Last month, I embarked on a postgrad certificate in coaching, which includes three four-day group training modules. These sessions are pretty intensive, and involve a lot of actual coaching practice — we easily spend as much time coaching each other as we do learning about the tools and techniques we need to be really effective coaches. There’s no role-playing, we are all bringing real-life challenges and situations to our coaching conversations. Despite us all starting with differing levels of experience as coaches, I can honestly say that each person in my cohort has a real aptitude for this work, and I’ve already benefited enormously from the conversations we’ve had.
We are also required to hone our coaching skills outside our peer group and away from the classroom, so I am working with a few volunteer coaching clients. These folks have not generally had much, if any, experience of being coached, and I have noticed some subtle differences in the way these conversations run compared to the ones I have with people on my course. It occurs to me that while I am learning to coach, I am also learning how to be coached, and how to get the most out of this kind of conversation. I’d like to share some insights into how coaching works, what effective coaching looks like, and how to maximise the value from any coaching conversations you have.
Any coach worth their salt will arrange a free ‘chemistry session’ before entering into any agreement to coach you. This is really, really important — trust is a fundamental requirement of any coaching relationship, and if you don’t feel at ease with your coach, it will be so much harder for both of you to build the necessary rapport for the coaching to be effective. If you’re not feeling it, say so — it’s likely that your coach will have picked up on this anyway, they certainly won’t be offended, and will probably be able to refer you to someone better suited to your needs.
You are not broken
Coaching works from the basic premise that each of us is a whole, functioning, resourceful and capable human — the aim is to build on or improve what is already there, not to ‘fix’ anything. In fact, this is one way to differentiate coaching from therapy; if you are broadly okay as you are, but some things could be better, coaching can help you with that. (However, if you are not okay as you are, you are more likely to benefit from speaking to a therapist rather than a coach*.) As coaches, we are trained to approach our clients with ‘unconditional positive regard’; we work on the basis that each person we coach is doing the best they can with what they have available to them at the time.
You have everything you need
It’s not uncommon for people to ask their coach, “What do you think? What would you do?”. After all, if you knew what to do, you’d do it already, right? Well, not necessarily — and a good coach generally won’t tell you what to do or what they would do in your shoes (there are exceptions to this, but they are pretty rare). You are the expert on your situation, you have all the context, the nuance and the subtleties that would take another person much longer than an hour or two to grok, let alone come to a meaningful conclusion about what to do about it. What’s more, even if your coach did have a perfect, complete understanding of your situation, they would still be unlikely to come to the same answer you will. The point of coaching is not to hand you someone else’s answers, it’s to help you discover and surface your own wisdom.
The only ‘right’ answers are your answers
The first time I had any coaching, I kept second-guessing myself, thinking that my coach had a point they were trying to guide me to. I made an assumption that even though they weren’t going to tell me what to do, they still knew what the ‘right’ solution was for my particular challenge. Looking back with the benefit of my training, I now know that my coach would have been working hard not to lead me down any particular path, and to focus on staying curious about my thought processes. A truly effective coach will only ask questions in order to help you clarify your own thinking, and finding the solutions and answers that are most useful to you — and they will be uniquely yours.
The Thing is never The Thing
You might well bounce into your coaching with a specific problem in mind, thinking that you just need to crack this one thing — only to find ten minutes in that you’re digging into something else entirely. A skilled coach can help you get to the root of the issue, rather than just patching up the surface problem. It can take courage to be vulnerable with another person, and coaching can sometimes bring up strong emotions. This is completely and utterly normal, and giving these feelings free rein can be a crucial step in bringing about meaningful, lasting change. Your coach will not judge you for it (unconditional positive regard again), and they will almost certainly have encountered similar reactions, whatever they may be. The more open and honest you can be with your coach and yourself, the more likely you will be to benefit from your coaching sessions in the long run.
The magic happens later
Although coaching sessions can be intense, transformative experiences in themselves, this won’t necessarily always be the case. In fact, you will often walk out of a coaching session without feeling massively different — but in the hours, days and even weeks afterwards, you may start to notice a shift in your thinking, or a change in your behaviour. The thought processes that get kicked off as you are being coached don’t stop when you walk out of the room or hang up the call. Your brain will continue chewing on the conversation long afterwards, and like the ripples from a pebble dropped in a pond, the impact will continue to spread.
I’m hoping by this point you are getting the general idea; done well, coaching can seem like magic at times, but there isn’t really any great trick to it. Like so much else in life, you will get out of it what you are willing to put in — do the work, trust the process and everything else will follow.
*It has been (very kindly and patiently) pointed out to me that categorising people as ‘okay’ or ‘not okay’ is not necessarily helpful, and might be offensive to some. For that, I am sorry.
The question of when coaching or therapy is most appropriate easily warrants an article in its own right, and it will often vary according to each individual’s needs. In general, a coach will aim to support you in improving some aspect of your life that you feel could be better (such as work performance, self-confidence or career progression) within a defined timeframe, usually several months. Some coaches will specialise in working with particular types of issues or groups of people, and all will have varying degrees of competence and experience within that. If you choose to seek help from a coach, it is important they are very clear and open with you on the areas they are skilled in, and where they feel a different or additional type of support would be more beneficial to you. This article discusses some of the characteristics of coaching compared with counselling, for example.
I would strongly recommend that when you are seeking a coach, in addition to holding an inital chemistry meeting, you check that they follow a code of ethics (such as that of one of the recognised coaching bodies, like the ICF or EMCC), and that they attend regular supervision with a qualified coach supervisor.