What is coaching?

As I grow an increased awareness around coaching, I realise coaching means so many different things to different people. When I talk to others about coaching, people sometimes feel intrigued, other times unsure about what coaching actually is. When I see references to ‘coaching’ on social media, I often wonder what their meaning of coaching is. I expect many are discussing different concepts when it comes to coaching.

I don’t tend to serve up a clear-cut answer to the question ‘what is coaching?’ because there isn’t one. What I do want to do is:

A) Explore some definitions and coaching frameworks that might help people to come up with their own definitions

B) Create a list of what one should know or have experience in, if they are involved in coaching.

Coaching is a creative process and that’s why I feel reassured with the current coaching landscape: no one body has absolute ownership over or rights to the design and implementation of this powerful practice.

I hope it remains this way.

However, I have found it useful to have a starting point, a professional body, like the International Coaching Federation, that provides definitions and competencies to work with, in order to establish some foundations as a coach and ‘cleanse the palate’ from other habits that have formed over the past sixteen years through my role as teacher and mentor that might impede the coaching process. These roles (teacher and mentor) are close cousins of the coach, and often throw me into confusion when I’m trying to simultaneously separate and fuse all three.

Useful Coaching Definitions and Frameworks

The ICF defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” Yet this is quite a broad term that encompasses a coaching continuum of both directive and non-directive coaching approaches. At this point, it also might be useful to separate the definition of coaching from mentoring because these can be quite different roles too.

The EMCC defines Mentoring as “a learning relationship, involving the sharing of skills, knowledge, and expertise between a mentor and mentee through developmental conversations, experience sharing, and role modelling. The relationship may cover a wide variety of contexts and is an inclusive two-way partnership for mutual learning that values differences.”

Typically a mentor-mentee relationship relies on the expertise of the mentor although words such as ‘inclusive’, ‘sharing’ and ‘mutual learning’ remind us that the mentor still has opportunities for their own growth and learning in this partnership.

This is where the cross overs are evident between mentoring and coaching. Both can be based on a collaborative and reciprocal partnership. Furthermore, as research points to the positive impact of more directive styles of coaching such as instructional coaching, we see coaching embodying the expert vs novice dynamic of mentoring which is necessary and valuable in many contexts.

Where we see coaching stray from the mentoring paradigm is in typical non-directive coaching partnerships such as transformational coaching, where the coach does not always have to be an expert in the coachee’s field, though expertise in coaching knowledge and skills is still necessary. In some situations, it is even better if they are not an expert in the coachee’s field. Coming from the teaching profession, a profession that relies on expertise in order to teach your subject, I had to grapple with this concept for a while – how can you help someone find solutions when you don’t have the knowledge or expertise in this field? But as I surrender more to this process of exploration with my clients (some from different professions to me) and stick to ‘clean’ questions, I am amazed at the efficacy and power of this process. Of course, there is a time and place for experts in solving problems but we must also hold a space for non-directive coaching practice that places ownership on the coachee to solve the problem because when they do, the change is powerful and more likely to be sustained long term.’

I find Jenny Roger’s reference to the Brockbank and McGill matrix helpful; whether it is coaching, mentoring, line management or life coaching, the matrix is helpful in understanding the nuances of Coaching

More recently I came across a research informed guidance report produced by the CfBT Education Trust titled ‘Coaching for teaching and learning: a practical guide for schools. At the start of the report, there is a valuable exploration of the tension between performance monitoring procedures in schools and ‘the potential for staff to share and tackle their personal concerns and queries related to practice that coaching can offer’. This report reveals the challenges in implementing a coaching programme not just in schools but in any organisation that performance manages their employees: ‘Our research evidence indicates that the conflation of coaching with monitoring of teachers’ practice is not uncommon and raises significant challenges for school leaders.’ To tackle such challenges, I suggest leaders need training in coaching frameworks from the upper matrix (developmental and systemic) that lead to transformation, as well as knowing how to synergise these frameworks with more directive performance coaching practices, such as instructional coaching.

The guidance report issued by CfBT is a good example of how coaching and mentoring show up differently depending on the context and how different organisations within sectors take ownership over coaching and mentoring in order to leverage time and energy for maximum impact on the people they serve.

There is a vast body of knowledge and positionings on coaching which can seem overwhelming and confusing, especially if you are at the start of your coaching journey. However, there are ways to overcome with the overwhelm by focusing on what you need to know as a coach or coaching co-ordinator.

In a bid to offer some helpful takeaways, I will offer some key points on what is important for any individual coach or organization wishing to create a coaching culture.

Develop a deep understanding and gain experience in the following:

  • The key professional bodies who accredit coaching e.g ICF
  • The coaching continuum: different styles of coaching and the principles that underpin them
  • Research, professional bodies and/or communities that are developing coaching in your specific area or profession
  • Comprehensive training and practice in coaching that leads to accreditation, ideally through an accredited training provider
  • Being coached yourself – this is invaluable if you are to gain a 360 degree view of the coaching process
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