What is coaching?

In the past decade or two, the field of coaching has exploded. Instagram, LinkedIn, and conferences are now littered with people like me, introducing themselves as “coaches” who can help unlock your untapped potential.

And yet, despite the growing prevalence and acceptance of coaching, many people (sometimes myself included) still wonder: What exactly is coaching?

The reality is that coaching is many different things and can mean different things to different people. It is a huge umbrella under which many disparate practices and modalities can fall. So here are some key distinctions that might be helpful.

Coaching vs. therapy

Of all well-known professions, coaching probably most resembles talk therapy. It’s usually a 1-on-1 setting where individuals get support that helps them experience more fulfillment or success in their lives, whatever that means to them.

Therapy tends to focus on processing and healing from past experiences and understanding how they inform present feelings and behaviors. It’s about integrating the past. The ultimate goal is to get insight that helps move through troubling emotions or toxic behavioral patterns.

In contrast, coaching tends to focus more on the future: getting clarity on the life and career you most want for yourself, and identifying and transcending whatever might be standing in your way. The ultimate goal is often to envision the future you most want for yourself and take meaningful steps toward realizing it.

Another way to think about it: If an athlete tears their ACL, they will likely hire a physical therapist to heal and recover their flexibility and strength. But even after they heal from their injury, they will likely still have a coach who helps them realize their full potential as an athlete.

In short, coaching is typically a support system that helps you envision and realize whatever future you most want for yourself.

Transferring knowledge vs. unlocking wisdom

Perhaps the most common misconception is that coaching involves an expert in a specific field transmitting knowledge to someone so that they can sharpen and expand their practical skills. And in fairness, this is often the case. For example, you might hire a marketing coach to learn specific, concrete marketing techniques. This form of coaching is mostly about learning from someone who has had success in a given field.

But this is not actually what many, perhaps most, coaches do. In fact, coaches certified by the International Coaching Federation are trained to work in an entirely different paradigm. Rather than transferring knowledge and expertise to their client, the coach’s primary job is to help the client tap into their own innate wisdom. Coaches in this paradigm (like me) firmly believe that the client already has the answers they need. The coach’s job is simply to create the conditions in which the client can identify, deconstruct, and replace whatever limiting beliefs or perspectives might be blocking access to that wisdom.

Expertise coach vs. life coach vs. executive coach

There are now a billion different types of coaches: life coaches, career coaches, executive coaches, leadership coaches, purpose coaches, productivity coaches, mindset coaches, transformational coaches, and on and on. For me, it’s most helpful to think of three basic groups.

Expertise coaches are those with knowledge and experience in a specific field. They largely transfer knowledge to their clients. They probably don’t call themselves expertise coaches, but rather a “[their field of expertise] coach.”

Life coaches are typically those who help clients tap into their own innate wisdom so that they can expertise more fulfillment in their lives and careers.

Executive coaches may fall into either (or likely both) of these camps. But they focus specifically on professionals at or near the top of their organizations or founders/entrepreneurs trying to build a business from the bottom up.

What did I miss?

This is a brief, non-exhaustive description of some key distinctions relevant to the coaching field. What did I leave out? What else might I speak to that helps you better understand this growing field and whether it might serve you? Let me know by responding to this newsletter or filling out the contact form here.

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