Whether you are an expert or academic in the field or a professional coach, a simple and at the same time all-encompassing answer to the question ‘What is coaching?’ is difficult to come by, but why is that? Can’t coaching simply be defined as one person (the coach) helping another person (the coachee) to get from A (where they are now) to B (where they want to be)? Well, without meaning to ‘sit on the fence’, the answer to that question is both yes and no. So, let’s explore why a definition of coaching isn’t simple, discuss some key themes that run through most definitions and finish with a definition that comes close to answering the question.

Why a definition of coaching isn’t simple

1.    There are a myriad of models, traditions, and approaches to coaching practice like existential, behavioural, developmental, solutions-focused or positive psychology coaching, that can be applied successfully in a particular context (Cox et al, 2014). For example, an existential coach is on the less directive end of the coaching scale, so is less likely to offer advice, whereas a positive psychology coach may be more directive and recommend specific activities or suggestions to support goal achievement.

2.    The coaching context is sometimes ill-defined or misunderstood, which further complicates the situation. For example, a client may need a combination of executive, performance, life, career or wellness coaching to help them achieve their personal and professional objectives. If they don’t understand the differences between them, then the potential for selecting a coach, that doesn’t have the right training or experience is a distinct possibility and so is the likelihood of a sub-optimum outcome.

3.    Coaches and clients can and do have very different levels of experience, education, and credentials, and they can come from almost any industry or background. They also bring their own unique mix of bias, emotions, behaviours, and culture, which can create all sorts of relational complexity.

4.    Coaching clients sometimes do have a need for more specific counseling and/or psychotherapy, which by most definitions sits outside the remit of general coaching practice. These potential ‘grey areas’ or overlaps create moral, legal and ethical implications that need careful consideration (Law, 2010) by both coaches, coachees, and organisations.

Key themes in coaching definitions

What should be obvious based on the points above, is that a ‘one size fits all’ definition of coaching, is difficult and could potentially lead to misinterpretation, but there are several key themes that do consistently run through most definitions, that are worth exploring. For the purposes of expediency, I’ll discuss four that resonate with me, in full knowledge that there are more that are worthy of discussion.

The coachee-client relationship is a key success factor

Studies suggest, whether they come from the field of evidence-based coaching or psychotherapy that the quality of the relationship between coach & coachee is an “identified factor seen as contributing to the success of a coaching engagement” (De Haan, 2008; Stober & Grant 2006) and up to 30% of the factors that lead to client improvement are relationship-based (Lambert & Barley, 2001). So, whether you are the coach or coachee, the development of a collaborative, trust-based, non-judgemental relationship appears to be the cornerstone of a great coaching outcome.

Coaching doesn’t exist in a vacuum

The practice of coaching does not exist within a vacuum and the coach should take into account the importance of the “particular context, environment, nature, situation and culture” (Wang, 2013), that the client works and lives within. Understanding these factors, plus the client’s unique mix of history, values, beliefs (Langdridge, 2012) and strengths is an important step in helping clients enhance their self-awareness and define their current reality. From a coach’s perspective, this understanding also helps them support the client in developing the right solutions, in building self-congruence and in making sustainable changes towards them achieving their goals.

Effective coaches rarely provide the key

Focusing on the specific needs of the client and their agenda, not the coaches, is an essential part of how a coach should operate (McDermott and Jago, 2005). It can feel much easier and faster to offer coaching clients answers or solutions, rather than help them find them, but as van Nieuwerburgh (2017), puts it, effective coaches don’t provide the key, they facilitate the search for it. That said there are circumstances where a more directive approach makes sense, for example, a coach may have been recruited because they have much-needed experience or expertise in an industry. In any case, care should be taken during the contracting process to clarify these boundaries and if suggestions are offered by a coach, it should be with the client’s permission and at their discretion as to whether or not they adopt them.

Coaching is a means to an end

Clients generally have a goal or an end in mind, even if they haven’t worked that out yet, and it’s the client’s role to set the goal and take the necessary actions towards achieving it. There are good reasons for the client setting their own goals, which are linked to decades of research on self-determination, which suggests that the benefits of doing so are “enhanced learning, performance, creativity, optimal development and psychological wellness”(Domenico & Ryan, 2017). The coach’s role, on the other hand, is about providing the means or as Grant (2003) suggests “to facilitate the coachees movement through the self-regulatory cycle, and onwards towards goal attainment”. The coach does this by helping the coachee set effective goals, by monitoring progress and by providing relevant support as needed along the way.

A general definition of coaching

Well hopefully, I’ve provided some useful thinking on the question of coaching and I’ll finish off with what I think comes close to a general definition of coaching by Bachkirova, Cox, and Clutterbuck (2014), which is that “Coaching is a human development process that involves structured, focused interaction and the use of appropriate strategies, tools, and techniques to promote desirable and sustainable change for the benefit of the coachee and potentially for other stakeholders”.