Take a term like “coaching” and a thousand definitions come to mind depending on one’s perspective. This week I listened to a man “rant” about coaches. He was telling it “like it is’ in order to get coaches to sign up for his seminars on how one really ought to build a successful practice. He said that a percentage of people who didn’t do things according to his model of the world ought to get out of the business of coaching. This might be true but not for the reasons he espoused.

His point was that sports coaches tell athletes detailed specifics -to move their arm like this and put their take off foot 3 inches to the left and so on – specific, observable, measurable. That works for technique and technical issues. It doesn’t work to tell people with a different motivational make up to do it like I do. Their is no formula that fits every personality type.

My rant is about why we keep trying to make other people like ourselves instead of helping each other do our best work aligned with our individual operating systems and software. We seem to understand that we can’t open Photoshop if we don’t have the software installed but the “just do what I do” mentality still abounds.

One aspect of good coaching is to help the individual see what software they are running – what beliefs they are operating from and what external factors are influencing current conditions. What I like to add to the mix is understanding the lens of personality preferences and how that tints how we see reality.

“Telling” plays a role when it involves sharing an informed opinion but personally if I can’t use someone elses 12 steps if I don’t believe in them or have the motivational software for it. Finally, don’t tell me how much you have made in order to convince me that you are right. Listen and ask so that I can find my own 3 steps that I am actually motivated to do.

Jim Collins of “Good to Great” fame consults rarely: in this NY Times article he describes his non- tell method:

Companies also ask him to consult. But he mostly declines, agreeing only if the company intrigues him and if its executives come to Boulder to meet him. Over two half-day sessions, for $60,000, he will ask pointed questions and provide very few answers.

“I am completely Socratic,” he said, “and I challenge and push; they come up with their own answers. I couldn’t come up with people’s answers.”

Category: Coaching
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11 Responses to “Coaching Isn’t Telling”

Sandy, I was on this call and took away something completely different, though I’m not a coach, per se. Dave Lakhani’s point is that most coaches do not have successful businesses because they have no idea how to run a a business, which I find to be true from my personal experience working with many coaches.

In my opinion he was not telling anyone that the only way to be successful is by following his program. He was saying that you’ve got to know how to run a business to be successful and that the current coaching model may not be the best way to attract and retain clients. Most people want to be told what to do and how to do it in order to be successful. They don’t want to find the answers within and perhaps it’s time for coaches to rethink the model and learn new skills for delivering services in order to adapt to the changing environment.

Certainly coaches need to do what’s in alignment with their style and business philosophy, but if they want to be more successful, they may have to make some adjustments to their way of doing business and the services they offer.

Dave Lakhani June 11, 2009

Sandy –

Dave Lakhani here, the person on the teleseminar you are referencing.

You make some interesting points. My challenge is not with people who actually do Socratic interviewing or even psychological motivational interviewing (and I’d argue that most coaches don’t know how to do either) it is that they learn a rote set of questions that are designed to elicit meaningless emotional responses. They feel different because they feel emotional, not because they actually changed.

My sports analogy demonstrates what effective, profitable coaches need to be doing to be effective. Creating measurable outcomes is imperative and Jim Collins more than anyone does that in his consultations.

When someone hires a coach by definition, they are trying to get better at a certain skill and by necessity become more like the person they learn the skill from. If a coach can’t support themselves and are in need of a life overhaul themselves (which is rampant in the coaching community) they shouldn’t be trying to change anyone until then create change in themselves. Coaching is to better the person who hires you, not for personal processing of the coaches issues. And, whether we like it or not, money is a measuring stick of success. The most successful people most often make the most money. So any coach that offers to change my life for $20 an hour probably is not qualified to help me. And even if they are, they destroy their credibility by not presenting themselves in a fashion or valuing themselves in a way that the average buyer would expect to see them valued.

I appreciate the need to help people get to the root of their problem, but just getting to the root of the problem doesn’t presume to answer the question of how do I fix it. Traditional therapy went through that evolution years ago and still are, they are at least a model to look at.

Thanks for taking the time to post this well considered article and for allowing me space to respond.


Sandy McMullen June 11, 2009

Thanks Denise and Dave for rounding out my rant and providing greater perspective.

