what is coachingLast night I was reflecting with some fellow executive coaches (at an Association for Coaching, AfC, co-coaching forum) on some of the difficulties this emerging profession still faces. One of those is the lack of clarity in the minds of clients, and sadly some coaches too. So, what is coaching?

The amount of money being spent promoting superficial life coaching or NLP remedies can easily muddy the water & leave this key discipline looking like a bunch of snake oil salesmen or at least wooly thinking “Pollyanna”s.

Given the breadth of professions where clients can be helped by talking, some clients also confuse coaching with mentoring or counselling. One of the benefits of studying the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM) qualification in Executive Coaching & Management has been an opportunity for me to clarify these differences and learn a robust psychological approach to coaching.

Defining coaching

Coaching can take many forms, as I have mentioned in a previous post, but whatever the preferred style, it is at heart a client-centred non-directive means of helping a client find their own solutions to bringing about a change they desire (whether that be improved/sustained performance, achieving some key goals or just better coping with the pressures of a challenging role). It can be delivered internally to an organisation (which is becoming more popular in large corporations) or with the assistance of trained external coaches (like myself), but either way, the coach fulfils an independent facilitation role for an agreed period of time.

Mentors by contrast are almost always internal and provide a more directive and sponsoring steer, with common practice being that a more experienced leader mentors those seen to have potential, in order to help them progress within an organisation.

The differences between coaching & counselling are also important. The first distinction I would draw is that counselling is predominantly to help someone who has a problem, often due to a past trauma or phobia or addiction, and is therapeutic in nature – i.e. the client is being helped through some kind of ‘healing process’. By contrast, coaching is more focussed on enabling people to achieve their goals or potential. There does not need to be anything ‘wrong’ with the person, rather they are seeking to perform even better.

Boundary issues

Another important contrast is that counsellors or mental health professionals, have more specialism and often professional training/regulation in their area of expertise. For that reason an ethical coach will highlight early on with a client that they would make a referral if a need arises during coaching sessions for which the coach is not suitably trained (e.g. need for professional counselling or help with mental health). Indeed this is required by AfC code of ethics.

I hope the above distinctions make sense and are helpful. It is ironic that at the same time as so much progress is being made to professionalize coaching (with good work from bodies like the AfC), and to develop high standards of qualification (with some excellent qualifications from ILM), this stronger academic/professional/ethical foundation is being obscured by marketing & bold claims by others.

Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP)

I am referring to a relatively small number of life coaches & NLP practitioners who are very vocal and make frankly ludicrous and dangerous claims. This is typified by some big budget American advertising by individuals who can ‘change your life’ or help you learn ‘simple steps to get rich quick’, which is ironic as actually the US lags far behind Europe and Australasia in academic research of coaching.

My greatest wrath however is reserved for some of the claims made by certain NLP ‘coaches’. I have personally sat and heard someone wax lyrical about a specific NLP technique that amongst other claims will ‘enable anyone to be anything they truly want to be’ and more dangerously it was claimed was suitable for abused victims to revisit past trauma and ‘never need to go back there again’. What really got my goat is the sting in the tail whereby, those for whom it did not work, were claimed to have ‘not engaged’ or ‘not really believed in the process’ – otherwise it would have worked, of course! This is abusive, along the same lines as the most manipulative TV evangelists or ‘healers’ who will blame those who are not healed for ‘not having enough faith’. This is pseudo-religious manipulation has no place in the world of professional coaching (in my not so humble opinion).

In Treatment

On a lighter note, you may be wondering why I included a photo of Gabriel Byrne. Well it’s not for one of his many famous film roles, but because of a TV series I absolutely loved – called “In Treatment”. It is not only gripping drama and thoroughly enjoyable, but I’ve checked with qualified psychiatrists and it is considered the best drama for representing the role of a therapist and the non-directive way they seek to help their clients. So, not true coaching as I have outlined above, but some of the techniques certainly read across and anyway it’s well worth a watch.

Nancy Kline

It might help to also share a positive example of an approach to coaching which I recommend (rather than just throwing stones at NLP). I’ve previously recommended “Time to Think’ by Nancy Kline, I really value her approach to coaching, so here is an excerpt of her sharing some of that:

[embedyt] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YP9jUNc5qyY[/embedyt]

Next time I’ll share more on how you can find the right coach for you and a recommended checklist you can use to help make this assessment.

Next Steps

For now I would just encourage clients thinking of purchasing the services of an executive coach (which I encourage), to check their qualifications and membership of a professional body. If you need somewhere to start right now, then I’d suggest searching the directory of coaches registered with the Association for Coaching.

Do you have any experience of coaching to mentoring you’d be willing to share with others?