What is coaching? How coaching differs from other helping activities

what is coaching?

So what is coaching and why should you care?

SelfDeterminedLife.coms is aimed at helping individuals, teams and leaders improve performance, well-being and quality of life, both inside and outside the workplace.

And there is a strong focus, within these pages, on coaching as the best way to facilitate improvement, wellbeing and growth.

So if I’m promoting coaching as the means by which we can best bring about development in people, it is important to have clarity about exactly what coaching is.

What is coaching – the definition

According to Tony Grant, head of the coaching psychology unit at the University of Sydney, one of the world’s leading academics in the field (and my old tutor), coaching can be defined as:

A collaborative, solution-focused, results-oriented and systematic process, in which the coach facilitates the enhancement of performance, life experience, self-directed learning and personal growth of individuals and organisations.

Another good answer to the ‘what is coaching?’ question is from the book Manager as Coach by Jenny Rogers, Karen Whittleworth and Andrew Gilbert:

Coaching is the art of facilitating another person’s learning, development and performance. It raises self-awareness and identifies choices. Through coaching, people are able to find their own solutions, develop their own skills, and change their own attitudes and behaviours. The whole aim of coaching is to close the gap between potential and performance.

So, what these definitions tell us is that coaching:

  • is collaborative and systematic
  • is results oriented and solution focused
  • facilitates learning, development, performance, and change
  • promotes self-awareness and choice
  • places ownership of the solutions for development and change on the coachee
  • is aimed at growth, the fulfilment of potential and, by extension, improving well-being.

What is coaching in practice?

In practice, coaching is fundamentally future focused, concerned with what people want to do and where they want to go rather than what they have done and where they have been.

The role of the coach is to ask questions of the coachee that provoke insight and awareness and allow them to identify pathways to achieve desired outcomes, and then facilitate the development of action plans to achieve those outcomes.

The idea of the coach as questioner and facilitator is critical to coaching and critical to an understanding of how coaching differs from other helping disciplines.

A coach may (and should) challenge assumptions, help the coachee surface unhelpful and limiting belief systems. A coach should also share with the coachee his or her observations of systemic patterns that may be impacting the coachee’s ability to reach potential.

But, fundamentally, responsibility for devising solutions and identifying goals and relevant action plans must rest with the coachee.

This is because the necessary motivation to act only arises with the autonomy that ownership of the solutions brings.

What coaching is not

The term coaching is increasingly applied to a multitude of different activities, most of which are not coaching when assessed against the definitions outlined above.

In the workplace and personal development arena, it is worth making clear how coaching differs from the disciplines referred to below.

What is coaching compared with counselling and therapy

Counselling and therapy, are typically aimed at helping those suffering from a diagnosed mental disorder or who are seeking to recover from trauma.

Many modalities of counselling are problem centred and focused on past experience.

Coaching, in contrast, is forward looking and solution focused and concerned with the development of those falling within a non-clinical population.

Coaching compared with training

Training is concerned with the transmission of information from trainer to trainee, usually for the purposes of building the trainee’s knowledge or skills.

Coaching differs from training in that there is no assumption in coaching that the coach has superior knowledge or possesses information that the coachee lacks.

Coaching compared with consulting

The consultant is engaged to provide a solution to a particular problem or, a the very least, to provide the framework of knowledge and materials from which a solution can be constructed.

This is what lots of service providers, especially in the marketing and online space, really do when they say that they provide coaching to individuals or groups of clients.

In coaching, the coach is an enabler, who, through careful interaction with the coachee, co-creates the conditions within which the coachee can construct their own solutions.

Coaching compared with mentoring

A mentor is typically somebody more experienced in a field of endeavour than the mentee. The mentor uses his or her experience to provide advice, guidance and, often, useful introductions, so as to enable the mentee to solve particular problems or progress generally in their chosen field.

The mentoring relationship assumes that the mentor has answers that the mentee needs and that the mentor effectively knows best.

In coaching, the expectation is that the coachee is the expert in their own experience and that the coach has no superior insights into the coachee’s situation.

Coaching compared with managing

In organisations, leaders often need to be coach and manager. It is therefore important to be able to distinguish which role is appropriate at any given time.

Management should be about the practicalities, e.g. the division of work and tasks, co-ordination of activities and role-related administrative tasks.

Coaching should occur when considering the ‘how and the why’ of what needs to be done, so that the staff member can devise their own approach, gain ownership and motivation and experience development in the process.

Power in coaching

Contrasting coaching with these other disciplines is useful as it enables us to see the power differentials at work.

Unlike these other helping relationships, coaching involves equals working together. It entails collaboration and the co-creation of the reflective spaces that allow for development and growth.

When we are coaching as managers, therefore, it is critical that this dynamic is maintained in coaching conversations, notwithstanding the line management responsibilities that otherwise exist.

Summing up

As indicated, there are useful defintions that give us a positive answer to the question – “what is coaching?”

These emphasise the central position of the coachee as knowledge holder and creator of solutions, with the coach as guide and facilitator.

But we can also answer the ‘what is coaching?’ question, by comparing it to the other helping and supportive activities outlined – counselling, consulting, training, managing etc. – to get a deeper understanding of what coaching really is.

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