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22 Oct 14

Life Coaching Boom in Serbia is No Mystery

Vera Ovanin

The concept of life coaching, both abroad and particularly here in Serbia, has long fascinated me.

It seemed mind-blowing that so many people would seek advice on a deeply personal level from people whose line of work is not sanctioned by the professional psychotherapists’ establishment.

The institutes providing life-coaching sessions are the very bodies licensing future practitioners; no unbiased party scrutinizes the accreditation process in-between.

I questioned the sincerity of the cure-all rhetoric employed by many life coaches; the promise of a “rosy beyond” seemed more appropriate for a dietary product guaranteeing a whole new “you” for a fee.

Of greatest interest to me were the reasons fueling this growing trend in Serbia.

What is life coaching?

Life coaching is defined as a development process during which an individual receives support while striving to achieve a specific objective, either personal or professional.

The term has wormed its way into mainstream lexicon as an umbrella term for various guidance approaches. These range from methods employed by uncertified counsellors to those used by professional psychotherapists that rely on life coaching for its indisputable success within various segments of the population, and exploit the popularity of the term to attract clients.

What unites virtually all life coaching principles is the philosophy behind neuro-linguistic programming, NLP, a solution-focused communication method aimed at changing destructive behavioural patterns. 

In plain English, NLP aspires to harness the power of the individual to improve his or her life. It was created by two Californian self-help gurus, Richard Bandler and John Grinder, in the 1970s.

As such, it has broad corporate applications that hinge on effective persuasive techniques, including sales, negotiation, marketing, management training and team building.

I wondered how much credibility the model’s intense focus on the inner power of the individual has in a country still dealing with the aftermath of three civil wars, skyrocketing unemployment, massive corruption and brain drain.

Recently, just as Serbia was seemingly starting to pull through, following its emergence from Slobodan Milosevic’s regime, Serbia’s fragile economy took another knockout blow with the onset of a global recession.

The new economic reality further eroded the freedom of people to maneuver within existing socio-economic constraints to shape their own fate in line with their potential.

Walking around Belgrade these days, you are much more likely to hit on second hand shops or cheap dime stores than premium brand stores, whose owners have packed up to focus on more lucrative markets.

Turning to life coaches for answers seemed like a quest within a disillusioned narrative.

Bursting with skepticism, I initially set out to construct this story with the idea that life coaching is a pseudo science most of whose practitioners fill a spiritual void previously ruled by astrologers, fortunetellers and tarot card readers.

As part of this story I decided to subject myself to a sample session, guided by a Belgrade-based life and business coach.

Gordana Panajotovic is an economist by degree who held various corporate managerial positions, including human resources, and is now in the final process of getting her certification from a Canadian coaching institute, Erickson International.

She is beautiful and charming, but not in an intimidating way. Instead, she comes across as down to earth, the kind of person you wanted to hang out with in high school, but didn’t.

I liked her. She did not sprinkle her vocabulary with New Age phrases; and when she did talk about her belief in positive energy flows it sounded genuine, not like a mishmash of sales pitches and daydreams.

“I experienced loss on a fundamental level, so my desire to do this, to help and support other people, is real and comes from a real place,” said Panajotovic, who also holds group training sessions for individuals interested in personal development and career counseling. 

Before starting the session my assignment was to pick a personal problem causing traffic jam in my brain, to address with her as my life coach.

She deconstructed the problem into digestible segments, and drew a diagram that reflected my present situation, affected by the said drawbacks and the possible future reality without those drawbacks in place.

The link between the two was meant to act as a road map out of my current conundrum.

Her practical approach to problem solving does not search for answers rooted in the distant past and I could appreciate why people find it appealing. The aesthetic of the exercise is palatable, particularly its focus on the here and now.

It runs opposite to spiraling down the winding tunnel of your psyche (think Freud and the surgical childhood inspection), and reflects the NLP philosophy that reaching objectives does not have to be a difficult task.

I did not find the session eye-opening but, then, I went to a psychologist before starting university and have gone back ever since, on a per-needed basis. To put it bluntly, I am already doing push-ups with my issues.

But I had to admit that for someone going in to talk about his or her problems for the first time, the exercise could prove beneficial - especially in a country where seeking professional help out of a cognitive rut is still often only whispered about.

Like all taboos, this one is not without its paradox. In a country of some 7.2 million, the sale of sedatives totalled 7.0 million in the first eight months of 2013 alone, according to Al Jazeera.

That is 2 million fewer than in 2011, during the same period - but not because dependence has fallen. It is because the restrictions imposed on medical professionals have tightened.

Something occurred to me as I passed a high school on my way home after the session: in a nation whose education system was for decades anchored around parched-dry theory repetition models instead of critical thinking, a simple learning approach may be no bad thing.

Happy people:

You can find an abundance of literature on the Internet, mainly by academics from the fields of psychology, sociology and anthropology, discrediting NLP as a superficial form of therapy. In a nutshell, they brand it an illegitimate branch of psychology without borders, centred on symbolic efficacy as opposed to concrete value.

