Why use a coach?

How to work with a coach, part 1

By Martin Vogel

Need space to think?
Need space to think?

Coaching is a young profession and not well understood.  The barriers to entry are low and the standards and methodologies variable.  No surprise, then, that I find that people who approach me for coaching often have little idea what to expect.

So this is the first of a series of posts for people who are thinking of working with a coach.  It will try to shed light on what coaching is and how to use a coach.  Among other things, we’ll look at criteria to use when choosing a coach and how to get the best out of coaching once you begin.  But we’ll start with exploring how coaching can help you and when it might benefit you to work with a coach.

Let’s try first of all to pin down what coaching is – a surprisingly difficult question to answer.  If you have explored coaching at all, you will have found that no-one ever seems to call themselves simply a coach.  There are life coaches and executive coaches, NLP coaches, ontological coaches, co-active coaches, performance coaches, wellbeing coaches, fertility coaches.  I could go on.  I don’t intend to get into the distinctions in approach between the various methodologies or niches within the profession.  Having explored a variety of philosophical traditions in coaching, I can see that they all offer a certain wisdom.  I’m more interested here in some of the common factors which underlie coaching, whatever tradition in which it’s rooted.  The reason for this is that, for prospective clients, the label given to a particular kind of coaching is less important than the quality and professionalism that a coach has to offer.

Now some coaches might protest that that the outcomes from coaching may be different depending on which kind of coach you choose to work with.  This is probably true.  But I am making an assumption here that it is most useful first to understand what makes a good coach.  Once you have this clear, you can make better decisions about what approach to coaching might suit you best.

At the most basic level, a coach is someone who works with clients to help them improve their effectiveness and fulfil their potential. Typically, this happens through a series of very purposeful, one-to-one conversations held over a number of months.  These are aimed at helping the client to learn and develop; it’s not about being taught by the coach.  So the coach’s role tends to be to listen and to ask questions rather than to give advice.

John Whitmore, one of the founders of the profession, speaks of the task of coaching as being to reduce the internal obstacles to performance which are often more daunting than the external ones (John Whitmore, Coaching For Performance).   If you can reduce the internal obstacles – the self-talk that makes you doubt yourself and your capability – then one’s natural ability tends to come to the fore.

Jenny Rogers, a highly respected coach and a wise writer on the subject, speaks of six principles in coaching (Jenny Rogers, Coaching Skills):

  1. The client is resourceful
  2. The coach’s role is to spring loose the client’s resourcefulness
  3. Coaching addresses the whole person – past, present and future
  4. The client sets the agenda
  5. The coach and client are equals
  6. Coaching is about change and action

Taking these ideas together, the coach’s purpose is not to offer answers but to create a relationship in which the client gains the space, perspective and support to find for him or herself the right way forward.  The logic of this – and this is sometimes hard for clients to grasp initially – is that the coach does not need to be an expert on the client’s situation.  As Jenny Rogers puts it:

“Only the client can really know what to do because only the client knows the full story and only the client can actually implement the action and live with the results.  This does not preclude the coach from offering useful information, but it is the client’s choice whether or not to use it.”

The other implication which flows from the insights of Whitmore and Rogers is that the field of inquiry in coaching is quite broad.  If you’re seeking help with a work issue, the conversation can’t realitically be confined to office matters because the person you are in your whole life affects how you show up at work.  Similarly, where you have come from and what your aspriations are inform the decisions you are likely to make today.

I tend to think of coaching as providing a reflective opportunity for the client.  In our time-pressured lives, it is a real luxury to be invited to step out of your routine in order to pause and take the measure of what you are doing.  Add into the mix the focussed attention you will receive from your coach and it becomes a rich learning experience.

A good coach, above all, is someone who listens.  A coach will offer you feedback about how you are that you are unlikely to receive from anyone else, because the coach is concentrating on you but – unlike others in your life – has no particular interest in the decisions that you take.  A coach will challenge your assumptions and established ways of thinking and feeling, encouraging you to see new possibilities.  And the simple commitment of working with a coach will in itself facilitate your development, since your the deadline of your next meeting tends to provide a point of accountability for you to show progress on what you are trying to achieve.

So if coaching is about your own resourcefulness and not about the knowledge or expertise of the coach, it follows that the issues on which you might seek help from a coach are almost limitless.  A business coach might help you with things like the way you lead a team, how you deal with your boss or getting a better work-life balance.  A life coach might help with organising yourself at home, leading a more healthy lifestyle or improving the your personal relationships.  Either might help you to think about where you’re heading with your career.

You might think about turning to a coach when you have been struggling with something for some time and seem never to make much progress or when you are at a point of transition and want to draw together the insight and capabilities that you possess in a new way.  Coaching can be really useful when you are in a new job and want to think about how to approach it most effectively.  Or when you are aware that you want to develop in some new way but are not quite clear how.  Generally, you will be drawn to coaching because there is something that you want to change and there is a lot at stake.

Since coaching is a relatively expensive way of dealing with the issue, it is important to think about what other approaches are open to you and what distinctive value coaching adds.  Sometimes I encounter prospective clients who can get what they need from a book and I suggest they try that before turning to coaching.  Sometimes people have read all the books or had loads of training but want to try something new.  Or they are turning to a coach for support or challenge as they put their knowledge into practice.  Maybe they are drawing on some other means of support and want to work with a coach to help them critique their development or to move forward more quickly.

These are the reasons why you might be drawn to coaching.  But they make coaching sound quite mundane and instrumental.  What you gain from coaching may, in the long run, be qualitatively different since coaching, at its best, is a wonderfully mind-expanding and life-affirming experience.  It’s about developing a trusting relationship with someone, connecting with your values, developing and growing.  In achieving the thing that brought you into coaching, you may reach your ostensible destination but you may discover that in fact you are on a wholly different journey.

You should, by now, be gaining an impression that the nature of your relationship with your coach is everything.  Strike the right match, and the rewards of coaching are rich and unexpected.  The secret to achieving this lies in knowing  your own needs and preferences before you start looking for a coach, so that you are clear about the kind of person you will best work with.  How to gain that clarity is the subject of the next post in the series.

Other posts in the series, How to work with a coach:

  1. Why use a coach?
  2. What do you want from coaching?
  3. How do you find a coach?
  4. Meeting a prospective coach
  5. Agreeing terms with your coach
  6. Your first session with a coach
  7. Working with your coach
  8. Your work between coaching sessions
  9. If your coaching isn’t going well
  10. When it’s time to finish coaching