Coaching Stories
Metaphorical Tales, from other times and places

A Tale of Two Cities

Although this sounds like a Soufi story, I do not know its origin.

A traveler spotted an elderly person sitting on a bench on the outskirts of a city he was approaching.  After engaging in a conversation, he asked "What are the people like in this community?"
The elder carefully studied the traveler and then asked "What were the people like in the last city you visited?"
_"Oh!" replied the traveler with a frown, "They were not so nice.  They were distant, devious, untrustworthy, just trying to get an edge on me, trying to cheat me.  I really had to watch for myself all the time.  Not a good experience!"
So the elder also frowned and answered:  _"Well, in this city, people are pretty much the same".

A little later, another traveler approached the same elder, still sitting on the  bench. After a short conversation, the traveler put the same question:  _ "What are the people like in this community?"
The elder also returned the usual question.  "What were the people like in the previous city you have visited?"
With a smile, the traveler said:  _ "Really great!. They were open, friendly, always volunteering help and directions.  I felt really welcomed and had a great time!"   And the elder smiled back and answered  _ "Well, in this city, people are pretty much the same".

I find this story to be a useful metaphor of how we may travel in life, from place to place, team to team, organization to organization, often carrying a same inner perspective.  Repeatedly, we confirm that what we believe is really out there, as we move on to different environments.  But perception is indeed known to be a projection, and a self-fulfilling prophecy.

To  support this, I suggest a quote from Gary Zukav, Physicist (The dancing Wu Li Masters,  Bantam Books, 1979, page 310)   "Reality is what we take to be true.  What we take to be true is what we believe.  What we believe is based upon our perceptions.  What we perceive depends upon what we look for.  What we look for depends on what we think.  What we think depends on what we perceive.  What we perceive determines what we believe.  What we believe determines what we take to be true.  What we take to be true is our reality."  Indeed, quite a circular, self-validating process.

As a systemic business coach, it is quite confounding to witness how many individuals and professionals move from company to company, from team to team, from boss to boss, from partner to partner, etc. hoping to experience different patterns and outcomes.  This only to confirm a fundamentally similar, repetitious type of conclusion.  « The grass always seems greener on the other side of the hill » goes the saying… but the trouble is that we often take our grass with us.  (This saying could indeed lead a hippy variation of the story!)


Luckily, there are known ways to counterbalance this type of self-confirming, circular process.  Should the old man have been a future or solution-oriented coach, for example, he could have asked:  _ "What is the kind of people you want to meet?"  Or: "Can you describe the ideal community for which you are searching?".

When we ask ourselves this type of question, we can more precisely define our desired futures, envision different contexts within which we want to interact and grow.  This can help us build different expectations, open ourselves to new experiences of reality and then go on to confirm that these are indeed possible to achieve.

So what is the ideal city within which you want to live and work?

A short story on building cathedrals

On a cathedral-building site, a visitor meets three master stone cutters intensely chiselling away.  The visitor stops to look, and then asks them "may I ask what you are doing?"

  • The first says "My personal task is to very precisely prepare each stone to perfectly fit into its unique place."
  • The second says "I am participating in building a beautiful cathedral that will stand for centuries".
  • The third says "I am celebrating the glory of God".

It may seem obvious that the three stone cutters are one and the same person, especially if that person was a master craftsman. Indeed, if we want to be successful in our lives, our everyday tasks first need to be carried out with artful care and precision. These solitary tasks are often humbling contributions, but they generally add up with other people's collaboration and fit into much more impressive achievements.  Like cathedrals, these larger collective outcomes often stand the test of time. Some may even take a lifetime to achieve.  And one way or another, the most beautiful and larger achievements of man are always celebrating the glory of God.

  • Mastership in coaching also consists in being totally present to minute details that may at first seem unimportant. But much like in other professions, presence and attention to what we do and to who we are is of the utmost importance in order to deliver quality service to our clients. 
  • Each individual coach may also seem to be working in a solitary way, contributing to individual successes, here and there for different people, teams and companies.  All coaches are connected, however, and aware of contributing to a much larger whole. Each developing client success adds up, worldwide, to a whole community's vision and mission, to a worldwide population committed to personal and professional development. 
  • And one way or another, all these small, individual and collective contributions to building a more sustainable human future are also celebrating the glory of God.

The difficult development of the coaching profession in new markets (or how to grow trees in the desert)

Spearheading a worldwide movement for the development of social responsibility, the coaching profession is spreading worldwide.  If this profession is now installed in mature markets, its growth is much slower in developing economies.  Within these less mature business, political and social environments, coaching has not yet taken a firm foothold as a formal profession.  This is also because coaching has a particular frame of reference, a defined ethical stance, a specific set of behavioral skills, a very particular type of client relationship, etc.  During early phases of economic development, all these specific characteristics of coaching are very difficult to understand by local populations, whether they are beginning coaches or potential clients.

