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David Rock

What Is Coaching?

by David Rock

Coaching is a commonly used term in the media, sports and business world. It is also a much misunderstood field with a diverse range of approaches. One of the reasons there is a lot of confusion around the term 'coaching' is simply how broad the field is. Many people try to 'define' coaching without realising that coaching is in fact as broad a concept as say 'training'.

Coaching is a way of speeding up how people learn. It is a learning tool. A method for changing behaviour. This behaviour can be in any field. You can coach someone in sport, in their personal life, in their relationships, in their performance in the workplace, in their studies, in the arts, in how they think, play, feel, you name it. You can coach children to walk, you can coach teenagers to drive a car and you can coach retired people to think differently about their final years. Coaching is simply a way of changing (hopefully improving) the way people apply themselves to any situation.

It is useful therefore to think of coaching as only half the story. Trying to understand what 'training' is could be very challenging - you are better to know what type of training - for example are you talking about personal training, corporate training or sales training. It's the same with coaching. There is small business coaching, executive coaching, life coaching, maths coaching, sales coaching and workplace coaching.

A Broad Range of Approaches

Another reason for the confusion in this field is the number of approaches there are to coaching and thus people perceive coaching as being many different things. One of the most common perceptions of coaching is the team sports coach, largely due to how much media these coaches get. As a result a common perception of coaching is a tough approach, like the football coach who is there to provide the 'tough love', to help them set goals, get focused, choose the 'play for the day' and of course deliver the all important locker room motivational rave. This is one quite valid and common type of coaching, though it is unlikely to be useful in the workplace in a sustainable way.

A second common perception of coaching is the coach as director, the person who says how things need to be done, like the theatre director as coach, tennis coach or driving school instructor. Again these ideas are in common usage so they tend to be dominant in people's minds. The perception is that the coach knows a lot of the detail of how the coachee needs to perform, and is there to show them how, to direct them, to observe what they do wrong and help them improve. Again there is an important role for this type of coaching, however it is not the most useful template for the workplace. The coach as expert is too similar to a directive management style. It can be too easy for the coach in the organisation to impart knowledge and catch people doing things wrong, instead of the more effective means of facilitating learning available through other styles of coaching.

A third common perception is that of the counsellor. Many people see the coach as the therapist, someone to tell your problems to that will help you work them all out. This type of coach exists, and while there is a place for support people inside organisations, I do not advocate turning managers into counsellors. The manager who has been well trained as a coach is in fact going to spend less time dealing with counselling type issues than one who isn't.

The other perception of coaching is someone who's often not thought of as a coach. It's that manager, friend or colleague we once had, someone who was such a useful sounding board, someone who helped us to really go for big goals and stretch ourselves, who believed in us and gave us lots of encouragement and helped us to think through things more clearly.

I think you can see from all this just how broad coaching is, and the importance of clear communication when discussing coaching so that people are all talking about the same thing. In a workplace context, it is vital that an organisation defines it's own coaching model very clearly so that managers are more comfortable with learning the skills. It can be too easy for managers to confuse it with mentoring, counselling or even managing and therefore not engage in the process of learning effective coaching skills.

What All Types of Coaching Share

While coaching as an overall field is very broad, there are many similarities in the various types of coaching. Firstly, they all share a common goal - that is to help an individual or team realise their potential and improve their performance. All types of coaches are committed to the people they coach, are there for them as a resource and support. Coaches are people committed to what's possible, to human potential, to people being the best they can be.

From this general shared vision, all types of coaching then work from several key insights. The first insight is that change can be hard, and takes time and focus. I noticed when I moved my bedroom around once that I kept going back to the same place where my cupboard was for several weeks before I was able to reprogram my brain with the new information. Thus coaching approaches are not one off affairs but delivered over time. There are some one-off approaches to learning being packaged as coaching, and I personally believe this is confusing things substantially and doing the industry a disservice. A financial planner doing a one hour financial analysis of someone's portfolio is not 'wealth coaching', it's a marketing manager gone out of control.

The second insight is that people have very different learning needs and styles, thus coaching is highly personalised and tailored to each person, it's not a preset format or else it is more like training. Research has shown that coaching added to training increases learning retention by up to four times as much as training alone. There are some types of training packaged as coaching, for example some computer training programs are being packaged as software coaching, even though there is no personalisation involved in any way.

The third insight is that coaches can see things that an individual cannot see, patterns, behaviours or habits, and that feeding this back to an individual can be profoundly useful. The coach can see these things because they are an observer and not 'lost in the detail' like the person being observed. It is important in any coaching model that the interactions are between people, in real time, for these insights to occur. I do not believe it is possible to coach by email or on paper - the insights and learnings happen in subtle ways in live language.

So coaching as a model is a useful format for most types of learning interventions. It works because it is aligned with simple human needs, and can be applied very effectively to helping people improve their performance in the workplace. To do this requires the organisation to truly understand the field and choose how they want to get involved.

Copyright © David Rock

About the Author
David Rock

David Rock is a pioneer of the Australian coaching movement. Through his organisation, Results Coaching Systems, David is providing external coaches to thousands of professionals and executives each year. David is also passionate about turning managers into coaches and is currently delivering initiatives inside several large organisations. David can be contacted by email at davidrock@workplacecoaching.com or visit www.resultscoaches.com and www.workplacecoaching.com.

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