I am sometimes asked by people what I actually do when I’m coaching. Before I have started to answer, it is often closely followed by a question about the difference between counselling (or therapy) and coaching. Of course, there is the text-book answer. Coaching is not intended to work from a position of fixing people. Coaching is rooted in the principles that people are naturally creative, resourceful and whole. And that is a good and important principle that coaches adhere to
In coaching we are seeking to provide people with the self-awareness to be able to come up with their own choices, answers and solutions, to take responsibility, and be empowered to improve and fulfil their potential. All well and good. Nothing wrong with that. The agenda is the client’s to bring to the coaching and it is not the coach’s place to ‘judge’ what is important to the client or not.
This is where it can start to get tricky. People will often present (particularly in a business setting) with a problem they want to fix. It might be a business-related issue that they are stuck with and they are looking to work out a way forward with it. Coaching can provide the client with a useful sounding board for their ideas, for the coach to explore areas that are causing the client to feel stuck, can provide the independent, non-judgemental environment that allows the client to clear their head before stepping back in to the fray with a new plan of action. There is nothing wrong with that of course, and for many people it is a great service. Some clients will say “I always feel so much better just talking to you.”
But, do our clients deserve more than this from their coach? What if the coach spots something going on with the client that suggests that they will continue to have problems with these sorts of issues? What if the coach suspects there is a deeper emotional dynamic at play which is preventing the client from growing and developing as much as they could? Is the coach doing the client a gross disservice if they avoid these areas (and keep sending the invoices simply for acting as a sounding board)? Perhaps, the coach has tried to take the coaching into these areas of discussion, only to be reminded by the client that “this is not what he’s paying you for”, and he doesn’t have time for “psycho-babble”. What then? Is this a signal to challenge and probe deeper, or step back into the zone of comfortable debate where the client is back in the territory and ‘language’ that they are familiar with? Clients (whether they are prepared to admit it or not) require their focus to be expanded past the current issue or problem they present. If the client is part of a sponsoring organisation, then the sponsor will certainly be expecting that of the coach. If the client is paying directly for the services of the coach, and is not prepared to accept this, then it’s probably not actually a coach they are looking for (perhaps a business mentor would provide a more appropriate service).
So, coaching is not therapy; it is not about ‘fixing’ people. However, everyone shows up at coaching with experiences that have shaped who they are. These experiences will have resulted in neural changes in the brain, which are closely linked to our emotional centres, resulting in patterns of behaviour that have become regular and predictable. Our individual journeys through life have equipped us with vulnerabilities, uncertainties and fears. Fears of failure, of security, of success, of humiliation, of reputation. And that is normal. The challenge is that the brain organisation and associated chemistry that underpins these patterns, is typically hidden away beneath an external veneer of behaviour that is consciously played out by people, particularly in business settings. Role-playing on a grand scale. Behaving in a way that we believe is expected of us. Doing the things that we believe we ‘should’ do. Suppressing the underlying vulnerabilities and uncertainties that get in the way and knock us off course. It is, of course, tiring (at least) and hugely stressful (at worst) to constantly maintain this surface impression.The trouble is that prolonged suppression of genuine emotions in order to operate in a way that you believe you ‘should’ is likely to eventually lead to some form of breakdown. At this point therapy may be an appropriate route to recovery. Skilful coaching can prevent the need for therapy by challenging clients to explore the emotional (and neural) basis for their feelings, thoughts and actions. Emotional self-awareness not only frees people to function with their values aligned much more to their actions, it also opens up a door for future growth and development.
So, back to the question of, what is coaching? I liken it to ‘brain surgery’ (see previous post on this subject “Coaching is like Brain Surgery”. So, how sharp is your scalpel?). The higher layers of the brain (the cortex) play out our rational, logical, planning and organised roles. These are the parts we have conscious control over and that we are happy (most of the time) to let people see. In order to tap into what is really going on beneath the surface, we have to tap in to our emotional brain, the older (limbic system) that resides deep within the brain. In order to trigger action for change we have to have an emotional reason to do so. People don’t tend to make changes unless it matters. Skilful coaching exploration cuts through the logic and rationality of the upper brain like a scalpel, and exposes the emotional activity of the older brain, preparing the way for greater self-awareness and personal transformation.
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So, what do I really do?: I enable people in business to operate more successfully. They may be struggling to implement their corporate strategy, they may want to get more productivity out of their teams but don’t know where to start, or their people may not be having as effective conversations with each other as they could be. I will work with you to enable you to formulate more effective ways of leading, to raise awareness of blockers to successful ways of working, and ultimately to help you to lead more successfully.
I agree with the points you make in terms of the role of the coach. It is definitely about enabling greater self-awareness and getting people to step outside their comfort zone and enter the stretch and perhaps even the panic zone. People will gladly stay inside their comfort zones and, as you say, this could continue for many weeks with the coach as sounding board. However, not much use!
I also completely agree with the need to tap into emotion and for there to be a reason, impetus to make change. So the skills of the coach matter. It’s still a fairly unregulated industry though….
Thanks Emma for your endorsements. Does your final comment imply that lack of regulation is a factor in some coaching not being carried out in as ‘challenging’ a way as it could be?
Hi Louis! Great post about self-awareness and probing deeper into a person’s psyche, ideology, and methodology. Many times, the life coach will ask the client, “What would you like to discuss today?” when they begin a session. This kind of inquiry definitely opens up the proverbial can of worms to explore a plethora of issues and topics, both personal and professional!
Another thing to note is, as you well know, there are many different types of coaching styles and systems. A prospective client needs to know what they are specifically looking for in a coach AND the outcome(s) they want to produce. Another factor is that the coach needs to have enough honesty and integrity (similar to counselors) to recognize whether they can provide the services necessary to walk the client through the process they are seeking. For example, if an executive team desires to reach a goal in creating a new design and they need an innovative breakthrough, the coach needs to be savvy enough to ask the RIGHT questions to navigate their journey.
So, whether it is a life, executive, team, goal-setting, personal, professional, etc. coach that one desires, they need to “shop” the right venues to achieve the correct outcomes. Again, thanks for your great insight on this topic! -John
Great comments John…thanks for adding to the discussion.
Thanks for a thought provoking post, Louis. Perhaps one of the most challenging questions we face as coaches is when the client actually needs something that we aren’t equipped to provide… Or the client isn’t willing to consider. In some cases, it’s possible that the right answer may even be a therapist.
Thanks again, Louis,
Agreed Dave. It takes courage to step back and suggest that another professional with a different set of skills is likely to be of more benefit to a client.