There are many definitions of coaching around, reflecting the fact that it’s a big subject and there are many different coaching philosophies. Coaching is also something that is continuing to evolve as new approaches and innovations are tried out. The new idea which will have the biggest impact, in my view and based on the experience of the growing number of managers and professional coaches who are using it in practice, is the Appreciative and Solution-Focused approach.
So here’s the best definition of coaching I’ve been able to arrive at so far:
“Coaching is the process of helping people to focus their attention on possibilities and solutions, and to establish procedures to make the solutions happen.”
Let’s break that down a little. Coaching is a process – not a thing. It’s a process that happens between people. Coaching has no existence independent of the people doing it.
This may seem obvious when you think about it – but the point is that the English language, at least, encourages us to talk metaphorically about processes and activities as if they were objects, or even people – nouns rather than verbs. As in “My coaching is going really well at the moment” – as if coaching is a machine like a car; or “I’m not sure how to deal with this issue in coaching” – as if coaching is something you can be inside, like a room or a container; or “I wonder how coaching could address this” as if coaching is a person, squaring up to a problem.
So when we’re not consciously thinking about it, the way our language encourages us to talk about activities like coaching can make us forget that it’s not a thing, it’s an activity, that people engage in. And by the way, if they don’t engage with the activity, no coaching is going to happen.
“Coaching is the process of helping people” – I could have said helping “a person” or “an individual” but you can also coach a group of people. In fact some of the most creative and magical moments in coaching can happen when a team becomes more than the sum of its parts.
“Helping people to focus their attention on possibilities and solutions” – the heart of coaching really is about focusing attention. We want to focus people’s attention on possibilities and solutions rather than problems, because that’s where they will find the answers they are looking for. And we emphasise possibilities and solutions (plural) to get away from the idea that there’s just one possible solution out there, and that you have to find exactly the right one or it won’t work. For every answer you find, there will be hundreds of other potential solutions that you haven’t thought of.
Finally, it’s not enough to identify solutions – you need to do things to make them happen. This is where “establishing procedures to make the solutions happen” comes in. It’s about finding effective ways to get to the solution. Some specialist areas of coaching – some types of time management, for example, or traditional sports coaching – are all about giving people tried and tested methods to follow.
It’s worth bringing in another distinction here, between directive and non-directive coaching. Directive coaching is essentially the coach saying “this is how you do it”. In that sense it’s like training. The coach needs to be an expert in the technical area they are coaching you on. There are some drawbacks to the directive method: if the procedures they are telling you to follow don’t suit you, or if they go against your values so they just don’t feel right, you’re going to have a hard time putting the coach’s advice into practice.
More subtly, being told how to do something tends to induce passivity in the learner. It can inhibit you coming up with your own ideas, possibilities and solutions, and make you worry about trying things out in case you do them “wrong”.
As soon as you start to learn something about an activity, you start to grow your own expertise about which ways of improving your performance are going to work for you. To help learners come up with their own ideas, possibilities and solutions, what’s called “non-directive coaching” – asking the right questions rather than handing out answers – is the most productive approach.
Non-directive coaching also helps learners to develop their creativity, problem-solving and evaluative abilities, over and above finding answers to the specific problems they are trying to solve. The solutions that people come up with themselves will be more likely to suit their personality and temperament, and they will be more motivated to put them into practice because they own those solutions. And each time you flex those creative, problem-solving muscles, you increase your capability to deal with the next challenge.
I’m sure you’ll have some thoughts on this as well – why not add your favoured definition of coaching or comment on anything else in the piece below?
If you found this article useful, you might be interested in my forthcoming book on Practical Coaching with Appreciative Inquiry. It will also incorporate a few selected elements from other compatible approaches that I’ve found useful, like solution focus and NLP. If you’d like to be alerted when the book launches, you can get yourself on the notification list here: