What is Coaching?
Many people have preconceptions or prejudices about coaching, so maybe it’s best to first say what a coach is not !
A coach is not someone who will tell you what to do to fix your problems. You might not have any, and anyway, in a coaching relationship, it’s the client that does most of the work and finds the answers.
The coach is more like a facilitator, helping the client find their way, exploring with them but not leading them. Active listening is the key skill offered by a coach — the ability to listen intently and empathically to what the client says, and to respond intuitively and with compassion.
Active listening may sound easy, but it is a valuable skill, especially in a time when everyone has the ability to have their say in multiple forums, including social media. You will find that “being heard”, fully and without judgement or distraction, can be deeply rewarding.
Coaching is often compared with counselling, and it’s true that there are some overlaps. But coaching is typically more goal-focussed, and there is no prior assumption that a client is in need of remedial help, or that they are “failing” or “underperforming” in any way.
Indeed, many people who seek coaching are highly motivated and successful, and they seek coaching with an open heart, out of curiosity, or a desire to explore alternatives, or to improve their performance, or to find ways to stretch themselves further.
They may also aim to build self-awareness and to achieve a deeper level of being, and to explore a deeper sense of purpose and meaning. In this sense, coaching can be truly life-changing.
What should I expect?
Every coach is different, as is every client, so it’s not an easy question to answer! A coaching relationship often throws up unexpected surprises, which in a way is the whole point, so trying to define how it will evolve at the outset is impossible. Nevertheless, many clients quite reasonably want to have a framework for thinking about coaching, so here are some notes which aim to demystify what’s involved.
An individual client may or may not know a local coach, so they will often do some initial checks on the Internet using a search engine to identify who to contact. The main coaching associations have lists of their members and where they are based and this is a good starting point. You can also read their codes of ethics, which give you a good idea of how a coach should behave.
It’s usually a good idea to do a screening call to see if you feel comfortable with them. It can feel a little awkward at first but you will soon know if you feel “okay” with the individual! Trust your instinct — if you don’t feel comfortable, don’t feel obliged to proceed.
The coach should be open, transparent and professional about all aspects of the services they provide. This includes how much the sessions will cost, what the policy is if you skip a session, any restrictions on behaviour (many coaches will not see a client if they have been drinking alcohol, for example), confidentiality and ethical guidelines, and the contractual terms.
The coaching contract is important because it establishes the ground rules for the engagement. It is particularly important when the coach has been arranged through your workplace, as if the coach is paid for by your employer, they may be required to report back on the progress made in your sessions.
You should have a clear idea of the contract before you begin the coaching sessions, as this will free you up to focus on what you want to get out of the sessions. You may feel that it takes time to develop a rapport with the coach — that’s fine. Just like in any relationship, people are not on tap, and it will take time to tune in to each other.
Most important is that you should feel comfortable. If the coach asks unsuitable questions, or tells you how you should or shouldn’t behave, be wary. The coach is there as a facilitator, and should not be giving orders. Their job is to help you find your own solutions, not to impose their own. Almost anyone can set up as a coach, but the main coaching organisations have high standards of training and supervision. If you feel the coach is being inappropriate, you should state that.
Mentoring involves imparting experience and giving advice, usually in a specific area of domain expertise. Mentoring is appropriate in a work context when staff who are new to a job want to get some tips on how to handle particular situations, or to sanity-check their approach. It can also be used when experienced professionals want to stress-test their solutions, or simply want to open up to new ideas, to brainstorm with a view to introducing innovations.
Whereas coaching typically does not require expertise in the client’s specialist field of work, mentoring is generally done on a peer basis and usually requires a deep knowledge of the client’s business. But not always. For example, an expert in human resources might provide mentoring for an HR manager at an engineering firm, even though he or she does not have direct expertise in the engineering sector.
Mediation is used when a conflict or bad feeling between individuals or other parties has reached a stage where both sides believe that getting a third-party involved is the only way forward. A mediator has specific skills and training in resolving or managing conflicts.
Conflict resolution and management are somewhat different. A mediator does not have a magic wand, and if it becomes obvious that a conflict cannot be resolved, the mediator may seek a way forward by trying to get the parties to “agree to disagree”, exploring damage limitation strategies, and also perhaps discussing compensation and settlement strategies.
