Coaching is not helpful?!

A provocative title – just to catch your attention!

Of course coaching is helpful, however I’m not entirely sure that the word ‘coaching’ is helpful, particularly in the context of leader as coach.  Having recently co-facilitated another Leader as Coach program, aimed at building the skills of leaders in coaching their staff, I was reminded of the assumptions/baggage that seems to be attached to the word ‘coaching’.  There is a general acceptance that it is a ‘good thing’ for managers to do more coaching of their staff, however that doesn’t mean that managers don’t approach it with some trepidation, discomfort or lack of confidence.  Some of this stems from their pre-conceptions of what coaching is and whether it is right for them.  Some of the typical doubts or questions include:

  • Using sports coaching as a reference point – how does that apply in a work context?
  • How is coaching different from mentoring?
  • Isn’t it presumptuous of me to think I should ‘coach someone’?
  • What the difference between coaching and teaching?
  • Can I coach my boss or peers as well as staff?

Many of these concerns, confusions and uncertainties arise from trying to get an understanding of what coaching actually means in practice in an organisational setting.  So, here it is…firstly don’t think of it as coaching – it’s not that helpful.  Through our conversations at the recent coaching program one of my co-facilitators in responding to these myriad questions and concerns succinctly stated that you might be best thinking of coaching simply as this: helping someone else with their own thinking.  I think that this provides a really powerful and simple frame to approach coaching – it frees you from your assumptions and concerns about what coaching is.

This simple approach is premised on the idea that the answer lies within the person you are trying to help – they just need a little guidance, time and focus to clarify their own thinking.  It’s empowering them to take responsibility for their thinking and the decisions they make.  If it’s helping someone else with their own thinking, then in practical terms its essentially asking questions to help someone to better understand and gain insight into their situation, the options available to them and to make some choices about the course of action they will chose to pursue.  What it is not, is taking ownership of the problem for them, providing the solution to them or undertaking collaborative problem-solving together.  Sometimes these are necessary and appropriate approaches but they don’t fulfill the intent of coaching – helping an individual to become more aware, take responsibility for action and build their confidence.

Now, of course, you don’t go around helping people with their own thinking if they haven’t asked for it.  It would feel a bit weird.  However, there’s a fair chance they won’t ask for it either!  So what to do?  So, simply if you think there is an opportunity to help somebody with their own thinking, whether it be a staff member, boss or peer, ask them: Would you like some help with your thinking on this?  If you get a ‘yes’ you’ve then got some permission to go ahead.  Imagine the different response you might get, especially if with your boss or a peer, if you asked them if they’d like to be coached on this – how presumptuous!

So typically what sort of questions would you ask if you were helping somebody with their own thinking?  You’d typically work through some clear phases of questioning:

  1. Firstly you’d want to know a little about the issue that they are grappling with – What is the issue you are grappling with?  What is the dilemma you are dealing with?  What is the mischief you are trying to sort out?
  2. Secondly you would ask them to confirm what they want to get out of the conversation – now you are clear on where they want to get to.
  3. From there you’d help them get some deeper insight and awareness of their situation – typical questions might include: What is happening now?  What is the impact of that? What have you tried so far? How might others view the situation?  How have you contributed to the situation?  You know it is helping them when there are moments that they really have to pause and think about the question you have asked them.
  4. Then you’d want to help them work out what options are available to them. This is an opportunity to help them think creatively to generate many possibilities from which they can assess and choose.  Sometimes it forces them to face up to choices they may have been avoiding!
  5. Finally get them to make a decision.  This is about helping them commit to a course of action, even if it is only a small step forward.


Through assisting them with their own thinking you are helping them gain new awareness and take responsibility for action.  Now, with this new frame of reference – helping people with their own thinking – you may want to check out our tips and hints guide on coaching conversations.