Yes I agree that many coaches and other “helping” professionals need help with how to run a business. I also agree that this type of assistance is about passing on skills and knowledge and that “telling” is exactly what is required.

Dave – the place where we may have to agree to disagree is in your statement “When someone hires a coach by definition, they are trying to get better at a certain skill and by necessity become more like the person they learn the skill from.” I call passing on skills by another term – ( a course, training, a program, mentoring) I could be splitting hairs but this distinction matters to me.

Have you ever noticed that you give people a pretty clear road map about what to do and how to do it and they still don’t do it? That’s where coaching comes in to get clarity on what is stopping them, what obstacles are real and need to be addressed or designed around. It is not therapy. Typically when people get really clear on what is actually going on – they are in action before the session is over. Sometimes coaching is about a measurable outcome and sometimes it isn’t. If I am going down the wrong path for me I may need to STOP and do nothing for a while. You may not be able to measure that.

Two places where we do agree-
First, coaches need to have done their own personal work including getting clear on their offer and understanding the value of that in the market place.

Second, a coaching practice needs to be approached as a business and you both have the experience and expertise to help people including coaches to build their business. What I hope is that having a frame of coaching equating to the transfer of skills or knowledge is not a requisite part of the package for business development.

I have coached consultants who know “how” to design strategy and implement change in organizations in their sleep – however what was getting in their way in building their own consulting practice was something else personal to them in the way they were thinking about current conditions that they needed to shine some light on. This needed to be probed, brought to light and considered in relation to what they were ready willing and able to commit to.

Thank you again for taking the time to comment – I love that people have so many options available to them that they can get exactly what they need to help them in the moment.

Warm regards


Sandy McMullen June 11, 2009

I somehow managed to delete a comment from Luis Valdes http://www.performancevertical.com

“If teaching was as simple as telling we would all be a lot smarter than we are.” — Mark Twain

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” — Voltaire

Dave Lakhani June 14, 2009

Sandy –

Thank you for the considered response.

I believe words have meaning and randomly attributing meaning doesn’t change the meaning. This is part of the problem with coaching, law of attraction and much other unsubstantiated non-sense that exists today based on incorrect usage of words. I also believe, with plenty of empirical evidence that the words we use when we talk to ourselves define who we become. In coaching, I often see the people who are the worst coaches (and the ones who struggle the hardest to make a living) are those who use language loosely or improperly. You cannon adequately define a concept or elicit a proper response using language inappropriately.

The definition of the word coach is ” to give instruction or advice to in the capacity of a coach; instruct:.” So in fact, when someone is hiring a coach, they are hiring someone to “give instruction or advice.” The basis of the word is describing someone who tutored someone for a test.

And I stand firmly by my position that even if you suggest that Socratic questioning is coaching that you must first posses a significant understanding of the thing in which you hope to elicit an answer so that you can formulate questions that lead to proper contemplation and answers. Very few coaches I’ve met have these skills, the ones that do are much more likely to also be providing instruction or demonstration about how to improve based on experience.

I don’t disagree with you about the idea of people getting in their own way and that there is value in helping them discover what it is that is blocking them. And, my suggestion would be that a real coach would help them identify that issue and then help them by providing instruction or advice that will help them accomplish real change. Or, alternatively, if their skill is in helping people have that initial aha moment, that break through that they help them find the right coach that can help them and then they take the role of the implementation coach (and they need real skills there too).

But, just asking a series of rote questions that involve only memorizing a set of questions from coaching school and then asking those questions as if they’ll do magic is at best useless and not helpful to the client long term. Someone without any relevant experience or significant psychological training is most likely not well qualified.

That is really the crux of my issue with most coaches, you have people who go to a school, learn very basic skills, don’t know how to run a business, and then they present themselves as a coach, someone who can help someone get from where they are to where they are going. Some are successful no doubt and learn a lot along the way and if people are ok with that then I guess it is ok. But for executives and high performance entrepreneurs, it is wildly ineffective. Broken, unfinished, or untrained/unskilled people can’t help others be complete.

I don’t mean to be offensive but I know that it is difficult to have this conversation and not offend some. You are very generous in keeping the dialog going. I’m very interested in your feedback and even open to the idea that I’ve missed something in my study of coaching.

