The answer to ‘what is coaching?’ is not a simple one.  Nor should it be.

Masterful coaching is transformational; an expertly woven tapestry of experience, skill, tact and deep knowledge.  The experience, the odyssey is one of finding a pathway to shift mindset and change behaviours to reach new levels of awareness for personal development and growth.

That’s assuming that’s what you want and that you find a good one.

Coaching is expanding at an exponential rate with an estimate of 10,000 new coaches practising each year.  The term is used to cover a multitude of practitioners in the helping services.  These vary widely in the benefit they bring to their clients.

It can truly be a case of horses for courses, but which course are you on? A short sharp race to a quick outcome, middle distance hurdles and ditches or a long-distance challenge?

Does it show that this coach likes a metaphor?

Coaching, Mentoring, Counselling, what’s the difference? 

The OED is no real help in defining coaching as it states as to “tutor, train, gives hints, prime with facts”. All of these things can subsequently be done in many ways which don’t look or feel like coaching at all.

This diagram above demonstrates the cross over between coaching, mentoring and counselling (the yellow).  These boundaries are fuzzy, sticky, messy and about as human as they come. 

There are many schools of thought on differentiation.  However, how much looking back is needed? What are the needs to move forward and you could say that counsellors may practice more clinically and expertly handle deep-rooted damaging beliefs and the consequences of trauma  Ultimately the focus is on what has gone before to create a better current state, understand the behaviours and thoughts at play and seek reparation and restoration for their clients? They can also give their clients help with plans to move their restored selves to become more robust and in balance for the future.  

Mentors often prefer to be called a consultant or coach. Sometimes they prefer business coach   The style tends to be directive and advisory although there may be an element of coaching included.  It’s this, I think, that muddies the waters most when we try to neatly define coaching.

Mentors are not inclined to look at past trauma. Nor should it be expected.  They are often specialised in a particular field. They, therefore, give advice or consult on solutions for future success.  With the giving of answers and advice, the accountability for correctness lies with the mentor.  The responsibility of action lies with the client.

Coaching; the middle ground?

Coaches can sit with an elbow resting on both of the seats to either side.  They are able to lean in where appropriate but are careful not to not sit fully in each.  Accountability and responsibility for the plans made, ideas formed and action taken in a coaching session remains firmly with the client. 

Coaches facilitate empowered commitment and self-realisation.  Emotions that emerge in coaching and are acknowledged and given validity to enable a shift.  Explicit contracting in coaching should include an agreement, that if an emotive matter emerges that would be more appropriate for counselling, that they will gently give the emotions space and acknowledge their limitations.

Good coaching is therapeutic but it is not therapy

In a traditional sense coaching can be described as “unlocking peoples’ potential to maximise their own performance” (Gallwey, 1986).  Gallway was a golfer so although this definition has a sporting origin it does capture the essence of what coaches do.  There are many styles, methods and techniques based on the schools of thought of thinkers throughout the last century but they all unlock the potential to learn through questioning and challenging with support rather than teaching. 

Much like you learned to walk, maybe with a parent holding a hand or being there to catch you as you fell.  Essentially the steps you took were not ‘taught’ by others but lovingly encouraged in a safe environment.  You may well have been coached.

Think of the butterfly emerging from a chrysalis.  It struggles. However if you were tempted to open the shell and release it early, the butterfly would be feeble and unlikely to survive.  It is in the struggle that it becomes strong. Without that it is not empowered.   It is in the falling that a baby learns balance.    What coaches can do is provide an environment where the struggle is safe to consider, to contemplate and explore solutions.

This is why masterful coaches will challenge and provoke, they will provide a safe container for your values, biases. judgements and beliefs.  They provide a metaphorical sandpit for you to play in where you can review and test your thoughts, challenge your own beliefs. A safe space without judgement or condemnation. 

What do people bring to coaching?

Coaching can be about life, business, career, development, mindfulness, mindset, confidence the list is RSI inducing.  Many of the tools and techniques are universal and there are some specialisms. 

I couldn’t list the variety of human scenarios explored in coaching.  Executives will also bring life into their sessions, those coming for life coaching will talk about work.  It is not a monochrome discipline.

Understanding what a coach can help with and where they draw the line is a personal matter between coach and client. The key is therefore to find the one that suits your needs.

How can I find a coach?

Coaching isn’t regulated but there are regulatory bodies.   This can give comfort that a minimum amount of learning and a competency benchmark has been reached.  Anyone accredited has a code of ethics to adhere to.  If you want to look into this, you can try the European Mentor and Coaching Counsel, International Coaching Federation and Association for Coaching; although there are others. 

Personally, the most effective way to find a coach is to have a good idea of what you are looking to resolve or plan for and search key words relating to that.  Decide if you want your coach to be accredited and then look for this in their bios and webpages.   You may well find your own network is a great source for a word of mouth referral (then do some mild google and LinkedIn stalking to check them out, they won’t mind).  A coach will generally not charge you for an exploratory discussion, so it’s worth asking.

Great coaching

Done well, coaching facilitates thinking, it liberates unacknowledged ideas and blocks and disables limiting beliefs.  It’s disruptive yet uplifting, it can be uncomfortable yet soothing, and it is tough but empowering so that you emerge, like the butterfly, stronger and more capable to face the world.

Rachel Woods

Rachel Woods, Coach in Nature, MSc is accredited by EMCC as Senior Practitioner and specialises in coaching for behavioural change and coaching supervision.  A self-confessed biophile, she draws on nature to enhance the systemic effect of coaching. 

And you can also find Rachel on LinkedIn.