At the core, coaching is a conversation – not a display of tools.
Years ago, I facilitated a panel of discussions for a local ICF chapter focused on the coaching Core Competencies. This was a very well-attended, pre-pandemic, in-person event with dozens of people, all gathered in one of those sterile hotel conference rooms. The panel was composed of a select number of very experienced Professional Certified Coaches (PCC) and Master Certified Coaches (MCC), all eager to impart their experience and knowledge to the attendees.
The program went very well and throughout the event, we had a very robust discussion addressing several predetermined questions, which, quite sincerely, I don’t have any recollection of. However, I do remember clearly when, towards the end, during the Q&A section, one member of the audience picked up the microphone and asked the panel:
There are so many competencies. (There were 11 at the time.)
Which one is the most important?
At first, one might think this to be a tricky question. But when I brought it back to the panel, one of the MCC coaches, without hesitation, raised his hand and volunteered to address the question. Very calmly and eloquently, he said:
All competencies are important, but if I had to choose one, I would pick “Maintains Presence” because if we are not truly present in a coaching conversation, we cannot demonstrate anything else well.
That statement made such an impact on me because it speaks of a foundational aspect of coaching.
At the core, every coaching session is truly a conversation. Our primary job as a coach is to relate, to create the space, and to be fully present to our coachee. All that we do in coaching training is to become acquainted, skillful and to commit to an ongoing sharpening of tools that have been proven to make that conversational moment even more effective.
As coaches, we do not necessarily need to be experts in the subject matter the coachee brings to the conversation. The value we bring is not on answers and solutions for their situation. Instead, our expertise lies in providing a specific structure for the conversation that enables them to explore and expand their view of their situation with intentionality, clarity, and direction.
While it is so inspiring to see the passion that exists in our community around developing and maintaining our coaching skills, there is the danger of focusing so much on the tools and forgetting the true reason why they were created. Whether we are new to coaching or experienced professionals, it is important to constantly remind us that the most important element of the coaching relationship is our coachee – not the tools.
The analogy I often give in coaching training and with my mentees is of the operating room. I am not a surgeon and thankfully have not even been in an operation room, but I have seen enough medical dramas to create this metaphor.
When a surgeon is operating on someone, there is usually a tray of tools right next to her and she can call the nurse to hand over the instrument necessary for each moment or task. The surgeon’s attention is closely connected to the patient. The tools come and go as required. Without the tools, the surgeon cannot do her job properly. However, if the surgeon only focuses on the tools, on how to utilize the tools, and the details of the tools, the surgery will not be performed well, perhaps to fatal results.
Not quite life-threatening, coaching is very similar. In coaching training, we acquire the crucial skills to best conduct a coaching conversation. But the skills are instruments, not the main goal. The most important is to be present, to make a connection, and to converse. The skills of coaching are there at the service of our coachees. Not the other way around.
But how do we achieve this balance? It is the same question: How do we get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice…
Like learning how to drive a stick shift car, where at first, we may become overwhelmed by the pedals, the gear, the rearview mirror, the signs on the road, the speed limit, the pedestrians, cars, and curves, in coaching, we may initially get over preoccupied with finding the right question, establishing the session agreement, bring the client into action, “doing it right”, etc. However, as we continue to practice, soon we will be fast driving on a highway, listening to music, talking with a friend, enjoying the ride, and not even aware of what our bodies are doing to make the car function.
That is the goal of coaching and coaching training – to have our coaching skills so well-sharpened and accessible that we have the freedom to be fully present, enjoy the ride, and simply talk with our clients.
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As a mentor coach, I am always giving feedback to my students and mentees helping them develop their coaching skills and prepare for their certification with the ICF. ForCoaches is a place where I can publicly share some of my insights and experiences. What does it mean to be a truly effective coach?