Not more than a month ago I engaged in a great reading, that is “The Socratic Method” by Ward Farnsworth. As the title suggests, it is dedicated to a topic dear to me, that also inspired much of the content and the title of my upcoming book.
Far from having yet completed that reading, I am amazed by the fresh approach the book has about what others would call “the art of conversation”. The principles examined by the author, and many others before him, have implications on a wise pursuit of life. After all, I myself prefer the Greek name “Maieutic”, or “Delivering a Soul”. What is a set of tools to help you sort out things and improve thinking, leads both the user and its partner to a better living.
It isn’t a mere poetic instance.
And we can go as far as saying that this method is also great when we entertain self-conversations. Chances are that you use to do it with no structure or framework. Yet I can assure you that, sometimes, some ordered steps aid to get the best out of us. My idea of self-coaching is, however, more rigid than the one we can perform by using the pure Socratic method.
Two ways to know thyself
Coaching is a guided, stimulative thought process that involves at least two people: the coach, and its client. The latter does all the talk, while the coach asks for input. When somebody needs a coach, does so because of many reasons: the most common is being stuck in a kind of mediocrity. A coach’s job is to take out your best self in facts, by squeezing thoughts out of you.
However, sometimes we don’t feel like sharing our thoughts with another person. We need to build trust and feel that the coach we found is a good match for us. Sometimes we don’t want to wait to find a coach or to fit in a schedule. In some cases we simply are the “loner” type, we like to fix things on our own. Then, self-coaching is of great help, because it helps us focus on the pursuit of our journey to a goal we have, the same way coaching conversation do.
In essence, self-coaching means to have a mindful conversation with ourselves, with the purpose to plan and execute the actions that will push us towards our objective, while motivating us to do so.
Let’s now have a look at some of the features from the Socratic Methods. Farnsworth points out that it is rather a set of skills and tools than a rigid framework, and this makes it all more versatile.
Elenchus: challenging assumptions
This is a feature that I deem a perfect fit for self-coaching. We may translate Elenchus with “scrutiny” if you prefer. In Plato’s Dialogues, it is common use for Socrates to question another person about a truth, only for such truth being revealed an assumption. Simplistic truth are questioned for their lack of consistency. This puts the interlocutor in the uncomfortable position of admitting to don’t know something enough, so that it becomes even difficult to give a definition of it. Many passages of the dialogues are quite artful and often of no real value: but indirectly, they shake a person’s certainties from their foundations.
This is something that we find hard when conversing with somebody. It is similar when we have a dialogue with ourselves, especially if we do it at emotional times and we are firm about ideas or decisions before the self-conversation begins. As I like to think, it is a struggle between the Id and the Ego: our sense of self fights against the reality, hence the mixed feelings.
Coaches have it hard to challenge assumptions because they need to be careful to the way they pose questions. If we need to be honest while being coached, we need to push us even further in self-coaching. That is why our assumptions need to be tested with reality checks and be seen from other perspectives.
Acknowledging our biases and admitting our knowledge gaps is necessary to get in the right mindset because it pushes out of the comfort zone with a certain detachment.
Aporia: accepting doubts
In the Dialogues, Socrates questions everybody’s assumption not because he knows better, but to make others realize that they do not know as much as they think. We make use of the elenchus because of an admission of ignorance. However the way it is used may sound arrogant to the reader (to the point it is considered to have facilitated the philosopher’s demise).
Eventually, we need to look at it from the coaching perspective. Ignorance also means that we are ready to know. Not knowing is much associated with uncertainty, which in turns is uncomfortable. On the other hands, our assumptions seem to make our living easier, for we don’t need to worry about something we take for granted. But aren’t these assumption holding us back?
In a way, they do. We feel so comfortable that we might not have the right motivation to change something, so we do not challenge ourselves. Naturally, if you are about to practice some self-coaching, it means you already acknowledged that something must change. Perhaps you don’t know how.
Doubts and ignorance are triggers for anxiety. You might have even heard of pathological “fear of the unknown“. The trick is to befriend our sources of anxiety in order to cope with it. It will sound contradictory, but if you think it deep, it’s because of our fears that we did not move forward. And that is regardless of the excuses you found for yourself up until now.
In our context, doubt is more a friend than an enemy, because it is an internal motivator to know better, to do better. After all, if we really know something, we would not need to afford time and energies into deep thinking – we simply would not be that interested. We now accept our ignorance: a sign of growth mindset and hunger for wisdom.
Ethos: how to live better
Many of Plato’s Dialogues where Socrates plays a part, focus on moral matters. We don’t deem to keep this focus when we are self-coaching, or at least it is one of the possibilities.
Coaching should aim to a call for action: unraveling thoughts in order to take better decisions. While morality debates about “good” and “evil, ethics focuses on the best way of doing things. So we do with self-coaching, examining the available options and pushing ourselves to try out at least one of them.
For Socrates, a life is worth living when we examine it. In our case, self-conversations (as well as coaching) are also an invite to introspect, to better understand ourselves and the choices we took to paint our own life in the fabric of existence. While motivation fuel us, the real inner drive is having a purpose.
Examining our naked soul is something we can achieve with Self-Coaching because of the deep psychological implications that aren’t (and shouldn’t) be regarded with performance and development coaching. In a way, we do a form of therapy by really meaning to know ourselves – in this case, by making our thoughts reality in the form of actions. And that’s different from any other form of introspection that is made of ruminating thoughts and self-pity.
Put it to use
There is a main difference between the Socratic Method and coaching: its goal.
The first is a form of dialogue that investigates the truth by all means necessary, and does not always ends with an answer. Many of Plato’s Dialogues does not conclude on a truth, but more doubts. That is indeed a demonstrations that absolute truth are a (almost) fail-safe construct of mankind to worry less; but also, that scrutiny is essential to keep the mind sharp and one’s integrity consistent.
The second is, first of all, a mean to an end: you engage in coaching when you have a goal, so you do when exercising self-coaching. You want to go from point A to point B. From ideas to actions.
Integrating these philosophical features in our inner dialogues do not serve to spice up things, but bring more value in what we are about to do. In fact:
- We may have great goals and infinite possibilities to do that, but we need a reality check to narrow down to sustainable options. That ensures that we do not lose track of time while on our journey, and to have clarity of purpose. This is what the elenchus is useful for.
- We need to distinguish between easy and right options as well, because the former (i.e. the lazy ones) may not bring us forward the way we want. It is better to be frustrated for uncertainty than disappointment for not having thought through enough; and we need to cope with fear of failure as well. Aporia serves this purpose.
- Finally, we cannot forget to iterate regularly and positively about our decision making. With positively, I mean that we can retrospect on successes and failures, thus resolving with a new plan and moving forward. We build up our own ethos. All of a sudden, questioning ourselves does not sound that bad anymore!