Warm regards,

Sandy McMullen June 16, 2009

Wikipedia’s definition starts out in a similar fashion to the definition that you quoted but it goes on and it is the later part that speaks to what coaching is to me and I will explain why in a moment.

“Coaching is a method of directing, instructing and training a person or group of people, with the aim to achieve some goal or develop specific skills. There are many ways to coach, types of coaching and methods to coaching… Since the mid 1970’s, coaching has developed into a more independent discipline and has a set of training standards (Davidson & Gasiorowski, 2006). ICF (International Coach federation) has been “key in identifying training criteria and ethical standards in this rapidly evolving field” (p.189). It is important for future clients to distinguish between coaches who are professionally trained and/or accredited and those who “hang their name plate” out as a coach. Professional coaching skills are transferable across the variety of areas in which a coach may be employed. Whitworth, et al. (1998) stated that “the coaches experience is confined to the coaching process. The coaches job is to help clients articulate their dreams, desires and aspirations, help them clarify their mission, purpose and goals, and help them achieve that outcome” (p.5) in any area of life (i.e. personal, professional, relationship, health etc…)… Recent practices in performance coaching for non-sporting environments focus on non-directive questioning, provocation and helping clients to analyze and solve their own challenges, rather than offering advice or direction (see Timothy Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Tennis, Myles Downey’s Effective Coaching, or Nigel MacLennan’s Coaching and Mentoring’ ‘ ”

So here’s a small part of why I think that skills acquisition is only part of the coaching relationship: and that giving advice and “telling” need to be approached with caution (I am not talking about situations where the client has signed up for a specific program.)

In my model of the world these parts of the equation are secondary to helping the person being coached to decode their own “meaning making”. The reason this is an issue for me concerns what is actionable. What people say they do or will do and what they actually do over time often has huge gaps. Since what is actionable is different for each individual any experts approach will work if (and often only IF) the person has the same motivational tendencies, values, strengths and interests and /or is sufficiently motivated. Even if they are sufficiently motivated in the beginning they will probably not be able to sustain for the long haul an approach that isn’t aligned with their particular motivational programming.

One role of the qualified coach is to help the person being coached to become an observer of how their worldview and supporting beliefs shapes their actions. The context of non-judgment is an important part of building trust between coach and client. Often in a coaching conversation the person being coached will present one thing as an issue when the real “show stopper” is something else entirely. A coach coming strictly from an “expert” orientation may jump in with a solution before gaining clarity on what the real problem is. In various MasterMind groups and other Action /Learning groups that I have attended I see solutions from highly trained business professionals offered right out of the gates because these ideas, processes etc. work for them. They often don’t land or stick with the person seeking help for various reasons e.g. because they can’t see that they are embedded in their own beliefs – they think that their assumptions are the truth. The person seeking help then is not only still in the problem but now has also failed to take the advice that “obviously” works for someone else. That’s why I stand by my claim that coaching isn’t telling – telling may be part of coaching but with great discretion.

I guess we could go back and forth about this for a long time and maybe even bond especially if we continued talking over a glass of wine or a brew.

For a moment I would like to make a case for another perspective on the larger world of coaches. In my world of coaching the people I call colleagues approach coaching as a profession. At Context Consulting all of us are committed to learning and to excellence… some completing PhDs in Ontological Coaching and others presenting at Royal Roads University and the Shambhala Institute’s Authentic Leadership in Action. In my own training, I have completed programs with the Coaches Training Institute and with TCoach (Patsi Krakoff of the Blog Squad offered this based on the BCoach model) as well as additional training with the Newfield Network and as an affiliate of a group from the Adler School of Professional Coaching in Toronto. The Adler program especially attracts people with HR or senior management positions. I have also supported this ongoing coach training with certification in the Hay Group’s Emotional Competency Inventory, the MBTI, the Reiss Desire Profile of Motivational Tendencies and the Enneagram. I have my master practitioner and trainer designation in Neurolinguistic Programming. In 2006 I was the recipient of the Greater Toronto Area International Coach Federation Chapter Prism Award for Coaching Excellence in Organizational Coaching. My coaching training was considerably greater in depth than being provided with a list of questions. And my coaching colleagues do not fall under the categories of “broken, unfinished, or untrained/unskilled.” Not all of us coaches are and I hope that you get to meet a different kind of coach than whoever it is that has given you this particular limited view of coaches.

