By Laurel Elders, MCC, CEC
Edits by Jill Aronoff, CPIC, ACC
Coaching is the sexy trendy thing to call just about anything. "I'm a photography coach." "I'm a resume coach." "I'm a wine coach."
In this article, I'm going to take a stand for coaching. To some, my sentiments and ideas may be perceived as controversial. So be it. It is time to face the proverbial elephant in the room and be open about the challenges the industry is faced with and how we can do better.
1) Let's call a duck, a duck.
I recently read an article on the different philosophies of coaching, written by a freelance writer who did not appear to have any education or expertise in the coaching field. What struck me most about the article was that the author failed to explain the distinctions between coaching, advising, teaching, mentoring, consulting, and therapy. Instead, they grouped all the ways of “helping” others under one umbrella and labeled it "coaching."
The author made no mention of the distinctions between advising, teaching, mentoring, consulting, or therapy. Instead, they grouped all the ways we can "help" others under one umbrella and called it all "coaching."
The article illustrated the significant confusion surrounding the casual use of the term "coaching" and even the fundamental definition of coaching itself. Using the term without a proper comprehension of coaching as a distinct modality, separate from other approaches, appears irresponsible.
If we are going to use the word, then why not educate ourselves first on the distinctions of coaching? People assume placing the word "coach" in front of what they do means they are "coaching." This is not always the case.
Are we mentoring? Advising? Consulting? Teaching? These are all of the distinct methodologies for helping others. Why not honor the credibility of the approach being taken?
It is time to get educated! Let's be more honest about what it is we are actually doing.
I'll offer a visual representation of the distinctions to help illuminate the differences.
There are two journeys one can embark on when expanding their human potential. The first journey is The Guided Journey. On this journey, we can be shown the way by virtue of external sources such as therapists, advisors, consultants, teachers, mentors, clergy, etc.
The second journey is much more elusive. It is a Self-Discovered Journey. There comes a time when external provisions can only take us so far, and to reach our fullest potential, we must dig deeper within ourselves. We must excavate our unique wisdom, courage, confidence, and inner power from within.
On the second journey, we come face to face with our wholeness.
The second journey can be embarked on alone by virtue of self-reflection or spiritual practice. Or, we can walk through the process with the support of a professionally trained coach educated on honoring the self-discovery process.
Both are important. Both have their place. Yet, both serve a much different purpose.
2) Our addiction to innovation has the potential to muddle coaching efficacy.
On my first day of a coaching class in 2005, I unconsciously assumed I was learning "counseling techniques." I had no clue what coaching was, but I thought I did.
Gaining education on the distinctions was so illuminating!
Each approach (counseling, consulting, and coaching) has a unique purpose, process, and place. The distinctions became professionally formalized around 1995 with the inception of the International Coaching Federation, or more commonly known as the ICF.
I learned that coaching contained zero counseling or consulting. What I had been calling coaching was a hybrid of spiritual mentoring and teaching. I was doing zero coaching without knowing it.
In professional coaching, the client enters the second journey. They embark on a deep self-discovery process.
A professionally trained coach is like a Sherpa who walks with a client on their journey of self-discovery. They are an expert at facilitating the entire self-discovery process. A professionally trained coach respects the client's self-direction and personal agency.
In coaching, stepping in with advice or direction would step on the client's toes and take away their right to self-generate. No other profession, approach, or modality is specialized in this way. Coaching is one of the most unique approaches I've ever encountered.
Fastforward from 2005 to 2023. We are in an age where we are addicted to technology and innovation. Now, we are looking at how we can "evolve," "hybridize," and "innovate" coaching. It is quite the hot topic!
While all of the mental gymnastics are fun, there are some truths about coaching that our addiction to innovation is negating.
The fundamental heart of coaching is self-discovery. When you attempt to innovate something that is already profoundly efficacious by adding other modalities, you undermine mental, emotional, and evolutionary opportunities for the client to self-discover or self-generate.
Why innovate something that, in its purest forms, is brilliant, unique, and unmatched in its efficacy?
In my experience, I've seen people want to hybridize coaching because giving advice and direction is SO much easier to do than walking with someone into pure self-discovery. It is challenging to not interfere with our own bias and place the spotlight entirely on someone else.
