The golden threads

The golden threads

During a coaching programme I facilitated, I took a walk in the park with one of the trainees and she talked about the difficulties she may have applying what she was learning in the workplace. She was walking and talking at a really fast pace and I went along with it for a while, but then I stopped her and asked her to stand still and look about and notice her surroundings. She began to observe with a curiosity that had not been there before, and then we set off walking again; this time she walked and talked more slowly and began to make some sense of the issues she was facing. She has told me since that the experience of being slowed and enabling curiosity to gain a foothold has remained with her and influences her own coaching practice. The experience we shared has stayed with me too and I wonder if it provides any clues to a question I’ve been asking myself.

We’ve been writing our next newsletter and Naomi, who is preparing it for us, asked me some interesting questions about coaching in the workplace, which made me think about the range of work I’ve done over the last 40 years. As we chatted about the different types of coaching I’ve been involved in I began to wonder whether there are any golden threads holding it all together. I’m pretty sure there are, and I think I might know what they are.

I started to help children to swim when I was 16 years old, and the guy who mentored me as a swimming coach had very fixed ways of working, which did seem effective, and I did appreciate them, but I was also curious about doing things differently. His approach was to get the children into the water and get them moving about, having a go. But what about the timid ones? I wondered about the children’s emotions, not just their physical actions and I thought they might be able to find their own routes to swim, rather than follow a set programme. A few years later when I taught pioneering parent and child swimming classes I began to encourage parents to get into the water with their children and explore their movement in the water in different ways together, for example by allowing the children to play with toys in the shallow end I found that their own curiosity led them to venture in deeper.

I think curiosity could be one of the golden threads. Whenever I’ve worked with people I’ve always been curious, and it is when the people I’m working with have become curious too that I’ve seen progress. A curiosity shared between the coach and the person being coached is potent.

Sometimes I think 40 plus years of this work have given me a degree of wisdom and at other times I don’t. I still feel a little insecure about what I bring, but I’m also at peace with my uncertainty. I accept I have limitations as a human and I’m not sure that certainty, given our flaws, is always helpful. A good starting point for working together is that neither person is certain of the answers; curiosity can then be allowed to flourish. And so uncertainty is another of the golden threads.

There may be more, but for now I’m happy to have identified that being curious and being uncertain are traits that have served me well. I am sure they will continue to do so.

I am reminded of a poem by Humberto Maturana, and translated by Marcial F. Losada, called Prayer of the Student. I hope it speaks to you as it has to me.


Don’t impose on me what you know.

I want to explore the unknown

And be the source of my own discoveries.

Let the known be my liberation, not my slavery.


The world of your truth can be my limitation;

Your wisdom, my negation.

Don’t instruct me; let’s learn together.

Let my richness begin where yours ends.


Show me so that I can stand

On your shoulders.

Reveal yourself so that I can be

Something different.


You believe that every human being

Can love and create.

I understand, then, your fear

When I ask you to live according to your wisdom.


You will not know who I am

By listening to yourself.

Don’t instruct me; let me be.

Your failure is that I be identical to you.


“Plegaria del Estudiante” (“Prayer of the Student”) by Humberto Maturana, translated by Marcial F. Losada. From El Sentido de lo Humano, Dolmen Deiciones, Santiago de Chile, 1994.

Losada’s translation appeared in Reflections: the SoL Journal, 1999, volume 1, no. 2, p. 66, as part of a commentary on a feature article by Humberto Maturana and Pille Brunnel titled ‘The biology of business: love expands intelligence’, pp.58-66.

By Andy Howie