I have a problem.
I’m a coach (don’t laugh! that’s not the problem) and I think and talk about coaching all the time.
I find it consistently difficult to explain to people not only what coaching is, but also how my personal interpretation of the coaching profession is different from that of other coaches.
Coaching is a nebulous word with different meanings in different contexts—sports coaches, executive coaches, and of course the elusive ‘life coach’. Besides this, the field of coaching is pretty unregulated, it’s not a protected title like a psychologist or dietician. In fact you could call yourself a coach right now and start winging it, no problem (legally that is). Additionally, the accreditations are all over the place. From national boards to international coaching federations, there’s no gold standard for what a coach should be capable of. We’re a divided bunch.
Truth is, there are as many interpretations of the word coaching, as there are coaches. But when I try to make a big picture division I can see two broad categories of views that coaches have about our trade.
They either think that coaching is advising (experienced informing), or that it is supporting (unlocking someone’s potential). The first group tends to associate coaching with instructing, training, and consulting. While the second group thinks of coaching more as (active) listening, empathic communicating, and guiding without an agenda.
In yet another effort to untangle and clarify these two perspectives (and because I like to geek out on the origin of words), I’ll be bringing in the etymology of the word ‘coach’. Solving this coaching confusion once and for all (I doubt it…obviously).
Carriage of Kocs
In the middle of the 16th century, the village of Kocs in Hungary became famous for building great (horse drawn) carriages. There’s debate over whether this was because of innovative steel-springed design, or a sturdy yet flexible wood construction but it was clear that they were built well. Because of their quality, they became popular throughout the whole of Europe, becoming known as the go-to carriage that was fast, comfortable, and economical.
So popular in fact that the name ‘carriage of Kocs’ (‘kocsi szekér’ in Hungarian) became synonymous with traveling from A to B in a fast and efficient way. This is where the word ‘coach’ originated.
Coaches as carriages
This is a nice metaphor for coaches today. We could say that coaches help ‘carry’ their clients towards their goals. Helping them move from A to B faster and with a bigger chance of success (after helping them to define where B even is).
So, what can we glean from the origin of the word. Why does the metaphor of carrying people, in a carriage (or car) work so well to explain modern coaching?
Well, for starters there’s the structure. How it is built. The strength of the frame, how much weight it can support, the safety it provides, and how it protects the passengers. Maybe even how comfortable it is, features like the cushioning and the heating. Is that taking the metaphor too far?
Then there’s the navigation aspect, who has control of the steering wheel and who’s in the passenger’s seat. How well can you see through windows and how visible the mirrors are. Maybe someone has a map or it has inbuilt navigation? Again, I’m overstretching the metaphor here, but indulge me. I’m going somewhere with this ;)
This is what I take from this metaphor for coaches as carriers.
Coaches provide the structure (conversation) to work on your goals. They allow clients to safely experiment, by thinking out loud without conditions.
Coaches encourage clients to get clear on where they want to go, they don’t determine the destination. The client is driving, the coach is there to help with navigation.
Coaches support. Because the client is at the wheel, the challenges (in their life) are their own. They do the work, the coach is there to support them.
Coaching is client-centered. Not one client (or coach) is the same, the route will be different every time. The coach and the client ‘build’ the type of carriage and the roadmap together.
Where does the metaphor end?
It’s probably pretty clear now that I subscribe to the group that thinks of coaching as supporting instead of advising.
The brand of coaching that I think of when I say the word ‘coach’ is really a conversation specialist. Even better, a supportive conversation specialist. Someone trained in human psychology and equipped with an attitude and the tools to ‘pull things from’ people they didn’t know they had in them.
“Turns out people don’t need your advice, even if they’re asking for it. People have everything they need, they know themselves better than you ever could. They just need someone to listen to them.”
Picking people up off the ground, throwing them on your back, and carrying them all the way to where you think they need to go, might sound like a helping hand. But I would argue that providing them with a smooth-rolling carriage and a couple of fine steeds (and maybe google maps?) will be of much bigger benefit to them. Especially in the long run.
And then just sit in the passenger’s seat, and have a conversation about their dream destination.
I love how you tied the carriage metaphor back to your personal interpretation of supportive conversational support. The metaphor really helps me see what you mean, and the historical context is the cherry on top :)
Neat metaphor, Rik!
It brings up the metaphor from Motivational Interviewing that Prof Stephen Rollnick uses. A client is in their boat with their hand on the tiller, and the coach has their hand on their client's hand. The client sets the direction. The coach is there to help guide the client through choppy waters.
The other aspect that came up was one that even though it's a conversation, as you know, coaching can cause harm. One of the most striking examples is about gratitude.
"Have you thought about identify three things you're grateful for each day?" might sound like an innocent question to offer.
It is in reality Positive Psychology intervention that the research shows - for a client who always sees the negative, rather than the positive - could cause anxiety and lower their self-esteem.