What is Coaching? A Clear Perspective

Here’s a scenario we’re all too familiar with… You’re at a party, or on a plane, or pretty much anywhere where you were just introduced to someone new, and within a few minutes comes the question – ‘What do you do?’   As a coach who has many of these conversations, I’ve noticed there are numerous differing notions about coaching and the role of a coach.  Today, I’ll share with you my perspective of what coaching is and is not, at least in my practice at PoA.  My hope is that you come away with more clarity and some distinctions that will help you get the most out of any coach you engage with in the future. 

A major contributor to the coaching confusion is that the field is unregulated.  This means that anyone can hang a shingle today and call herself coach.  But it’s not all the wild west out there.  The International Coach Federation (ICF) is doing its part as the primary professional organization to create and uphold professional, ethical and credentialing standards for the coaching profession. 

It’s helpful to start by addressing the angle of what coaching is not.  The following are common causes of confusion - coaching is not consulting, performance management, teaching or therapy.  Let’s take them one at a time.  A typical model for consulting is that we work together to address what’s wrong, and then I tell you how to fix it and give advice because I’m an expert in the area.  One of the stickiest mantras from my coach training at Georgetown was to coach the client, not the problem. In other words, in coaching the focus is on discovering what underlies the issue for the client, to seek the insights that are not immediately apparent.  It’s not about getting caught up in the story through problem solving.  I start every engagement with the belief that my clients are whole, resourceful, and hold the knowledge and wisdom within that is needed to achieve their goals.  My job is to shepherd, partner and guide clients, not tell them what to do. 

In organizations, a common misconception is that the work we do as supervisors to manage our teams is coaching.  Occasionally this is true, but most of the time what we are doing is performance management.  Communicating constructive performance feedback and setting expectations for improvement is an important part of being a competent boss and managing process, but it has little, if anything, to do with coaching. 

Teaching is about educating you on a subject and is often executed by the teacher talking or demonstrating and the student listening, watching and learning.  In coaching, the coachee does the majority of the talking, while the coach creates space for your self-discovery. 

Therapy requires different qualifications, skills and techniques than coaching, and frequently involves an emotional and situational deep dive into your past to generate healing.   While coaching addresses the entire person, the inner and outer life, it operates primarily in the present, is less concerned with story and details, and is action-oriented toward the future.  One of my ethical commitments as a coach is to recognize when a client would be better served by a therapist and make referrals as appropriate.

Does all of this mean that a coach can never serve as a consultant or teacher?  No, certainly not.  In fact, many times coaches are hired because their background and experience are part of what make them the right fit as a coach for a particular client.  I believe that if you hire a coach with the shared understanding that you’re seeking pure coaching, then you should get what you paid for.  If it’s of value to you to ask for advice or education in an area of your coach’s expertise, then the coach’s job is to be clear about when she’s switching hats between those roles.

So what is coaching?  In its purest form, the process of coaching challenges people to think and behave differently.  Illuminating this further, coaching asks clients to question their thoughts, assumptions and stories in order to create sustained changes in thinking that lead to desired behavioral change, actions and results.  This is accomplished by a coach through a variety of methods – active listening, powerful questions, direct communication, offering of observations, raising self-awareness, co-creating actions, setting goals, and managing accountability, to name a few.  Coaching is a process; it takes time to embed positive change in a sustained way. 

Are you ready for a coach or planning to engage a coach for someone in your organization?  Here are some important considerations and questions:

  • Are you (or your employees) in condition to be coached?  Coaching requires commitments of openness, time, effort and energy.  Start a coaching engagement when you can clear space and time to make the most of it.
  • Do you have a clear and specific agenda for the coaching engagement?  Clients should start an engagement prepared with the overarching priorities that will inform the fabric of the coaching engagement.
  • Can you define what success looks like?  Any coach worth her weight should be asking you from the beginning what the metrics of success are for your agenda.  At the end of the engagement, what outcomes will you achieve if the coaching engagement was successful?

If your answers to the above questions were a resounding ‘yes!’, I would love to connect with you about your goals and aspirations.  Contact me at katrina@point-of-arrival.com to take the next step in your development journey today!