How we can define coaching – ‘Do it for Yourself’ (DIY) by Jeremy Ridge

Coaching starts with ... “What is it - exactly?”

Let’s get technical straightaway – after all, being special at something means we know what we are doing. OK?

And the technical term for all of this is … definition!

However we still have major problems agreeing a definition. Coaching is almost in its fourth decade. What are we missing? A consensus in the field that we need to get to the point of realising it will be different:

  • It’s not the old fashioned idea of the same for everyone, and

  • Definition is not a statement at such a general level that it doesn’t identify clearly what is involved.

My experience of working with a wide range of coaches is how well formed in their own minds they have formed their own definition – that works for them and their market. So let’s move on from trying to find the simple, single, final solution, and recognise [even celebrate] this diversity.

The future will have to go in this direction. Each person will find their own unique definition that works for them. (It’s called the inexorable march of constructivism in another language!) The irony of diversity is how it keeps it simple – through focus - on the single, unique, entity of a person.

Actually everyone seems to have their own. For e.g. go to Karen Wise’s blog and she compiled a list of the range of definitions of coaching. This is just a sample from the various literature available.

Literature, whether as books and ideas,  have important uses … They offer concepts that may help some of us make sense, give expression for data and patterns, we already have in or heads, but haven’t got organised yet into a form of technical, verbal, expression.

Be warned: Be weary of any that gives final solutions!

It is easy to write at a level of generality … all with that hint of a crucial breakthrough the final solution is here … that is then followed by next year’s book … and solution. Why? It’s not built on sound definition. Even bodies that award credentials are changing their requirements? every year …and this is not the easiest basis of reliable measurement, either.

And then there are the times when the Marketplace has its own expectations of Coaching –  which may over ride everything - and results in all forms of practice called Coaching.

The Market place may yet be what drives us to have to get better as their expectations sharpen.

Why Definition matters?

Agreeing a definition of ‘ definition ‘ may be overwhelming for some …but the market place/users/regulators want to know what this is that we say we do … and whether this has been proven, who can evidence this – so we can trust they know what they are doing.

Then why is it so difficult to define coaching?

The events that take place in a moment or two of human interaction are still too dynamic and multiple for us to easily untangle.

For e.g. we accept ‘contracting’ as an essential feature of the coaching process. This is half way to definition, because you are making an important start to defining what is going on between the two people involved.

Of course, contracting is often more tacit than explicit; morein terms the user is ok with, rather than some language everyone could make sense of…..However, we know that we have to make sense to the user. This matters! And I’m including the non verbal factors too - have a look at a simple outline – definition - of Non-Verbal Communication Modes (Andrews University) or even ....

How often do you include that in the contracting? And then there is the difference at the semantic level! Tone and timing of voice expression is a major feature.

And there is still a real problem with the ideal of definition - Sometimes knowledge is still too complex for us to yet study with the methods we have available. This is the issue with coaching.

On the one side, there are people who think that Knowledge is something that is common and only exists when anyone can reproduce it from an agreed Definition, through to those, from/on the other side, who say it is all too complex, and hinges on learning by experience, that is impossible to reproduce because it is unique to each person.

We need to find the middle ground. The importance of the first position is that the knowledge can be trusted. However, if this method cannot produce the knowledge, then we need to examine why and how to/find alternative approaches. But alternative approaches must also provide essential rigour.

 How to find the best definition of coaching … Do it Yourself and construct your own!

The question needs to be what is it  - for you? If you already have one start to share it with us in the comment box below.

Coaches can do a lot to solve this problem by working out what it is for them, personally. And sharing that rather than waiting for some other source.

I so often hear coaches say such things as ‘ it’s about making a difference … ‘  with such intensity of feeling, it indicates a real cathedral of understanding linked inside their heads about this simple ‘entry point’ – that’s what needs to be shared – ‘What is it – that they themselves – typically do that they find – consistently, and trustworthily - makes a difference?’

It’s about getting to that level and quality of a definition because they are based on unique relationships – according to the unique people involved, as well as being highly dynamic, because of the influences on mood, and concentration levels etc … that exist from moment to moment.

To begin, take a simple approach to definition for example, the basis for contracting.  Apply ‘SMART’ levels of definition for some of the patterns you see in the pattern of your practice.

The November 1981 issue of Management Review contained a paper by George T. Doran called There's a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management's goals and objectives. [1] It discussed the importance of objectives and the difficulty of setting them.

Ideally speaking, each corporate, department, and section objective should be:

  • Specific – target of a specific area for improvement.

  • Measurable – quantify or at least suggest an indicator of progress.

  • Attainable – assuring that an end can be achieved.

  • Realistic – state what results can realistically be achieved, given available resources.

  • Time-related – specify when the result(s) can be achieved.

Work at being SMART in the way you define the patterns of how you do Coaching. Are you able to talk about the patterns of how you work with people at this level?

The reality is that each coach has their own formula that is a function of themselves …..but we still haven’t got here yet … as we’re still in the game that ‘ there must be one definition, in the traditional sense’

How to do it yourself?

This will require some particular discipline … which we are still learning to give ourselves. As with anything we need to build progressively ….it goes through stages … not a single leap (refer to last blog)

We still have a long way to go to get to ways of achieving comparability and validation … but we have to make a start somewhere. Traditional forms of research are not designed for this kind of complexity.

For now, it is about learning to build this insight up in stages – not in one go! … and it goes on developing …..

Here are some ways to get it started:

  1. Find someone to talk to about it who appreciates and can sincerely relate to the way you do things.

  2. Get a ‘ Coach ‘ who can engage with you – personally … to really engage yet with the level of insight needed … breaking down the patterns of small events – all part of a bigger event … that still only happened over a few seconds …

  3. Find help for putting in to words the things that are still just too intuitive for you to explain

What are the essential common features of your approach… for myself, I always start with how to get some smiling … it is a universal cue ( even though it happens so differently with different people! )– that strange reaction of those particular facial muscles ( … and it has to be done with the eyes, too! ) For example, I am still amazed by how the use of high levels of behaviour getting across such as empathy and respect, more than the other person is used to getting, leverages the process.

  • So what do you do in those wonderful cases where it works

  • What is you do that you can explain how it works

  • At a level that you can talk about in a real live case where it is being reviewed … eg the video of the events!


[1] George T. Doran, "There's a S.M.A.R.T. Way to Write Management Goals and Objectives", Management Review (AMA Forum), November 1981, pps. 35-36