Research Paper By Violetta Psofaki
(Transformational Coach, GREECE)
Coaching and ancient Greek philosophy share the same objective, to help man to become the best version of himself, to fulfill the whole of his potential and find happiness. They both have understood that we should be guided to the lake of direct experience that lies within us in order to see the reflection of our true face.
Alan Sieler says that Ontology provides a rigorous and substantive theoretical framework for the development of professional coaches. Ontology is the study of being. From an ontological perspective, coaches observe and work with key aspects of how coachees have structured their reality and the nature of their existence, i.e. their perceptions and ways of participating in life.
Ontology dates back as far as the philosophers of Ancient Greece. The ancient Greek philosophers have been preoccupied with the investigation of the reasons for human existence and the way men should live, so as to be consistent with their reason for being. They had many schools of thought. Socrates advocated self-knowledge as the path to happiness. Plato’s allegory of the cave influenced western thinkers who believed that happiness is found by finding deeper meaning. Aristotle believed happiness, or “eudaimonia” is constituted by rational activity in accordance with virtue over a complete life. The Epicureans believed in reaching happiness through the enjoyment of simple pleasures. The Stoics believed they could remain happy by being objective and reasonable.
Vikki Brock, in her dissertation, regarding the roots and emergence of the coaching field, has said that coaching’s roots stretch back into antiquity and that philosophy provided the foundation for coaching.
And this is true; the broad field of philosophy has played a large role in coaching. Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental nature of reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind and language. As a method, is addressing problems by questioning, critical, generally systematic approach and reliance on rational argument.
One of the reasons that Coaching is such an interesting field is that it draws from a wide range of theories, philosophies and disciplines to create something unique. Positive psychology and Cognitive therapy have heavily influenced coaching with their work on the principle that the way we act is a result of the way we feel, which is, in turn, a result of the way we think, as well as their aim to apply methods by posing questions such as: “What is happiness?”, “What makes a person happier than another?”
Albert Ellis, the founder of cognitive-behavioral therapy, was trying to understand emotions and he was inspired by a line from the Greek Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, who said:
Men are disturbed not by events, but by their opinion about events.
That inspired Elli’s famous ABC theory of the emotions, where A stands for the activating event, B stands for our beliefs and C stands for the consequent emotion that we feel through our interpretation. According to ancient Greeks what often cause suffering are our own beliefs. Epictetus, who was a slave and his name meant “acquired”, developed a philosophy of inner freedom and resilience which is still very powerful today. The secret of his philosophy was to divide all of life into two spheres: those things that we don’t have complete control over and those things that we do. He said that the secret of resilience is to know the difference between those two spheres. The only thing we can control, according to him, is our beliefs.
Epictetus explains in Discourses 3.2. that above all, one must attend to “desire and aversion”, one must correct one’s emotional responses by pondering questions of value and indifference, for desire or fear of objects outside one’s own control results in a host of strong emotions that make one “incapable of listening to reason” while experiencing them. Also, one must attend to one’s own reasoning processes, to “freedom from deception and hasty judgment and in general whatever is concerned with assent.” This entails some study of logic, to prevent the conclusions reached in the two principal areas of study from being dislodged “even in dreams or drunkenness or melancholy.” According to Epictetus, as the habit of screening impressions becomes established, correct responses will begin to come automatically. Yet constant vigilance is still required, to guard against backsliding because we cannot rely solely on habituation.
Epictetus has provided us with timeless pearls of wisdom such as:
Seek not for events to happen as you wish, but rather wish for events to happen as they do and your life will go smoothly, We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak, It is not death or pain that is to be dreaded, but the fear of pain or death, We are what we repeatedly do and so many more.
His philosophy was about establishing a sense of purpose within the events of life and he believed that our capacity for choice makes us accountable for our own actions and states.
Coaching is a distinct process of supporting others to create an ideal life, to become the best version of themselves, and has used a lot of ideas and insights from the ancient Greek philosophers, who were excellent in showing how to live in a conscious, joyous and peaceful way and they have provided us with the critical thinking, the courage and strength to live our best authentic life.
Rooted in Greek philosophy, critical thinking is based on a Socratic idea of a reasoned process of weighing up the evidence to decide whether something is believed to be true or false and for this Socrates is credited with being one of the founders of Western philosophy.
All I know is that I know nothing
he has said and thus was born the Socratic Method, the core of coaching, a popular teaching method that asks a series of questions, reveling inside knowledge in individual responses and providing insight into topics. His method of debate or Method of Elenchus, a dialectical method of questioning, was testing and ultimately improving a hypothesis. Through asking a series of questions, the method sought to show contradictions in the beliefs of those who posed them, and systematically move towards a hypothesis free from contradiction. To solve a problem, it would be broken down into a series of questions, which would help a person to determine his/her underlying beliefs and the extent of his/her knowledge, and the answers to these questions would gradually distill the answer the person was seeking.