One can often find similarities between countries that are still on the growing edge of the coaching profession.  The first years are spent educating potential clients at large, while  the first local coach generations are gradually training on the job.  This can be perceived as painfully slow, sometimes as hopelessly difficult.  These first generations of coaches have to struggle to find clients and the first clients often have no inkling as to what they can expect from engaging in a coaching dialogue.  In effect, the coaches are not really ready, and their clients are no better prepared.

One of these countries is Romania, where I have been heavily investing to develop a  coaching environment for a number of years.  Having participated in a number of other developing markets such as Morocco, Mexico, etc; and accompanied numerous local coaches struggling to make a living, the process is quite familiar.  When I work in such environments, an Egyptian story often comes to my mind as a relevant metaphor.  So I wish to share this story, concerning how to grow trees in the desert:

In Egypt today, when driving in places where there once existed only sand and rocks, one can often see endless rows of strong, tall evergreen trees, for hundreds of hectares.  If it were not for the sand under the pine needles, the scene could seem to be transplanted from much more hospitable regions, such as from Mediterranean and European landscapes.

Now, how did this miracle take place?  How were these trees grown in such unlikely drought-ridden areas where never falls a drop of rain?  "Irrigation with bountiful water diverted from the Nile River of course", may be an educated guess offered by unknowing onlookers. But that answer is very far from the truth.   Any older local Bedouin can tell the real story. 

Decades ago, in the middle of the desert, people patiently planted very small trees, barely bigger than twigs, painstakingly, one by one, for miles on end.  For years, these small shrubs were individually watered,  but Just enough to keep them alive.  Knowingly, they were kept at survival level.  Consequently, for years, these future trees didn't grow at all.  No apparent progress could support a strong motivation to continue the patient development program.  For decades, the potential trees seemed to be doomed to remain small, the size of ornamental shrubs, burning under the scorching sun.

But hidden from human eyes, these evergreens patiently grew deeper and deeper roots.  Their apparent growth was almost inexistent, but underground they reached deeper and deeper, searching for an almost hypothetical water table.  In time, over tens of years, they finally achieved their distant goal.  Only then could their growth shift directions, and they started to reach for the sky.

Today, many years later, these shrubs have become trees.  They are big, healthy and numerous.  In some areas, the forests they constitute have completely transformed the landscape.  For the unsuspecting, their story is unknown, and travelers probably think the success is due to industrial means, applied on a very large scale.  If that had been the case, the result would be very different.  These trees would have much shorter roots, and would still be dependent on man for irrigation.  It is not the case, for their success is durable and sustainable.  It rests on their individual survival skills, their uncommonly deep and resilient roots.

The success runs even deeper, however, if one is to consider a major collateral outcome.  Over the years, these trees have also participated in creating another miracle.  In the areas where they stand, their exceptionally deep roots have succeeded in raising the water table much closer to the surface.

In the areas that these trees have prepared, it is now possible to plant other trees and shrubs that can access underground water much more rapidly.  Numerous varieties of smaller, less sturdy plants almost naturally settle in the transformed environment and make it their home.   These younger newcomers don’t realize how much they owe the first generation of local developers, and the older trees. In time, the early struggle for survival, searching for that inaccessible water table may even be forgotten.

In Romania and other such countries, an early generation of local trained coaches is growing roots.  Daily, it is struggling to go deeper to find the local coaching market that seems almost inaccessible.  Luckily, although each is barely aware of their individual contribution to a collective effort, numerous young professionals are undertaking this market development process. Each is almost too busy surviving to notice they are part of a much larger collaborating community.

And the market is slowly appearing.  Managers, entrepreneurs and people in general are being educated, gradually understanding how they can work with coaches to achieve their life and work ambitions.  The next coaching generations will have it much easier of course, but will they remember and be thankful to the first market developers?  Will their roots run as strong and as deep?

Annex: In begining markets, it is also advisable to avoid the temptation to implement shortcuts.  instead of taking the time to learn in the field, some begining coaches aim for quick validation gimmicks.  They find fast-track schools and mail-order diplomas.  They claim they have been trained abroad when they only attended informational conferences. They may achieve quick marketing notoriety by quickly publishing copy-paste concepts or they may manoeuver to get visisble positions in local associations.  Although these strategies may appear effective on the short term, they do not help to grow deep roots and lasting competencies. These shortcuts could be perceived as the equivalent of artificially over-watering or boosting ornamental plants with chemical fertilizer to have them grow faster and display overnight size and beauty.  Some clients also may take shortcuts and want a visible coach for short-term and status related motives, or just as a socially-accepted postponing strategy.  Indeed, growing up on a new or slowly maturing market is not an easy task

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The Origins of the Coaching Questioning Process, or a Soufi Quest,

In the Middle East, and generally speaking in most of the Muslim world, the mystical soufi tradition is both ever present and very difficult to locate.  For centuries, easily moving across all boundaries, Soufi masters and students have traveled and taught.  They have cared little for territorial boundaries, nationalities, politics, and institutions. In the midst of different cultures, they have developed their spirit and mind through activities that include art, music, song, dance, travel, storytelling, teaching and all types of craftsmanship.  Everywhere, soufis have mingled with common people and lived apparently normal lives.

