What It Really Means To Be A Coach

A friend of mine met a woman at a party who said she was a Life Coach. My friend asked her, “Where did you train to be a Life Coach?” She answered, “Well, in life!” As a Professional Certified Coach and coach instructor, I groan when I hear this response. 

There’s a lot of buzz out there about the fantastic results of coaching. At the same time, there’s a lot of confusion about what exactly coaching is and how to become an effective coach.

I’ll clear up what a professional coach is and introduce 3 “sets” to define coaching. I’ll include links to other articles I’ve written so you can read more on what you’re interested in.

What Is Coaching?

I define coaching by its practice and its results. Coaching is a series of intentional conversations that empower a person or group to fully live out their calling. I won’t go into all the nuances of this definition right now. I’m more interested in how real coaches work with their clients.

To most leaders, professional coaching practices are counter-intuitive. Take a look at these characteristics:

  • Coaches don’t talk, they listen.
  • Coaches don’t give information, they ask questions.
  • Coaches don’t offer ideas, they generate ideas from clients.
  • Coaches don’t share their story, they tap into the client’s experience.
  • Coaches don’t present solutions, they expand the client’s thinking.
  • Coaches don’t give recommendations, they empower clients to choose.

Many leaders reading this list for the first time, scratch their heads and say, “Huh?” Yet, this is a basic description of what professional coaches do and don’t do. 

What It Really Means To Be A Coach – 3 “Sets”

Coaching draws from many disciplines and shares a number of approaches to working with people. A professional coach has mastered 3 “sets”: a coaching mindset, a coaching skill set, and a coaching tool set. Each element is not unique to coaching, however, the way coaches combine the elements creates a unique, and counter-intuitive approach to bringing results for clients.

Here are the 3 coaching “sets” in detail:

1. Coaching mindset. Coaching is not about coaches providing answers, it’s about drawing out answers from clients. This is one of many mindset shifts those who want to coach well must make. Here are a few more:

2. Coaching skill set. For leaders who are accustomed to talking, offering solutions, and sharing our experience, the biggest challenge is to stop talking. When we do, we find it difficult to ask questions because, frankly, we’re not very good at it. Our curiosity is limited because we think we already know the answer. We know how to talk, but not to ask. Professional coaches rely on these skills:

  • Active listening so others can express themselves.
  • Asking powerful questions that initiate a change of thinking.
  • Generating feedback that avoids defensiveness.
  • Expanding awareness that creates new learning.
  • Designing action steps that will actually be accomplished.
  • Following-up to increase learning and accountability.

3. Coaching tool set. Coaching is a learning process, not a teaching process. Many of the teaching tools we regularly use can’t be used in coaching. Professional coaches have a different set of tools. These tools flow from a coaching mindset and use a coaching skill set in order to facilitate the client’s learning.

These descriptions of what it really means to be a coach focus on the processes professional coaches use to help people change in order to solve their problems and reach their goals. The thing is, the results would be different if someone used a different process.

For example, if you took a consultative approach and prepared solutions for the client, it might produce a good result. But that result would be different than if you coached the client to find his own solutions. With a coaching approach, the client may identify internal barriers in himself and his organization. He may explore solutions that flow from the experience, strengths, and passion of his team. And he will most certainly own and feel more responsible for the solutions because of the coaching process.

Coaching is an unregulated field, anyone can call themselves a coach. The 3 coaching “sets” above are best practices for professional coaches. Following these coaching processes will produce lasting results and increased client capacity.

Question: What elements do you see as essential to be a real coach? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

There are two more articles in this series coming in the next few weeks. Check out: 3 Essential Practices of Effective Coaching Training. The other, sorts out the confusion around “certification,” “credentialed,” and “certified” coach designations. It’s called How To Become An ICF Certified Coach.

    Keith is President of Creative Results Management. He helps busy leaders multiply their impact. Keith is the author of several books including The COACH Model for Christian Leaders.

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    14 thoughts on “What It Really Means To Be A Coach

    1. This is a gold nugget blog which is so helpful. I have forwarded this to my Linkedin network because it addresses a key question for the future of coaching. As many people hear “coaching” and think “consulting”, this article will help clarify these important terms.

    2. Keith, out of all the Googled definitions of “what a coach is/does” yours is the most eloquent, succinct, and right-on! I particularly resonate with your #3: “Discovery is far more powerful that (than) you telling clients something”.

    3. I have done an initial coaching course here in Auckland, New Zealand and would like to do further development and training as a coach .