Last night I found my partner in the kitchen listening to a podcast. “It’s a coaching session” he told me as I walked in. “The coach is a friend of mine, a guy I like and respect, but somehow there is something I don’t feel is right about his approach here. The coach has no focus in the conversation, he just gives advice and asks leading questions. It’s not the way this is supposed to work, is it? What do you think?” – he continued.

Now, my partner is not a professional coach. Actually his profession – chef –  is as far from coaching as it can get. But he’s a chef who has learnt a thing or two about coaching. He’s listened to me talk about my profession for years and has supported me through myriad coaching courses, both as a student and, later, as a teacher myself. He’s listened in to my mentoring sessions (really painful moments there) and heard the negative feedback I got from my mentor on my coaching blunders. He told me at the time I was so lucky to get that honest, useful feedback from somebody way more experienced than myself so I could improve. He’s also a very introspective guy, very intuitive and one of my most direct and sincere critics in all my years of coaching practice. Listening to that coaching podcast, I was amazed at how accurate his evaluation of it had been. That conversation, presented as “coaching using an original method”, was in fact a sort of consulting session where the “coach” alternated between value judgements of his client’s situation and a series of direct recommendations on how she should tackle a difficult work relationship.

“I think I should give him feedback” he said. But then wavered – “It’s unsolicited feedback. And I’m not a coach, so who am I to tell him he’s not doing it right?”. I’m not one for unsolicited feedback either, but it does hurt me when I see my profession being so poorly understood and mis-practiced. So I suggested he might just write privately to his friend to say he has some feedback and I, as a fellow coach, have some feedback too – just in case he was interested. It turned out he wasn’t. He replied that he didn’t need any kind of feedback on his work, particularly not from fellow coaches (apparently he was deeply disappointed in the mainstream approach on coaching and thought poorly of all practicing coaches in the country). He seemed convinced that it was ok to mix directive approaches with psychotherapy (without being neither an accredited coach, nor accredited psychotherapist), call that “coaching” and go out into the world “helping” people.

I was saddened by the whole thing because I realised, once more, what a long way we still have to go before coaching is widely understood and practiced for what it is – “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” (as defined by the International Coaching Federation, the organisation that sets the standards for this profession worldwide).

Despite of it being one of the fastest growing professions in the world, coaching is still a mystery to many people. There are a myriad interpretations on what it is or isn’t – some consider it a sort of miracle cure for all the ailments of organisations and people everywhere and some believe it’s a sure recipe for profitable business. Others regard coaching cynically as just a fad, dismissing it as a sort of lazy, good for nothing cousin of psychotherapy – because of the relatively lower barriers to entry in the profession, where the accreditation process is relatively shorter and easier (taking up to two years), as opposed to therapy, where it can take up to 5 or sometimes even 10 years to get the accreditation.

In fact coaching is none of these things. At its core, it is a modern adaptation of an ancient practice – the practice of dialogue, or maieutics, as was done by Socrates almost 2500 years ago. It is the art of creating a safe space for another to explore their own thoughts, emotions, ideas and resources, so they can find the best way to achieve their goals. It’s a sort of “assisted reflection” exercise. The coach does not give advice. They do not heal trauma/ addiction/ destructive behavioural patterns. Coaching regards the client as healthy and whole and it is part of our ethical code to refer clients to authorised therapists for interventions that go beyond our area of expertise. There are very clearly defined distinctions between coaching and therapy and there is a whole official document in the world of coaching pointing out these distinctions:

“The main distinctions between coaching and psychotherapy are based on focus, purpose, and population. Coaching focuses on visioning, success, the present, and moving into the future. Therapy emphasizes psychopathology, emotions, and the past in order to understand the present. The purpose of coaching is frequently about performance improvement, learning, or development in some area of life while therapy often dives into deep-seated emotional issues to work on personal healing or trauma recovery. Coaching tends to work with well-functioning individuals whereas therapy work tends to be for individuals with some level of dysfunction or disorder. Therapy works more with developing skills for managing emotions or past issues than coaching.”

