What is Coaching? And what is it not?

Magda Walczak  •  Apr 8, 2022  •  9 min read

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What is Coaching? And what is it not?

Coaching is partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.

International Coach Federation

What is Coaching?

Coaching is a way that helps you get from point A to point B.

Sometimes, you may need help to figure out what point “B” really is, how far away it is, or why the journey is meaningful for you. A coach partners with you to help you solidify “B”.

There are many paths that will take you from A to B, and a coach will provide you with the different options so that you can select the one that is right for you. If you encounter challenges along this path, a coach will help you identify the challenges, overcome them, and get back on track to B. The coach does this by utilizing the coaching competencies that they learned in their professional coach training and which they continue to hone throughout their career.

The journey from A to B is a journey of self-awareness. You may find yourself learning things you didn’t know about yourself. Once you identify your own characteristics, you can surface them, enhance them, and hone them until they become second nature.

Take a look at this short video that sums up this process:

4 Stages of the Coaching Process

There are 4 distinct stages to this process – unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, unconscious competence.

Old habits don’t die; they are rewired. Our neural networks have plasticity that allows new behaviors to be learnt and adopted. This rewiring can only happen when there is a conscious awareness of the harm that the old behavior causes, and the benefits arising by shifting from the old to a more acceptable new behavior.

New behaviors need to be anchored through repeated action for them to become rewired as new habits that get embedded as unconscious competences. This anchored state is often referred to as being the flow or the zone.

This movement from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence, through the stages of awareness, action and anchoring is the essence of coaching. This is the Coacharya 3A model, which you’ll experience as you work with your coach.

If a behaviour happens without you noticing it, it’s an unconscious behaviour. If you are deliberate about it, it’s a conscious behaviour.

Incompetence is when you are unable to do something, whereas competence is when you are able to do something efficiently or successfully.

Behaviour change can be challenging, but all it requires is self-awareness, and an action plan that feels achievable. A coach can help anyone go through these steps – from identifying one’s areas of potential, to the point of feeling like a “new” behaviour is second nature.

Can you identify a belief or mindset that is holding you back from your full potential?


An Example of a Shift You May Experience Through Coaching

Here’s an example that can help illustrate how a shift in coaching can happen.

Unconscious Incompetence

Tina feels that all of the best projects go to other members of the team, and she is never given opportunities to showcase her skills and prove herself.

Conscious Incompetence

Through coaching, Tina becomes aware that she is often quiet during her team meetings, never speaking up unless she is called on by her manager. She doesn’t think this is a big deal – after all, some people are more reserved than others. It’s a personality trait that she identifies with, rather than an opportunity where a small change in her behaviour could help her achieve the outcome she wants.

Conscious Competence

The coach helps her come up with a plan to take small, manageable actions to make herself heard during team meetings by giving her inputs and showcase her ideas. She starts small but keeps doing it consistently.

Unconscious Competence

After a point, Tina has practiced this small behaviour change so often, that over time, it comes automatically to her. Her peers and superiors notice this change, and feel drawn to give her more opportunities in the workplace.

Although Tina’s example may seem simple, it is striking how often this very scenario plays out in the workplace.

How is coaching different from other development interventions?

What differentiates coaching as an individual and organizational development intervention from other similar processes has long been a subject of debate. Consulting, counseling, psychological therapy, mentoring, and other process interventions such as NLP, TA, Positive Psychology, and Appreciative Inquiry are some of the alternatives that also strive to help individuals reach their potential. All of these are applied with both individuals and organizations.

Some of these approaches are more appropriate for organizations (such as consulting), while others work best for individuals (such as therapy). Coaching too has been viewed more as an individual behavioral intervention till recently. The difference between these processes are sort of like a matrix of time and communication. Some of these interventions are future-based, and some are past-based. Some of these interventions use the exploratory approach of asking, and some use the directive approach of telling. There is no right or wrong. Each intervention may work better in a given context.

If you really want to examine how all of these fit together, you can bring in the organizational and individual context as the third axis of the matrix. And to get super detailed, you can even add a fourth, which could be experience and expertise in the realm of communication. For the purpose of our foundational understanding today, let’s stick with the two axes. Take a look at the short video below for a quick comparison.

What is common in all cases is that the client, as an individual or organization, desires an outcome that requires some challenges to be overcome – internal, external or both. 

Coaching Vs Consulting

Consulting is mostly used in the organizational context. It requires the experience and expertise that a consultant brings with them to help the client in the challenge they face. Both consulting and coaching are future-focused. Consulting is a direct solution-based approach, whereas coaching is an exploratory awareness creation approach. Generally, consulting would yield faster results since the consultant is an expert whose job is to resolve the problem. Even though it’s faster than coaching, the creation of awareness that comes with coaching is missing. This means that even though a problem is solved, that anchoring didn’t take place and it’s possible that the client’s satisfaction is only temporary. There are, however, coaching-based consulting approaches (as suggested by Ed Schein, for example) that adopt a more partnered consulting approach. Best of both worlds, as the old saying goes.

Coaching Vs Therapy (& Many Psychological Approaches)

Many of the psychological behavioral interventions are based on uncovering past (conditioned) experiences in order to help the client overcome any traumas arising out of those experiences. Different therapies follow different processes. All are focused on the past, however, and to some extent, all are based on the directive telling approach. Carl Rogers attempted to change this to a client-centric explorative approach, which resulted in the birth of counseling. Since coaching is a future-based, asking approach, coaches are generally warned not to follow therapeutic approaches even if they are qualified to do so. Coaches are advised to get explicit client permission to use any sort of therapy techniques and tools with their clients.

Coaching Vs Counseling

Counseling is much closer to coaching than other psychological therapeutic interventions. It is more focused on listening and asking. However, its focus is still more on helping the client overcome past experiences, especially ones dealing with emotional traumas. Many subjects that traditionally were firmly in the counselors’ area of expertise, such as relationships, grief and loss, are now capably handled by coaches using outcome-oriented approaches.

Coaching Vs Mentoring

Much has been made of mentoring being highly different from coaching and even “out of bounds,” ethically speaking. The reason is that mentoring relies on expertise, or “telling.” The coach’s place isn’t to be the expert in the room – the coach is just a mirror. However, looking at this from a practical perspective, mentoring frequently bleeds into coaching and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC), in fact, recognizes mentoring as an integral part of coaching, as long as mentoring is not confused with providing solutions. No coach is so totally non-judgmental that they are able to remove all emotions and reactions that arise in their partnering and sharing with the client. In fact, at the mastery level, the coach’s ability to authentically convey intuitive emotional and somatic responses to the client – with the vulnerability to accept disagreement – would be considered essential to partnering.

Many corporate executives are more comfortable with a coach who has “walked the talk” with experience and expertise so that they can also receive mentoring as part of the engagement (as appropriate). They are not looking for theorists but practitioners who can help them find a solution. Most coaches do wear the mentor’s hat on occasions.

However, it is critical to remember that sustainable results can only happen if the client discovers their own solution through their own awareness. Creating that awareness is the coaching framework. The coach needs to be self-aware of this boundary.

Magda Walczak

Magda

Magda Walczak is CEO of Coacharya and author of Saylor's tale, a children's book. She's passionate about animal rights, women's equity and living sustainably.

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