Mediatiors often use similar skills to those used in coaching, in particular, active listening. But the goal is more functional. At this stage, I do not offer mediation services in my coaching, but my aim is to complete a mediation course to be able to offer these in the next year.
Most people think of a life-coach as a cross between a personal trainer and a psychotherapist, and to be honest, there is some semblance of reality in the caricature.
Many people look for a life-coach when they get stuck in some way, either in their career, or in a relationship, or simply when they’re looking for something new and different. But life-coaching should not only be thought of as as a fix for something negative.
Many people employ a coach to help them find ways to achieve more at work, not just in terms of pay but also their purpose and meaning. But you could also have coaching to explore ways to make better use of leisure time, for example through volunteering or travel.
As with any coaching, the life-coach will not come to the client with a bag full of answers. Rather, he or she will seek to listen to you carefully and perhaps suggest pathways that you can explore moving ahead.
A life coach can act as a catalyst: speeding up the chemistry of personal growth, but not being directly involved in the chemical reaction itself.
The executive coach provides a similar service to a life-coach, but the focus is more on work issues and often the coaching will be paid for by the employer. That creates a unique set of challenges for the coach, who on the one hand will owe a duty of confidentiality to the coachee but may also have to meet specific requirements of the employer who, after all, is paying the bills.
Many employees feel an initial ambivalence about executive coaches for this reason. There is a feeling that, if an employer nominates them for coaching, they must have done something wrong and the coaching is a proxy for punishment. This fear is sometimes well-founded: the reality is that employers may use coaching as part of a Performance Improvement Plan, and even as a way to manage an employee out of the business.
More positive goals for executive coaching include facilitating change and innovation, helping executives understand the impact of decisions on colleagues and the work force, enhanced self-awareness and influencing ability and being better able to deal with career frustrations if these arise.
Coaching is increasingly being made available to employees at their own request, and the more caring companies offer coaching as part of a range of routine support services within the workplace.
These may range from confidential employee helplines to in-house stress management support and other counselling. Mental health stigmas remain, but the days are long gone when suffering periods of depression or anxiety were seen as a barrier to career progression. Most employers now actively support the well-being of employees, and if they don’t, they should.
Coaching is often geared towards groups of people, rather than one-to-one sessions with individuals. This is called systemic coaching, and focusses on the interactions between team members, and the impact of decisions and changes across organisations.
This type of coaching doesn’t just work well with companies, it can also be used in the caring professions, in charities, schools and universities and many other organisational systems. Systemic coaching aims to make individuals more aware of the role they play within groups, and the impact they have on the group.
There are many types of systemic coaching, but constellations are among the more popular, and can be used to explore anything from family and team dynamics to philosophical issues.
Systemic coaching takes many different shapes and forms. Animals are extremely sensitive to people’s emotions, and one coach I met brings C-suite executives into fields of horses to show them how their presence and behaviour impacts on them.
Systemic coaching can also be used to set up coaching systems within companies on an ongoing basis, and to refocus the energy of individuals within teams to encourage new and dynamic approaches among groups of staff who may have become “set in their ways”.
My first two years in a true leadership role were fraught with self-doubt and anxiety, and a feeling that I was out of my depth. But many executives suffer from the opposite extreme: a surfeit of self-confidence which can mask a complete lack of self-awareness and empathy. Many leaders will adopt behaviours that camouflage their true feelings, which can lead to “imposter” syndrome and feelings of burnout.
Almost all people have a mix of qualities, some of which can be positive and some of which can be negative. Often, the same character trait or behaviour can work brilliantly in one situation but be destructive in another. Leadership coaching can help individuals lead better even when they perceive themselves as highly competent and effective leaders.
Roger Evans, who wrote the 1973 book The Creative Manager, has just published a new tome called The 5-Dimensions of Leadership. Roger runs the Institute of Psychosynthesis in north London and those who were on the psychosynthesis leadership coaching programme were privileged to spend a day with him having their leadership skills assessed.
Roger identifies the five ingredients of successful leadership as: self-awareness, awareness of others, whole system awareness, having the flexibility and strength of bamboo, and being able to ask for help.