A coach primarily listens and encourages you to reflect and delve deeper into matters that are important to you. There is an ongoing conversation that you have with yourself. Psychologists call this “the narrator”; individuals often call it “me”. A coach will look to become part of that conversation, to break circular thinking and try to help you find greater clarity.
Conversations with friends, colleagues and confidantes can do this too. Verbalising your inner voice can give you different perspectives on your thoughts and help make more sense of them. If there’s a difference it may be in the extent to which a coaching conversation is one-way, for an extended period of time. Some people find this disconcerting to begin with and take a while to get used to a dynamic where the cares and concerns of the other person present do not have to be taken into account.
For all but a minority of people though, the opportunity to be heard as they have time and space to really explore what matters to them can be highly pleasurable as well as very helpful. The goal of the coach is often then to keep focus on what’s most important and to know when to shift focus on from reflection and into concrete planning and action.
In its purest form coaching is a “reflective practice” with open ended questions constantly calling the person being coached back to the heart of the matter. In practice most coaches supplement this with their own observations, experiences as well as psychotherapeutic tools, looking to provide stimulation or useful provocation. This is a function of the coach’s experience and often the perspectives introduced by them won’t be theirs but the consolidated learning from the many people they’ve worked with before.
Most coaches provide a hybrid service, which may (or may not) have at its core reflective client-centred coaching, supplemented with some other kinds of help.
Formal definitions of this always emphasise the existing knowledge and expertise of the person being coached.
A great example of this comes from John Whitmore’s tennis school in the Alps. This was a spin off from a successful ski school which had unused facilities available in the off-season. Tennis instructors were brought in for the summer, but the new tennis school was over-subscribed. The only solution available was to use ski instructors to coach tennis. But, initial concerns about this were confounded when it turned out that the best tennis coaches were actually some of the ski instructors.
The reason why was that their lack of tennis knowledge meant they had fewer pre-conceptions. When helping an experienced tennis player hone their technique there was no contamination from the coach’s own perspective and they could keep the focus purely on the particulars of the individual under tuition. Where skills, knowledge and most importantly experience are already present, the most insightful thing is often to reflect meaningfully upon those things themselves, and thereby, create improvement.
A mentor is one step away from a coach in that it is the mentor’s life experience that is the source of insight and understanding rather than that of the client. An experienced CEO, motor mechanic or tennis player might reflect on their past and provide pearls of wisdom that can be absorbed and acted upon by their student.
This can be invaluable for a period of time, until the experience of the student grows to such a point that they are an expert themselves. A motor mechanic relating his experience of British Leyland in the 1970s to a Nissan worker in the 21st Century risks passing on knowledge that is no longer relevant or useful.
In the digital age, ideas and modes are becoming outdated and superseded more and more quickly. The human in the centre of the machine though, much less so.
The point of training is to develop skills and transfer knowledge by following a common pattern. If you want to learn new skills, or other functional requirements, this is pretty straightforward, and you can be taught in much the same way as anybody else. But if your needs aren’t generic, it becomes less clear what training would be genuinely useful.
A consultant tells you what to do. I’ve met many people who want a coach to do this. There are lots of times when a consultant is the right solution, it all depends on the problem. If it’s an important one, that you need to own yourself, there’s a risk that even the best consultant won’t provide the best solution for you in the long run.
In practice, many coaches provide a portfolio of services and will tailor these to a client’s needs. It’s entirely possible to begin with a period of consultancy and then to follow that with a mentoring process that evolves into coaching to transfer and develop expertise in the client.
From a commercial point of view, the answer to the question “what does a coach do” is perhaps that they’ll do what you ask them.
The important thing as a client then, is to start by asking yourself the right questions.