To find out for myself I went straight to the nerve centre, Serbia’s NLP Institute in Belgrade. 

The institute, located in the high-end Dedinje neighbourhood, was formed by Serbia’s NLP queen B, Slavica Squire. She is widely recognized for bringing NLP to Serbia on a broad scale. 

Squire, a Serbian native who lived in Germany for years, where she excelled in sales, launched NLP seminars here in 2004, for corporate purposes and for individual groups.

She is a focused dynamo of energy and self confidence in the convention of successful motivational speakers, and it comes as no surprise that Squire has amassed a loyal fan base: when she talks, people listen.

“I believe in miracles and I believe anyone can make them happen to create positive change,” she told me, citing as examples a growing number of people attending NLP seminars, whom she refers to as her followers. 

During my visit to the institute, I spent a few hours with an eclectic group of professional people attending a workshop held by Squire.

As part of the workshop, from what I was able to see, they got to take part in fun activities in a brightly lit room full of colourful posters with large diagrams illustrated on them.

The room radiated with kinship and with the jovial spirit of people pursuing a meaningful goal.

There was no sarcastic rhetoric among this group, no crude mockery of the system. It was nothing like the cynical communication approach that shapes the cultural stamp of Serbia’s character. 

There was an entrepreneur whose eyes sparkled when he talked of NLP, a manager, a lawyer, and a professional psychotherapist, all eager to learn new methods in achieving all kinds of aspirations.

These were happy people. 

But, I wondered if they weren’t happy already, before they came to the institute.

It doesn’t take long to figure out that they are better off than standard representatives of the local population.

NLP, after all, is an expensive hobby. Training sessions start at 250 euro for beginners while training certification costs more than 3,000 euro (one-on-one life coaching sessions, in general, cost 30-50 euro, a price corresponding to that of mainstream therapy).

Some NLP practitioners believe that it not only helps treat a range of phobias, depression and habit disorders, but allergies and common colds.

This is where things got a little weird. At some stage of my NLP excursion I talked to a successful corporate professional, who claimed Squire had wiped out his allergy to peaches.

“For years I didn’t peaches at all, I would break out all over. But now, every year, I can’t wait for the peach season,” he said, adding that he was soon due for a session with Squire for maintenance purposes.

Spiritual void et cetera

It sounds regurgitated by now to repeat that Serbia has gone through several drafts of its collective folklore over the last half-century or so.

Following the Second World War, for almost 50 years, the country’s ID card was framed around communist parameters within the context of a geopolitical union. 

With the breakup of Yugoslavia and the outbreak of civil war in the 1990s, Serbia’s personality grew more national in character.

In this atmosphere of raw changes and sprawling disorientation, astrology and occultism flourished, while the national church that had lain dormant for decades resurfaced.

Most recently, after Milosevic’s fall, Serbs confronted yet another paradigm shift; this time involving adjusting from a largely planned economy to a free market system, stamped by American-style consumerism. 

Today, Serbia is caught between the developing and the developed world. The prevailing sentiment is that it wants to join the European fold but not to alienate Russia or abandon its ethnic flavor.

It is hardly surprising that in the present, individual context of an economic battlefield and endless political maneuvering, many people see life coaching as a plausible recipe for success.

Or, it could be said that as established norms seem increasingly out of touch with such intensely unstable times, a growing number of people are turning to their inner selves for answers.

The many bookstore shelves stocked with self-help literature point to this trend.

The core of this story is not life coaching, but the impotence of our academic narrative to address the power of the individual in a meaningful way.

I still don’t know if life coaching is any more or less credible than the various approaches employed by professional psychotherapists – the topic of credibility itself in this context seems less relevant.

Do the many people who habitually revisit their therapist indicate that therapy is a failure?

I am not convinced that it does.

On the other hand, many consider life coaching a compelling spiritual alternative to professional psychotherapists who they see as an organic part of the very system - its academic offshoot - that disappointed them in the first place. 

I have met people who reject mainstream psychotherapy on this very ground.

In the end, it boils down to how an individual constructs parameters of his or her own reality.

Tarot reading and patron saint observation appear indistinguishable from my angle because, to me, real spirituality comes from art and literature.  

If life coaching has taught me anything, it is this: the drive to reduce spiritual poverty, either through art, cognitive reshuffling or future telling remains a resilient piece of human consciousness, and is bound to resurface if stifled or unsuitably channeled.

The format of the pursuit is the only thing that varies.

It won’t wane until individuals are allowed to design their economic reality in harmony with the spiritual format of their choice, in other words reach their potential.

Flagging a cab from a registered service, or another, even a rogue one, is, in the long run, one and the same. They will all get you where you need to go provided you get in, and give a realistic address, not one located on the paved road of your mental framework - and pay.

The red tape in between is insignificant.

Talk about it!

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