Hilary Armstrong wrote a paper regarding the central motif of coaching saying:
The purpose of the dialogue is to explore the ways that the coachee constructs meaning about any given situation. As this exploration occurs, meaning is re-authored and solutions to dilemmas or problems emerge. Following Wittgenstein’s advice to drop our theories about what is going on and to look at what coaches are doing in the fullness of their situations, what is seen is that the central motif of coaching is a dialogue.
The word “dialogue” emerged in the 13th century from the Greek “dialogos”, “dia” across, movement and “legein” to speak, which evokes the notion of dialogue as a dynamic flow of words and meanings between people. For the early Greeks (and particularly Socrates) it was through dialogue that virtue and knowledge were produced.
Socrates believed that the essential quality of human beings was their ability to question. He was nicknamed a “gadfly” because he stung people awake by questioning their often preciously held assumptions. Before Socrates, monologue prevailed. In the modern society we speak at each other rather than with each other. The purpose of the coaching dialogue is to generate new meanings around the dilemma that is brought to the session. Questions are introduced that encourage the development of new meaning around the coachee’s experience. Once new meaning is generated, new pathways for action can be identified.
The science of coaching puts man at its center and urges them to lead their ideal life. Coaching supports people to be their authentic selves and live their lives fully and with integrity. One of the fundamental principles of coaching is that the coach does not have the answers and does not claim to have them. They have the questions that allow the client to find their own answers. A coaching relationship is a partnership in which the client is the expert and the coach support him/her in drawing on his/her own wisdom.
Socrates’ method was called “midwifing” due to the fact that his mother was a midwife and she was helping women to give birth. Socrates argued that no theory or idea were born from him, but just as a midwife, was helping his discussants to “give birth” to their own truth. Socrates was seeking the primary truth, the unchangeable, which was not affected by the circumstances, which was not depended on man. He believed that people know the truth deep within them and with the proper questioning would be able to remember it and bring it up to the surface of their memory. He pretended ignorance trying to elicit the knowledge out of his discussants in order to help them to get to know more about their selves. His method was designed to force one to examine one’s own beliefs and the validity of such beliefs. With Socrates the study of man became more systematic, substantial and material as the start line of his philosophical tenor was the exhortation “know thy self”.
Coaching has to do with change and action. It encourages people to become self-aware, mindful, present at the moment, gain excellence and be in the flow. It recognizes the fact that beliefs and habits are the very core and strength of who we are and if someone wants to change themselves they should focus on changing their underlying beliefs and habits. Coaching trusts that we have the knowledge of the truth within us and that we are the only ones responsible for our performance and our choices.
Greeks had realized that people are forgetful and habit-based creatures and in order to change themselves they had to change their ingrained habits. So, they were using different techniques for creating new habits. One technique they used was maxim, brief “laconic” phrases, memorable sayings, like proverbs such as “Know thy self” or “Everything is moderation”, which should be repeated out loud, over and over again. They’d also write it down in little handbooks they’d carried with them through the day. Another thing they were doing was keeping journal in order to keep track of what they were actually doing throughout their day. This journal helped them to become a detached observer of themselves. Writing things down as soon as possible, helps us view things in this detached way, observing events and describing them in an objective manner. They also used to pause to give themselves thinking space and gain psychological distance from their initial impressions. Another technique the Greek used was fieldwork. They believed that theoretical knowledge was not enough and they had to go out and practice in real life situations.
In the “crowded room of life”, our sense of self can be buffeted and rocked by the images, ideas and messages coming at us. In order to counter all these messages we should be connected with our inner, true self, we should believe in, trust and value ourself and we should be aligned with our core values. Coaching cannot stress enough the importance of looking within, creating awareness and realizing that we are totally responsible for determining our own pathway in life, regardless of the external factors.
Stoicism tells us that no happiness can be secure if it is rooted in changeable, destructible things. All those external things that people often pursue – a good job, money, success, fame, and so on – cannot guarantee us happiness. They could well be parts of a happy life but, on their own, they will never deliver genuine fulfillment, unless we also have the virtues. The Stoics think that leading a life with virtue as a goal is the natural way for a human being to live. They encourage us to see that if we create a wholeness and coherence of moral character in ourselves, we are matching the coherence and unity that they see in the world as a whole. Stoicism tells us that our power lies within. There is only one place the world can’t touch: our inner selves, our choice at every moment to be good, to be courageous and to be sincere. We have to be masters of our selves before we attempt to control the circumstances of our life. The famous Serenity Prayer used by Alcoholics Anonymous provides a very memorable summary of the Stoic doctrine.
