Coaching: what’s in a name?

I describe myself as a facilitator but when I work one-to-one some people would call it coaching. I don’t use that term much here for a variety of reasons, many of which are probably neurotic. I feel the word and the idea carry a lot of baggage. (So does the word facilitation, but I’ve got used to carrying it now.)

I was reminded of this by Mark McGuiness’ post differentiating coaching from counselling, and Annette Clancy’s partial pushback. I’ve seen similar arguments about the difference between coaching and therapy.

Mark has some fantastic resources on his site and having met him I’d cheerfully recommend him as a coach. The same goes for Annette, with whom I’m inclined to side on this one: I think Mark’s distinction tends to play to negative stereotypes of counselling.

Somehow, I think Mark’s arguing in code and I wonder if he really wants to say something like real men use coaches. Well, he’d want to avoid that sexism I suppose.

Going into therapy or counselling still carries a huge cloud of shame for some people. If calling it coaching alleviates that, great. But I think efforts to say coaching is not therapy are a bit futile. There are hundreds and hundreds of different approaches to therapy and, I daresay, coaching. Trying to draw hard distinctions between two huge generalised terms looks like hard work to me. I’m vaguely reminded of Monty Python’s revolutionaries in Life of Brian wondering if they could stand up for Stan’s inalienable right to have babies.

I have found this to a hugely charged issue in the past. Some coaches have got very angry with me when I’ve expressed this view before. But I’d say call my process by whatever name you like, call it Mildred if you want. But whatever you call it, I’d suggest making up your mind about its value based on your experience, not on the label.

When people ask me for reassurance that coaching isn’t therapy, I tend to see that as a legitimate way for them to express concern about what might happen to them in the process. It’s a good cue to start a conversation about what they want to get from it, what concerns they have etc.

Once we get into the detail, the whole semantic debate tends to go into the background. Then I think we can focus on what is happening in the relationship and is it useful or satisfying?

(By the way, I think the same sort of argument might apply to a word like consultant, another label some of us might want to shake off.)

PS See also the continuation of the discussion in Annette’s comments. We’re all friends here really.

5 thoughts on “Coaching: what’s in a name?

  1. annette

    Johnnie thanks for picking this up – I’m not sure I would have been brave enough to say “real men use coaches” but I do think you’re on to something here and the negative framing does tend to allude to that without saying it. I’ve never found “real men” afraid of either therapy and coaching … I do think that the primary difference is the permission sought and given to inquire into the client/coachee’s story of origin and how that impacts on the present and what to do with that information when it is live and in the room.

    There’s also another issue here for me which is that a lot of money being made in the coaching field is being made by people who train coaches – not by coaches themselves and this negative stereotyping is about drumming up business for coach training – I guess you, Mark and I are at he other end of that – working with clients…It is interesting how animated this discussion becomes – I had a very strong reaction to Mark’s post (and he to me) but so long as this is being discussed I guess that’s not a bad thing!

  2. Mark McGuinness

    It’s horrible having to label stuff isn’t it? I think we’re all agreed that the experience is the most important thing.

    To be honest I’ve been quite surprised by the kerfuffle, I didn’t think I was saying anything particularly contentious, quite the reverse – I thought it was a bit of an obvious, staid kind of post. I’m afraid I wouldn’t know how to argue in code – I’m far too superficial for that.

    Maybe because I’ve done a fair bit of both coaching and therapy, I don’t see either one as better/worse than the other, just different flavours of conversation.

    I am of course chuffed to discover that I’m now considered a “real man” 😉

  3. Alex McCafferty

    Here Here, Johnnie!

    You’re right, this is a highly charged issue, which probably says a lot about the people who find it so. It’s a bit like feedback – I often tell people that I welcome their feedback as it tells me so much about them (and their insecurities)!

    I think we do ourselves a disservice to start trying to come up with hard and fast distinctions and definitions if only for this reason: while therapists and coaches might throw stones across the fence, you can be pretty sure that such behaviour can lead to stone throwing on the same side of the fence.

    As you point out, there are many different approaches to therapy, and also coaching. So what’s to stop one school of therapy or coaching proclaiming it’s ‘better’ or ‘more effective’ than others, let alone the arguments comparing/contrasting therapy and coaching.

    I’m sure that there can be a great difference between therapy and coaching, but I’m blowed if I can really generalize, and hence become dogmatic, about it.

    In my own experience, I’ve found that some people can benefit even more from coaching if they go away and have some therapy, then come back.

    That’s not to say that therapy is any ‘better’ than coaching; it’s just that that process was more helpful in certain cases.

    But then, hey, who wouldn’t benefit from some effective therapy, and who wouldn’t benefit from some effective coaching?

    I’m sure there are people who’ve had therapy who feel they haven’t benefited from the experience, and people who’ve had coaching who could say the same. Then there would be people who’ve experienced both therapy and coaching (myself included), and benefited from both.

    Do you think I could tell you that therapy was better than coaching, or vice versa? Do you think that I could even sensibly separate the benefits of each? Maybe intellectually, but not as far as my whole person is concerned.

    The arguments ‘therapy vs coaching’ or ‘this approach vs that approach’ are unproductive, in my opinion.

    Much better would be an open spirit of inquiry as to ‘what works?’ both in therapy and in coaching, in the hope that all can learn from each other.

    Even better would be to ask not ‘what works?’, but ‘what makes therapy or coaching work?’.

    I suspect that the answer will be found in relationship.

  4. omaniblog

    Johnie, I hope you won’t mind me chipping in here. I’m sort of following the thread of the discussion in the hope that it might develop legs and go on long enough to help me develop my thinking.

    I found it good to be reminded of the issue of “shame”: the shame some people feel at being in counselling, or even coaching. I’d never associated coaching and shame before. But I’ve experienced the shame of going to a counsellor and then got so practised at being in therapy that I forgot the shame of it and, instead, got a bit hooked on it. So much so that I sometimes wondered whether I’d stay “in therapy” for the rest of my life.

    Alex’s comments I find myself nodding with. I like every one of the words and sentiments. I suppose the question “what makes therapy or counselling work?” is too huge for any blog to take on. It would be a project for a year, wouldn’t it… And there is a literature on the subject.

    I’m curious to find out why Mark made no comment in response to my comment on Annette’s blog. I was hoping for something. Maybe I was hoping to be coached into learning more from such an experienced person? I wonder.

    Thanks again Johnie. I think I’ll go look and see who you are, or who you present. One of the good things about blogging, eh.

  5. Johnnie Moore

    Thanks for the comments. Omaniblog, I think Mark’s responses are spread over this blog, Annette’s and his own. Also, I know I don’t always remember to go back to the comments sections I’ve participated in.


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