What do you think of when you hear the word “coaching”? Business coaching? Personal coaching? Life coaching? Skills coaching? And is a coach a teacher, a mentor, a trainer, a motivator or a therapist? And what is “business coaching”? Is that coaching for executives, for project teams, for start-up companies or consulting for business development?
Coaching is a big trend at the moment – you either hate it or love it, but you can’t avoid being confronted with it. But what is it, exactly? And how does it differ from consulting or therapy? In this article I’ll explain what professional coaching really is from my point of view and how can it be used effectively to help people lead a more fulfilled life.
I’d like to do this by first introducing you to my three favourite things about coaching:
(1) Coaching empowers you to find your own solutions
Based on the idea of a driver of a horse-drawn cart, coaching can be thought of as steering or guidance for someone trying to find their way through a challenging situation. The key to this idea is that the guidance provides direction, structure and new perspectives, but does not dictate the goal or the steps taken to reach the goal.
Let’s apply this thinking to the professional environment. If you were a manager having difficulties with your team, for example, coaching would be about guiding you to think about your own strengths and weaknesses, to notice obstacles and chances, to put yourself into your team members’ shoes, to develop solutions based on previous experiences, to structure your thoughts and to see things from new perspectives.
This differs from consulting, which in this situation would be about providing you with analysis and solutions, making suggestions and evaluating situations, teaching you about different management styles, sharing experience and actively advising you on your strategy and the next steps to take.
In short, a consultant fills the space with their ideas, whereas a coach makes space for your ideas:
So how can coaching be helpful for you if the coach doesn’t provide you with any answers? I asked myself this question at the start of my coaching qualification too! I was unsure about how I could help my clients if I couldn’t provide them with any solutions. Being an engineer, I am experienced in problem-solving. Up until the start of my coaching training, my way of helping friends and colleagues to solve their problems was to make suggestions and to tell them about a similar problem I had experienced myself and how I had solved it. To me, it was always obvious what they should do! However, this approach doesn’t always go down so well – but I didn’t really notice this until I was presented with an alternative.
This alternative is to assume that the most effective solution is one that the person with the problem has developed themselves. With this assumption, you have to do two simple things:
(1) Just listen.
Let them talk and structure their thoughts as they go along. Don’t interrupt them and give them time to think of everything that’s important to do with the topic. Note down key points and ask them if you’ve understood correctly.
(2) Ask open questions.
Get them thinking. Examples are “what is it exactly that’s difficult for you about this situation?”, “what would the ideal situation actually look like?”, “what approach have you already tried and what happened?”, “can you think of an example where you managed to solve a similar problem successfully and how could you apply it to this situation?”
This approach is so much more effective than forcing your solution upon them. If you don’t believe me (which I wouldn’t have done a few years ago), then please try it yourself! You can apply it immediately to almost any private or professional situation. By doing this, you are actively empowering the other person to find their own solutions by believing in them, listening to them and giving them time and space. This solution is then far more likely to be implemented, as the person thought of it themselves.
In fact, you can probably think of a situation yourself when someone bombarded you with tips, suggestions and solutions – and all you really wanted was for them to listen and understand.
This idea is used constantly in coaching. And it DOES allow me to help my clients – just in a different, more subtle, but much more powerful way.
(2) Coaching is goal-oriented and in the present
Coaching doesn’t only sometimes get confused with consulting, but also with therapy. The main difference between therapy and coaching are (a) coaching is not applied to heal a disorder, but to solve or resolve a problem in the present, (b) coaching does not delve into past occurrences, relationships and family issues but is strongly focused on problem-solving in the present, (c) coaching is extremely goal-oriented, always involving the definition of a goal at the start of the process, (d) coaching is extremely well-structured, involving very well-defined problem definition, diagnosis, problem solving, implementation and feedback stages. If you were a manager having difficulties with your team, coaching would be perfect to help you to recognise your own behaviour and then to develop strategies and actions to deal with this situation. Therapy would be useful if the difficulties got so bad that you could no longer live your regular life – if you could no longer sleep, you were depressed or suffering from burn-out and were no longer capable of developing any ideas or solutions of your own.
These properties of coaching allow clients to structure their thoughts, plans and goals. This is firstly done by just listening and giving them room to think their thoughts through properly. How much time do you take normally to structure your thoughts and note down all the different stakeholders, constraints and possibilities? I know that I don’t take much time to do this. And if I do, it’s not because I’ve set aside an hour of thinking time, it’s because I’m waiting somewhere, sitting on the train or going for a run (or trying to sleep), and the thoughts just come to me in a non-structured, confusing manner. Coaching is a really great opportunity to give you this thinking time and space you need. Also, simple techniques such as drawing on the flipchart or using figures / markers on the floor to visualise the important points really helps clients to see the problem from the point of view of an outsider and to understand what’s going on better.