According to coaching, self-awareness, self-consciousness and mindfulness are states of being that provide freedom and allow us to be fully in the present moment and to choose when and how to act, with clear mind and free of fear. Being in such a state means that we are not susceptible to external influences and manipulation, that we explore and observe our life and that we question the version of truth others present us with.
In the Allegory of the Cave, Plato described symbolically the predicament in which mankind finds itself and proposes a way of salvation. Being self-aware, self-conscious and having as a guide our higher nous is the path that will lead us to the exit of the cave of ignorance. The Allegory is meant to be a wake-up call for everyone to stop settling for an imperfect, automated, unexplored life. In this story, Plato presents some of his beliefs such as his idea that knowledge cannot be transferred from teacher to student, but rather that education consists in directing student’s minds toward what is real and important and allowing them to apprehend it for themselves.
It is said by Plato that the world the unenlightened people see is merely an illusion – simply a shadow of reality. These people have accepted everything their environment, family, school, society, culture and media, have been feeding them for years and they don’t think beyond what they see, so they are ignorant of the truth. They don’t know of another way, they are not able to imagine different options. They are unable to see the true nature of all that are around them, because they have been presented with distortions of truth. They have accepted the norms and categories they have been given without asking the truly deep questions of life. External factors have shaped their practical worldview narrative of life, which stands in stark contrast with the pursuit of truth, authenticity and uniqueness. By examining their lives they will free themselves from the chains and slavery of just doing what they learnt to do and will find new ways of being. They will break the shackles of narrow mindedness and they will be free from the chains of illusions.
According to Plato our understanding and our daily existence are but a reflection of a deeper essence and deeper reality. Only by aligning ourselves with this deeper reality we are able to come in contact with our true meaning and purpose.
Coaching is change oriented and advocates that being in a “flow state”, in which we have goals but our happiness isn’t tied to the outcome of those goals, leads to a sense of fulfillment and success.
Get comfortable with the unknown
coaching says because it is common knowledge how much people cherish their comfort zone and their stability and how much they fear change and the transition out of something that feels familiar and safe.
Heraclitus’ philosophy is a good starting point for anyone concerned with change in life. Heraclitus said that life is like a river, the peaks and troughs, pits and swirls are all part of the ride. Heraclitus concluded that nature is change and said:
No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.
Heraclitus message was that reality is perdurable and inevitable change and flow.
The only thing that endures is change
he said and meant that even the nature of the flow changes.
For Heraclitus, universe was a continuous state of dynamic equilibrium, whereas at the same time all things were one. He believed that the profound knowledge based on experience and gained by inquiry into a wide spectrum of things could help in uncovering the reality and truth which mostly lied concealed. For him, the ground of being was mindfulness and he perceived thinking as a common property to all men and wisdom as the oneness of mind that guides and permeates all things.
Heraclitus could be characterized as the first existential philosopher, whose ideas have been revitalized in a more systematic and acceptable way in the fields of the modern existential philosophy. As Stavros J. Balloyannis has written
The message of Heraclitus to our modern society is that prosperity is not synonymous with income or wealth, since it has primarily vital personal, existential, psychological and social dimensions. Whatever the state of the economy, the prosperity of the society is mainly based on spiritual values, the wisdom, the truth, the illumination of the mind, brightness of the soul, the capacity to self-knowing and sound thinking, the honesty, the unapparent harmony of the interior life.
Heraclitus argued that the basic nature of the universe was change (or becoming), and that experience and observation were the methods to acquire knowledge. He looked at everything being in the state of permanent flux and, hence, reality being merely a succession of transitory states. His famous, esoteric three-word utterance: Ethos anthropos daimon, has been translated into English as “Character is fate”.
The philosophy of Heraclitus today emphasizes the necessity for interior culture and spiritual elevation, as well as the fact that all people ought to know themselves, being even minded, since all humans have the capacity to self-knowing and sound thinking.
In coaching the key to not being driven by our own habits is to observe and understand them. Most habits are driven by attachments (experienced as a pull or desire for something) or by aversions (experienced as a resistance or avoidance in relation to something). We move consciously or unconsciously, in pursuit of our attachments and in avoidance of our aversions.
