I got interested in coaching many years ago as a mother to my young son. I was keenly aware of my responsibility to help him discover and optimize his natural talents in a fulfilling way. And I needed help!
I have since sought guidance from friends, family, books, Ted talks, sports coaches and animal trainers to understand what works, from ancient times to the present.
Coaching Circa 3076 BCE
A fine example is how Krishna coaches Arjuna in the ancient Indian epic, 'The Mahabharata'.
The setting is the middle of the battlefield at Kurukshetra. Two armies are in position for battle.
Arjuna, a princely warrior and commander of one army, in a potentially fratricidal war, must choose between either killing his own cousins, teachers and kinsmen who fill the enemy ranks, or give up arms, face the defeat and death of his people, and let an evil regime prevail.
Arjuna’s Dilemma: To fight or not to fight?
In this state of utter despair, Arjuna’s bow slips from his hand, he slumps in his chariot and dejectedly turns to his charioteer and friend, Krishna, for counsel.
Thus begins what is perhaps the longest coaching conversation in history – 100,000 metrical verses of dialogue, called The Bhagavad Gita, which is the philosophical core of the great tale of the Mahabharata.
Ancient Coaching Techniques
Using dialectical discourse as a method of coaching, Krishna presents Arjuna with a single coherent theory to help him make decisions and conduct himself in life. Krishna’s theory is backed by an epistemology for acquiring valid knowledge, an ontology describing the true nature of self and the world, and an ethical model of conduct, which logically follows from these considerations.
Coach Krishna listens with compassion to Arjuna’s emotional experience of despondent inertia in an impossible situation, as an excuse for inaction. But Krishna warns Arjuna that inaction is also a kind of action!
Krishna points out that the genesis of his confusion lies in Arjuna’s flawed perception of the situation; which in turn is linked to his ignorance of the true nature of reality.
Coach Krishna expands Arjuna’s awareness of himself and his situation to get him to see a new landscape of possibilities, and hence potentially new choices, beyond the two horns of his dilemma.
These possibilities and choices will be apparent only when Arjuna learns to perceive the world ‘correctly’ – an error of judgement thus originates as an error of perception.
Coach Krishna listens, clarifies, cajoles, challenges and at times chides Arjuna. He gets Arjuna to clarify and articulate his own emotions, beliefs, values and his purpose of life, and crucially, helps him to connect these with the impending decision the warrior must make on the battlefield.
But the decision is Arjuna’s to make.
Having been presented with a new meta-view, Arjuna’s understanding of the situation changes, his inner doubt clears, and he decides to go to battle.
Krishna’s coaching lasts the entire course of war – 18 days.
In doing so, Coach Krishna not only gives strategic direction to Arjuna’s decision-making, but by giving him a fresh worldview, offers him a permanent explanatory paradigm to internalize the Coach within himself. This will help Arjuna to self coach - to comprehend, interpret and act judiciously in difficult situations in the future. This internalization of the Coach is the key to the success of a coaching paradigm, for after the battle, Krishna will no longer play Coach.
Krishna’s Coaching process as described in the ancient epic of Mahabharata embodies almost all the elements of Contemporary Coaching – save a God and a readymade Meta-view – both redundant in the modern Constructivist mood.
Defined “… as a human development process that involves structured, focused interaction and the use of appropriate strategies, tools and techniques to promote desirable and sustainable change for the benefit of the coachee and potentially for other stakeholders,” in The Complete Handbook of Coaching, Cox, Bachkirova and Clutterbuck.
I would add the idea of ‘a safe, warm space’ to the Coaching relationship where the Coach comes from a position of non-judgement, respect, equality and compassion towards the Coachee who is ‘doing his best’ at the moment. The Coachee in turn must trust the Coach to work in his/her best interests.
Such a Coach would naturally do what is called - Active Listening - being fully present to the Coachee and to see the world from his/her eyes. This acknowledgement is important to establish trust.
Through skillful use of conversations, the Coach enables the Coachee to choose a new point in thought/emotion/action as desired by him/her.
The Coach may rope in various tools in expanding awareness, viewing new possibilities, articulating goals, removing obstacles, and fostering an attitude, a mood and a mindset most appropriate to personally desirable goals.
This is the essence of the Coaching Process.
The Challenges we face
Arjuna’s dilemmas are neither ancient or uncommon. His confusion and despair are felt by the brightest. There are plenty of situations in our modern lives where we need the help of a fresh perspective from another person to make sense, cope with situations, make decisions, and bring out the best in ourselves.
These Coaching Conversations, akin to the Krishna-Arjuna dialogue, provide a safe arena where we may, like Arjuna, fight the fiercest battles of our mind.
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