(3) Coaching is effective and sustainable because it deals with emotions
How many times have you told yourself something like “I should do more sport”, “I should eat less chocolate”, “I shouldn’t let myself get so annoyed with the people at work”, “I should switch off from work better when I’m at home”? And how many times have you just not been able to follow your own advice? The reason for your lack of ability to follow your own advice is a discrepancy between your rational and emotional self. Your rational self knows that you should not be eating that yummy chocolate bar, but your emotional self just wants it too much and doesn’t care about any future consequences. This is the difference between knowing something (rationally) and KNOWING it (emotionally).
What’s this got to do with coaching? Well, there are some very powerful yet simple coaching techniques that get right down to your emotional self and help you change things by understanding the underlying values behind your actions. This can lead to a more fulfilled life by either (a) accepting the situation as it is: for example, understanding that it’s OK to eat that chocolate bar because your emotional self attaches all sorts of positive feelings with eating chocolate, and accepting that you may not be able to lose weight because of this), or (b) changing something: for example, understanding that you actually eat too much chocolate to compensate for the fact that something else is missing in your life, and changing this.
Here are two examples of coaching techniques that help clients understand their emotions:
- The Empty Chair Method: this method is used if the client is having difficulties dealing with a difficult person. The client is invited to sit in a different chair and play the role of this person, and is questioned by the coach, resulting in subconscious feelings arising that the client hadn’t previously been aware of. This allows the client to see the problem from a different perspective and thus come up with new ideas to solve it.
- Floor markers: this method is used to help the client understand their feelings in a particular situation in order to help them define steps to make a change. One example of using this method would be first to label two markers with the current (unsatisfactory) situation and with the desired (satisfactory) situation. Then the client places the markers on the floor and stands on each one in turn, each time feeling into the situation by shutting their eyes and imaging actually being in the situation and then being questioned by the coach about the emotions that arise.
If you are thinking that this sounds like a load of nonsense or you don’t believe that it works, I completely understand! I thought that too before I tried it! But don’t forget that humans are generally aware of only about 5% of the things that are going on – the remaining 95% stays in our subconsciousness, unless we do something about it!
What does coaching feel like?
It feels great to be coached! Finally someone who listens, understands and asks the right questions, who takes you seriously and doesn’t make fun of you or attack your weaknesses, who gives you room to explore, test and develop yourself, who motivates and challenges you, who believes in you and doesn’t get frustrated with you, who sets you reachable goals and keeps the overall goal in mind.
It feels great to be a coach too, by the way! I feel like a better person when I coach and wish I could be like that more of the time outside of my coaching role. As a coach, I am truly interested in what the client is saying and the way their mind works. I truly believe that they have a solution to their problem and that they will find the solution. I truly believe that they have the strength and experience to find a way to be happy. I give them time, I listen, I’m patient. I enable them to look at their problem in a different way and encourage them to have fun and be creative whilst reminding them of their overall goal.
What coaching can do for you
So, in conclusion, I think coaching is great because (1) it empowers you to find your own solutions, (2) it is goal-oriented and in the present and (3) it is effective and sustainable because it deals with emotions. I don’t think that coaching provides you with THE ultimate solution, but it CAN help you to find solutions to all sorts of problems in your life and to live in a more fulfilled manner. It can be best applied for problems that you just can’t manage to solve yourself and if they are affecting your life in a negative way.
Coaching helps you to work out what you actually want, to understand what the underlying problem actually is, as well as to develop and implement actions and solutions to the problem. It helps you to structure your thoughts, see things from a different point of view, understand the feelings of other relevant parties and handle your own feelings and emotions. It supports, guides and empowers you.
It can be applied to difficulties at work and in your private life, or a mixture of both. It can help you make decisions, solve dilemmas and problems as well as to work out how to deal with difficult people. It can help you improve your performance or that of your team and colleagues. It can help you improve your work-life-balance. In short, it can be whatever you want it to be, as long as you are prepared to try out new things and look at things from new perspectives.
Most coaches offer a free, non-binding first meeting, and many also work via Skype these days, so just give it a go, you’ve got nothing to lose!
I am a freelance coach and wind energy engineer based in Zurich, Switzerland, and am committed to helping companies and individuals reach their full potential and work effectively together - through coaching and workshops. My workshops TechTeamBuilder for technical teams, CriticalThinker for correcting unconscious biases and ProblemSolver for solving tricky problems.