‘Coaching’… This word seems to be everywhere these days, a catch-all term amongst some organisations and individuals for anything that isn’t ‘training-in-a-classroom’.
There’s increasing evidence that strategically rolled out, clearly defined coaching interventions produce significant benefits for organisations which impact employee engagement as well as the bottom line. Where coaching programmes are seen to be supported by top management, and leaders model ‘coaching style’ behaviours, results can be powerful. Coaching is taken seriously, and people buy into it.
But what happens if coaching is not so clearly defined?
The need for clear definitions
The International Coach Federation (ICF) describes coaching as: “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential… Coaches honor the client as the expert in his or her life and work…” *
Note the words ‘partnering’, ‘creative process’ and ‘client as expert’. For coaching to ‘work’, these fundamental principles need to be clarified and understood at the outset. Without this clear understanding, what happens next is highly unlikely to be actual ‘coaching’.
Let’s look at one or two common misunderstandings that a coach can meet in his or her practice.
Is coaching ‘training’?
It may be that a potential coaching sponsor or coachee thinks coaching is ‘training’, but on a 1:1 basis. That’s wrong. Coaching isn’t teaching or advising, and the coach isn’t there to ‘direct’. Coach and coachee engage in a partnership, where the coachee is seen as the ‘expert’. What the coach brings is the skills of drawing out of the coachee the knowledge and potential solutions of which he or she was previously not consciously aware.
For coaching to ‘work’, the coachee should be willing to engage in the coaching (that is, not be compelled by a sponsor or manager), and to have an issue or goal that is ‘coachable’. This might be a work relationship or procedure that needs improving, or a need for a confidential space to explore motivation, values, possible future pathways… Whatever the issue, the coach’s value is in helping the coachee tease out her or his own solutions, via careful listening, questioning and reflecting back. And this is rarely a cosy chat. Coaching involves challenge.
The coachee digs deep to design her or his own solutions, and commits to taking action towards bringing those solutions into reality. Coaching, therefore, can produce the kind of practical change and development in an individual which training alone cannot achieve. But it can only do so if there is a coaching issue in the first place, and the coachee is willing to engage in the process.
It’s surprising how often coaches are presented with potential coachees who don’t have a coaching issue and/or don’t wish to engage in the process! What to do? Being clear on definitions and understandings from the outset, combined with use of a robust contracting process to agree what the coaching will cover, should reveal such a situation pretty quickly. If appropriate, the coach can then suggest alternative activities agreeable to potential coachee and/or sponsor.
Is coaching therapy or counselling?
It’s quite common for coaching to be confused with therapy or counselling. However, in reality it is quite distinct.
Therapy and counselling tend to delve into issues from the past which prevent an individual from living happily and well in the present. ‘Caring professionals’ such as psychiatrists, psychologists, psychotherapists and counsellors go through lengthy training and compulsory periodic supervision in order to use the most appropriate techniques (and in the case of psychiatrists, medications) that will help those who are deemed ‘unwell’ to improve their condition.
Coaching, by contrast, deals broadly with the present and future of individuals who are presumed to be ‘well’. If selected wisely, a coach will be well-trained, but crucially, that training does not include how to deal with individuals suffering from past traumas. That is beyond the scope of a coaching relationship.
With coaching, the focus is on the present, facilitating a coachee’s own ability to dig deep to find ‘bespoke’ practical strategies towards a better, more productive future. The coach and coachee meet as equals, whereas ‘caring professionals’ are acknowledged as experts.
If it becomes clear in coaching that a coachee is not ‘well’, and the issues would be more appropriately dealt with by ‘caring professionals’, even if the coach is also a qualified therapist or counsellor, it is his or her duty to call a halt to proceedings. The coachee should be informed that the coaching relationship does not cover such work, and be advised to consult relevant specialists within the organisation (where available), or to approach his or her own GP.
Clearly coaching should not be seen within organisations as a ‘last resort’ when an individual is unwillingly facing redundancy, suffering from too much stress to function in the workplace, or has what might be termed ‘personality disorders’ which should be dealt with by ‘caring professionals’. Coaching in these circumstances will not ‘work’, and may actually make things worse.
So – be clear on what coaching is…
Coaching is powerful and it can bring significant benefits to individuals and organisations. But for coaching to be optimally effective, organisations, sponsors and potential coachees need to understand what it actually is. It is not training. It is not therapy or counselling. It is a partnership between coach and coachee designed to bring into awareness the innate insights, wisdom and creativity that can be harnessed by the coachee to move forward optimally into a brighter more productive future.
* See the ‘What is professional coaching’ section of the International Coach Federation: Coaching FAQs