Coaching Pro-Tip: Read More Narratives

A new coach in the VBCA[*] world asked me what she should be studying. What, she asked, should she be reading, to get good at promulgating change in her large org?

  • [*] – Very Big Corporation of America, see Monty Python.

She proposed a bunch of topics, including management, psychology, sociology, a variety of geekery sub-topics.

My answer: anything narrative, especially great novels and great history.

She, as you might expect, splutter-laughed.

I have read any number of works in the fields she suggested. I would recommend very few of them. I want to say both why I don’t recommend most of those, and why I do recommend more book whose structure is based around writing great narrative rather than explication.

  • BREAKING: I’m just unwinding into Esther Derby’s new Seven Rules For Positive, Productive Change, which I’m reviewing here and there in my tweetstream. So far, so excellent, and I’m quite likely to add it to my short list of books that would fit my respondent’s first idea.)

I will keep my "reasons against" list section here short. I find criticism a valuable exercise, but that’s because it helps me springboard to new takes, not because it’s so precious and valuable in and of itself. The reasons I rarely recommend books that are "on topic" are these. Few books have all these negative aspects, of course, but a surprising number have quite a few of them.

Such books tend, then, to be:

  1. not really about change
  2. not very well-written
  3. reliant on mono-causal explanations
  4. focused top-down
  5. faux-rational
  6. selling something
  7. mired in the evil-or-stupid theory of resistance
  8. ethically blind
  9. psudeo-scientific.

I am sorry. I realize that’s some very nasty shit to say. I am not going to break that list down any further, and I’m certainly not going to name names. I just wanted to make it clear that I don’t just regard most of it as neutral, but as counter to one’s progress as a coach.

So for crying out loud, let me be more positive and back up my recommendation that way.If you’re a coach, the center of your success is going to be change.

It stands to fairly straightforward reason, then: A successful coach is someone who has a warm rich appreciation of how individuals and groups change over time.

What, then, is the topic of nearly all novels?

An individual or a group changing over a period of time.

What, again, is the topic of nearly all narrative history or biography?

An individual or a group changing over a period of time.

Narrative forms are the only way to see change unfold, and seeing change unfold, lots of seeing it unfold, even way over there, in 19th century russia, or 26th century space, or Mumbai, or anywhere and anytime, is the easiest way to learn how to midwife change here & now.

Novels disdain mono-causation, and revel in watching the forces acting on and being acted upon by their characters. They are often obsessed with ethical consideration. The best ones flood you with characters who are opposed to one another, but neither stupid nor evil.

Narrative history has some of these properties, less so others, but is generally far more focused on the relationship between individuals changing and groups changing, which makes them valuable in another way that novels often downplay. And I recommend both forms for an entirely different reason: obliquity. Obliquity, coming at something from an angle rather than head-on, is one of the most important tools a coach can have in her belt.

Perhaps the most central faux-rational idea of nearly all non-fiction advice about change is this: "Aim at the change and pursue it directly." And you know what? That’s actually pretty lousy advice.

Finally, both forms of narrative will likely make three major insights clear to thoughtful readers.

First, that doubt is good and certainty is highly suspect. Second, that time takes time, and change requires huge reservoirs of patience. Third, that kindness births more change, more lasting change, and more variety of change than any other manner of behavior.

Now, there are exceptions. Of course there are some good books that are on-topic or off-topic-but-very-useful. As I say, I think I’m reading one right now. But most of them just aren’t.

What you’re after, if you’re a coach, is an appreciation for how individuals and groups change over time. That is the purview of novels, some kinds of history, some kinds of biography.

Tuesday evening here, back to the silicon mines tomorrow for me, after a nice two-day trip up to DC to see my third (fourth?) Cirque Du Soleil with 10 of my beloved family.

I hope you have a lovely evening!

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