Thursday, 6 December 2012

Coaching Anna Karenina

Imagine the scenario for a moment. A Russian aristocratic woman meets with a life coach. Note that the light has been extinguished from her grey eyes.
Coach: Hello - thanks for coming. What brings you to coaching?
AK: I have no cause for joy. Laughter jars on me painfully.
Coach: What is it you would like to achieve from this session?
AK: I need to escape from my troubles. I am conscious of my own humiliation.
Coach: If you were to tell me a story about yourself, what would it be?

Where to begin? Earlier this week I attended a discussion on the philosophy of personality, organised by a life coach as part of his training. In an hour and a half, we covered nurture versus nature, identity versus behaviour, the plasticity of the brain and our need for reflection. There were about a dozen people present and almost as many views on the formation of personality. 

Keira Knightley arriving at the UK premiere of Anna Karenina
Did Anna Karenina need a life coach? 
© Featureflash | Dreamstime.com
The basic premise of the discussion, however, was that human beings have an innate desire to self-improve. Life coaching exists as a form of counselling to help us to realise our potential and, if necessary, change direction. Since civilisation began, human beings have used all sorts of practices - religion, exercise, drugs, education and even surgery - to enhance their attributes and abilities. Life coaching joins that list.

So what has Anna Karenina got to do with all this? Self-improvement, or character development, is also the engine that drives most novels. All those great protagonists - Pip of Great Expectations, Jane Austen's Emma, Madame Bovary - set off on a journey to self-discovery, or ultimate self-destruction, depending on their fate. 

Oddly enough, it turns out that life coaches also employ a 'narrative approach' to helping their clients examine their life and goals. Just like the novelist, the coach is absorbed in the tension between people: 
presenting identities that are socially acceptable and functional and embodying identities that are authentic and consistent with how they see themselves.* 
The narrative approach works because human beings have an instinctual affinity for stories. We read novels, we recite fairytales to our children and we tell stories about ourselves both to entertain and to make sense of our lives. These include anecdotes, memoirs, diary entries and even the biographical precis (degree, job, number of children).

So stories fulfill a paradoxical role - we can escape into them, leaving behind mundane / complicated lives, or we can use them to examine our deeper selves. Could Anna's gruesome death under the wheels of a train have been avoided? With the help of life coach, maybe. 


* This quotation is taken from a chapter on narrative coaching by David B. Drake in The Complete Handbook of Coaching.
Thanks to Jamie Reed, an executive coach and author, who helped me with some aspects of this post






Emma Clark Lam is the author of A Sister for Margot