What is coaching?

– “What do you do?”
– “Well, I coach people, teams and organisations.”
– “To do what?”
– “Well, …”

I find myself having these kind of conversations quite a lot lately. And honestly, trying to explain coaching isn’t as easy as I thought it would be.

My colleague Paolo Terni sums it up in one sentence: “Coaching is simply a purposeful conversation designed to help clients improve their performances and move forward with their life/career.”

On his blog he refers to a recent article in The New Yorker where Dr Atul Gawande tries to explain coaching from the client’s side. Here is his take on explaining the purpose and meaning of coaching:

“The sort of coaching that fosters effective innovation and judgment, not merely the replication of technique, may not be so easy to cultivate. Yet modern society increasingly depends on ordinary people taking responsibility for doing extraordinary things: operating inside people’s bodies, teaching eighth graders algebraic concepts that Euclid would have struggled with, building a highway through a mountain, constructing a wireless computer network across a state, running a factory, reducing a city’s crime rate. In the absence of guidance, how many people can do such complex tasks at the level we require? With a diploma, a few will achieve sustained mastery; with a good coach, many could. We treat guidance for professionals as a luxury— you can guess what gets cut first when school-district budgets are slashed. But coaching may prove essential to the success of modern society.

There was a moment in sports when employing a coach was unimaginable—and then came a time when not doing so was unimaginable. We care about results in sports, and if we care half as much about results in schools and in hospitals we may reach the same conclusion.”

First of all: Thank you Paolo for the reference and the quote from the article!

Second: notice what Dr. Gawande says about ordinary people getting the responsibility for extraordinary things. It is our job as a coach to humanize these responsibilities and this world until it becomes viable again. In other words: allow people to see and act upon what is possible in the realm of the impossible and allow them to discover that what is possible is also valuable, is also meaningful.

Third: intelligence is not in the mind. It happens in between minds. Our way of rewarding smartness enforces the idea that you are smart if you can find that solution within your own mind. Nothing that came from an individual alone has ever changed the world. Everything that ever came about in this world, came out of a relationship, of a connection with other people and other things.

Maybe a coach has only to work on five things:

  1. This challenge of yours is real.
  2. You are not alone here and you don’t have to deal with this on your own.
  3. You have already made a meaningful difference to yourself and to others.
  4. You will always be able to make a meaningful difference to yourself and to others.
  5. Whatever you are facing we can only start from here. What is here which is useful?
Maybe coaching is only about experiencing the power of genuinely caring relationship.
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3 thoughts on “What is coaching?

  1. Thanks Paolo,

    – maybe we should coin a new term: “intertelligence”

  2. Paolo Terni says:

    Thank you for the mention, Hannes!
    Glad you found the post useful.

    Thank you also for elaborating it further:
    – exploring the angle of “ordinary people doing extraordinary thing” – I find it very empowering
    – intelligence being “in-between”, this is so counter-intuitive yet so true and it never ceases me to amaze me during coaching conversations

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