Maybe you know Chris Morris through his writings on coaching. You might have heard about his involvement in politics, as a consultant and speech writer. That had its origins in his youthful activism, which was instrumental in securing equal age of consent for gays. Chris himself was a teenager at the time. By his early 20s he’d made a million. Pretty impressive by any standard. For someone coming from a background of care homes, unexpected too. He’s interested in NLP, and I’ve got to know him through some of the trainings he’s put on. If you can see a promoter’s personality reflected in the choice of events they promote, Chris is an idiosyncratic iconoclast with a commitment to innovation, at least where it improves on what went before. Just the sort of person I wanted to interview in fact…
What do you believe accounts for the growth of coaching as a phenomenon?
I think coaching is about holding the space for someone to reveal themselves to themselves. Leaders have always done that; so have good teachers, friends and mentors. Pythagoras was a kind of coach. Now I think more people like me are calling it coaching and we’re doing it with focus, rather than as part of another role. All kinds of people are interested in coaching now and I think that’s great. As with any profession, some coaches are doing better than others. The big coaching schools are promoting coaching as an easy way to make a fast buck and they certify dozens of new people every month. Lots of people are out there creating a buzz with their new business cards and websites. They are talking about coaching on the radio, writing books and making podcasts. That’s where the growth is and I wish all those people well. I used to cringe when I saw what some other coaches were doing, but I’ve got over that. They’re them and I’m me. I think everyone can benefit from some kind of coaching and that’s a lot of demand. I describe my work in different ways and I work in different ways with different people. My political clients often think of me as a political consultant and some people think of me as a therapist. The labels change but what works is when you see people as they really are and hold the space for them to see themselves that way too. I think the rest is decoration.
If you hadn’t come across coaching in its current form as a profession, what would you be doing with your life?
I don’t know. I got into coaching by mistake because I used to write speeches for politicians and I kept asking what they were really trying to say. Being a speechwriter is a lot about knowing what someone is trying to communicate and projecting that into a future context. That means getting inside someone’s head and when I learnt to do that well I found I could use it for much more than speechwriting. Most of my clients are still politicians because that’s the area I’m known in.
Being pivotal to equalising age of consent for young gays is an amazing accomplishment, and you were a teenager at the time. I wonder if that’s inclined you to your current stance, which comes across as more about supporting people to ‘be’ their best rather than ‘do’ their best.
I think we always do the best we know how to do, based on who we think we are. If we don’t like ourselves, it doesn’t seem to matter what we achieve. We’ll probably think it was a fluke anyway. When I was 19, I was allowed into the House of Commons chamber during recess and I stood behind the dispatch box where ministers and prime ministers usually stand. I only remember feeling terribly uncomfortable. I thought it must be a mistake. I must have misled the MP I was working for; he’d never have arranged it for me if he knew the real me. Who was I to stand where great men and women had stood? I was nothing, nobody. So it could have been a magic moment for me but I walked away feeling even smaller than I had arrived. I had so many experiences like that around the same time. I did three big interviews on Newsnight before I was 21 – some people would call that an achievement. But if you look back at those clips now, you’ll see an unhappy boy with an affected voice, trying desperately to be something more than he thought he was. I kept waiting for them to realise they’d made a mistake by inviting me. No achievement felt like an achievement. I had hundreds of letters from people saying my campaign had inspired them to live more truthfully, and I thought thank goodness I wore the tight top because that’s the only reason they like me. In hindsight, I laugh. I’m not allowed in the House of Commons chamber these days but I’d love to stand behind that dispatch box and I love being anywhere else in that building and anywhere else in the world. I know who I am and I love myself in a good way. There’s nowhere I can’t be. Success is inevitable now. That’s why I think being is more important than doing.
Something that comes through in the way you describe your coaching now is the notion of ‘holding a space’ in which people can choose to change. What does this mean in practice? I have memories of an event where one of the facilitators had the specific role of ‘holding the audience in unconditional positive regard’, which meant a beatific smile and a collarless shirt. The implication was also that we were only worthy of unconditional positive regard in his presence. I’m confident based on experience that ‘holding a space’ is something real for you, but there’s a danger that it could become like ‘unconditional positive regard’ in the wrong hands, and heart. How can others learn to do so, without starting the same old merry go-round that led to NLP pyramid schemes and other personal development get rich quick scams?
We label experiences with language, and language can’t really describe experiences, and especially it can’t describe experiences we haven’t had. We deal so much in words. But once you know beyond doubt that I care about you the same way I care about my sister, then we still wouldn’t have the words to talk about it and I think you’d get what I mean. It’s not about being friendly. I’m not a fluffy guy. And it’s not a technique. It’s not something to do. So I fear that’s a wholly inadequate answer and I hope that if you ask me again in a year I’ll have a better one, but for now it’s one of those “let me show you not tell you” situations.
You say you’d love to stand behind the dispatch box…is that something you can imagine as part of your future? And if not, where would you like to direct your attention in the next few years?
I’m not fond of the limelight and I think the nature of politics will change a lot in my lifetime. My attention is moving towards corporate work while still focussing on loving kindness. Bill Cumming recently tried something out with a big insurance firm in America and if they could replicate those results with even 10% of their people, they realised it would add $4,000,000,000 to their bottom line. That’s a pretty big incentive for them to change the world in many positive ways that would also benefit their business. Robert Holden, another dear friend and mentor, works with companies like Virgin and Dove. Have you seen Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign? That idea arose from a conversation about what they really want to create in the world, more than money. Their viral videos about Real Beauty are truly beautiful.
While you’re passionate about personal change, you’ve also expressed that you’ve ‘grown up’ regarding Gulf War protests. That’s an implied putdown of those who were against the conflict, as many involved in personal development are or would have been. Are you a utopian and realist at the same time, or are you about to demonstrate another way of looking at this?
When I say I’ve grown up, that’s only about me and I don’t mean to imply anything about anyone else’s reasons for supporting or opposing the war. You and I may agree that The Matrix is a good film and we may each think it’s good for different reasons. I only know my own experience. When I protested against the war, it was because I didn’t want people to die and especially I didn’t want them to die ‘in my name’. I live near a barracks and frankly it scared me to think of those guys flying away to kill people. In hindsight, that feels like an immature perspective. Very few people ever want a war. The question is whether we want the alternatives more or less. It’s not simple and I don’t intend to make the case for war. But remember there were heavy sanctions on Iraq for many years before the war. Innocent people were already dying under Saddam Hussain’s corrupt and violent regime. Let’s not go into too much detail about how the wives and daughters of political dissidents were raped by soldiers and by dogs. So I don’t think it’s enough to be against the war. What would you have done instead? I always ask people that and they go quiet. It’s difficult and ‘give diplomacy a chance’ isn’t a good enough answer. The situation was dire for millions of our fellow human beings. War is hard to stomach but many lives are better now because of those guys from the barracks and many like them.
Part 2 of this interview follows.