The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s 2008 survey of learning and development reported an increase in the use of coaching - not just for senior managers and directors, but for all employees.

You can get coaching for business, performance, life, sports, relationships and even diets. So it is not surprising the survey reported confusion about what coaching is and when to use it.

Even coaches vary widely in their definitions of coaching. But Socrates got to the nub of it: “I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think. To find yourself, think for yourself.”

He believed that people learn and develop best when they have ownership of a situation and take some form of personal responsibility for the outcome. That is what coaching is all about.

Coaching typically takes a non-directive form. Undoubtedly, there are areas of overlap between the different coaching “specialties”. For example, when dealing with issues of personal development, business coaching conversations may spill over into wider discussions about the individual’s life overall and hence incorporate elements of life coaching.

The coach must listen, ask questions, explore and probe. This allows the individual to find their own solutions, using the coach as a sounding board, and provides a framework for the discussions.

The primary focus of coaching is on the here and now - current performance or problems. Yet working on current issues means examining behavioural patterns, assumptions and beliefs formed through past experiences. The coaching process then moves to future progress and the application of change.

Coaching provides people with constructive feedback to help them learn more about themselves, develop their abilities and unlock potential. This can be achieved using 360-degree feedback, psychometric tools and careful questioning by the coach.

Given these attributes, how do you know if coaching is the best approach? My checklist for this would include:

  • What is the learning or development need? Does the person recognise that they have that need?
  • What options are available that might meet the need? Training courses? On the job training?
  • How do all the options compare in terms of cost effectiveness?
  • What are the individual’s preferences? How do they like to learn? How willing are they to take joint responsibility for their own learning, development and career?
  • Is the person able to be coached? How self aware are they? Are they resistant to the idea of coaching? Is there an underlying problem such as severe stress or an emotional difficulty that could suggest coaching is not the best option?

Coaching is not a catch-all and cure-all activity, but it does go a long way towards improving individual and collective performance, relationships, teamwork and communications. And it is fun, too.