The Essence of Coaching
I’ve been called a Master Coach; and from the mid 1990’s through 2011, I held the credential of Master Certified Coach (MCC) awarded by the International Coach Federation (ICF). In 2012, through a series of circumstances and confusions, I neglected to renew my ICF credential. By the time I realized what had happened, I found myself in the awkward position of reapplying and needing to, once again; prove my “mastery” by submitting two recorded coaching sessions for review by ICF assessors. What I thought would be a simple process became a large challenge: a challenge that created the opportunity for me to reflect more deeply on my experience and perspectives related to the essence of coaching, the nature of the professional coach, the coaching relationship, coaching mastery, and the role of coaching in the world. This article and the three that follow are records of my reflections.
As I went about the task of making my required recordings of coaching sessions, I had great supporters: a past president and vice-president of the ICF and colleagues who specialize in teaching classes about the credentialing process. In addition I have personally mentored hundreds of coaches and lead practicum sessions for an ICF-approved coaching school that uses the ICF competencies as a template for giving feedback to students. So perhaps you can imagine my surprise and dismay when I was repeatedly told that, although the recordings demonstrated my skill and mastery in coaching, I failed to demonstrate the required competencies in a way that would allow me to pass the test and regain my credential.
I tried to learn from each experience but continued to miss the mark. In fact, the more I tried to follow the competencies, the worse my coaching became. I had trouble being present with my clients, became self-conscious, and felt exhausted at the end of a session. I began some serious self-examination to understand why I was having so much trouble “getting with the program.” I went through periods of angry righteousness, of self-doubt, and even resignation. How could it be that Jay Perry, one of the founders of the ICF and recognized leader in the profession for twenty-five years couldn’t pass the most basic of tests? I began feeling emotions I associate with guilt; perhaps even shame. I didn’t like those feelings and, since masochism is not one of my key values, I was unwilling to continue down a path that stimulated that kind of pain.
I know that I have a propensity to be a rebel so it never occurred to me that this was anything other than my personal problem. But when I shared my credentialing story with a large group of experienced coaches, I was shocked to receive communications from more than forty people (fully 25% of the people present) who were experiencing similar emotions and troubled thoughts around the ICF MCC credentialing process. A number of them had decided to turn away from the ICF entirely. I fully admit that it was comforting to know that I was not alone in this experience, but also distressing to see that so many distinguished and dedicated coaches no longer felt accepted in the ICF embrace.
I want to underscore that I am personally grateful to the dedicated people who have worked, and continue to work, incredibly hard to create and refine the coaching competencies and current ICF credentialing process. These creations have contributed mightily to the proliferation and international acceptance of the coaching profession and the contribution it can make to the world. And yet, like all creations, they come with a shadow side. To me, the shadow side is related to the extent that those competencies can become a zealous orthodoxy that too rigidly defines coaching. At this point we risk obscuring our view of, and our access to, coaching mastery.
My purpose in this series is to explore, from my own experience, the fundamental nature of coaching and to illuminate a possible view of coaching mastery. We have created a profession that is, in large part, about encouraging people to think for themselves. So, my intention is not to convince anyone that my views are correct and that theirs are wrong. But rather to share my process in the hopes that others will also engage in a personal exploration of the nature, purpose, and value of coaching.
To begin that exploration I chose to ask myself the most fundamental question I could imagine about the coaching process as I have experienced it and practiced it for more than twenty-five years.
What is the Essence of Coaching
As I began to explore the mystery of coaching mastery, I found myself wondering anew about the essence of coaching.
The Greek philosopher Plato argued that there is a world of natural forms, a world of perfection or ideas that are distinct from those things that exist in the external, “real” world. For instance, in the “real” world, there are all kinds of chairs that look and behave very differently. Some chairs wobble, some recline, some swivel, but in each case there is a natural form or “chair-ness” to a chair. When someone invites you to take a seat, it is this idea or essence of a chair that you use as a way to know where to sit even though there may be many kinds of chairs to choose from. This is the power of the idea of a chair. Even if you choose to sit on a bench, or a table, or a floor, you can only do so if you get the essence of chair.
So is there an essence of coaching that exists in a world of natural forms; a “coach-ness” that gives us real world access to its power, just like the “chair-ness” of a chair gives us the awareness of where we can sit?
The ICF defines coaching as:
…partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential, which is particularly important in today’s uncertain and complex environment. Coaches honor the client as the expert in his or her life and work and believe every client is creative, resourceful and whole. Standing on this foundation, the coach's responsibility is to:
- Discover, clarify, and align with what the client wants to achieve
- Encourage client self-discovery
- Elicit client-generated solutions and strategies
- Hold the client responsible and accountable
This process helps clients dramatically improve their outlook on work and life, while improving their leadership skills and unlocking their potential.
Wow! That’s a lot of powerful language. I can see how it could be useful as a marketing statement, especially to a corporate audience. But when I attempt to use it as lens for an investigation into the essence of coaching, I find it obscures rather than illuminates. In its attempt to capture what coaching is, the definition uses so many qualifiers that it is difficult to find the essence of coaching without running into the definition’s own limitations.
