What is coaching and what is NOT?

Updated: Apr 6, 2020

I get asked many times about the difference between #coaching and #therapy, so I thought I'd explain the #differences between these various roles / professions. For the sake of simplicity I will use the term "coach" or coaching" when I refer to a "professional coach" who has been trained and is skilled in coaching.


Let's start by defining what #coaching is: it is "partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential." This definition comes from the International Coach Federation (#ICF), which also describes what the coaching relationship is: a relationship that is established by the professional coach and the client(s)/sponsor(s) under an agreement or a contract that defines the responsibilities and expectations of each party. There are many other definitions for coaching but the underlining factors for a professional coaching relationship are:

  • conducted by a trained / accredited coach and

  • the engagement has an agreed and signed contract, (it has clear boundaries)

  • has a time-frame, (a beginning and an end)

  • and has clear and agreed outcomes.

Taking this into account, it will therefore be easy to understand what coaching is NOT:


A #colleague is a peer in your company, your profession or in your training course who you work with on projects and/or in teams. They may also have great coaching skills but when you work with a professional coach, they won't be working with you on projects or won't be in your team. A coach might help you progressing your projects or relationships with your colleagues if this is your agenda, but they won't be doing the work with / for you.


A #friend shares your life with you (for a reason, season or a lifetime), you have a trusting relationship with each other and is there with you during your ups and downs. You will develop a trusting relationship with your coach as well, and sometimes you might feel that you are able to share more with your coach compared to your friends. However, your coach will always remain your coach, not your friend. Of course, it could happen after a coaching engagement that you became close friends with your coach, in which case, your newly acquired friend cannot be your professional coach any more. This would not be ethical as a coaching relationship has clear professional boundaries.


A #mentor is usually someone who has more life or professional experience and can offer you advice in a particular topic. You may choose your coach and you might be assigned one. A coach is not there to offer you advice (although they might be able to), they are there to help you to come up with your own answers as you know best what would work for you.


A #sponsor tends to be someone more senior in your organisation who is assigned or chosen by you to help advance your career. They are individuals who can help you with visibility, referrals, introductions or by championing you in senior forums. A coach will not do any of this, even if they might be able to (if internal), as it would create all kinds of conflicts of interest.


A #consultant / #expert is someone who has expertise in the field and offers solutions / solves problems. A coach assumes that you are the expert in your life, so they have no place to offer you solutions or solve your problems.


A #trainer / #instructor / #facilitator educates you about a topic, a skill, a competence, gives your knowledge, explains a theory and gets you to try it. A coach isn't going to teach you any new skills or give you new expertise. A coach will help you to explore your boundaries and limits, so you can identify what you might need to learn now or in the future. A coach will also help you to learn about yourself, to expand your own self-awareness and awareness of others, to challenge your limiting beliefs, so you can grow exponentially.


A #leader creates vision and inspires you to move to action. A #manager is there to manage you and your team, your budget and your projects. These roles might be occupied by the same individual and ideally they are also good coaches and use coaching style with you. However they are not independent from your performance and deliverables or your personal development: they have a vested interest in your development and delivery, so they have an agenda. A professional coach will always be impartial, they will always have your best interest at their heart, they will follow your agenda and they will always be unbiased.


A #therapist or #counsellor addresses your challenges through looking backwards in time. In therapy, the assumption is that something is "broken" and/or you have a mental illness present. Whilst many skills used by a coach comes from the therapeutic word, coaching is about looking forward and building positive mindsets and behaviors to strengthen your present and future performance. A coach assumes that you, the client, is whole and have all the resources you need in order to be successful. A coach also has an obligation to refer you to a therapist should they discover challenges that are best addressed by a specialist in therapy or counselling.



And to complete the picture, I thought it might be helpful to include 2 more professions with the word "coach" in the title, which, unfortunately, also adds to the confusion. These experts usually are NOT professional coaches either (not always) when they perform their main role (being hired as an agile or sport coach), even thought the name might suggest otherwise:


An #agile coach is an expert who helps organisations improve their ability to react rapidly to change. They help implement projects and share their experience with project teams. The agile coach provides feedback and advice to new agile project teams, and also to teams who want to perform at a higher level. They might also use coaching skills in their work with individuals and teams and they may also act as a mentor, a consultant or a facilitator. A professional coach, as discussed above, is not to be confused with an agile coach, albeit they might have the skills and abilities to provide agile expertise, too. A profession coach might work with a team or individuals to unlock their potential, help to improve their performance or help resolve team challenges.


A #sports coach (e.g. golf or football) is a person involved in the direction, instruction and training of the operations of a sports team or of an individual. A coach may also be a teacher (ref: sports coach in Wikipedia). Professional coaching isn't any of the above as discussed before even though it originates from sports coaching and there are similarities in some of the skills used e.g. observation of the client, providing feedback, raising awareness and creating responsibility for actions.


And finally, let's explore the difference between #professional #Coaching (let's call this capital "C" coaching) and #everyday or #manager #coaching (lower case "c" coaching) performed by a manager.



I hope this helped to clear some of the confusion between terms used interchangeable with coaching. If you would like me to include additional items or confusing roles / professions I haven't mentioned, please do let me know.


Disclaimer: The purpose of this article is to provide a short, digestible and pragmatic overview of the differences for my clients, managers and HR professionals who asked me this question before. My intention was NOT to go into too much detail or provide a complete explanation of each role or profession. This is merely my opinion and my understanding that comes from personal and professional experience.


#ThoughtOfTheWeek #coaching #WhatIsCoaching #WhatIsNOTCoaching #WhatIsProfessionalCoaching


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