Epicurus’s purpose was to attain a happy, tranquil life, characterized by “ataraxia”, peace and freedom from fear, and “aponia”, the absence of pain, and by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends. He taught that pleasure and pain are measures of what is good and evil; His statement of the Ethic of Reciprocity as the foundation of ethics is the earliest in Ancient Greece, emphasizing the minimization of harm to oneself and others as the way to maximize happiness.
Epicurus tells us that wisdom is the knowledge of which pleasures are good for us. He set up a system to judge whether the things we let into our lives deserve to be there. He said that the unnecessary and unnatural pleasures are the ones we should cut out entirely. That means that the sane and thoughtful pursuit of pleasure is the key to living well.
A sign of Epicurus’s wisdom was the fact that he sought to live with others and valued friendship. He created a space for friendships to grow, because face-to-face interaction is important to human relationships. Epicurus was aware that deeply ingrained habits of thought are not easily corrected, and thus he proposed various exercises to assist the novice. In addition, he knew that augmenting desires tends to intensify rather than reduce the mental agitation. One of Epicurus’s greatest achievements was to refute the false dichotomies of reason versus passion and of virtue versus pleasure-seeking, affirming instead that reason and virtue are highly instrumental to the pleasurable life. With a number of profound insights about human psychology, Epicurus undertook a serious examination of what attitudes and patterns of behavior were necessary for optimizing the pursuit of happiness. Using this approach, Epicurus argued that best hope for happiness is for reason and pleasure to work together.
He was in favor of moderation in all things for the maximization of pleasure. Valuing intellectual pleasure more highly than sensual pleasure, he recommends an ethic of simplicity, and an attitude of tranquility in the face of life’s trials. There is a ‘just right’ that the person can achieve that sustains pleasure yet prevents pain. Happiness is therefore defined as peace of mind, and freedom of anxiety achieved through moderation and proper understanding of the nature of things.
Due to the personal nature of the coaching relationships, a Code of Ethics and a Pledge of Ethics are necessary in order to provide appropriate guidelines, accountability and enforceable standards of conduct for all coaches. Coaching, by its nature, is based on a unique and profound level of trust between the coach and those being coached. A defined ethical standard offers a mechanism for clarifying what people can expect and lays the foundation for exploring ethical performance.
Weiner has highlighted the evolution of ethics which is based on the early work of Greek philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. The first known example of a profession-generated code of ethics is the Hippocratic Oath, which is dating back to around 400 BC, and it’s still widely used in the medical profession. It was established to embody obligations of physicians to their patients. The oath includes what treatments might benefit or harm patients, matters of competence and confidentiality, sexual involvement with patients, and respecting laws in general. Today, profession-generated codes of ethics originate out of an organization’s or profession’s recognition that it has special obligations to the employees, members, and public based on the services they provide.
Coaching helps people to gain personal awareness, growth and empowerment and supports them to connect with their inner authentic being in order to become the best version of themselves and live a life released of all the baggage of the past. It helps people to understand what is important to them and align their life to it using their strength in order to induce the necessary changes. Coaching supports people to feel strong and safe within their own existence and to understand that they don’t need to protect and defend their identity.
In the same way the ancient Greek philosophers, 2.500 thousands years ago, have taught us a lot about life and how to live it in a fulfilled way. They have bestowed us philosophical lessons and truths that can be our companions in the journey of our life. Their wisdom will always shed light to the dark recesses of human existence.
Eventually all the philosophical schools in Athens were shut down but the truly astonishing aspect of this decline was that ancient Greek philosophy did not disappear altogether during the Dark Ages, but instead arose again, like a Phoenix arising from its ashes, to become the essential substrate of secular thought in the modern world.
W. Montgomery, “The Ancient Origins of Cognitive Therapy: The Reemergence of Stoicism”, Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy 7 (1993)
Still & W. Dryden, “The Historical and Philosophical Context of Rational Psychotherapy: The Legacy of Epictetus” (London: Karnac, 2012)
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Epictetus, Epicurus
Jules Evans article in Telegraph-http://www.telegraph.co.uk/lifestyle/wellbeing/10146546/Anxious-Depressed-Try-Greek-philosophy.html
Coaching as dialogue: Creating spaces for (mis)understandings, Hilary Armstrong, Institute of Executive Coaching, Sydney, NSW, Australia
Alan Sieler, Ontology: A Theoretical Basis for Professional Coaching
“The 8 secrets of happiness”, Paul Griffiths and Martin Robinson (2009)
ICF Code of Ethics
Weiner, K. (2004). The little book of ethics for coaches: Ethics, risk management and professional issues.
Stoic Week’s handbook (2013) https://ukcognitive.files.wordpress.com/2014/11/stoic_week_2014_handbook.pdf