: Coaching

7 Billion Stories and How to Hear Them

You don’t know what it’s like to lead a school through a global pandemic unless you’ve led a school through a global pandemic.

– a statement to which many of the leaders with whom I work will relate. And it speaks a wider truth: everyone on Earth has a unique pandemic story to tell. Tales of tragedy and transformation; of reflection, resilience or resignation; of anger, of loneliness; of division and unity; selfishness, cruelty and, thankfully, of kindness.

How to Tell a Story

Look to stories that have already been told to find the kind of narrative you need. Booker’s Seven Basic Plots (2004) is one of many frameworks that makes this easier. Booker analyses thousands of tales and argues for a meta-narrative that describes ‘story’ per se, together with 7 plots that keep on cropping up. Your story will be a combination of these seven motifs:

  • Overcoming the monster – defeating an evil force.
  • Rags to riches – gaining power, wealth, success; loosing it; getting it back.
  • Quest – setting out to acquire an important object; facing challenges and temptations.
  • Voyage and return – visiting a strange land; overcoming threats; returning changed.
  • Tragedy – a personal undoing because of a flaw or a mistake.
  • Comedy – concluding happily after twists, turns and misunderstandings.
  • Rebirth – changing ways (for the better) because of a significant event.

And these themes tell our shared, global story of the last 18 months as well: the quest for vaccines to overcome the devastation of COVID-19; the plot twists and muddles as politics, media, social media and science intertwine; and our rebirths as we return to a world changed forever.

How to Hear a Story

I joked recently with a group of specialist teachers I’m training in coaching skills that there are 5 different kinds of listening:

  • Active Listening – paying full attention to meaning.
  • Dialogic Listening – learning through conversation.
  • Discerning listening – gathering specific information.
  • Pub Listening – waiting for the other person to finish speaking so you can say the thing you wanted to say before they started.
  • Family Listening – two or more simultaneous monologues.

They all have their place but the first three offer real value to the speaker. If you’ve ever been able to just talk freely, confidentially, without judgement and without expectation; if you’ve been heard, really heard, by another person then you’ll know the power of that kind of exchange.

Telling your story and having it authentically heard can be affirming, healing and empowering.

Whose story will you hear? And to whom will you tell yours?

Knowledge is Dead. Long Live Knowledge.

I’m walking in the country with R. It’s a professional catch up. Executive coaching. (Coaching walks really work, try them). We’ve each got a Starbucks, black Americano, 4 shots. The sun is out, the air is clear.

We cut through bushes and emerge to find 40 beech trees spaced evenly and set in two parallel lines – just over 2 meters apart – stretching left and right. The trunks are too wide for us to reach around; they must be 150-200 years old. Looking up, the canopy is pastel green and sunlight washes through.

There is intent here, there is purpose. Someone, along time ago, decided to plant these trees – right here and in parallel lines. A car would fit between them and maybe, when the trees were younger, two carts could pass.

The trees are on a ridge. To the east is an ancient track, to the west an abandoned military camp. Neither offer any clues but our curiosity is peaked. We want to know – need to know – who planted these trees, when they did it and why.

We ask a man walking his dog. He doesn’t know. A phone search brings up nothing. As experienced educators it’s unspoken that neither of us will now rest until we have this knowledge. This is necessary knowledge.

We plan some blended, lockdown-ready learning for R.’s primary learners:

  1. Study trees. Become beech experts. Have 10 key facts to hand. Learn through expert lectures, online research, reading. Be ready.
  2. Visit ‘Beech Avenue’ (school visit or streamed live). Apply your knowledge. Come at the task visually, linguistically, existentially, mathematically, alone, in groups.
  3. Get creative. If you walk the full length of Beech Avenue, where will you be transported? If the trees talk when we leave, what will they say? What have these trees seen?
  4. Develop the absolute best question you can about Beech Avenue.
  5. Back at school, or at home, seek out local history experts. Zoom Q&A. Locals who’ve moved away are now within reach.
  6. Present learning live, online, face to face – whatever works best.
  7. Review the project. What do we now know and how does it connect to what we already knew and want to know next? How will we remember it? What skills did we need? What attitudes did we need for this?

COVID has forced us online. It’s forced us to consider how we teach.

If you taught in ‘way A’ before lockdown, you’ll probably seek out tools online to teach in ‘way A’. If you taught in ‘way B’ before lockdown, likewise, you’ll seek out tools online to teach in ‘way B’.

What if online offers way C? What are going to do?

