Defining a Coach:
Role, Skills, Types & How to Choose One

Whether you are interested in getting some coaching or are an aspiring coach, you may have noticed by now that there are many different ideas about what coaching is. In this article, we’ll refer to what the authority on coaching, the International Coach Federation, defines as coaching, and we’ll dig deep into that definition. We’ll also highlight the qualities a good coach needs and what sets coaching apart from therapy, and we’ll explore the different types of coaching and who can benefit from coaching. Whatever the reasons that brought you here, this article aims to inspire you to pursue your curiosity further.

Table of Contents

What is coaching?

Coaching is a goal-based process that, through deep dialogue and exploration, bridges the gap between where a client is now and where they want to be. The coach serves as a partner in the coaching relationship by clarifying goals, listening, asking questions and making observations, all with the intention of encouraging the client’s self-discovery and deepened self-awareness. The coaching process can expose limiting beliefs that may have been impacting a client’s choices, and it can also help uncover hidden strengths that can enhance performance. The true meaning of coaching is much more than just giving advice, which is often misunderstood; coaching is about empowering clients to unlock their long-term potential for success. 

Let’s look further into how coaching is defined by examining what the most recognized coaching standards body says about it.

"Partnering with a coach can change your life, setting you on a path to greater personal and professional fulfillment"

What is the ICF definition of coaching?

The International Coach Federation (ICF)  is the leading international organization for coaches, setting standards for coaching and providing independent certification. This is how the ICF defines coaching:

Coaching is partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. The process of coaching often unlocks previously untapped sources of imagination, productivity and leadership.

We all have goals we want to reach, challenges we’re striving to overcome and times when we feel stuck. Partnering with a coach can change your life, setting you on a path to greater personal and professional fulfillment.

Let’s explore this further. 

An in depth look at the definition of coaching

To further understand what coaching is per ICF, let’s examine some key terms in their definition. 

Partnering: Coaches respect clients as experts in their own lives. Instead of creating a power imbalance by telling them what to do, they support them to uncover their unique potential and make their own choices.

Thought-Provoking: Coaches stimulate clients’ thoughts through insightful questions, triggering perspective shifts and opening new possibilities.

Creative: Coaches don’t just recycle solutions that have worked for others. They partner with clients to generate their own solutions throughout the coaching process. Coaches also use intuition to make observations that can help clients see things through a new perspective.  

Inspire: The coaching process taps into a client’s internal motivation and cultivates confidence in their ability, motivating and inspiring them to make choices and create lasting change. 

Potential: We all have the ability to learn and grow, but we often stay stuck in our comfort zones. Coaching helps provide encouragement and accountability for clients to turn their learning into action. 

Leadership: Leadership isn’t limited to managers or senior people in organizations. Leadership is not status. Leaders are people who take personal responsibility for their actions in life and their interactions with others.

Now that we have broken down what coaching is, let’s look at the fundamentals of what coaches do to facilitate this transformative process. 

"Unconditional positive regard is the central tenet of ethical coaching. This regard is necessary for building and maintaining trust, and to sustain it, coaches must stay vigilant about their biases and not make assumptions."

What does a coach do?

Different coaches have different tools for coaching that they employ, but what is more fundamental than these are the qualities that a good coach needs to embody:

Show unconditional positive regard: Humanist psychologist Carl Rogers coined the term unconditional positive regard to describe non-judgmental acceptance and support of a client, regardless of whether they agree with their client’s beliefs or behaviours. Unconditional positive regard is the central tenet of ethical coaching. This regard is necessary for building and maintaining trust, and to sustain it, coaches must stay vigilant about their biases and not make assumptions. 

Maintain presence: Coaches will set aside distractions and remain focused on the client throughout the session. This presence doesn’t just extend to what the client is saying but also to the emotional energy of the client. To keep fully attentive to both visual and audible cues, many coaches don’t take notes during a session. 

Listen deeply: Listening starts with presence and silence but extends far beyond this. Coaches listen, not just to what the client is saying, but also to what they aren’t saying. They notice when there is a disparity between the client’s words and the energy behind them, and they pick up patterns within the conversation. Coaches will then reflect this listening back to the client, which can help the client identify beliefs, perceptions and feeling they weren’t previously aware of.  

Engage empathy: None of the previous values will work without empathy. Coaches can only maintain unconditional positive regard if they are able to connect to something deeper than the clients word and actions. Empathy allows this to happen. It enables a coach to connect to the feelings of a coachee, and through that connection, access a compassionate understanding that goes deeper than a coach’s individual perspective or beliefs.

