What if… historians were coaches?

Remember in my very first post I said I’d write another one about the interesting conundrum of being both a coach and a historian? Well, here it is!

Once upon a time - written in coffeeI said then that, although the combination is unusual, as far as I’m concerned ‘coach’ and ‘historian’ are actually two sides of the same coin. It’s that ‘relatedness’ that I’d like to tease out here. In the process I’ll be comparing and contrasting both ‘callings’ in a way which (in my view at least) puts into relief two sets of key commonalities that lie at the core of what it means to be a coach and what it means to be a historian.


1. Listening and observation

Does it sound strange to say that at the heart of what a historian ‘does’ are listening and observation? After all, it goes without saying that if you specialise (as I do) in periods beyond living memory, you’re not going to find yourself sitting around ruminating over a cup of tea with the people you’re hoping to study any time soon. In that respect, coaches have it easy. Coachees come rolling into the room and we can sit and listen to them to our heart’s content. We can even ask them a few questions and expect to get more than a few answers!

But hang on a minute. That’s not all there is to it. As a coach, I don’t just listen to the words as presented. What is the story behind the words? I’m alive to non-verbal cues. I’m looking at facial expression, body language. I’m listening to what isn’t said. If there is conversation, I’m taking in the kinds of words that are used. What do they transmit in terms of attitude? How is this person viewing him- or herself, how is he or she viewing everyone else? What is the reality of his or her context? And what I have here is only one (albeit very important) side of this story…

That’s not the end of it. Whilst I’m basking in the joys of coaching, I need to remember what I myself bring to the party. How do I affect the proceedings by the attitudes I exhibit, the way I relate to the coachee, the way in which I may or may not fall into asking ‘leading’ questions…? Can I park myself and my foibles outside the room when I’m a coach? What agendas might I be bringing in with me?

Oh dear! Did I say that coaches have it easy? Hmm…

Dog coming out of bookIs all this not pretty much the same for a historian? As a historian, I’m not in a position to take very much for granted. I can only learn from the materials that are available, and they may be very few. Letters, diaries, maybe surviving oral histories produced by the individuals concerned or people who knew them… Plus institutional records, the odd census… I can also attempt to contextualise the individual by absorbing all I can about the period and place in which they lived…

As a historian, I’m aware that I need to keep my eyes open and read between the lines, but I also have the advantage of being forced to accept that I’m attempting to dive into a different world of the past. Therefore I know (if I’m worth my salt) that I need to beware of imposing my own views and values on the material. “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” * The same might be said of coachees. We always need to remember that everyone has their own point of view… Deep down the coachee knows what is best for his or her own particular situation…

Photographs in wooden boxA picture of a coachee can be built up using her or his words, imagery, and a variety of wider contextual details. The same is true for some person (or period) in the past. What am I doing in both these scenarios but listening and observing? I feel a bit of an eavesdropper when reading personal letters or diaries. The voices can be heard loud and clear. We don’t have to go far back in time to find eras when the ‘ordinary citizen’ wasn’t writing for posterity. If they were from certain religious communities they might have been indulging in the equivalent of ‘journaling’, recording their periods of spiritual crisis, introspection and self-doubt.

As a coach I subscribe to an ethic of responsibility buttressed by confidentiality with respect to client information. As a historian I feel a duty to be responsible even if it’s my job to make ‘public’ the information to build a picture that aids wider understanding. My focus has been on what we might call ‘ordinary people’. I have to confess I’ve thought twice when dealing with some archives, and quietly omitted to exploit a particular letter or page, or failed to record a particular name…

In my view, dead or alive, personage from the past or living coachee, individuals deserve not to be exploited, and to be treated with respect…

2. Being faithful to and reflecting back the sources

What are sources? And what does it mean to be faithful to them?

As a coach, my role is to facilitate the coachee in tapping his or her own inner wisdom to find the answer to whatever it is he or she needs to solve. That means probing – listening intently, questioning, taking in what the coachee actually says (not what I think he or she said). It means reflecting that picture back to the coachee to check I’ve understood correctly and to help illuminate the consistencies and/or inconsistencies of which the coachee may not be aware. This is working with my sources, and the quality of my listening and reflecting back is the measure of my faithfulness to them.

cartoon head with judgemental words insideAs a historian I do pretty much the same. I ‘listen to’ the documents and absorb what they have to tell me. But I need to be even more careful in the process to be faithful. I no longer have the opportunity to reflect back to the originator of those sources; I can no longer arrange one more question and answer session. Just as a coach is duty-bound not to prejudge any coachee, so should a historian do her or his best not to interpret the sources through the lens of his or her own prejudices. As with coaches, it is well nigh impossible to achieve this with 100% success, but the genuineness of the attempt at minimising the effects of prejudice and subjectivity is what matters.

Coaches hone their craft through a valuable process of self-reflection. My experience as a coach causes me to wish that historians were trained to do the same. After all, we have in our hands what remains of the lives and reputations of people who can no longer defend themselves. We owe it to them and their descendants to approach our work with the level of self-insight and humility that any good coach brings to her or his coaching relationships…

So to me, being a coach who is also a historian makes absolute sense. The one reinforces the other. My coaching skills influence how I ‘do’ my history, helping me become clearer and more ‘responsible’ in how I work…

* The quotation is from the novel The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley


One thought on “What if… historians were coaches?

  1. Pingback: Why another blog, and why me? | Newbycoach thoughts

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