What is Coaching?

Before going any further, it is important that we agree a working definition of the word ‘coaching’. The fact that you are reading this suggests that you have a good idea of what it means already. And in many ways, what you believe it means is more important than the tentative definition proposed below.

At the time of writing, there is no legal definition of coaching. This fact is often cited as a weakness for the ‘profession’ of coaching. There is little doubt that the very fact that anyone can call anything they do ‘coaching’ can be confusing and potentially unhelpful for others who call themselves ‘coaches’. At the same time, this allows for a certain freedom for each coach to define their practice in a way that is meaningful to them and their clients.

Over the last 20 years, a number of key definitions have been proposed. A few notable definitions are listed below:

‘The art of facilitating the performance, learning and development of another.’ (Downey, 2003: 21)

This definition is interesting because of its characterisation of coaching as an ‘art’. This is in contrast with many that suggest that there is a science of coaching. For example, I teach on a ‘coaching psychology’ programme within a school of psychology – and psychology has fought hard to establish its credentials as a science. Having said this, I believe that coaching is both an art and a science, and we will consider both angles. The tools, techniques and processes may be seen as more scientific whereas the ‘way of being’ section leans more towards the idea of coaching as an art. There has been an increasing amount of credible research into coaching to provide evidence for its effectiveness. This will be brought into the discussion lightly, when appropriate.

Downey’s definition goes on to suggest that coaching should focus on performance, learning and development. This emphasis on performance is a feature of much of the early literature on coaching, perhaps because of the desire of early adopters to convince others of its suitability in the workplace.

‘Unlocking people’s potential to maximise their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.’ (Whitmore, 2009: 11)

Like Downey, Whitmore highlights the performance-enhancing nature of coaching. This is probably one of the best-known definitions in the field and it often captures the imagination of people wishing to become coaches. It suggests that every person has the potential within themselves and the wording implies that the coachee must take responsibility for maximising their own performance. The second sentence is less frequently quoted, perhaps because it is more controversial. Whitmore explicitly juxtaposes coaching (helping people to learn) with teaching (telling people what they need to know).

‘Coaching is a method of work-related learning that relies primarily on one-to-one conversations.’ (de Haan, 2008b: 19)

In a definition that has a clear bias towards executive coaching, de Haan proposes that conversations should focus on work-related learning and development. His use of the phrase ‘primarily on one-to-one conversations’ alludes to the existence of ‘group’ or ‘team’ coaching. We will focus on coaching as a one-to-one relationship, which is the foundation of powerful conversations. Many of the skills, tools and techniques you develop as you learn to become a coach will be immediately transferable to other aspects of your life. Furthermore, in principle, the skills of coaching are the same, regardless of the context in which they are used. This will help you to develop your ability to coach in any arena – within organisations, as a life coach, within educational or health settings or as part of a leadership role.

‘[Coaching may be defined as] 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’. (Cox, Bachkirova and Clutterbuck, 2010: 1)

This definition is more comprehensive, recognising the important role of coaching as part of a developmental process. Sustainability of the change achieved during coaching is picked out as a significant consideration. There is acknowledgement that there may be benefits to ‘other stakeholders’ in addition to benefits for the coachee. In executive coaching situations, it is hoped that both the coachee and their organisation will profit from coaching sessions.

Our definition of coaching

Considering the quotes above, it can be said that there is some variation in definitions, but the essence of coaching is captured by Bresser and Wilson who hone in on the notion that it is about ‘empowering people by facilitating self-directed learning, personal growth and improved performance’ (2010: 10). There seems to be broad agreement in the literature that coaching:

  1. Is a managed conversation that takes place between two people;
  2. Aims to support sustainable change to behaviours or ways of thinking;
  3. Focuses on learning and development


Coaching is a conversational process and a set of easily learned techniques. The skills needed to be a coach, you possess already: the ability to listen to others, to ask questions and to summarise. From here onwards, it is simply a case of honing these skills in order to effectively facilitate one-to-one conversations with others. If you are reading this, it is likely that you already possess an essential and necessary attribute: a desire to support others to achieve more of their potential.


And yet this simplicity does not prevent coaching from being a powerful and rewarding activity. In some cases, it can be life-changing – for you as well as the coachee! This comes from another factor: the relationship between the coach and the coachee.