It is as if in investigating the essence of a chair we were to start with a definition like:
A chair is an object with four legs and a back that is capable of supporting a human being’s full weight when sat upon. The legs must be of equal length that allows the person sitting to place their feet firmly on the floor. The back must be of sufficient height to allow the seated person to support the entirety of the spine…
It seems to me that when we get caught up in the form of a thing, it is more difficult to find its essence.
So I set out to create my own definition of coaching that would be more helpful to my investigation. I began by swinging to the far end of the continuum; the least constraining definition I could imagine.
Coaching is love.
Hmm. I could actually make a case for this, but just as I found the ICF definition too constraining, this one seemed too vague. So after a number of trials I finally came to a definition that I liked for its simplicity and utility.
…coaching is a thought-provoking and creative dialogue that inspires people to expand the limits of their thinking, being, and doing (TBD) in order to support more wonderful lives and a more wonderful world.
The notion of expanding the limits of our TBD is rooted in the egocentric predicament of a knowing mind which, confined to the circle of its own ideas, finds it difficult, if not impossible, to escape to a knowledge of an external world.
The ‘more wonderful lives’ phrase may seem like fluff to coaches who mainly support people in creating concrete results. But if those concrete results aren’t supporting more wonderful lives and a more wonderful world, what is the point?
As you are reading this I would assume that you are a thoughtful person and may already be putting this definition to the test and questioning its validity. Since my hope is more to excite a conversation than to prove a point, I hope you are. I encourage you to discover whatever works best for you. But this is my exploration and I’m going to use this definition as my jumping off place.
For now I invite you to expand the limits of your own thinking and reflect on times in your life when you have engaged in a thought-provoking and creative dialogue that inspired you to expand the limits of your TBD. (TBD is shorthand for thinking, being, and doing.)
This dialogue may have been with a teacher, a spiritual figure, an author (alive or dead), a piece of music, a sunset, or even with your self. The dialogue may have been verbal, physical, visual, or even energetic. But what resulted, in your experience, was an expansion that left you thinking thoughts that were not available just moments before; being in ways that left you feeling more capable, creative, or powerful; and taking actions that moved your life forward.
I can recall many such dialogues. Here’s one I remember very clearly.
It was June of 1969 and I was back home in Cleveland between my sophomore and junior years of college, working as a truck driver for a plumbing company. One evening I went out for a burger with some friends who were sharing about all the amazing adventures they were going to have that summer: one was leaving for Paris, one was crewing on a sail boat, and another was returning to Martha’s Vineyard to live in the woods with a hippy commune. I pretended to enjoy the conversation, but found myself getting increasingly depressed and angry. Although I had some great romantic, adventure-filled notions in my head, I had always been afraid to act on them.
I left the restaurant and went down to a small lake with my friend Brian. Reflecting back it was a highly unlikely event. Brian was rather a new friend that I didn’t really know very well. But as we walked around the lake, I found myself sharing my thoughts and feelings of frustration with him. The dialogue took an eventful turn when he began telling me this story.
Brian: I’ve written a play.
Jay: Really? What’s it about?
Brian: It opens with the stage completely dark. And then very slowly a small spot of light appears. And as the spot of light gets bigger you can see the face of a man. And as the spot of light gets even bigger you can see that the man is hanging onto a rope…just hanging on for dear life. And as the light gets wider still, you begin to see the shadows of other people walking by the desperate man. And as the light begins to fill the stage you can tell that the people walking by are nearly the same height as the man on the rope. In fact it becomes clear that the man’s feet are only inches from the ground.
(He paused. I found myself truly engaged in this unexpected story; wondering what this was all about.)
Jay: And what happens then?
Brian: He lets go of the rope.
Almost instantly something shifted in my body. I began to wonder about what would happen if I let go of the metaphorical rope that I was clinging to. I felt lighter. I laughed. And then I had a thought that hadn’t existed a moment before.
'There’s nothing really keeping me here. I could go on my own adventure. “
With that thought my being shifted. I suddenly discovered a courage that I didn’t know I possessed. I knew immediately that my adventure had begun. I quit my job the next day, hitchhiked 600 miles to Martha’s Vineyard, lived in the woods with the hippie commune, worked as a roustabout for a traveling carnival, and in the middle of August, found myself sitting in the mud at the Woodstock Music Festival listening to Sly and the Family Stone. “Different Strokes for Different Folks…”
Brian’s story expanded my thinking, being, and doing, setting me on a trajectory that has included more life adventures than I could have imagined. It was one of the most impactful bits of coaching I’ve ever had, and yet, Brian was not a professional, credentialed coach. To this day I don’t think he was ever involved with the theater in any way. In fact, as an adult, he became a very successful bankruptcy attorney.
When you reflect on a time in your life when you have engaged in a thought-provoking and creative dialogue that inspired you to expand the limits of your TBD, what occurs to you?
When I look at life through the lens of this definition, it seems clear to me that coaching does exist in nature. I recognize coaching, not because it has one particular form, but because of the expansion of thought, being, and action that it leaves in its wake. And as I immersed myself in memories of other life shifting experiences, the only thing that seems to be essential in all of them was the presence of wonder.
Could it be that wonder is a critical part of the essence of coaching?
My conclusion is that the essence of coaching has been alive for millennia. It has lived in dialogues with teachers, friends, spiritual leaders, artists, philosophers, the oceans, the stars and even our internal voices. If this is true coaching can’t be the sole province of the professional coach.