Next Steps in Your Journey: What Coaching is and what Coaching is not

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This article is designed to help the reader understand differences between four things that are sometimes misunderstood. More specifically, I am hoping to create better understanding of what coaching is, by comparing it to things it is not.

The below distinctions between coaching, mentorship, therapy, and consulting are generalizations offered as helpful ways to think about these different services. Each of these fields is broadly diverse and may overlap with each other on the margins in both their outcomes and their methods.

These are my observations. The descriptions of coaching, in particular, are influenced by my own approach to coaching, as well as the approaches of those in my coaching network, and are not fully representative of all forms of coaching.

-What coaching is-

Coaching is a process that improves performance in an area that is important to an individual by targeting growth in behaviors or personal skills. 

The above sentence serves as my basic definition – and it is accurate in my experience; but I think that the definition lacks elegance. 

For me, when I think of coaching, I think of creating a more powerful and more impactful life. I think of fulfillment and connection. I imagine more satisfying relationships and more efficient outcomes. 

I think of those from whom a weight has been lifted through access to their new way of being.

Those are outcomes that I have witnessed through coaching in my own life, and in the lives of others.

That is what coaching is.

-Coaching is different than mentorship-

Potential coaching clients sometimes ask me how well I know their industry. For instance: “Do you have a lot of experience coaching executives in the financial sector?” 

I know up front this individual is probably seeking a mentor not a coach. 

It is easy to see why these two services can be confused for one another. They are both based on interpersonal relationships that guide individuals to long-term outcomes that are important to them. It is the how, that differentiates the two.

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Mentors are guides that have traveled a path that is, in some fashion, similar to a path you are on. Mentors are broadly experienced in subjects that are very important to you and are able to offer guidance on your own journey. They share their story and help expand your network. They are friends, confidants, and respected role models. Mentoring relationships typically build organically over an extended period.

In contrast, Coaches are not experts in your profession. I would argue that coaches should be experts in only one thing: Coaching (I had initially written it as “two things: coaching and focusing on you” but truthfully those are very much the same thing).

I would go even further to suggest that we benefit when our coaches don’t know our specific industry. It is my experience that the greatest challenge coaches face is getting out of our own way to be fully present for the client; the coaching relationship should be solely focused on the client and her or his development. It is not a coach’s job to have an opinion about their client’s professional career or offer insights specific to their line of work. Instead, coaches direct full attention on you and your targeted area of growth. 

Unlike mentors, coaches do not typically offer advice. 

In a mentoring relationship, the mentor holds the knowledge and wisdom and shares it. In a coaching relationship, you (the client) hold the wisdom. It is the coach’s job to establish structured inquiry that allows you to connect with your wisdom, exploration and learnings in a way that you would not be able to without coaching. In other words, mentors share insights, and coaches ask powerful questions that unlock your truth and illuminate your possibilities.

I once had a client whose corporate job consumed his life – he couldn’t stop working. And he was demanding of his team, driving results and success. He was rewarded for his way of being through promotions and bonuses. However, there was a cost. His personal relationships were strained, and he felt guilt around that, but he just couldn’t seem to stop working. His team didn’t trust him, because they sensed that his drive for success was something for him. 

In our first coaching session, I established a line of inquiry about his habits. What did he believe would happen if he was successful enough? What was he afraid would happen if he was not? Where did he look to determine if he was succeeding in his life?

And then he saw it. “I believe that if I achieve enough, I will be enough!” He didn’t feel worthy, and the only thing he knew was to achieve more, in order to earn acceptance. And he had not recognized his own reality before that moment, even though it had always been true.

Six months later, he had established a true sense of worthiness without chasing it through work. He found more balance in his personal life, his work teams trusted him more and were subsequently more loyal. In fact, he reported improved work results (though he had developed a somewhat different relationship with those results).

It all started when he explored his own wisdom and found his truth.

Again, in a mentoring relationship, the mentor holds the knowledge and wisdom and shares it. In a coaching relationship, you (the client) hold the wisdom. 

Coaching and mentorship are different but complementary. I invite my coaching clients to establish and maintain relationships with mentors. Similarly, I have mentors, and serve as a mentor to others. I show up differently as a mentor than I do as a coach.

-Coaching is different than therapy-

In general, therapy heals and coaching transforms. Or stated differently, therapy fixes, and coaching creates.

There are similarities that make it easy to confuse the two services. Both fields focus on behavioral change. Both therapy and coaching may engage cognitive, somatic, emotional, instinctual, and even spiritual elements to foster critical change.

However, therapists and coaches make different assumptions about their clients because they meet them in different phases of their journey.

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Psychotherapy and other types of therapy are a group of services that are important for individuals (or couples) who are stuck because they are unable to get past an event (or events) in their life or have specific mental health needs. Therapy assumes that something is not right and needs to be corrected.

In contrast, coaching assumes that the individual being coached has sufficient agency to make progress in target areas without healing and is not experiencing a mental health condition. Coaching also assumes that current behaviors do not need to be fixed. Instead, coaching focuses on building choice; it is the process of creating a new approach, or way of being, that the client did not have before. Coaching accepts current behaviors and adds new capabilities to help a client do something (something that is deeply important to the client) in a better way.

It is also important to note that therapy is a highly regulated field. Therapists have clear standards and a well-defined certification process.

Coaching is largely unregulated. I do not mention that to diminish the importance of coaching. Coaching has changed my life, and I am honored to have witnessed, firsthand, its impact on the lives of others. Many coaches have conducted years of training and study and have reinforced their training with substantial experience. However, anyone can call themselves a coach and hang a shingle. Finding the right therapist requires some diligence. Finding the right coach might take more (I will share ideas for finding the right coach in the fourth article in this four-part series).

-Coaching is different than consulting-

There are clear similarities between coaching and consulting. Both coaches and consultants are often hired as specialists from outside a business to address a specific need. The primary difference lies in where the solution resides. In consulting it is resident to the consultant, who serves as the subject matter expert. In coaching, the solution lives within the client.

My LinkedIn page identifies me as a Developmental Coach and Leadership Consultant.

Those are distinct and separate roles, and I approach each of them very differently.

As a consultant, I am hired to examine leadership dynamics on a team and make specific recommendations, or give targeted training, to improve leadership processes.

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Consultants are subject matter experts that are hired for a very specific outcome that requires their expertise. Based on expert analysis, consultants advise and/or implement.

As mentioned previously, coaches are experts in one thing: coaching. Coaches unlock their coaching clients’ wisdom and mediate their thinking. I have lost count of the number of times a client has said, “I think I’ve always known that, yet somehow I’ve never understood it.” Coaches do not typically provide specific guidance or implement action. Coaches ask powerful questions, offer observations and possibilities, and invite exploration in support of specific outcomes. And coaches are not experts in their client’s field. They help clients create their own results.

-The right experience at the right time-

My hope for everyone is a journey of fulfillment and growth. That journey can be made richer by asking for the right help for you or your business at the right time. What service are you seeking that will enhance the outcomes that are most important to you?

In my next article, I will share critical elements of a successful coaching program.




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