Coach as Midwife
As a coaching community of practice, we embraced and explored what coaching as midwife means for us both conceptually and in practice. We thought we were novel in our metaphor only to discover that Socrates first introduced the metaphor of midwife in describing the philosophical awakening he engaged in with his fellow male Athenians. He was helping them give birth to the wisdom that is in them. He says it thus, in The Theaetetus, 150 b-c
My art of midwifery is in general like theirs [real midwives]; the only difference is that my patients are men, not women, and my concern is not with the body but with the soul that is in travail of birth. And the highest point of my art is the power to prove by every test whether the offspring of a young man’s thought is a false phantom or instinct with life and truth. I am so far like the midwife that I can, not myself give birth to wisdom, and the common reproach is true, that, though I question others, I can myself bring nothing to light because there is no wisdom in me…The many admirable truths they bring to birth have been discovered by themselves from within. But the delivery is heaven’s work and mine.
Sadly, Socrates also was constrained by his patriarchal mindset in describing his role as a superior midwife dealing with the seemingly unintelligent men of Athens. Despite this limitation, the midwife as a metaphor aptly captures the complexity, power, and richness of the dynamic relationship between coach and coachee. The midwife metaphor is captured well by a woman reflecting on the role of midwife her life (3) :
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I’ve been extremely fortunate to have highly skilled midwives attend all three of my births. My life and the lives of my children depended on their watchfulness, decision- making and care. They were not in control of my birthing processes but were able to use their resourcefulness, intelligence and compassion to empower me to do what only I could do. Their presence gave me confidence and courage; their quiet voices comforted me deeply. My firstborn son was very literally rescued from death by my midwife’s actions. Another midwife was present through one of the longest and most painful nights of my life as I laboured with my daughter; when she was born my midwife laid her on my chest, sharing deeply in my joy and my relief. In my third (and most peaceful) birth a few months ago, it wasn’t until I saw pictures that I realised how closely involved my midwife was throughout the process, how much I needed her quiet hands in my most vulnerable moments.