Research Paper By Amy Scott
(Life Coach, UNITED STATES)
The International Coach Academy (ICA) teaches new coach trainees about the history of coaching, different coaching models and approaches, and how coaching differs from other fields such as counseling and consulting (among many other topics). These are important subjects that help trainees understand how coaching is unique, and the basic tenets behind coaching, so they can learn to be effective coaches.
In the ICA training module What Is Coaching, the difference between coaching and consulting is explained as follows:
Coaching uses a more holistic approach. With the client, the coach examines the situation, creates a plan of action, and works side by side to resolve the issue. The coach does not have to be an expert in the client’s business. The client is the expert. The coach collaborates with the client to create a solution using the client’s knowledge and answers.
The notion that clients have the answers is one of the essential aspects of coaching, and what sets it apart from many other disciplines.
But what about situations where the client truly does not have the answer? If the client is trying something new, or comes to a coach for support in an area in which the coach has expertise, the coach may very well know of resources and information the client isn’t aware of that would support the client—and yet the coach doesn’t want to outright tell the client what to do. For new coaches and coaches in training who are still learning how to best support their clients, this can be a tricky line to walk.
In coaching we talk about the client having the answers, but there’s a distinction to be made between “answers” in the sense of “information” and “answers” in the sense of “wisdom or inner knowing”; the difference is apparent in the types of questions being asked. If the client is looking to explore a question like “What should I do with my life?” the answer should come from within, rather than having the coach answer it for her. But if the question is more along the lines of “What are the best tools to run my business from anywhere?” there may be information that will help the client that she isn’t aware of, and that she isn’t likely to find within.
Balancing the idea that the client has the answers, with what to do when the client doesn’t have all the answers, is a topic I’ve been interested in since before I even started my training at ICA, and I’ll be exploring it further in this paper. I’ll look at both the challenges and benefits new coaches may encounter in sharing ideas and resources with coaching clients (or in avoiding doing so), and also provide some tips for how new coaches can play around with these approaches in their coaching practice.
Before going any further, I’d like to note that there are many different types of coaching, and in this paper I’m referring more to transactional and goal-based coaching than transformational coaching. In the latter, the coaching is not focused on a particular goal, but is about broader/deeper change. To facilitate transformation, it’s particularly important for the coach to help clients learn how to tap into their inner wisdom (though even in those cases, the coach might effectively point a client to certain resources that will support the client’s journey).
What Coach Trainees Are Taught and Why
In line with the belief that the client has the answers, coach trainees are taught that the client is “in the driver’s seat,” so to speak, and that the coach must not guide or lead the client, nor offer advice. As described in ICA’s Coaching Skills and Attributes module, “The coach has to genuinely allow the client to determine their own ‘North Star’, set their own course and pace their own journey.”
This approach is effective because many people don’t like being told what to do, especially if the advice is unsolicited. And, if the coach is guiding the client or telling the client what to do, it makes the coach responsible for the outcome. When the coach shares his opinion, it can leave the client feeling disempowered and can have a negative impact on the coach-client relationship. Even worse, if the coach makes a suggestion, the client tries it, and it doesn’t lead to the desired outcome, the client can feel demoralized and lose faith in the coaching process and in the benefit of working with a coach. And if any of this happens early in the coaching relationship, it can encourage the client to rely on the coach for answers instead of discovering the value and satisfaction of finding their own answers.
When clients are empowered to find their own answers, and learn not to always look externally for solutions, those answers tend to be more appropriate for the client and more in line with the client’s values, priorities, and goals. Clients take ownership when they come up with their own ideas, and feel empowered to take action.
It’s important for new coaches to understand this at the outset because, as described in ICA’s Coaching Skills and Attributes module, “It is hard work listening attentively to another human being and acknowledging their story. It is much easier to tell your own story, provide information, share anecdotes or give advice.” If new coaches weren’t taught about the essential skills and attributes of coaching, they would be even more likely to take that easier route of telling their own story, providing information, and sharing anecdotes and advice.
Another reason these distinctions are stressed so much early on in the training is that it’s important for new coaches to learn how to coach in the purest sense before looking at how they can balance and blend it with other approaches. For example, if a new coach has a background as a consultant, he may end up wanting to blend the two, but his coaching will likely be more effective if he learns and practices a pure form of coaching before exploring how to blend the two.
The Challenge of Expertise
As noted earlier, ICA notes that
it is much easier to tell your own story, provide information, share anecdotes or give advice.
This is particularly true when the coach has experience or expertise in the area in which the client is needing support. But when the coach overcompensates and makes too much of an effort to avoid providing information or sharing anecdotes, it can do a disservice to the client and make the coaching less effective.
For example, I observed a coaching session that did help the client achieve the desired outcome, but after the session was over, the coach shared in her own observations on the session that she had recently read a book on exactly the topic the client was exploring, and had struggled to avoid referring to the book or sharing with the client what she had learned from that book. And yet I imagine the client would have loved to know about that book, and may have been able to explore the topic in more depth after the session if she had known about it! Again, having been taught that she shouldn’t share anecdotes or provide information kept the coach from serving her client fully.
Sometimes, the expertise that the coach brings to the session is much more than a simple experience such as reading a book on the topic at hand. Based on life and professional experience and education, coaches have knowledge and expertise that often informs the niche in which they coach, and clients often come to them because of that expertise.
This expertise allows the coach to have empathy and understand where the client is coming from, and can help the coach ask more specific questions that can get to the heart of the issue and help the client reach her goals more quickly and easily. For example, a coach who has some experience in publishing, business, or marketing might know that for a client who’s struggling with how to structure a book she’s writing, some important questions would be, “Who is this book for? What do you want readers to get out of this book?” A coach without that expertise might take longer to get to those questions, or not be sure which questions will be most likely to move the client forward. Later in the publishing process, however, if that client is looking for support to market her book, she might be better served by a consultant who will give her direct guidance based on his expertise.