The power of a no agenda

Mr B_____ hates me. 

We’re sitting in the afternoon sun in a corner classroom of our small East London secondary school, shading in segments of a giant colouring mat. S., a year 8 student in my coaching group, is matter-of-fact, but certain, her colouring pencil angrily working away at the smiling satsuma on the mat in front of us. I nod, but don’t speak. I’ve been working on my 1-1 coaching tirelessly for the past 4 months, trying to hone my listening, my questioning, my solution, opinion and agenda-free role. It’s pretty hard. We’ve had a year of relatively dead-end conversations already, me blurred with opinions, full of well-intentioned beliefs about what she needs, wants, should be or do, her happy to talk, but never really being heard. She continues. 

He’s always picking on me and I don’t really know the reason why.  I asked him why and he said something about how he always picks on everyone. This one day my whole group got a group star. He didn’t put my name on even though I am the group leader. It was one lesson when I put my hand up to ask a question and Mr B______ ignored me.  Five seconds later, J______ put his hands up and Mr B_____ said something like ‘How could I forget you?’ and J_______ asked his question and Mr B______ answered it. I said  ‘How comes you didn’t answer my question’.  And afterwards he put my name on the bad side with no crosses and he was all like ‘Why are you shouting out’.  It was ‘When was the best time to be a child’ project and we were asking questions on different children around the country and their toys and that. I was thinking he’s rude. Everytime I ask a question  he says put my hand down but if it’s other people he will answer their questions. 

I read back to her the verbatim narrative that I have just typed as she spoke, checking she is happy that I haven’t missed anything, or added anything she didn’t say. We stare at it together. We know what we are looking for, as we’ve practiced this now several times. In our coaching group, we’ve been looking at the defining narratives our opinions give us, how these imprints of the past can control our present, and how, by removing the opinion to leave only the facts of a situation, we can throw a new light on a context and see it differently. She takes the lead, talking through and crossing out all opinions and feelings.  

Mr B_______ hates me. He’s always picking on me and I don’t really know the reason why.  I asked him why and he said something about how he always picks on everyone.   This one day my whole group got a group star. He didn’t put my name on even though I am the group leader. It was one lesson when I put my hand up to ask a question and Mr B_______ ignored me.  Five seconds later, J______ put his hands up and Mr B______ said something like ‘How could I forget you?’ and J______ asked his question and Mr B______ answered it. I said  ‘How comes you didn’t answer my question’.  And afterwards he put my name on the bad side with no crosses and he was all like ‘Why are you shouting out’.  It was ‘When was the best time to be a child’ project and we were asking questions on different children around the country and their toys and that. I was thinking he’s rude. Everytime I ask a question  he says put my hand down but if it’s other people he will answer their questions. 

From this we talk about the shifted context, and change in meanings she attaches to this incident and therefore their relationship. I manage, for the short 20 minutes of our conversation, to ask, not tell, and call myself out internally when I catch myself listening to my own thoughts and opinions rather than her words.  

She sighs. He doesn’t hate me, does he?, she mutters, more to herself than me. I need to tell him how I feel about this

In that moment, it was a small breakthrough for S.; a dissipation of pent up anger, and a way forward. But for our coaching relationship, now almost 3 years on from this, and for my listening skills, it was huge. And the learning? The power of no agenda.