Talking about Coaching: What it is, What it is Not

Frank BallInsights0 Comments

We often find ourselves talking to people, be they potential clients or the general public, about what coaching is and what it is not. Because the word “coaching” has so many other common meanings, people are more likely to believe that they know what we mean by the term than they actually do. All of this leads to misunderstanding about what our kind of coaching is like and what all is involved in it. For that reason, every coach needs to find his or her own way of describing what coaching is. Fundamentally, coaching, as we use the term, is all about the client’s learning and growth in areas that matter to him or her.


I think it important that we have a number of coaching definitions or coaching descriptions to better match what we say about coaching to the situation. This is a case where one definition definitely doesn’t fit all. Ideally, we should be able to adjust them in a way that makes sense for the person to whom I am speaking. For example, in an organizational context, I may characterize coaching as a form of one-on-one training for key personnel. People understand what training is; people understand what one-on-one anything is like, and they understand that not everyone in the organization is a key person and thus not everyone is getting coaching.

Another way to describe coaching that I frequently use is not so much to “sell” people but to help them understand that for me, and I specifically use the language “for me.” Using that construct, what a definition of coaching might sounds like is, “for me, coaching is the most powerful and respectful way that one person can participate in the development of another person.”


I often use the technique of comparing and contrasting coaching and training. We all understand what going to a training course is like whether it is for our personal development or for something related to our work. When you go to training you usually go away from your normal environment. You go somewhere else with people you don’t normally work with or normally associate with. The people delivering the training have decided before you get there what you need to learn. It’s called a curriculum or a schedule or objectives. They do a bunch of things to you whether it’s a yoga class or mindfulness or whatever it might be and you go there, and you return from the training location to a place called the real world. When you go away to training, they often try very hard to make it tied to the real world. They might do exercises, they might do case studies, and they might do simulations. None of them are exactly like the real world.


In contrast, coaching occurs in the client’s natural habitat. So if it is work related, coaching may happen at the client’s office. If it is related to the client’s personal life, it will be at his or her place, not somewhere else. Rather than trying to create simulations or exercises that have relevancy in the real world, we use the client’s real world for the learning that occurs through coaching. Clients learn on the job, in their life. The training, if you will, or the pathway to the learning, the development, the capacity building in the client is co-created. Both the coach and the client determine what the objectives are rather than a curriculum that’s been designed by another person for the client learner. The client decides what the objectives are for the coaching and what the sought for outcomes are. What are the things the client wants to be able to do that they can’t do now? What are the things that they can now do that they want to do better? What are the things that they are tripped up by?


In talking about coaching the question of whether coaching is therapy very often comes up. You should be prepared for it. I encourage you to formulate your own definitions to illustrate the distinction. This is another area where compare and contrast is a useful technique. At a very simple level it’s apparent that coaching and therapy can look very similar. They are one-on-one relationships that continue over a period of time. The work is done through conversation. Meetings are often an hour in length and conducted privately. The content being discussed is confidential. Both professions have codes of ethics that govern conduct of the practitioner. And as similar as they are, in my view there are some clear differences. Therapy is often focused on healing. Though healing may occur through coaching, that is not a primary purpose of a coaching relationship. Therapy often focuses on events in the past and understanding their impact on the present. Coaching is generally much more future focused and action oriented than many forms of therapy. Regardless of my definitions, it’s really up to all of us as coaches to become clear about what our definitions of those terms are and to become skilled at sharing them with others.


Consider scheduling a Laser Session or joining a Coach Development Group if you’d like to sharpen your distinctions, increase your confidence in speaking about the work we do, and practice doing so in a supportive community of coaches.

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