On days when I struggle to write anything, I console myself by remembering that Socrates wrote nothing down, either, and he was still remembered by devoted pupils such as Plato.
My intention for this blog is to jumpstart a series of reflections on what Philosophers teach us about Coaching.
Where better to start than with the OG himself, the philosopher after whom an entire dialoguing method is named?
Socrates was remembered for his character. He was remembered for how he impacted others. And as the father of Socratic inquiry, which is really at the heart of any kind of facilitated dialogue, I might argue that he is the father of what we call “coaching” today.
Let’s meditate on this fact for a beat longer: Socrates was remembered for his impact on others.
One of the things I struggled mightily with in becoming a coach was that my effectiveness was not based on intellectual mastery of material, remembering content, or test-taking. It was based on my ability to integrate the teachings and respond to my client in the moment.
This could be framed as a test on Character – how attuned are you to your client? How do you make them feel? What impact do you have on the relational space?
For a math and philosophy major, this was – to put it mildly – unfamiliar territory.
Passing an examination does not make you a good coach. It may be necessary, but it is not sufficient. In fact, you could ace a board exam and still be an extremely ineffective coach. There is almost no correlation between test scores and coaching competency, except to show that a baseline level of knowledge about ethics and practice has been intellectually understood.
The frustrating, wonderful thing about Coaching is that effectiveness is 100% dependent on the Coach’s own self-development. The more inner work you do, the more inner challenging of assumptions, the more transformation you embark on, the better you will be able to serve and catapult others to a new mindset, an “aha moment,” or a next step.
This is a big ask. It’s essentially asking the coach to role model, to walk the talk, to “be the change they wish to see in the world.”
This charge to “walk the talk” can sometimes lead coaches down an interesting rabbit hole — In health coaching, for example (my initial coaching certification), I sometimes hear a voice in my head jeering, “If I’m struggling with a gut issue now, does that make me an imposter? Am I a bad coach because I can’t even figure my own body out?” and sometimes I have to pull myself out of that black hole of criticism and back into joining the human race.
Role modeling doesn’t mean becoming grandiose and untouchable. It just means holding yourself with integrity, honesty, and dignity, in the same way that you would expect your clients to. You would probably also give your clients loads of compassion, so it could mean speaking to yourself in that same way.
If he had wanted, Socrates could have indulged his desires to have a physical relationship with his students. I wasn’t there, but I hear it was fairly common in ancient Athens. But according to the records we have, it seems he did not, because he understood that his students would not learn virtue and self-regulation from a person who did not demonstrate it (Melchert, 63).
The coaching mindset can be mostly summarized with one word: curiosity. Socrates is famous for saying “I don’t know.” He is not there to educate you or tell you what virtue is, or piety, or excellence. Similarly, a coach is not there to tell you what to do, how to be healthy, what to eat, what friends to keep and break up with, etc. The coach holds a posture of care and curiosity, assuming that the client has the answers within, and that all we have to do is evoke them. Like Socrates, we are assuming that there is a truth to get at. However, in a client-centered interaction, that truth may be more subjectively belonging to the client that in some shared reality with the coach. That’s a question I’ll need to think about for longer.
Of course, the efficacy of a dialectical approach rests on each person being sincere and communicating authentically, only saying what they honestly believe. In this way, Socrates believed we could get at the truth.
One of my dear mentors, Karen Lawson (a sage in herself with both conventional medical training and training in homeopathy and shamanism), wisely placed “Authentic Communication” in her four pillars of Coaching. This theme of authenticity struck me as so critical to forward momentum in coaching that I wrote my Capstone on it.
Even Pema Chodron is clear in her teachings about the importance of being honest with ourselves. Many wise teachers have emphasized this point about being sincere.
Stay tuned for my next post, where I explain how Challenging a person’s beliefs can be an act of love.
Looking for well-being coaching with a philosophical angle? Set up a call.
Melchert, N. (2007). The Great Conversation, 5th Ed.: A Historical Introduction to Philosophy