Coaching has become a bit of a joke. Everyone is a coach now with very specific niche that sounds like an undercover CIA agent’s Twitter bio. Do do we really need more of them?
The wider internet thinks of coaching as a fake job that well-off young Western folks take up instead of corporate consulting so they can live abroad like kings, selling their lifestyle more than any real transformation. It’s a way to have a business without making anything. It’s a way to pull yourself up by your bootstraps by telling others they can do the same, for a fee.
This isn’t the whole truth. But the vibe has been, well, off, with a rush of people creating coaching pyramid schemes and claiming broad expertise and ignoring the fact that they are new or young or still have a lot to learn because it’s risky to admit your limits.1
It’s great to have new coaches and young coaches and coaches who are learning. But the lifestyle isn’t the job, and much like with new writers and new artists, coaches can’t forget to actually live their lives in favor of monetizing their lives since they are the content they draw from. As much as some coaching purists will say that life experience doesn’t matter because coaching is just asking questions and is fully client-directed, of course it does. Coaching does not stream through a body, channeled and untouched. It is molded by a coach, their life, their words. The very questions they ask, even if working within a specific coaching model, are still based on their judgement. Unless they’re literally following an NLP script,2 they’re choosing their words.
And even if they are following an NLP script or a framework given to them by a so-called Master Coach or whatever, the coach had to use discernment to decide what tool the client needed. Coaching is not neutral, and the ability to support wider possibility for clients, to keep an mind open to desires far beyond the coach’s knowledge, will be linked to living their life in a way that notices possibility, encounters difference, and generally maintains a nuanced flexibility that great coaching requires.
Two years ago, I quietly closed my private coaching to focus on consulting and group educational experiences.
Consulting is what most of my clients actually wanted even if they thought they needed a coach. Pure coaching in the business space is challenging and rare. Starting and growing a business requires building and applying skills, which is the very thing we are taught not to do in our traditional school and work environments. It’s hard to coach when the baseline knowledge is missing. This is why most business coaching is actually consulting.
Instead of being told what to do by an expert,3 coaching should be a process of discovering what one wants to do and how to do it, which requires an ability to assess and act.
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Coaching then is something of a wedge against the inaction of our time. Right now, we reflect. We remember. We listen and learn. But we never act. We’re embedded in a politics of inaction. Our leaders fight, parade, and do anything but act. And we’re also doing, yes, all the time. There is so much to do. But do we take action? Rarely. We are so busy, so tired, so sick, so abandoned that action-taking feels nearly impossible.
Unlike traditional therapy and similar models that continuously excavate the past, coaching is oriented towards the future. It’s a process of creating action almost exclusively. It’s outside the scope of most coaches to do more than acknowledge the past, perhaps help a client pull a lesson forward. But coaching is about the next thing in our lives.
I can look back now and see that many of my coaching clients needed, in addition to education and strategic consulting, therapy. Not urgently, not desperately. But they were working with me because they wanted businesses, and what they needed was of course stable income because that has a large impact on mental wellness, but also therapy. They needed to address and integrate the past. They couldn’t take the actions they had hired me to take. And I thought that meant I was a bad coach because I defaulted to teaching, trying to help them build the knowledge and skills to take the actions. I think now maybe it means that I didn’t know how to tell if someone was ready for coaching, and didn’t have the strength to disappoint them.4
But for those who are ready, yes. Coaching is needed. And I find myself drawn back to coaching now, deeply curious about what kind of change I can help people to find.
Because the other space that coaching plays in is breaking out of the idea that we need to figure everything out ourselves. That we should be able to, even though we cannot. While coaching often is an individual activity, focused on one person at a time even in a group setting, it is not an individual act in that it brings at a minimum two people together. It builds a relationship, a trust over time.
In consulting, I am often giving my opinion. I am giving advice. That’s what I’m hired for: my knowledge and experience, and my ability to apply those tools in a wide variety of situations. But as a coach, advice is last on the list. I have it available, of course, when appropriate, and I generally ask for consent before offering an opinion in a coaching situation. But most of my job is to notice where doors are closed and to point out that they are there and could be open. It’s not my job to tell a client to walk through a door. Or to tell them to open it. But my job is to notice.
And that’s where coaching becomes radical. In the witnessing, coaches can see what has been unseen. What perhaps cannot be seen by those who know you best.5 To remind you that there are possibilities outside of what you have been prescribed and what you believe.
We need that. I think we desperately need that. We need to have people in our lives who can show us where we’re making assumptions, where our model of the world has become fragmented, frail, flakey. Coaching is not the only way to do this, but it’s a clear way. The goal of coaching is to facilitate a client’s path of creating their own future. And in that, coaching directly confronts one of the more challenging tensions of our time: that of personal agency in the face of systemic oppression, existential crisis, and the apparent powerlessness of the masses.
Approaching coaching as an activation of agency in spite of all that wants to prevent it, acknowledging the the things outside of our control while developing the muscle of action anyway: I’m not sure there is more exciting or interesting work to be done right now. I’m not sure there is anything more urgent.
I was once new and young and working in a coach-adjacent field and grimace at what I thought I knew. Now I’m a little older and know I know very little, what a gift.↩
which we should talk about another day↩
Of course I had great clients too, and to my immense pleasure many private clients continue working with me in other capacities.↩
A common snide remark is that people hire coaches or even therapists because they have no friends. Friendship is a very different beast with a very different agenda.↩