Socrates is the Father of Coaching!

By Maria Koropecky, Wellness Coach

Have you ever wondered why all of a sudden, more and more people are calling themselves coaches these days? Where were all of the Life Coaches, Spiritual Coaches, Career Coaches, Leadership Coaches, and Health & Wellness Coaches even 20 years ago, back in the 1900’s?

While there are plenty of socio-economic reasons that address why we’re big into coaching these days (which I won’t get into in this blog post), would it surprise you to learn that coaching has actually been around for 2500 years?

Although the modern coaching profession is booming these days with many people throwing their hat into the ring, the roots of coaching, as practiced today, can be traced, in my opinion, all the way back to Socrates and his Socratic Method.

I said, “the roots of coaching” and not “actual coaching” as we know it today, because there is ONE BIG DIFFERENCE that I’ll get to in a minute. So stay with me.

This Socratic insight dawned on me while I was watching the BBC TV series, “Genius of the Ancient World,” a show where historian Bettany Hughes investigates three giants of ancient philosophy – Buddha, Confucious, and Socrates.

“By daring to think the unthinkable, [Socrates, Buddha, and Confucious] laid the foundations of our modern world. I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that these men, who lived many thousands of miles apart, seemed spontaneously and within 100 years of one another, to come up with such radical ideas. So, what was going on? I want to investigate their revolutionary ideas – to understand what set them in motion. This time, Socrates,” ~ Bettany Hughes.

I had my own aha moment while watching the episode where Bettany travels to Greece to learn about wise Socrates, a man who lived 2500 years ago in Athens, during a time of tremendous upheaval and transformation.

I realized that during my coaching training at the Rayner Institute in 2015, I was actually learning a version of the Socratic Method! So, in my mind, Socrates was the first Spiritual and Life Coach! To me, Socrates is the father of modern coaching!

A little bit about Socrates

The son of a midwife and stonemason, Socrates was born in 469 BC and grew up in the suburbs of Athens, Greece, during a time of great social unrest.

Socrates believed that living a virtuous, happy, and flourishing life was within reach. He emphasized the importance of caring about wisdom and truth and improvement of the soul, rather than seeking status and stuff.

He favoured oral communication over writing.

He was all about asking good questions.

He also “played the fool” in the sense that he didn’t pretend to know more than the person he was talking with, which allowed them to have their own insights.

Socrates also said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Here’s a look at the Socratic Method in play

Fortunately, in case you missed the airing of “Genius of the Ancient World” on TV, you can still watch the whole video on YouTube.

The whole hour is very interesting but if you don’t have time to watch from beginning to end, I recommend starting at minute 24:42 when Brittany (BH) has a conversation with writer, Apostolos Doxiadis, (AD), who in effect plays the role of Socrates.

Here’s the 5-6 minute transcript:

Bettany Hughes narrating: “His Socratic method worked something like this – Socrates would engage someone in the street… He’d ask them an ethical question… The person would attempt to define the concept, but Socrates would find inconsistencies in their answers… They would be forced to withdraw their definition and to reformulate and refine their ideas… This process would spiral into a dizzying round of question and answer. Socrates likens his role to that of a midwife, who helps to nurture and deliver the thoughts of others. But it was never an easy birth.”

Minute 24:42. AD: “So, Bettany, I understand you’re here to do a documentary about Socrates.”

BH: Yes.

AD: Why are you making this documentary?

BH: “I can learn something more about Socrates and I can share that knowledge with the people who are watching it.”

AD: “These are big words – ‘knowledge’ and ‘truth.’ Shall we take one of them? What would it mean…? So what is this thing – knowledge – that you want to impart?”

BH: “In my book, knowledge is love of what it is to be human.”

AD: “So, knowledge is love?”

BH: “Yeah.”

A.D: “OK. So, if you wanted to have an operation for an appendicitis, would you go to a woman who was full of love, but knew nothing about surgery?”

BH: “No!”

AD: “OK, So I would say that the definition of “knowledge as love” is not good enough. So, let’s try it again. Is there one kind of knowledge, or many kinds of knowledge?”

BH: “Knowledge is one thing…”

AD: “Take your time. I don’t know the answers to this.”

BH: “Maybe knowledge is one thing, but knowing is many things.

AD: “To know how the stars move and to know how the liver operates is the same thing?”