Be curious: Coaches access genuine curiosity about what the client is thinking, feeling, valuing, believing, and needing. From this space of curiosity, they ask open-ended questions or make observations, all with the intention of inviting the coachee’s further awareness of themselves or their situation. 

Transform learning into action: Once the magic of self-discovery and learning happens, a coach supports the coachee to consider how to convert their insights and awareness into actionable next steps and invites them to consider resources and support. 

Some of the above qualities may seem similar to what a therapist needs to exhibit, and in fact, the term unconditional positive regard was first referenced as a therapeutic tenet. But there are some key differences between coaching and therapy. Let’s explore these.

What is the difference between coaching and therapy?

Before we look at what distinguishes coaching from therapy, let’s look at their similarities. Both coaching and therapy approach the client relationship from a basis of trust, caring and respect and both disciplines are guided by the purpose of facilitating positive change. Both involve professionals with specific areas of expertise, although therapists must have standardized formal education, coaching education may vary widely. 

So what are the major differences between coaching and therapy? Therapists typically explore past experiences to understand current issues. In contrast, coaching is future focused while exploring present-moment thoughts, feelings and beliefs. While therapists are equipped to diagnose and treat mental health conditions, coaches are not. 

In general, therapy aims to address psychological issues. On the other hand, coaching often targets a client’s desired growth areas, such as personal development, emotional fitness, stress management, and career transitions, depending on the focus of coaching that a client chooses. Let’s look further at the different types of coaching. 

What are the different types of coaching?

These are a few of the common coaching niches that coaches may specialize in:

Life Coaching: Life coaching is a catch-all term, as it includes a broad coaching approach that supports well-being and growth in different areas of clients’ lives, including personal and professional goals. 

Somatic Coaching: Although this falls under the general scope of life coaching, somatic coaching is a holistic method that involves working with a client to connect to the whole body to experience a felt sense of the desired future, as well as to process, physically, mentally and emotionally, what may be holding them back. 

Health Coaching: Although the focus is often on physical health, health coaching, also a form of life coaching, addresses mental and emotional wellness, supporting a balanced and healthy lifestyle. 

Career Coaching: For clients in career transition or that are looking to align their career paths with their vision or purpose, career coaching focuses on integrating professional growth with personal motivations. 

Group Coaching: Group coaching facilitates the exploration of individual goals in a group setting with others with objectives within a similar area. For example, a group of people who desire to improve their communication skills would meet with a coach, creating mutual accountability and collective wisdom. 

Team Coaching: Team coaching focuses on collective goals. While it’s often geared towards organizational teams, any group of people united by a common purpose can benefit. Team coaching helps people work together towards a shared vision while improving interpersonal interactions. 

Leadership Development Coaching: This type of coaching may focus on honing communication skills, and expanding confidence as well as addressing stress management, and building empathy and decisiveness. 

Executive Coaching: Executive coaching focuses on top-level leaders, and is often role specific. This may involve both personal and professional development. 

Now that we’ve explored what coaches do and the different areas they coach in, you may wonder how this process works. Let’s dig into how coaching helps clients reach their goals. 

"Coaches honour autonomy by not telling clients what to do and instead empowering them to seek their own answers. By engaging in empathy and showing support, coaches create a sense of connection with their clients. And coaching helps clients tap into hidden strengths, which increases their sense of competence."

How does coaching work?

One of the first things a coach will do is explore your goals with you. But that is just the beginning. Coaches will also explore how you relate to your goals and what they mean to you. They’ll ask you to share your vision, values and purpose. By exploring these things, we tap into something called intrinsic motivation. What is intrinsic motivation? It is being motivated from within rather than extrinsic or external factors. It’s an interesting distinction because we are often initially motivated by something external; we want to achieve something we don’t currently have. And that’s fine, but what happens when we attain it or when we feel the gap is too large? However, when motivated from within, we maintain our internal drive to keep going and feel a sense of fulfillment in the process.

Understanding our internal value for a goal or vision can be inspiring. Yet, this understanding alone is often not enough to maintain motivation or drive action. A recent study showed that when athletes felt a sense of autonomy, connectedness, and a perception of competence about their performance, their internal drive increased, and so did their future intent to remain active. That study sought to analyze Self Determination Theory. This concept proposes that three basic psychological needs must be met for people to grow and develop: autonomy, competence, and relatedness (a sense of connection).

