The importance of a coach’s expertise in a particular domain proves to be rather controversial, as is whether the coach should only ever ‘ask’ or also ‘tell’. Philip Ferrar (2004) cites Whitmore’s assertion that expertise is not required in coaching, that “the coach is not a problem solver, a teacher, an adviser, an instructor or even an expert”. Similarly, Yossi Ives (2008) cites Stober and Grant (2006) who argue that coaching is “more about asking the right questions than telling people what to do” and “[a] coach with highly developed applied coaching skills can deliver excellent outcomes purely through facilitating a process that operationalises the principles of coaching, rather than through an instructor mode that emphasises the delivery of expert knowledge.” According to this school of thought, the solutions to the client’s problems are usually quite apparent, and it is more a question of the client refocusing his attention on seeking a solution than the coach telling him what the solution is.
However, coaching in the 20th century actually originated as a more instructive discipline, where an experienced employee would work with a newer recruit (Cox, Bachkirova & Clutterbuck, 2010). Even as the coaching field has evolved to become less directive, Philip Ferrar (2004) cites McLellan’s (2003) claim that expertise is, in fact, required in coaching. To support her case, McLellan refers to two sources: Steve Nicklen who argues that coaches “should be able to have added-value conversations about strategic issues”, and John Weston who argues that an executive coach “must have been there, seen it, and done it. They must have been practitioners”.
Goleman (1995), also cited by Ferrar, similarly contends that a coach should “point to a way to fix the problem, otherwise it leaves the [learner or client] frustrated, demoralised, or demotivated”. Jonathan Passmore (2007) agrees that the experience and credibility of a coach is important and that this adds value that is appreciated by clients in both the United Kingdom and the United States. Without such expert knowledge, the coach is little more than a “well meaning amateur” (Cavanagh, 2006, cited in Ives, 2008).
Of course, there are different approaches within coaching. Yossi Ives (2008) proposes three dimensions for distinguishing between these:
- directive or non-directive;
- personal-developmental or goal-focused; and
- therapeutic or performance-driven.
Depending on which approach is preferred by the coach, therefore, it might be that expertise is required, along with some ‘telling’ alongside the ‘asking’, in order to best support the client.
What are the possible benefits of a blended approach?
Pure coaching, which puts the client fully in the driver’s seat, can be an incredibly empowering experience for the client. He will feel listened to while not facing any judgement, he can gain a deeper understanding of the situation he is in and how to deal with it, and he will learn to draw on his own internal and external resources to effect the change that he is looking for. As such, change is likely to be more sustainable, more long lasting, as the client holds himself accountable. In a way, he becomes independently capable of coaching himself going forward.
However, there are aspects of such a pure coaching approach that might be considered to be disadvantages. The whole process of working through beliefs and perspectives and creating awareness can take quite some time. A client may experience frustration as the coach refuses to give any answers or guidance. The client may even question what added value the coach is concretely providing, at least in the short term, when he himself is being asked to come up with all the answers.
Where the client is looking for immediate advice or guidance, it can save time and frustration if the coach can provide this, especially when the client knows that the coach has the relevant expertise. Giving a tangible answer can provide a faster solution to a problem the client is facing. Bringing in this expertise explicitly can also prevent it from slipping in implicitly, that is, the coach bringing in her own agenda without agreement from the client. From the coach’s perspective as well, this can allow her to leverage the many years of skills and experience she may have from particular fields and industries prior to her coaching career, and this can benefit both the coach and the client.