BH. “No, they’re not the same thing.”

AD: “Does the person who possesses knowledge in the big way know everything? Between those two, who is probably the best stone maker?”

BH. “Er… The one who…I don’t know! I give up, I give up!” I have to say that the one thing you’ve proved to me is that I know nothing.”

AD: “Ah, no, no. That’s me! [LAUGHTER]. I am the expert at making other people know things, but I’m no good – I know nothing and that is the only knowledge I claim for myself.”

Coaching and the Socratic Method

As you can see, a question leads to an answer, which leads to another question, which leads to an answer, and so on, and so on.

There are many similarities between the Socratic Method and Coaching but again, there’s a big difference, which I’m getting to…

Here’s a continuation of the conversation between Bettany and Apostolos, essentially describing the Socratic Method, with some hints pointing to the coaching process as well.

BH: “That Socratic method is fascinating and stimulating, but it is also infuriating.”

AD: “Yes, because it’s in an oral context, the way we do it, and Socrates famously believed in the supremacy of the oral over the written and that also stirs up the emotions. First of all, in his pretence of being the fool, the ignorant man, of knowing nothing. Yes, and because that is his tool, that he turns, in fact, against his friends – or opponents, as you may take it – and makes them admit to things that they don’t want to admit to, by playing essentially the fool, saying, ‘I know nothing, I know nothing. I can only ask you to tell me, because I know nothing.’ So, he laid an emphasis on the definitions, then on what he called “diaeresis” – division – of breaking down a problem into little parts, analyzing parts, analyzing it. And then, attacking each one separately and then trying, inductively, to group them back together into a more general concept.”

Did you catch the big difference between the Socratic Method and Coaching?

While both methods start off with a blank slate, and use verbal communication to exchange ideas, and are about asking good questions and listening to answers, and breaking down the topic into smaller parts, observing them, and putting them back together again in a new way, the spirit of the conversations are much different.

With the Socratic Method, it’s more of an interrogation rather than a conversation. It’s more of an argument where eventually someone will paint themselves into a corner. It’s a handy technique that lawyers, and detectives, and journalists use all of the time.

On the other hand, with coaching, the spirit is much more convivial. From a coaching session, you’re meant to feel safe to express yourself, to take something away from the conversation, to have more clarity, and to feel stronger, rather than feeling more lost, confused, and frustrated than you were when you started.

So even though Socrates wasn’t intending to create the profession of coaching, he did get the ball rolling, and over generations, just as children build on the ideas of their parents, coaching has grown from it’s humble beginnings, and has taken the art of deep conversations and introspection, to a whole new level.

But still, where would we be today without Socrates and his Socratic Method?

BH: “So, Socrates uses that to make people become aware that things they consider simple, and elementary, and basic, and that they know – they in fact don’t know. And what about the modern world? Do you think we could have the modern world without Socratic debate, without questioning what it is to be human and what it is to be human in the world around us?

AD: “Well, I think that the best way to accept, to find Socrates’ place in it, is to see that the opposite of the Socratic method, essentially, is fanaticism and dogmatism. And in that sense, the modern world very much needs an antidote to those things, at every level.”

Bettany Hughes narrating: “The Socratic method was cathartic. It got difficult issues out into the open and defined concepts with much greater precision. Socrates’ tough questioning, with his trademark irony, was conducted in public, causing a stir wherever he went. He was inviting everyone to seek knowledge of the human good, to identify fundamental truths. But people could only do this for themselves by constantly interrogating their actions and most deeply held beliefs. “The unexamined life,” Socrates said, “is not worth living.” Minute: 29:37.

Enter, today’s Life Coach, Spiritual Coach, Wellness Coach…

“Socrates might have been infuriating, but his tenacious questioning of what it means to be human still has absolute resonance. By stating that the ultimate evil is ignorance and that a good life is within our reach, he challenges us all never to be thoughtless,” ~ Bettany Hughes.

So that’s why I think Socrates is the father of modern coaching. What do you think? Let me know in the comments.

Like Socrates in ancient Greece, we’re also living in highly charged times and we’re still wrestling with the same questions about the nature of life and death.

If you’ve reached a point where you’re interested in examining your own life and exploring life’s big questions, consider working with me, Maria, a Wellness Coach. Feel free to email today! Let’s talk!