What is Coaching anyway?

[This post is one of many inspired by Agile 2015]

[Update: After reading Johanna Rothman’s comment, a better title for this post would have been “What is Reflective Coaching anyway”.]

The other day I found out that my husband’s definition of what it means “to coach someone” was very different from mine. His was a sports one, i.e. someone who observes and then gives hints what to do differently. It seems to be a popular notion. Last week, Johanna Rothman quoted Consulting Role: Principles and Dynamics of Matching Role to Situation, by Champion, Kiel and McLendon with this definition of a Coaching: “You did well; you can add this next time.”

Mine is different, though and given the high number of coaching related sessions I attended at Agile 2015, I will probably talk a lot about Coaching. Hence it might be good to clarify what I mean, when I use the word.

For starters let me point out that Agile Coaches very often do not actually “coach”. Take this framework by the Agile Coaching Institute:


You’ll notice that Professional Coaching is only 1 of 4 possible activities, next to Teaching, Mentoring and Facilitating. At least in the beginning of an engagement Agile Coaches often have their hands full Teaching and Facilitating and that’s okay. Advice and orientation is often what people need and seek.

In contrast, coaching is the act of creating and “holding” a safe space in which the coachee can find answers in and by themselves.

 “Coaching is life-changing – if it is not life-changing it’s not coaching” – Martin Alaimo

For the most part, for me that translates into shutting the fuck up and doing some serious listening. As a coach you don’t have to have all the answers. But you better bring some pretty great questions! Powerful questions for example. Or clean questions.

How about you? What’s your definition of Coaching?

Published by Corinna Baldauf

Corinna Baldauf has filled every Scrum role there is and then some. Currently she spends most of her days writing and occasionally facilitating retrospectives. She's interested in lean, agile, coaching, leadership & UX. You can follow her on Twitter, subscribe to her (Retromat) newsletter and buy her books.

4 replies on “What is Coaching anyway?”

  1. Corinna, I think of coaching as offering options with support. Sometimes, I support my coachee with questions and listening. Sometimes, if my coachee is stuck, I offer options. I work hard to make sure the coachee has thought through their situation as much as possible before I offer options. I also work to see if we can develop at least three options. That means I might prompt with one alternative, and that helps the person see more possibilities.

    I had a coach for 5 minutes. She told me, “The answers are all inside you.” I don’t think they were. I asked her for help and that’s all she told me. I fired her and got someone else.

    Coaches should not *just* teach, and they might not need domain or technical expertise. However, they do need to help the coachee find the answers. That’s support. My “coach” didn’t even know how to help me find the answers.

    When I coach, I find I learn as much as I provide. If coaches are only reflective, they don’t provide enough support. If they provide answers, you are correct, the person doesn’t learn.

    It’s a fine line. There is no one right answer.

    1. Johanna, thank you for this detailed comment. I now realize, that for a post meant to clarify my semantics, I did a rather poor job. Which is to say that I completely agree with you!

      It’s frustrating, to be bounced back with “The answers are all inside you.” when you’re looking for options and orientation on which to choose. All activities that Coaching in the broader sense might also entail – Teaching, Facilitating, Mentoring, Consulting – are valuable in the right context. I didn’t mean to diminish any of them!

      I tried to differentiate that when I’m saying “Coaching” in this blog I tend to mean it in a narrower sense, what’s called “Professional Coaching” by the Agile Coaching Institute and “reflective coaching” by you. At least I hope, you mean the same thing.

      I like the term “reflective coaching” by the way. I should pick it up and differentiate that way. Then I could leave “Coaching” to mean the broad thing and “reflective coaching” to be narrow.

      Funny enough, the reason I expect to be writing about reflective coaching more, is that I think it’s my weakest of the broader coaching skills and I need to train it most. It’s a work in progress. I might even change my definition 🙂

      Thank you for giving me the opportunity to finetune my semantics!

  2. For me coaching is first of all providing the explicit feedback one usually do not get and often one does not request from the people around. A good coach is an excellent observer of people, able to tell you a lot about yourself: The way you express yourself, your diction, your smile, your mimics, your body language, … so everything around your bahviour. And the coach will also be able to describe (and maybe even explain) other people’s behaviours. So the coach is able to analyze situations in-depth and provide a lot of feedback for you. This feedback will help you to get your self-image (how you think other people see you) and external image (how other people see you) aligned. So yes, Corinna, at that point in time it is really important to shut up, listen and enjoy the feedback 🙂

    But feedback isn’t all: A good coach will then provide you an appropriate set of tools and methods which can then be applied and adjusted in real life. So the fine line Johanna mentioned is for me when you mainly sit and listen while you’re alone with your coach and where you act and practise all on your own when you are in communication with others.

    1. Thomas, thank you very much for providing another aspect!
      It’s true, we rarely get our behaviour reflected in a way that allows us to work on it.

      What I find interesting is that you switched the role of “shut up and listen” and gave it from coach (my view) to coachee. The switch makes sense in a setting that concentrates on “coach as mirror”, though.

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