The majority of the children whose futures you are nurturing will be alive when the years begin with ’21’. We’re going to need a pretty strong evidence base to continue to use teaching methods that dominated when the years started with ’19’ or even ’20’.

Let’s make the future work:

ZoomConTwo: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/113956159942

Was Freud an AI Coach?


At the End of the Couch

This is Sigmund Freud’s coach. Sorry, couch, bit of a slip there. It’s in The Freud Museum so you can’t sit on it. But look carefully and you’ll see where he sat: that’s it, at the end, on the green chair, in a place where his clients (patients) couldn’t see him.

Imagine Fräulein Katharina reclining here in the 1920s; Freud sketching out her childhood on a note pad. Or Sergei Pankejeff, the Wolf Man, haunted by a dream of white wolves sitting in a tree. Four years’ regular analysis with Freud dug up poor Sergei’s  memory of barging in on his parents – who happened to be busy at the time copulating in a canine fashion. Hence the dream. To help him cope. Allegedly.

Freud’s work was hugely influential; foundational to psychoanalysis and other techniques of personal emancipation and growth. And although he was wrong about some things, he remains lodged in our cultural memory like Einstein, Ghandi or Harry Styles.

Face to Face

But that green chair still bothers me. I like to see my clients when I’m coaching. We sit face to face, side by side, or at any angle allowed by the independent coffee shop. I see the subtle non-verbals – a micro expression here, an eye movement there, an intake of breath or a tilt of the head. It all means something and it’s all grist to the coaching mill. But Freud ignored that.  He might as well have been on the phone. Or chatting online. Did he need to even be in the room? Which brings me to AI (artificial intelligence).


Last week I had my first coaching session with PocketConfidant. PC isn’t human. PC chats with me online. PC is an Artificial Intelligence. An AI coach. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation. At this point I’m telling her about times when I’m most productive:

PC: Talking about the context of your situation, where and when does it happen?

Me: So, it’s when I’m truly free, I feel autonomous – which is rare – but that’s when I am fully occupied and I don’t feel other responsibilities.

PC: How are you impacted by this experience?

Me: I don’t know. Wanting it more? Questioning where I am? Yes, it makes me hungry for freedom to work in new ways.

PC: If we dig a little deeper, tell me what do you really want?

I chatted with PC for 20 minutes. By 10 it felt like I was on line to a fellow coach. I gained a couple of insights of equal significance to those I’d normally expect with my own professional supervisor.  There were a few lumps and bumps in the conversation but overall it was extremely effective. I loved it. So I sought out PC’s creator – Olivier Malafronte from PocketConfidant to find out more. Hear me chatting with Olivier about AI coaching and the fascinating questions it poses.

Whose Agenda?

I’m beginning to see why PC works. Coaching mantra #101: ‘It’s your client’s agenda; pause your own’. Coaches listen, challenge, reflect, but they never advise. That needs discipline when you have a solution and your client is struggling (Coaching mantra #102: ‘Trust the process.’) PC doesn’t have an agenda. She can’t; she’s not conscious. She’s just a very clever piece of code that’s learning all the time. You know she’s not steering you towards her goals; she’s using tough questions to help you reach yours. Every session she completes makes her better for the next time. And one day, Olivier tells me, she will speak.


If you are a coach you might now be getting twitchy about your job. What happens when PC is better than you? And cheaper. And available 24-7, 365. And 100% trustworthy (within the limits of bank-level security and above). Don’t worry yet. That’s not going to happen any time soon, if at all. AI experts disagree about when artificial intelligence will surpass human. Predictions start at 10-20 years (not going to happen) to never, with 100 years hence being a popular bet. And what if in 2118 this super coach gets free and decides the best way to ensure #101 (the agenda one) is to remove all agendas by destroying the planet? Again, don’t loose sleep over this. One of the biggest sub branches of AI is safety research, a discipline that grapples with the practical and existential issues of keeping friendly (and unfriendly) AI on the leash.

Augment not Replace

For now PC is used to augment human coaching in three ways:

  1. To prepare for a session – the client works with PC to discover themes for their human coaching.
  2. During a session to seek clarity – the client pauses a session and uses PC to explore a difficult topic.
  3. After or between sessions  – the client checks in with PC to develop the work.

So, maybe Freud was right to stay at the end of the coach. Sorry, couch. Maybe that kept his agenda right out of his clients’ faces so they could become more by talking more? Maybe a non-judgmental, trusted AI is what we need.

I wonder how far we will allow AIs to help us become more human?