Regardless of our differing perspectives – I am wondering if you respect this group of coaches you have met. If not, – why would you choose to spend time working with people that you don’t respect even if they need your help?

Warm regards

PS Lots of “telling” in those paragraphs above -mea culpa – I will leave you with the last word, Dave, if you wish to add something else – Happy Trails to you

Dave Lakhani June 16, 2009

Sandy –

I’m not sure I’d consider Wikipedia a definitive source on anything. That said, all they endorse is a marketing statement made by the coaching industry, that supports the industry’s notion of what coaching needs to be in order to justify their existence. They move away from the basis of the word (a very effective confusion tactic by the way) and give it a new definition which is accepted by those who most benefit from the definition (a very powerful persuasion tactic).

To the extent that people get real training that allows them to facilitate real teaching, I support coaching and the training they get. I’m highly skeptical of terms like Ontological Coaching and I’m not sure what accreditation any of those institutions have and how recognized that accreditation is, but if it is legitimate it comes closer to legitimizing coaching. A lot of what you’ve mentioned borrows or relies heavily on New Age thought and metaphysics (though not in the philosophic definition). I’m thrilled to hear that you invest heavily in yourself, that is a key to success in any business. People create their own best self from the hard work they do not wishful thinking or undirected contemplation.

I’ve met literally thousands of coaches now and all save a small handful are not what I’d consider qualified to facilitate much change in anyone. I appreciate that you and some of your colleagues have gone through additional training and are striving to set a good example, I respect that.

All of that said, the best question you’ve asked is why would you spend time working with people you don’t respect even if they need your help. That is a simple and a complex answer. It isn’t that I don’t respect the people, I don’t value their processes when they are ineffective. I have deep compassion for people who are struggling to make a living and who want to make a difference and that is the case of nearly ALL coaches I meet. I don’t think they are ill-intentioned, I think that are not properly skilled. My hope is that by showing them the process for building a business and questioning their processes that they’ll acquire the right skills to really help people and to be real coaches as defined by the word not the marketing statement of a profit seeking certifying body which remains unaccredited.

The reason my new book How To Sell When Nobody’s Buying is getting so much buzz is because it tells people specifically what to do to get a result that they are not currently getting but are desirous of having. You can call that training and I wouldn’t disagree but when people hire me to coach them around it only a small part of the process is devoted to looking inward at their blocks etc., it is mostly focused on identifying sticking points, helping them break through the blocks and encode a new system that is more productive and effective by instructing (coaching) them.

I’m a big fan of coaching when it is done right and when the person delivering it is qualified. More importantly, I’m tired of seeing so many people struggle so hard to make a living coaching when by slightly changing their approaching, adding a more appropriate set of skills could have them earning significant amounts of money and providing long term results. And, I’ll even go so far as to agree that a small number of coaches who help people look inside to find their blocks etc., may be useful, I think that more qualified psychological professionals will get better results often.

So my question to you is why do you keep supporting an industry that consistently turns out people who can’t make a living with the thousands of dollars invested in education rather than demand that the system create a more effective framework?

All my best,

Martin Wales June 17, 2009


Great conversation going on here.
(Good stuff too, Dave.)

Especially appreciate your point, Sandy, about professionals or consultants that are really good at what they do but have a personal mindset or belief to be addressed.

Sometimes coaching is about removing hurdles to allow the ‘racehorse’ to perform at its peak. Run, run, run with ease and grace.

All the best,

Martin Wales
Host & Lead Trainer

Sandy McMullen June 18, 2009


Let me start at the end. When you ask me about “supporting an industry (coaching),” I honestly draw a blank. My passion for coaching does not translate on that level nor do I want to take on something that is a political minefield. Part of my operating manifesto is that people need to know who they are and focus on their strengths rather than trying to be something that they are not. I am not an industry spokesperson nor am I interested in developing any capacity in that realm.

Yes – the dictionary definition of coaching has been usurped. I, myself, have searched for another term but given that coaching is what is used – is it not possible to acknowledge this term in this context? This is not a unique situation, as the dictionary is rife with alternate meanings for words as things evolve. For instance, the word footprint used to refer to the bottom of your sneakers and now refers to your environmental impact.

As an MBTI practitioner, for example, defining the terms such as Extroversion as used by Myers and Briggs is essential to help people understand the meaning in the context of the inventory.