In fact, when pursuing an official coach certification, there are rigorous exams involved and stepping into the area of counselling/therapy, being directive, asking leading questions (the kind of false question that actually contains a suggested answer, such as “Isn’t it true that….”) – all of these are considered unethical and become reason for immediate failure of the coaching examination. A responsible coach knows exactly where their expertise ends and partners with one or more experienced therapists so they can refer clients who need a different kind of help than the coach can offer.

Unfortunately, coaching as a profession is not legally binding. There are no legal consequences for people who falsely declare themselves to be coaches, even though they have never formally studied coaching in an accredited school, nor have received the official certification from the International Coaching Federation. Unlike psychotherapy or medicine, which are clearly defined in national and international law, coaching still exists in a sort of limbo, where it is up to the moral compass of each and every aspiring coach to uphold the professional standards of practice and ethics.

To practice coaching professionally, you need to be wise and conscious enough to not look at this profession as a way to make easy money (which it isn’t), to tell yourself some self-aggrandizing story about changing the world through coaching (which you aren’t – at best your clients will and it’s mostly their own merit) or to use coaching others as a way to escape your own problems (which you won’t). Coaching is not some sort of sexy word to be attached to a catchy marketing title, as a way of attracting clients to your business. It is a helping profession in its own right, that comes with responsibility.

Coaching done wrong can really harm people. 

Irresponsible therapy-like approaches used in coaching contexts can open up past trauma of clients, which the “coach” doesn’t know how to deal with. Advice/counselling/recommendations – can be wrong or point the client in harmful directions. Judging clients, being leading – all of these can undermine a clients’ self-esteeem. The client may seem to have solved their problem using your brilliant advice but, underneath, there is an unseen, harmful, exchange of energy – their self esteem in return for your advice.

There is a very logical reason why it is unethical to offer advice in coaching – clients are paying us to help them maximise their own resources, to help them see they are capable of sorting themselves out, to catalyse their thought processes so they can find their own way towards reaching their goals and, in the process, be empowered and gain self-esteem and the realisation that they are capable, independent and full of potential. In a sense, a good coach works at making themselves redundant as soon as possible, as clients gain confidence and become more aware of their inner strengths and, hopefully, won’t need the coach for long. Advice on the other hand (even the most well-intended) has the effect of taking away empowerment, transmits the message “you are not good enough to solve this, you need me to sort it out for you” and contributes to keeping the client dependant to the coach (which, of course, if your ethical compass is broken, you can see as an advantage to your bottom line). Advice is only good for the coaches ego and almost never works for the client’s benefit. 

As coaches, we receive something very precious: our clients’ trust. They rely on us to be honest and non-judgemental partners on their way to their best selves – be that in a work or personal context. We owe it to them, and to ourselves, to take our profession seriously. A doctor prepares for years to practice their profession safely and, regardless of their experience, would never think of just inventing a new treatment and testing it out without a proper research/validation process and informed patient consent (or, in the cases when doctors have blatantly broken the ethical standards of their practice, this generated public outrage and legal consequences). However, what is unthinkable in medicine is still common practice in coaching. I believe there are precious lessons here for us, coaches. We should perhaps invest more consciously in our education, choose carefully the professional development programs we attend, become members of the global coaching community, be open to feedback, work with a mentor (who are themselves professionally trained and certified) and, through all of this, uphold the professional and ethical standards of our craft.

There are many valuable helping disciplines out there. Coaching is but one of them. It is by no means the best or superior to any other. Different people need different things. And it should be our concern, as helping professionals, to carefully choose our discipline, the one most congruent with our own values, personal strengths and mission and then invest the time, effort and energy to become real professionals in what we do. So when our clients need what we have to offer, we can truly serve them. And if they need something else than we can give them, so we can comfortably refer them to another professional who can help them. If you are a healer, call yourself that and have the credentials to prove it. Likewise if you are a therapist, consultant or coach. Know what it is that you do and, most importantly, be very aware and straightforward about what it is that you don’t do. 

This way we might just hope that sometime in our lifetime we stop seeing people advertise themselves as “coach and crystal therapy healer”, “reiki master and life coach”, “personal advisor and coach” and any such misleading, mix and match, titles that simply do not reflect the realities and value of a beautiful profession, which holds a great promise of being truly useful to individuals and organisations in this volatile world of ours.