Yet, the Second Journey truth remains... You can become an expert in a process or a system. However, you will never be an expert of someone else's truth. This truth lives in the heart of every professionally trained coach. We are trained and educated on the power and positive impact we carry when we honor the client's truth by gifting them the opportunity to self-generate.
Coaching is uniquely powerful because it is based on this premise. This premise is what elevates the client. This premise is what empowers the coaching process. This premise is the second journey into our human potential. It is at the heart of the self-discovery process.
Coaches sit in pure curiosity and honor of the truth of the unique person in front of them. Coaches honor that every human being has their own unique success formula, just like every snowflake has its own unique pattern, never to be replicated again.
Coaches intentionally remove bias, neutralize hierarchy, and quiet the ego in order to spotlight the client's gifts. This is the truth of coaching.
3) It is time to recognize that untrained coaching can end up as bad therapy or worse, cause harm.
As a mentor coach, I help coaches develop their coaching skills, neutralize bias, and expand their second journey mastery. I've heard coaches move into other modalities attempting to help, which incidentally inhibited self-discovery, or in some instances can harm.
While licensed therapists may have to worry less about causing harm because they are thoroughly trained in therapy, those of us not trained to diagnose or treat psychological ailments should tread with caution.
Professionally trained coaches understand:
Due to the industry relying on peer regulation, we are witnessing an increase in unlicensed professionals engaging in therapy and counseling misusing the title of a coach. We are also seeing therapists teaching or conducting "coaching" to avoid state licensing requirements. Additionally, some programs teach counseling skills and label them as coaching, blurring the practitioner's roles.
Not to mention my bigger concern around the confusion between being a trauma-informed coach and coaching trauma (which does not fall under the scope of a professional coach). I've seen "coaching" programs created by someone who had a personal transformation with no education in either coaching or therapy use the word "coach" to certify others in the processes that worked for them around trauma.
This not only has grave potential for harm to a potential client seeing a "certified coach" of this nature, but it is also doing therapy without proper education and licensing, which is a legal matter.
The majority of legal cases I've seen involved uncredentialed coaches. I hate to say this, but anyone can get a fake certification as a coach if you pay the $25 to an online certificate mill, or attend an unaccredited program.
The good news is that no one can "rubber stamp" an ICF Coaching Credential. There is a reason it is called the gold standard. An ICF Credential is awarded only after someone has undergone the rigor of education, coach-specific training, mentoring, and performance evaluation.
An ICF-credentialed coach must be able to demonstrate proficiency in ethics and competency in coaching skills (distinct from counseling and consulting).
The most extreme case of the self-development world causing harm was demonstrated by the self-proported personal development program "Executive Success Program," which turned Nxvim cult. This program developed "coaches." These coaches were taught to conduct therapy in unethical ways. Again, this is an extreme case.
True coaching has a low harm factor because it is a self-directed process. If I'm calling myself a coach and counseling people without the proper education, I may cause more harm than good without knowing it.
A prime example comes to mind. In this situation, the person I spoke to was untrained, acting as a "coach." The "coach" had a client who shared that the client's boyfriend accused her of being brutally emotionally abusive to him. The untrained coach responded, "Oh, I'm sure that's an over-exaggeration. We could all be considered emotionally abusive from time to time." In that attempt to provide sympathy, the client in this situation opted not to consult a therapist because they were essentially told this was normal and all was okay. Also, that is not coaching.
In this instance, the unexplored root issues remained. To a professionally trained coach, this conversation would have raised a flag that a professionally licensed therapist should be consulted.
While the coaching profession may still seem a bit wild-wild west, many positive strides have been made.
When I first began coaching in 2005, whenever someone asked me what I did for a living, I would share I was a coach and often get asked, "What sport?". This has changed!
The International Coaching Federation (ICF) has also increased the rigor behind their global standards. Not everyone gets a trophy. As we explored, you must meet or exceed coaching competencies to earn a credential.
While more people, leaders, and companies are becoming educated on proper coaching, coaching efficacy, and the existing distinctions, there is still room for growth. I, for one, proudly stand by the ICF's coaching standards. They've done an outstanding job of stabilizing the profession by upholding the highest standards of coaching, education, training, and credentialing.
Amidst all of the hubbub, it feels appropriate to take a stand for coaching and share my perception of what is possible and how we can begin to shift by respecting what professional lane we are actually swimming in.