Understanding Coaching

by Sheila Segal, B.Ed.

It seems that every time we open up a magazine or circular, we are bombarded with ads for coaching. Whether it is a school, promoting its coaching program or an established coach, describing how he can impact positively on your life, coaching seems to be a popular trend today.

What is coaching, exactly, and how did it gain momentum so rapidly?

The role of the coach is to help clients clarify their dreams and goals, and to help them achieve those aspirations. Coaching focuses on what clients want. People come to coaching because they are looking for change. As coach Laura Whitworth puts it, "People come to coaching for lots of individual reasons. They are motivated to achieve specific goals: to write a book, to start a business, to lead a healthier lifestyle. They come to coaching in order to be more effective or more satisfied at work. They hire a coach because they want to create more order and balance in their lives. Sometimes people want more from life- more peace of mind, more joy. And sometimes, they want less– less confusion, less stress, less pressure. In general, they come to coaching because they want a better quality of life- more fulfillment, better balance- or a different process for accomplishing their life desires."

In essence, a coaching session is a conversation between two people. But it is no ordinary conversation. It is focused, designed to support the client in making changes. An effective coaching environment allows clients to feel ‘safe’ to take the risks they need to take, and to feel creative and motivated. Obviously, confidentiality is crucial.

What makes the coaching process so effective? There are several aspects to explore. The first is the objectivity of the coach. He is non-judgmental, allowing himself to be wholly with the client, instead of ‘pre-judging.’ Next is the frequent, consistent interaction between the coach and client. Generally, meetings are weekly, for one hour duration. There will be frequent e-mailing or phone calls, which provide a support system for the client.

Here’s a sample coaching conversation, in which the client’s goal is weight loss.

The coach has elicited from the client a number of strategies for weight loss.

Coach: It seems that we have quite a list of options here. Let’s go over those choices. You mentioned drinking more water, going to the gym once a week, writing down everything you eat, and weighing yourself weekly. Which of these are you going to do?

Client: I will drink more, and sign up at the local gym.

Coach: When will you sign up? How often will you drink?

Client: I think I could drink 8 to 10 glasses a day, plus drop in at the gym on Tuesday to inquire about memberships.

Coach: That sounds great. How about calling me on Tuesday after you join the gym?

Client: I can do that.

Coach: What structures can we put into place that will remind you about drinking?

Client: I could set an alarm on my phone.

Coach: That sounds like an excellent idea. What else could you do?

Client: I’m not sure. Do you have any ideas?

Coach: What’s worked for you in the past, when you wanted to remember something?

Client: I put post-it notes all over the house. That worked really well for me.

Coach: Would you like to try that again?

Client: Yes, I think that would work.

Coach and client work together to chart out steps that will lead to the client achieving success in his chosen goal.

The 3 basic elements to the coaching process are:

  • Helping the client to discover and understand who they are.
  • Helping to identify and clarify what they most want.
  • Helping the client to create and develop strategies to achieve their goals.

Coaching is a partnership, where both partners feel commitment. The client is committed to explore, change, learn, take risks, and persevere even when it is difficult. The coach is committed to dig deeply, to listen intently to the words both spoken and unspoken. He challenges and encourages, and pushes people out of their comfort zone.

Coaching delivers results, mostly due to the supportive relationship between the coach and the client, and the style of communication used. The client learns, not by hearing the ‘expert’ advice of the coach, but rather from drawing it out of himself, stimulated by the coach’s questions.

Questions form the basis of the coaching conversation. There’s a huge benefit to using questions instead of advising or acting in a consulting role. Asking empowers the client. Statistics have shown that people are more motivated to carry out their own ideas and solutions. That creates buy-in, which delivers better results. Asking builds responsibility, by moving people from depending on others for the answers, to developing their own solutions to challenges.

Here are some examples of powerful coaching questions:

  • Visualize yourself at a time in the future when you are living your ideal life. How would that look?
  • Give me five options how you could tackle this challenge.
  • If you could do that over again, what would you do differently?
  • It sounds like you are tolerating something that you don’t like. What could you do if you set out to take care of it once and for all?

Tony Stoltzfus, a pioneer in the coaching field, maintains that the reason coaching conversations are so powerful is that they bring structure to the process of thinking, planning, deciding and doing. Instead of just talking about your needs, you are systematically walking through a framework that forces you to clarify an objective, explore new options, make firm decisions and become accountable to your choices.

One of the first tasks in a coaching session is deciding what your objective is. In coaching, the agenda comes from the client. A clear goal is of paramount importance. There are four characteristics to a well-designed agenda. Ownership is the first element. It must be the client’s idea and that he is committed to it. Secondly, there must be energy around the goal. The person feels motivated to pursue this goal. Next, the person feels a powerful desire to fulfill this now. And lastly, the goal is significant. It is important, and worth making sacrifices for, if need be. One of the key challenges of the coach is to help the client identify what goal to pursue. It is necessary to go below the surface to discover what the need is that is really sparking this wish for change. For example, a woman might say that she is unhappy with her home, and she really needs a bigger place. Digging below the surface might reveal that with adequate storage systems, she could really remain in her present home. The goal would then be developing a system for a clutter free home, instead of moving to a larger one where the same problem would likely reoccur.

Life coaching really developed from sports coaching. Timothy Gallwey authored a book called The Inner game of Tennis. He claimed that ‘the opponent within one’s own head is more formidable than the one on the other side of the net.’ Gallwey believed that if a coach can help remove or reduce the inner obstacles to performance, the player’s natural ability will express itself. In essence, what Gallwey was teaching was the essence of all coaching. Coaching can unlock a person’s potential, allowing him to maximize his own performance. It is a way of helping someone learn, rather than teaching them.

From sports and business to relationships and career choices, coaching today has developed into one of the key tools and techniques for achieving personal and professional goals.