So, how does coaching address self-determination? Coaches honour autonomy by not telling clients what to do and instead empowering them to seek their own answers. By engaging in empathy and showing support, coaches create a sense of connection with their clients. And coaching helps clients tap into hidden strengths, which increases their sense of competence. 

Coaching also encourages clients to change their thinking, which can change the neural pathways in the brain, and this is where “thought-provoking” from the coaching definition comes in. Coaches invite clients to think about their thinking; from there, they challenge them to expand their thinking. By doing this, new feedback loops are created. What does this mean? Clients become aware of hidden beliefs that trigger them to react or avoid. Once aware of these, they choose new behaviours, which in turn create new, positive habits that are chosen rather than activated by default. And the intrinsic motivation and self-determination to reach meaningful goals help clients commit to continue doing the work, resulting in long-lasting change. 

Who can coaching help?

We’ve seen how the coaching process works to create lasting positive change. But who does that process work for? Coaching can work for anyone motivated to make changes in their life, but let’s look at some of the more common situations where people will hire a coach. 

People facing life transition: If leaving a relationship, relocating, changing career paths, or undergoing another major life event, coaching can support these transitional phases, building tolerance for uncertainty, clarity in decision-making, increased emotional resilience, and developing necessary skillsets for new circumstances. 

Individuals wanting to expand communication skills or reduce conflict: Coaching can help create confidence, enhanced emotional balance, grounding during challenging times, and improved interpersonal skills.

Professionals facing burnout: Coaching addresses stress management, boundary setting, and work-life balance.

Artists and creatives: Coaching is a creative space that encourages innovation and experimentation. It enables emotional equilibrium, encouraging deeper interpersonal connections and resilience to the peaks and valleys a creative may face within their profession.

Emerging leaders: Coaching strengthens decision-making, refines leadership qualities, improves communication, builds trust in one’s abilities, and develops the mindfulness necessary for navigating workplace dynamics.

Wellness seekers: For those looking to improve their physical, mental or emotional health, coaching goes deep into awareness to help address unconscious habits and create new, more mindful behaviours.

Managers and executives: Coaching inspires vision, defines goals, builds flexibility, heightens the self-awareness needed for leadership presence, and encourages authentic and empathetic communication.

Organizational teams: In team coaching sessions, a coach encourages each team member to explore beyond their individual perspectives and work to connect with each other’s strengths and challenes with empathy and understanding. They consider their own and others’ aspirations and goals while working toward the larger organizational vision and objectives.

How do I choose a coach?

Hopefully, you are convinced of the power of coaching and that it is the right step for you. If so, the next stage is the most important: choosing the coach that is right for you. There are four very important steps to consider before committing to a coach.

Do your research 

By reading this article you’ve already started on this, so kudos for your diligence!  If you are considering investing in a coach, it’s essential to know what coaching is about. To continue your research you may consider the ICF Blog, which has thousands of articles about coaching and related topics and since the International Coach Federation sets standards for coaching, it’s a highly reputable source. The ICF also has a credentialled coach finder which may help you in your search for coaches. 

Identify your goals

Spend some time contemplating what you hope to achieve by working with a coach.  We often spend time thinking about what it is we don’t want, visualizing a desired future may already contribute to feeling empowered. Once you have an idea of your goals for coaching, it will help you identify some coaches that you feel are aligned with your vision. 

Interview a few coaches

Coaching is an investment, so take your time to find the one that is best for you. Speak with several coaches and evaluate their experience, focus areas, and qualifications. Check their references or testimonials. And most importantly – make sure the chemistry is right. This is someone you’ll need to feel you can trust and open up to. 

Verify credentials

What has the coach been trained in, what memberships do they hold, and what are their credentials? Remember, coaching isn’t a regulated field, and there are no legal requirements for coaches to be certified. Certification from a recognized organization like the ICF verifies that the coach has received formal training and is committed to a global code of ethics and a professional standard of practice.

Understanding the coaching process and finding the coach that aligns with your needs and goals is a big step in your journey toward personal and professional growth. This guide has explored what coaching is, the various types of coaching, the way coaching works, and how to make an informed decision when selecting a coach. Remember, the journey toward self-improvement is unique to you, and choosing the right coach as your partner shouldn’t be rushed. Here’s to your successful coaching experience!

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