To think that their knowledge and teachings lead to any form of social promotion or recognition would be an error.  The “twirling dervishes”, well known Turkish and Syrian soufis, have been regularly persecuted for their difference.  Thanks to their “dancing” skills, they have survived as entertaining tourist attractions which attract crowds and question occidentals. Today the artists are tolerated as such, although the folklore continues to hide their deep spirituality.

In Egypt, “hashash” stories about a village idiot named Goha have amused generations.  To take them as insignificant jokes would be also be a mistake.  These short humorous vignettes have perpetuated basic philosophical teachings in an extremely efficient and non-pretentious way. Through funny tales and laughter, ancient and often paradoxical knowledge is made accessible to the common people and has sometimes helped them locate the fleeting gates of paradise.

These indirect social and political strategies have only fooled those that can’t see for lack of heart and can’t hear for lack of soul.  The fundamental wealth of the soufi tradition, of its humor, of its “art of living” has motivated numbers to follow its universally reputed teachings and try to locte and attend some of their schools.

That search turns out to be useless in as much as soufi schools don’t formally exist.  Soufis know well that teaching and learning both happen outside institutions which claim to dispense them. Soufi schools don’t have defined locations nor precise times and schedules.  As a matter of fact, soufis have always preferred lighter, more creative, adaptable and evolving teaching systems, architectures and networks.  Their schools are literally anywhere and everywhere.  Their teachings are as practical and continuous as life itself.  That may have something to do with the teaching’s obvious coherence and effectiveness.

So today, it is hard to find formal sources of Soufi knowledge.  Students have little chance of finding a “master” that will serve them as a guide.  To actually want to find a master is also a mistake.  Much like todays's coaches, Soufi masters generally claim that they know little and do nothing, and that as far as they know, soufi knowledge doesn’t formally exist as such.  As they would have it, this knowledge is everywhere, totally free and accessible to all, hidden both within our natural environment and deep down inside each one of us.

For some students, the task then becomes to search within.  To slow down, to query, to think and meditate.  Those of us who choose that path will rapidly realize that without a master, we can loose ourselves in a vast inner labyrinth whose smallest segments are way too complex for a solitary traveler. To avoid getting inextricably lost, it is obviously necessary to have a guide.  One that will provide direction, to whom one can ask questions and maybe from whom one can get some answers.

There too lies the possibility for another mistake.  Are not all directions good, so long as we are moving and growing.  If each has a personal destination, how can one ask another for direction?  Besides, good questions stand alone.  Questions that find easy answers are never the best.  Some even say that soufi masters never answer questions.  They only ask them.

In their overwhelming thirst to learn, some students have abandoned society, given up everything and retired away from the maddening crowd.  They have left civilization, searching for silence, often in the solitude of magestic mountains or barren deserts.  That too can turn out to be a big mistake.  We can only give up and abandon what is ours to own, and that obviously applies to nothing in this material world. 

What’s more, empty space, bare horizons, fathomless silence, inaction and the dry desert are often kin to negation and denial.  Knowledge is revealed in life, within partnerships and interactions, both positive and negative.  We find ourselves by facing others, we build ourselves through visible constructions.  It is impossible, without loss of self, to leave society and disconnect from reality.  “A solitary man is always in poor company” said a French philosopher, probably also an unknowing soufi master.

So students search for their paths in the midst of society and its tough day to day reality, made of illusions.  They often choose to put themselves at the service of others who are less blessed by life, to help the poor, the sick and the elderly.  This noble task is most often as sad and heavy as it is endless.  For if we can temporarily help others carry their burden, only they can ultimately get rid of it.  And helping another at the expense of our own quests, at the expense of developing our own potentials cannot be a gift.  Too often, helping other people costs them all the more when it is free.  Everyone ends up by paying emotionally, the hard way.  Indeed, giving for money often costs much less.

So some students will take to searching differently, through personal accomplishments, individual success and social recognition.  This is where they discover that everyday life is an illusion, that society is a mask, that one doesn’t own power and possessions for they end up owning you.  Social, political and economic success has been a desperately dead end for all too many high achievers. 

It is again elsewhere that one needs to search for that inaccessible knowledge which apparently seems to offer no holds, take no form, manifest no structure, as if it didn’t even exist.  But that belief too is a mistake.  Wisdom has a timeless, universal and precise form.  It is simply impossible to grasp.  Indeed how can we understand something by which we are understood?  How can one hold that by which one is held?  Why obstinately want to get a handle on that which, since time immemorial, disposes of us?

So today as they always have, coaching and soufi students rise to pursue their quest.  And much as before, they will continue to succeed so long as they stick to their inner questioning.

Copyright 2008. Alain Cardon

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