What is Coaching?
Coaching, consulting, mentoring, and therapy — it is easy to get confused in these seemingly equivalent services. Although coaching has some similarities with its cousins, it has unique characteristics for facilitating transformations:
It inspires change by focusing on the client's vision.
It recognizes the client's creativity and leaves solution ownership to them.
It creates momentum by promoting incremental actions.
Focus on the vision
Clients come to coaching because they want to achieve or change something; hence, the first step is envisioning an exciting end state, which makes the client come alive. Of course, there will be inevitable obstacles ahead, and it is critical to acknowledge them and deal with them. However, in coaching, we try not to ruminate on problems because of the negative effect this creates: when we dwell on issues, we rehearse a script for why we will never achieve anything and talk ourselves out of trying.
Why does it work this way? First, studies show that when we focus on a reward ahead of us (i.e., our vision), it activates our prefrontal cortex and allows us to be creative. In contrast, when we sense an issue and feel threatened, our limbic system takes over while our prefrontal cortex shuts off. In that state, our brain fully concentrates on managing the threat, which leaves no capacity to be resourceful. Second, research shows that our existing neural pathways are hard to change; however, it is easy to create new pathways and new ways of thinking. Therefore, in coaching, we try to leave the problem aside — looking at it again and again only strengthens the corresponding neural connections. Instead, we focus on the vision and solutions to help us move into a resourceful mindset and create new connections in the brain.
Leave solutions to the client
As a coach trained in Co-Active methodology, I believe that people are creative, resourceful, and whole. Unlike a consultant or a mentor, a coach does not recommend solutions. Instead, a coach facilitates learning by encouraging the client to come up with solutions (hypotheses), test them in action, and make conclusions. This way, instead of solving the client's problems, the coach focuses on making the client a better problem solver. This focus has a counterintuitive implication: the coach does not need to be better than you at your job; they need to be good at coaching.
Why can't the coach just solve your problem? Solutions given to us by others are simply not as effective as our own from a neuroscience standpoint. As we saw above, when we reach insight and come up with a new solution, our brain creates a new neural pathway (i.e., a new way of connecting the dots). This event leads to a release of energy, which creates excitement. A solution that we reach this way sticks in our memory and gives us the motivation to act. This effect does not happen when we get advice from someone else. Therefore, coaches believe in their clients' creativity and give solution ownership to them.
Promote incremental actions
While other services (therapy, consulting, mentoring) may not require the client to change anything, coaching is very action-oriented. Since coaching starts with an intention to achieve something, the client should expect to not only do introspection but also implement changes. Bite-sized actions completed weekly create momentum and propel the client towards their goal. Of course, sometimes the client may stumble and not be able to complete the action or discover that that action was not helpful — in coaching, we see these situations merely as learning opportunities. Thus, in coaching, a big part of the clients' learning and change happens through action, and not only introspection and reflection.
Moreover, the transformation set in motion in coaching does not end when the coaching engagement ends. Continuous action builds new habits and skills, the most important of which is the habit of envisioning, planning, and taking steps forward. And this habit can bring one a long way.
To summarize, while coaching may sound similar to consulting, mentoring, or therapy, it has unique features that facilitate transformation in the client. It inspires change by focusing on the vision; it believes in the client's creativity and leaves solution ownership to them; it maintains momentum by promoting incremental actions.