What is coaching?

The International Coach Federation (ICF), the world’s largest organization of professionally trained coaches, defines coaching as "partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.”  

So what does that mean in practice?  

Professional coaching is essentially a powerful, conversation-based approach that supports you to develop the capacities required to sustainably cope with your challenges in new, more effective ways.  In short, coaching helps you change.

Stretch and support

It’s important to recognize that a coaching conversation is not always comfortable.  There are two main components needed to create a transformational outcome for you as a coaching client: stretch and support.  A professionally trained coach is skilled at providing both in just the right doses.

Stretch occurs when your coach senses it’s the right time to challenge your thinking and assumptions, push you past the edges of your comfort zone, or directly communicate what they are observing in service of helping you become the person you want to become.  But too much stretch (ie feeling constantly thrown into the deep end) can lead to burnout and anxiety, which impedes learning.  So to create an ideal environment to accelerate your growth, support is also provided through deep listening, creating a non-judgemental space so you can honestly explore your thoughts and reflect on your behaviors, plus plenty of encouragement to keep you moving in the direction of your vision.

Vertical Development

Many people mistakenly use the term ‘coaching’ as a synonym for ‘mentoring’, ‘training’ or ‘consulting’, which can be confusing.  But true coaching is not about telling you what to do - it’s a process of supporting you to develop for yourself the capacities you’ve identified you need to expand in order to achieve your goals.  Coaching is a form of vertical development and for true development to occur, it must be earned for oneself.

For example, let’s say you’re not giving feedback to your team.  You could go on a training course - a typical horizontal growth initiative - where the trainer might talk about what feedback is, the importance of giving feedback, and share some tools, approaches, and best practices for giving feedback.  Presumably, by the end of the training, you'd have gained the knowledge you need in order to know what to do to deliver feedback to your team members.

But if you return to the office and find you're still not giving feedback to your team - if, say, it's something you avoid because you find yourself shaking or close to tears anytime you attempt to do it - then your challenge isn’t that you don’t know what to do, it’s that you haven’t yet cultivated the capacity to execute on your knowledge in a way that feels comfortable to you.  

No amount of a mentor or trainer telling you to “just do it” is likely to help in this situation - the solution is to expand your capacity to have challenging conversations with confidence.  Coaching is designed to help you do just that.

Source: David Rock, Quiet Leadership

Source: David Rock, Quiet Leadership

Difference between Coaching and Mentoring

How is coaching different from other professional services?  The model below, from David Rock's book Quiet Leadership, provides a simple way of distinguishing between coaching and mentoring, consulting and counseling.  

At one end of the x-axis is a focus on the problem and at the other end is a focus on the solution.  At one end of the y-axis is a focus on telling and at the other end is a focus on asking.  Working within this framework:

  • Coaching asks about the solution

  • Counselling asks about the problem

  • Mentoring tells about the solution

  • Consulting tells about the problem.

If you're interested in coaching but unsure how to find the coach that's right for you, I’ve provided a list of criteria I look for in the article How to Choose a Professional Coach.