Coaching and mentoring

Many words, spoken and written, have been expended trying to tease out the differences between coaching and mentoring. As I hope you will discover, the key skills, many of the approaches and the need for a particular ‘way of being’ are similar in both activities. In an attempt to distinguish the two approaches, Passmore (2010) suggests some differentiating factors. Firstly, he proposes that coaching is more formal than mentoring. According to Passmore, mentoring tends to be an informal arrangement between two people. Compared to mentoring, coaching is seen to be a shorter-term engagement. Coaching is considered a more appropriate intervention for skills or performance enhancement while mentoring is better suited to career development. It is proposed that the most significant difference between the two approaches is the need for a mentor to have a high level of expertise and knowledge about the topic being discussed. Bresser and Wilson (2010) helpfully highlight two factors which differentiate the approaches:

  1. A mentor has ‘experience in a particular field and impacts specific knowledge’ while a coach does not necessarily have specialist experience in the field and does not impart knowledge.
  2. A mentor acts as an ‘adviser, counsellor, guide, tutor, or teacher’ while a coach’s role is to ‘assist coachees in uncovering their own knowledge and skills’ and ‘facilitate coachees in becoming their own advisers’


In addition to a shared set of skills, the intentions of coaches and mentors are often closely aligned – supporting others to achieve more of their goals and aspirations. Garvey, Stokes and Megginson agree that ‘coaching and mentoring are essentially similar in nature’ (2009: 27). Further, a piece of research into this question by Willis (2005) found that coaching and mentoring were similar activities with coaches and mentors sharing the same skills and practices.


As I have argued elsewhere (van Nieuwerburgh, 2012), the terminology is unimportant as long as it is recognised that both approaches can support people to develop their skills and performance while helping them to unlock their potential. Both approaches are broadly similar, however, here we are interested primarily in coaching.

Why listening is an important skill

Most of us use the skill of listening almost every day of our lives. What is different about listening for the purposes of coaching? Whereas we normally use our skills of conversational listening to understand what others are saying, in coaching, it is important to listen in a way that encourages the coachee to think more deeply and talk more openly. The ultimate aims of effective listening when coaching are that people enjoy speaking to the coach; that coachees are able to think better; and that coachees feel that they can be honest.

Often, poor quality listening can actually diminish the ability of the speaker to convey their message. If it seems to us that the person, we are speaking to is uninterested, we can start to doubt the value of our topic. Fortunately, the opposite is also true. If people listen to us genuinely and attentively, we feel more confident about our topic and are able to think about and discuss it more fluently.

What can we do to improve the quality of our listening?

There are three key ways in which a person can enhance their listening skills: by learning some techniques that will demonstrate active listening; by learning about ‘levels of listening’; and by becoming more curious. We will consider the techniques and levels of listening.


At a superficial level, coaches need to ensure that they look like they are listening to their clients. These techniques may already be familiar to you and they are useful in many aspects of our lives. If you do these already, that is great – continue to do these things. If not, think about the value of adopting such techniques. As with any new skills, it will be necessary to practise these techniques. To coach effectively, it is not sufficient to look as if you are listening. You must actually be interested in what the coachee is saying.

Stay quiet

Stay quiet when people are talking to you about their experiences. For a variety of reasons, our society affords us little opportunity to be genuinely listened to. Often, a conversation is more like a battle for ‘airtime’. It may be an exaggeration to say that we spend most of our time in conversations ‘waiting for our turn to speak’, but it can sometimes feel that way. If we start to plan how to respond to what the speaker is saying while they are still talking, this means that we have diverted some of our attention away from listening.

In coaching conversations, we must avoid the following:

  1. a) Completing sentences

During coaching conversations, it is better to allow the coachee time to complete their own sentences. If the coachee is starting to think differently or see things from another perspective, it is normal that they will pause as they are is talking, even in the middle of sentences. As coaches, we must control our (usually helpful) impulses to finish the sentences of our coachees. For example, a half-finished sentence such as ‘I don’t know… there are times that this work gets so difficult, and there’s just so little reward, I wonder whether to just…’ can be completed in so many different ways. But there is a trap of attempting to demonstrate empathy by finishing such sentences for the coachee, e.g. ‘retire early?’ There are numerous reasons why this would be unhelpful. Firstly, it is often important for the coachee to struggle with the sentences for themselves. If the idea of early retirement has been problematic in the past, the coachee saying it themselves is very important so that they can experience what it feels like to say it out loud. Secondly, you will have necessarily made an assumption about what the coachee was going to say. There are dual risks here. We can offend the coachee by making a derogatory assumption (as in the example noted here, especially if the coachee did not consider themselves to be of retirement age). On the other hand, the coachee may not feel able to contradict the coach, and therefore confusion is introduced. It can also be considered disrespectful to interrupt. Finally, we may be missing out on some insightful comments or realisations by the coachee. 

