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The Stoic Coach: Stop talking. Start listening.

Coaching, within a stoic framework, is a journey of personal transformation.

At the core, both Stoicism and coaching thrive on introspection, self-improvement, and resilience. They foster a deep sense of understanding, empowering individuals to navigate their paths with wisdom. Both respect the boundary of control, focusing on self-development and facilitating others to do the same.

The Stoic’s pursuit of virtue aligns seamlessly with the coach’s commitment to unlocking potential, making them two sides of the same transformational coin.

In my journey, the principles of Stoicism and coaching harmoniously intertwined, creating a profound impact. Early in my career, each problem presented itself as a puzzle, which I, in my well-intentioned desire to control, felt compelled to solve. However, my perspective shifted under the guidance of mentors Aneesh Bhanot (Read this first), Ambar MehrotraEtinder Pal Singh and many more, including 📚 Michael Bungay Stanier‘s books, who embodied the stoic virtue of wisdom and the coach-like approach of questioning.

Understanding the Stoic Challenge

The challenge, borrowing from Stoic principles, lies in understanding that our role as a coach is not to control the outcomes of others but to guide them towards finding their own solutions. We must temper our “Advice Monster,” the internal force that pushes us to affirm our value through advice-giving, which is essentially a form of attempting to control the uncontrollable.

The Coaching Habit: Embracing Stoic Wisdom through Questions

“The Coaching Habit” introduces a series of transformative conversation techniques that echo Stoic wisdom. The seven key questions foster deeper engagement and self-discovery, much like a Stoic encourages introspection and self-improvement.

By asking questions such as “What’s the real challenge here for you?” or “If you say yes to this task, what are you saying no to?” we emulate the Stoic practice of inviting introspection and promoting self-discovery.

Here are all seven questions:

  1. The Kickstart Question: “What’s on your mind?” This invites your coachee to bring forward their pressing concerns.
  2. The AWE Question: “And what else?” This question encourages a deeper exploration of the topic.
  3. The Focus Question: “What’s the real challenge here for you?” This narrows the scope, pinpointing the critical issues.
  4. The Foundation Question: “What do you want?” This query clarifies the desired outcomes and goals.
  5. The Lazy Question: “How can I help?” This question facilitates a direct request for help, reducing assumptions.
  6. The Strategic Question: “If you say yes to this, what are you saying no to?” This question illuminates the trade-offs of every decision.
  7. The Learning Question: “What was most useful for you?” This question allows reflection and reinforces learning.

Consider a scenario where a team member struggles with workload management. Traditional advice-giving might involve dictating a new schedule. However, utilizing the Coaching Habit framework, you might ask, “What’s the real challenge here for you?” or “If you say yes to this task, what are you saying no to?” This facilitates self-realization and helps your coachee arrive at their own solutions.

The Advice Trap: Taming the Stoic’s Advice Monster

“The Advice Trap” resonates with the stoic concept of understanding what is within our control. Bungay Stanier identifies three types of Advice Monsters that we need to tame to become effective Stoic coaches:

  • Tell It: Always offering unsolicited advice.
  • Save It: Seeking to shield others from challenges.
  • Control It: Striving for constant control over situations and outcomes.

These Advice Monsters embody our misguided attempts to control what is not within our control, disrupting our effectiveness as Stoic coaches.

As a leader, if you find yourself jumping into problem-solving mode the moment a challenge arises, you might be dealing with a “Tell It” Advice Monster. Identifying this helps you recalibrate your approach and nurture a more facilitative role.

Building Your Stoic Coaching Habit: Actionable Steps

To cultivate an effective Stoic coaching habit, consider the following steps, each resonating with Stoic principles:

  1. Identify Your Advice Monster: Reflect on when and why you resort to giving advice.
  2. Practice Active Listening: Focus on understanding, mirroring the Stoic emphasis on perception overreaction.
  3. Incorporate the Seven Key Questions: Habitually use these questions in your conversations, embodying the Stoic practice of introspection.
  4. Allocate Time for Reflection: Post-conversation, assess what worked and what can be improved, in line with the Stoic practice of evening reflection.
  5. Extend Your Curiosity: Resist the immediate urge to advise, reflecting the Stoic principle of maintaining control over your impulses.
  6. Embrace Mindfulness: Develop self-awareness around your triggers and responses, a fundamental tenet in Stoicism.
  7. Solicit Feedback: Seek feedback actively, mirroring the Stoic focus on continuous self-improvement.

Remember, transitioning from an advice-giver to a Stoic coach is a journey of learning and unlearning. It requires patience, practice, and a deep commitment to helping others find their own path. As we embrace Stoic principles in our coaching journey, we become facilitators of discovery, growth, and empowerment, truly embodying the Stoic virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation.

By Paul Syng

Paul Syng is a multi-disciplinary designer based in Toronto. He focuses on a problem-seeking, systems thinking approach that can take any form or function.