If definition is a sticky point for you – is there not room for a continuum of coaching from a “tell” orientation appropriate to skills acquisition to an approach of “inquiry” when the issues are not about additional skills? Then the question becomes – What approach is needed for the current set of circumstances -both for the system and the individual within that system?

There are really only two areas where I disagree with you. Initially, I was reacting to what I felt was a generalization. I am still at a loss to understand the consistent linking of New Age to coaching. What specifically are you referring to when you say that “ a lot of what you’ve mentioned borrows or relies heavily on New Age thought”. There may be many coaches that you run across that are aligned with this kind of approach, but it certainly does not generalize across all coaching. When we are talking about coach training I can only speak about my experience. CTI was a long time ago and I have not kept up so I hesitate to comment. The coach training in the Coach2 model from BCoach is supported by theories and models from Clare Graves, Bandura, Kegan, McClelland, Argyris, research from the Centre for Creative Leadership etc…. nary a mention of anything that is considered New Age. The last thing anyone would call Mike Jay the founder of B-Coach is New Age. This is one of the communities of coaches that I have continued to learn from.

In an earlier part of our conversation you mentioned that by definition coaching aligns with emulating the coach. This is the second point where we differ. I might wish to be more like you and have the clarity and laser facility of the ENTJ to engage in debate. I don’t. So I can work on learning to adjust my language and delivery to emulate the powerful elegance of the ENTJ but as the pressure increases I will resort to my natural ENFP way of being or fold. In my model of the world I would be better to focus on what parts of engagement I can do well rather than try to do it like you do. IMHO The same holds true in business building. I need to find ways that work for me.

Coaching makes use of inquiry, feedback, questioning, challenging, sharing of ideas, building trust, connecting as well as skills development plus there is always the magic that happens when people actually make the time to reflect. The magic is in the dialogue especially when the coach knows when to stay out of the way. Poet David Whyte says “No one has to change but everyone has to have the conversation.” I appreciate the opportunity to share my perspective with you.

Linda Ferguson June 18, 2009

Sandy & Dave,

I hold a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Toronto. Part of the requirement for completing a Ph.D. is that one complete comprehensive exams on at least two different historical periods of literature in English, and courses in all major periods. The University of Toronto is widely acknowledged as one of the best English Departments in North America, and no one questions the professional competence of the training.

All of that establishes that I have some authority to say that in most serious circles it is understood that words mean what people understand them to mean and that words change in meaning as people’s understanding changes. Any good etymological dictionary will show you the development of common words over decades and, often, over centuries.

No one person ever owns a word. No one group ever owns a word. If people consent to use a word to mean something, that “something” becomes part of its meaning. That’s why we continue to produce new dictionaries.

We used to use the word ‘counsellor’ to describe someone who provided wise counsel. There were other words, over the centuries, for the people that powerful people relied on to tell them the truth and to help them find the best representations of truth and power. Sometimes, those people were even called “fools” or “jesters” or “bards.”

Coaching as a profession has been called lots of things and involved lots of different backgrounds and preparations. I’m not sure anything has changed the need for both truth telling and truth finding, whatever name we have given it across centuries and cultures.

And yes, sometimes I provide “coaching.” It’s not my favourite word for what I do, but it is often the one that business understands best.

Mike Jay June 19, 2009

In general, this conversation is a great expose on some distinctions we try to create in coaching…and what people believe is mostly the positive (push) side of coaching, which I believe in (after one understands where pushing may work!) and the negative side (not negative in the sense of +/-, but the (pull) side of coaching), where people are drawn into inquiry in a variety of ways…

BELIEVE ME, the pull side is MUCH more difficult to master, which is why our coach2 approach is centered in this methodology and not in the more natural PUSH side of prescriptive coaching which 99% of coaches practice.

I’ve been in this business 22 years now, and I see 99% push, and very little pull, because coaches in general are doing coaching to get their OWN needs met, and unconsciously never really get that…

To be sure, coach2 is not the way to coach, but it is a way to coach which creates significant developmental openings where an adept coach can push the right buttons–but ONLY after they have their own needs met somewhere else and are fully available to their clients in a needless/watchful state.

Now this takes mastery!


http://www.b-coach.com/ “coach training for everyone”