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  • Amina Aitsi-Selmi

What is Socratic coaching and how can it help you clear career confusion? (life after the NHS)

When I was a medical student at Cambridge, I remember being introduced to teaching by humiliation - an old fashioned approach probably more suited to self-entitled heirs in the Establishment than insecure, second generation female high achievers with a touch of imposter syndrome.

While I wouldn’t recommend it as a learning method, the optimist in me found some useful elements in it. For example, it pushed me to challenge my assumptions and develop critical reasoning skills.

In fact, the Four Stages of Learning model describes learning a new skill as a set of psychological shifts that enable progress from incompetence to competence. It requires a lot of humility as you let go of what you thought you knew, realise how much you don’t know then overcome the shock to build new knowledge. In fact, a psychoanalyst once said that: “Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem”.

Don’t misunderstand me, I would never promote teaching by humiliation, but the strong emotional component of teaching by humiliation is probably what made it useful in facilitating a deeper and longer-lasting integration of new knowledge. In essence, it results in a transformation of the student's identity to align with the expectations of very demanding profession…(albeit at a cost to one’s self-esteem).

Teaching by humiliation aside, when I initially heard of the stages of learning concept, I was barely interested. The medicine course content was so heavy that most learning took the form of cramming for exams. There were interesting anatomy and physiology facts that got a bit more attention here and there for musings or dinner party entertainment. But getting through exams to the next phase of the course was the goal.

What I realised later was that the ability to challenge assumptions and spot patterns was the real gift in a taxing medical education. The reward was the development of a new self-identity founded on the ability to see through surface symptoms to uncover the underlying pathology that interfered with the healthy functioning of body and mind. Learning to leave personal, cognitive bias out of decision-making was strengthened with scientific training that many of us undertook in addition.

As you may have experienced yourself, this “educational” process can be brutal. Yet if done correctly, with empathy and compassion, it can lead to a cognitive restructuring that unlocks individual potential for the benefit of mankind.


The great philosopher and teacher, Socrates, believed in guiding people to discover things for themselves. The Socratic method is based on the principle:

“Never tell them what you can ask them”; and “Tell me and I will forget, show me and I will remember, involve me and I will understand.”

This is the foundation of coaching, whether it be on an Olympic running track, the hospital or boardroom. It’s used widely informing any coaching from the philosophically based existential coaching to the higher octane coaching of Tony Robbins who puts asking “powerful questions” at the core of his transformational coaching approach.

The idea is to challenge assumptions and engage a person in deep self-reflection that leads to new insights and better decisions. It helps to undo self-imposed limitations and take action that is true to your real desires and dreams.

It may sound more complicated than it is. But I’m sure you have aspirations that you’re not doing much about. The fact is that achieving internal coherence between what you say we want and what you truly believe is possible is the crux of the matter. The Socratic approach leaves no stone unturned until your values, goals and actions are aligned.

This is apparent in our careers, as we tend to achieve goals when we allow ourselves to believe and think that success is possible. Otherwise, we would never try. If you’re a high achiever, you may even take this ability for granted because success has come to you more easily.

I find the Socratic approach really useful because it helps to “debug” my thinking and resolve inner-conflicts that might confuse me and hold me back in analysis paralysis. It helps refine my expectations about my work/business goals and revise underlying assumptions about my abilities (n.b. If you have imposter syndrome you will usually under-rate your skills/talents and sell yourself and your dreams short).

Arguably, all coaching is Socratic! But not many people use the term or recognise the Socratic origins of coaching. There is also still some overlap with consulting where advice or ready-made solutions are offered.


As you engage in self-reflection to help you achieve your career goals, you might consider incorporating some coaching tools. Something I use for myself and with clients is Byron Katie’s “The Work”. It consists of four simple questions to ask yourself if you’re stuck in a rut and want to gain greater mental clarity.

First, you have to identify an assumption or belief that is fuelling inner-conflict about a decision you want to make e.g.: you want to change job but are thinking ‘I’m no good at X’; ‘it will never work so what’s the point of trying’; etc.

The next step is to subject the assumption to the questioning process. The four questions are:

  1. Is this true?

  2. Do I absolutely know this to be true?

  3. How does it make me feel/what happens when I believe that this is true?

  4. Who would I be without that thought/assumption?

You’re essentially treating any thought with skepticism, like a hypothesis rather than fact. The process goes deeper but these questions are a good start as they help to loosen the grip of unhelpful thoughts on you and allow for alternative thoughts.

You might struggle at the start to catch the thought or assumption that is causing the inner-conflict and confusion but with practice it will become easier. Meditation and anything that relaxes you will help.

As you make this kind of investigative inner-dialogue a habit, you’ll find one of two things will occur: you’ll find more ease in your life; and/or you will develop more interesting problems e.g. instead of worrying about your boss’ behaviour, you’ll be working out who to connect with to diversify your opportunities.


Regardless of whether you use this coaching tool or not, if you don’t scrutinise your thoughts with a healthy dose of skepticism, you are likely to be building your future from a set of old and limiting assumptions about yourself and what’s possible.

Having a regular practice of self-enquiry will help you make sure that you are consciously shaping your model of the world and are not at the mercy of irrational thoughts. It will ensure that your thinking supports your aspirations rather than the other way around. Otherwise, your past will dictate your future.

Here’s to your learning and success.


Socratic coaching practitioner

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