  1. b) Guessing at difficult words

Another temptation that may be perfectly acceptable in everyday conversation is providing suggestions for words that speakers seem to find difficult. This inclination is particularly unhelpful in coaching and should be avoided. To want to help a speaker to find exactly the right word is perfectly natural. But in coaching, the selection of words is critical. So, we should encourage the coachee to come up with those words for themselves. This applies even when the coachee asks ‘what’s the word?’ or you are speaking to someone for whom English is an additional language. The choice of word, especially when it requires some hard thinking, is particularly important. As a coach, it is desirable to wait until the word has been selected. Usually, it is worth unpicking why that particular word was selected, and this can often be quite interesting for the coachee. If the coach simply says, for example, ‘the word you’re looking for is “dichotomy”, many coaching opportunities are lost and the coachee may not feel fully listened to. Doing this also suggests impatience, when the coach should demonstrate respect. The coachee should feel that they can have as much time as they want to explore the topic.

  1. c) Comparing ourselves

Again, this happens in normal conversations all the time. This is the ‘it happened to me’ scenario. In a two-way conversation, this is good as it keeps the conversation moving between both parties. In coaching, it is less welcome because it takes the focus of the discussion off the coachee and onto the coach. The purpose of the coaching session is to give the coachee thinking and speaking time. For example, if a coachee says ‘it was three weeks before I met my line manager’, it might be very tempting for their coach to reply with ‘Yes, I know how that works. It was the same for me. Mind you, I wasn’t too bothered…’ etc. This may seem to be a good way of demonstrating empathy, but what in fact happens is that the conversation turns to focus on you, as a coach, instead of the coachee, where the focus must remain at all times. When you are being coached, take advantage of this situation! When you are the coach, note any thoughts like this but do not compare yourself. If it is necessary or helpful to inform the coachee that you have been in a similar situation, keep it very brief. Using the example above, ‘I had a similar experience. How did that make you feel?’ is sufficient. In other words, share the face that you have had a similar experience if you think that this information will be helpful for the coachee, and then turn the focus back on the coachee’s experience of the situation.

  1. d) One-upmanship

This is probably unhelpful in any conversation. This refers to comments that are intended to show that you are better or that you have had an even more amazing experience that the speaker. Referring back to the example above: ‘Three weeks? I don’t think I met my manager for well over a year!’ Such comments minimise the experience of the other person, and therefore have no place in a coaching conversation. 

  1. e) Doodling

While some people would argue that they are able to listen better when they doodle, this is not conducive to good listening in coaching conversations. This allows us to consider a very important point of principle when it comes to coaching. As important as listening attentively to the coachee is the need to demonstrate that you are listening. Both must be happening. So, even if a coach may feel that they do listen better when they doodle, the issue is that it may not be perceived in that way by the coachee.

  1. f) Looking at other things

As we will discuss later, the use of eye contact is very important in coaching. Therefore, looking over the coachee’s shoulder to see what is going on in the corridor, or noticing an unusual aircraft through the window is unhelpful. However discreetly you do this, it is very likely that the coachee will notice. Avoid being distracted by other visual cues – noticing something outside the window, inspecting your fingernails, looking with interest at a piece of furniture – all these things will get in the way of good listening.

  1. g) Fidget

Become aware of any unintentional fidgeting that you may do. The best way of discovering these is to film yourself coaching. Most people do not really know what it looks like when they are coaching. Small behaviours, such as drumming fingers, clicking pens and twiddling thumbs, can be distracting, and may also suggest to the coachee that the coach is bored or impatient.

This definition of coaching is taken from “An Introduction to Coaching Skills – A practical guide” by Christian van Nieuwerburgh, coach, author and academic. Christian is also a senior tutor on The Coach House.


Source: van Nieuwerburgh, C. (2017). An Introduction to Coaching Skills – A practical guide. 2nd ed. London: Sage.

The Coach House Logo

Let's Talk!

Request Callback