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What is Coaching? (And Who Is to Say?)

March 29, 2018

I have a client who, for a couple of years, I either wanted to, or tried to, fire.

He’s a smart, kind, values-centric guy. He’s always on time and usually quite prepared for our work. And he acts on what he says he’ll do. Sounds like a dream, right? So what’s the problem?

I’ve since determined that the problem was me. And how I was defining coaching.

Failing as a Coach?

My client, Bill, would start out each coaching session with the topics he wanted to focus on. He would move fluidly from one topic to another, sharing what he was concerned about, what he feared would happen, what he wanted, but felt sure couldn’t happen. He would share his aggravations regarding his staff, his frustrations about finding good people, and the opportunities available to the company “if only”…

Bill didn’t believe in setting a vision. “Visions are just fairy dust and pixies. I’ve got to work with reality.” Bill would systematically shoot down every possibility that arose during our sessions that had any hope of moving him forward.

And I would do what coaches do, ask questions, be curious, explore his feelings, assumptions, judgments, beliefs, his relationship to the situation, and mirror what I’m hearing.

At the end of each session, I’d ask the very coachy question, “Where are you now relative to where we began today?”

Most days he’d say, “Pretty much back where I started.” Ugh!

I left those sessions feeling like an utter failure as a coach.

Going Nowhere?

I have another client, Fred, who I was tempted to fire for quite a long time. (I don’t want to fire all of my clients, really!)

I’d wanted to fire Fred because most of our coaching sessions followed the same directionless pattern. I’d ask him what he wanted to focus on, and he’d dart from one topic to the next, speaking in sentence fragments. Each idea only tangentially related to every other idea. He projectile-vomited a spaghetti of loosely related thoughts.

I’d mirror his thoughts, ask clarifying questions, explore, and desperately search for some kind of scaffolding to hang onto in an attempt to determine what it is he was wanting (because he wasn’t saying).

I’d ask and mirror some more. I’d try to find the gestalt from all of the pieces he was providing. I’d try to weave together some kind of coherent narrative from the patchwork he’d throw up. I’d try everything I’d learned in hundreds of hours of coach training and thousands of hours of coaching to figure out what the heck he was wanting from me and our sessions. All to little avail.

It felt like our work was going nowhere.

Who Decides The Value of Coaching?

As failure after coaching failure mounted, I sought relief. I thought firing Bill and Fred was the answer. After all, what value could they be getting from our work when it either ended right back where we started, or didn’t go anywhere to begin with?

When I finally sat down to fire Bill, I was direct with him. “Bill, I’m getting the sense that you’re not getting much value from our work together. Most coaching sessions end with your saying that you’re right back where you started. That doesn’t sound like progress, and I don’t feel good about continuing to take your money if you’re not making progress.” And that was when he schooled me.

Bill replied, “Alison, I get a lot from our work. I can tell you things I can’t tell anyone else. I can share my frustrations and anxieties. I can put everything on the table and get it out of my head. I trust you and I don’t trust many people. And since we’ve started working together, I’m feeling more relaxed and more confident. I’m taking better care of myself and am really proud of where my business is.”

Wow! Really?! I had no idea.

The value Bill was getting from the coaching wasn’t in helping him get where he wanted to be at the end of a coaching session. The progress that Bill was making was between the sessions and over the long course of our work together. And the value he was getting wasn’t necessarily defined in the coaching plan. It was bigger than that.

Who Decides What Coaching Is?

After this conversation with Bill, I learned that I needed to buck up and ask my clients what they are getting from our work. And so I had a similar talk with Fred, and I asked.

“Fred, what are you getting from our time together? I can’t tell.” Fred said simply, “It helps to just hear myself talk. I leave our sessions clearer and more determined. I feel lighter and more optimistic and more grounded when we’re done.”

Hmmm. How could that be? I wasn’t even coaching… Was I?

What is Coaching?

As I rewind, I realize that my feeling like a failure as a coach was triggered by how I was defining coaching.

At the time, my internalized definition of coaching was something like, “Coaching is the process of helping the client get from where they are now to where they want to be.” Based upon that definition, either what I was doing wasn’t coaching, or I was doing it very badly.

The International Coaching Federation (ICF) now defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” I can argue that I was failing by that definition, too.

If you Google “What is Coaching?”, the post with the highest ranking cites this definition of coaching: “… a useful way of developing people’s skills and abilities, and of boosting performance. It can also help deal with issues and challenges before they become major problems.”

While I honestly feel that this definition of coaching is pretty lame (sorry, it is), I felt like I was failing by that definition, too. In fact, I was failing by most any definition I could come up with.

Who is To Say What Coaching Is?

I’ve heard some coaches say that if their clients aren’t consistently working to make solid progress on the goals they’ve set, they don’t want to keep working with them. They are about helping clients achieve their goals, make progress, realize their potential. If their clients aren’t doing that, they don’t want to work with them. That’s cool. It’s just not me.

Some coaches might say that what I’m doing isn’t coaching. Or that I should be doing what I’m doing differently. Probably. Even after 15 years of coaching, I still have a lot to learn.

And I’m sure that some of what’s going on in my coaching is about my own edges showing up, my own EQ Profile showing up.

And I’m always engaged in learning how to do better whatever it is I do. (I’m in Dr. David Drake’s Narrative Coach program now.)

Frankly, I don’t know how to define what I’m doing. And I’ve determined, I don’t much care to. And I’m certain now that I’m meeting a basic human need. And that’s enough for me.

I’m done with strict definitions of coaching and I’m over following someone else’s rule book.

I’m finding my own way.

As simple and naïve as it sounds, I’m in this to help people, whatever that looks like. If I can be the one person my clients can say anything to, if I can help my clients be more clear, more confident, more determined, that’s enough for me.

What about you? How do you define coaching? What doubts do you have about whether what you are doing is coaching? If you are following the rules?

Join the conversation.

Posted in: Coaching

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