Everyone needs a theory

Picture of a white rabbit


I think everyone needs a theory to play around with. Something that interests you, an idea you are working on and like to share with other people. A ‘what if’ question perhaps, or a conviction about something you cannot quite explain, so you like to put it to other people, or spend time thinking about by yourself.

Perhaps the theory that everyone needs a theory is my theory.

So why do I think everyone need a theory? Let me count the ways.

Argument 1: Having a personal theory primes the mind to look for evidence

That’s evidence to support or to undermine your theory, by the way. It’s not just something to keep your mind occupied with something interesting when you are bored, it’s good brain exercise too. Through neuroscience we learn more and more about how the brain works, including that exercising it regularly is good for it.

Neuroplasticity is one of the current themes in coaching. It refers to the brain’s ability to create new neural pathways in the brain if old ones have fallen out of use, for example through brain injury. In coaching we often work with individuals who wish to adopt new and more effective behaviours, and find it hard to let go of old ones. In this case, neuroplasticity refers to consciously creating new neural pathways in an effort to overwrite ones we no longer wish to use.

Training your brain to be curious, open to new ideas and literally flexible about applying new knowledge – by also looking for evidence that disproves your theory, not just the stuff you want to hear – might come in handy when the going gets a little tougher.

Argument 2: it’s a great way to practice argumentation

If we have had the pleasure to meet, you’ll know I love a good argument. I learned a lot about the art of argumentation as a student activist in Amsterdam, including what it takes to get your argument respectfully yet clearly heard in the din of clashing interests, and the great satisfaction to be had when you become utterly convinced by someone else’s argument.

My own weird and (I think anyway) wonderful theory is that rabbits are essentially small horses, if you allow yourself not to be distracted by the obvious physical differences. I’ve put this theory to horse loving people, rabbit fanciers, a zoologist friend who has both a horse and rabbits, park wardens at Shotover Park in Oxford, wildlife broadcaster Stuart Mabbutt, and random people in the queue in the Coop/train station/my local.

The result of this un-scientific research is that my zoologist friend disagrees with me, the park wardens in Shotover Park warmed to the idea and decided to ponder it more, while the theory – perhaps unsuprisingly – seems to get a lot of traction in the pub. Each time I’ve had to pitch my theory differently, and received vastly different ideas back in return, shaping my theory further.

Argument 3: develop your relationships

Each time I’ve shared my theory with people, I’ve done so on purpose. I might have been in the mood for it, but sometimes I’ve chosen it deliberately to show a different side of me to someone.

My work with coaching clients is very boundaried when it comes to use of self, as we call this in coaching. Coaching isn’t about the coach, and with a few notable exceptions I will hold my opinions so that my client can form their own in the company of a skilled listener instead. At the same time I also need to build personal rapport with each client, so being too distant isn’t a good thing, in particular in the earlier stages and when the more challenging stage of the intervention has arrived.

Sharing my horse-rabbit theory with a client serves a few purposes: it shows another side of me, a more personal one, and this can be welcome. It also models risk taking and vulnerability; after all, it is a pretty daft theory to most people! But above all, it invites curiosity and questions, and sometimes I find myself faced with someone who finds it difficult to question others. Making the topic to be questioned a pretty out there one and not at all resembling anything the client themselves struggles to engage with has helped one or two people to give their curiosity free rein and ask away.

Argument 4: for fun

Everyone needs a theory for fun, too. Whether you’re the introverted type who enjoys pondering a question or an extravert who loves the input of others, having your own, slightly nuts theory is just good fun. Your brain is not just for work purposes you know!

So, on that note, what’s your madcap theory?


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