What is Coaching?

Can you answer the question ‘what is coaching?’ or, like thousands of others are you just confused? Coaching is a fast growing industry with thousands of people training to become coaches each year and even more people paying for the services of coaches. But with this coaching explosion has also come confusion…not least confusion as to what coaching really is, how it differs from other interventions such as mentoring or counseling and how it can actually benefit you or your organisations.

There are many definitions of coaching however there is a common theme around helping individuals improve either themselves or what they do and helping them reach their full potential. The term coaching was originally associated with sports coaching where sports people have employed coaches to help them improve their performance. The terms coaching however has more latterly has been applied to the development of leaders (leadership coaching), senior personnel within organisations (executive coaching), people who want to develop their business (business coaching), people who want to develop their confidence (confidence coaching) and people who want to address all aspects of their life (life coaching)…to name but a few.

The other consensus seems to be that by using the services of a good coach you can achieve results far quicker than if you go it alone.

Beyond these commonalities there is a wide variance as to how coaching can actually help. Some of the ways in which coaching can benefit you include increasing your self-awareness, developing specific skills, increasing your confidence, helping you gaining clarity of thought about a situation or problem, developing your creative thinking and exploring options, initiating and accelerating action, creating a ‘safe‘ and confidential place in which to share your thoughts and feelings with a trusted individual or providing you with an impartial sounding board.

Some coaches specialise in particular areas, others help clients across a broad spectrum.

Directive versus non-directive coaching
Some of the biggest debates centre around whether true coaching involves giving advice. Some argue ferociously that coaching is strictly about helping the client find their own solutions for moving forward with the coaches role being one of asking intuitive and powerful questions. This is a hugely empowering process which recognizes that the client has the answers within and their full resourcefulness is released by the skill of the coach asking the right questions. When this approach is taken coaches don’t necessarily need to have experience in the area in which they are coaching and often it is an advantage if coaches don’t as they may be less inclined to offer their own opinions.

Others argue that a client does not always have the answers and coaching necessitates guidance through imparting of suggestions, ideas, advice and tools. The implication here is that a coach need to have knowledge or experience specific to the person they are coaching. A more directive approach is often taken by many ‘business coaches.’

Instead of arguing about which is true coaching it is perhaps better to accept that both approaches are forms of coaching, the former being termed ‘non-directive coaching’ and the latter ‘directive coaching.’ Each has its place and advantages. For example sports coaching, which used to be solely about the coach imparting their own skills and experience to develop the player, increasingly nowadays many top sports people also have non-directive coaches (who may not technically be experienced in that particular sport) who through their skillful questioning can help them develop their skills and well as help them work on their psychology and motivation.

Coaching versus Mentoring
Another area of confusion is the difference between coaching and mentoring and unfortunately there are no definitive cut and dried definitions accepted by all. In the UK increasingly coaching tends to be associated more with a non-directive approach to developing people where as most people think of mentoring as being the development of people through the passing on of knowledge and experience by a mentor. In the States the opposite seems to apply although increasingly coaching is being recognized as a non-directive relationship. There are also various academic writers who also consider additional dimensions such as the duration of the relationship and the nature of the area to be developed in forming their definition.

Coaching versus Counseling (or therapy)
Finally let’s just consider the differences between coaching and counseling (or therapy). Whilst there are certainly similarities between counseling and non-directive coaching in terms of the skills involved (a focus on questioning and listening versus telling) and the intentions ultimately the same (to help you move forward) the approaches are very different. Many forms of counseling (but not all) delve into the client’s past, establishing reasons for the client’s present state.

Coaching on the other hand doesn’t touch the past and has no interest in the reasons why, instead focuses only on your present and future. Increasingly coaching is being used as a positive alternative to therapy, one example being the healing of relationship issues. However there are certain areas where counseling still seems to predominate where it is used to address deep-seated long term underlying issues and in the treatment of addictions.

Keith Miller

Keith Lawrence Miller, Organizational Psychologist, Board Certified Coach (BCC), Professional Credentialed Coach (PCC), with subject matter expertise in executive career & leadership coaching and management consulting supported by a Master of Arts (M.A.) in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University.

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