The Coaching Academy BlogThe Coaching Academy Blog

13 Aug, 2008

Should coaches give advice?

Posted by: The Coaching Academy In: Coaching Articles

Giving advice to clients denies them the joy and satisfaction of personal discovery, says The Coaching Academy’s Managing Director Lesley Matile.

Almost every new coach who I meet at training events asks the question,

‘Do coaches give advice?’

I reply there are many coaches who do and there are many coaches who do not. The question that often follows is,

‘Should coaches give advice?’

My reply is that it really depends on the coach’s definition of coaching and where that coach sits on the continuum of coaching from directive to non-directive.

I would not tell another coach that s/he can or cannot give advice; that is a matter for each individual coach. I do however have a clear view as to where I sit on the continuum and some of the reasons for that positioning.

My starting point is that there is a massive difference between using coaching skills and actually coaching. Many people come to coach training events because they want to add coaching skills to their portfolio. Coaching skills are, after all, great life skills to have. Who wouldn’t see the benefits of attentive listening, asking powerful questions, goal setting, challenging limiting beliefs and helping others to move toward their desires? Many interventions – consulting, advising, mentoring, therapy, counselling – all share this skill set and a desire to see others achieve the maximum from their lives. For me, the difference lies in the finer detail of the way in which the user applies these skills.

My favourite definition of coaching is from Myles Downey:

‘The art of facilitating the performance, learning and development of another.’*

At its simplest level, the coach enables the client to define clearly where they want to be, (perhaps need to be in corporate coaching!) and then to work with the client to identify the steps forward. Coaching is goal-centred, client-centred and focused on results. The distinguishing factor of great coaching is that clients learn a huge amount about themselves and their situation as the coaching develops, but very importantly, the coaches are not teaching the clients. It is the sequenced, probing and purposeful questions from the coach that allow pertinent insights from the client to surface. Those moments offer clients the greatest value and give coaches the ultimate reward and satisfaction for their efforts.

In the purest form of coaching, which I also believe is the most beneficial to clients, there is no room for advice giving. That is a bold statement. My belief is that coaches with great skills, used in non-directive ways, can help their clients achieve fantastic results without input, advice, stories and prompts. There is a place for all these ‘assists’, but I believe too often coaches resort to these aids too quickly. This denies clients their opportunity to discover those insights for themselves, to really tap into the potential they possess and to enjoy the satisfaction of discovering their own great steps forward.

The access to this level of coaching is for the coach to develop fantastic skills and then to use those skills in a non-directive manner and in my opinion, this is what sets the superb coach apart from the average. I believe that coaches do their clients a disservice when they ask questions to lead the client to discover what is already in the head of the coach, rather than accessing the client’s inner wisdom. Coaching is client-led with the credit for change resting with the client; it is not an opportunity for the coach to demonstrate their knowledge. There is a place for the sharing of knowledge, but not in coaching in its purest sense. The only knowledge that the coach should demonstrate is an in-depth knowledge of the coaching process that enables the client to achieve great results.

If the client is stuck for options, this suggests that there is more reality to unpack or perhaps the coach needs to help the client to step back and consider the issue from an alternative perspective. A fresh perspective gives new possibilities for the way forward. I use this phrase as my benchmark:

‘My coaching is only as a good as the options the client generates.’

As our belief and skills in the coaching process grows, so our desire as coaches to offer suggestions decreases.

There is a time factor here, you may say. Offering suggestions can speed up the process. True or false? It won’t surprise you to hear me say, ‘False’. The value of coaching lies not just in helping clients get to the end of a session with options, but in building motivation, raising awareness, generating ownership and commitment to change. All my experience suggests that giving advice hinders all the above and reduces the possibility of life-long learning. Now if coaches really want to add value… sustainable and life-long learning would feature very highly on the outcome list. A colleague uses a phrase I really respect,

‘It often takes longer to do things badly than to do things well.’

Advice often springs from the thought we have, ‘If I were the client, I would…’ We all spend much of our daily lives passing information we receive through the filter paper that asks, ‘What does this mean for/to me?’ As coaches, the art of being able to be a clean and clear space is a constant challenge. We need to remember that we are not the client. There are often huge differences – gender, age, experience, background, faith, to name but a few. Our advice is often from a different context, different culture, is historical and reflects our preferences. Once we get an idea, we can become less objective and at worst, may become focussed solely on that one thought. As a result, we adopt a whole variety of assumptions that accompany our opinion, most of which mean we take our attention off the client’s map of the world. Their map is always the key one.

You may think, ‘If the client had all the answers surely they wouldn’t need coaching?’ Wrong … they may have some great ideas but they haven’t found solutions yet that will work well for them to their satisfaction. Some clients can recite loads of options but that’s not the end. In these scenarios, the coach needs to find out what the client is really seeking for from the coaching. Is it to build desire, raise motivation, or face the fear? There is something missing or the client would spend their money at B&Q or in a great wine bar rather than on coaching. The coach needs to help the client discover the vital missing link to ensure their success! That comes from great questioning.

If you are sceptical about my comments, try two things. Firstly, listen to the reaction of the client in terms of enthusiasm when you offer a suggestion. Half the responses will be, ‘Yes, but…’ Contrast that with what happens when the client comes up with his or her own solution. Secondly, keep a log of actions completed and sustained by clients. Divide them into your suggestions and the client’s suggestions generated from your wisdom-accessing questions. It will make interesting reviewing.

I am not against every sort of input to clients. I personally do a mixture of coaching and mentoring on a small number of contracts on which I am engaged. I must admit however, I prefer the pure coaching approach. I recently undertook a piece of work with some relatively new managers. After my initial meetings with the sponsor, it became clear that there was likely to be some gaps in knowledge for the managers. There had been no formal training input to this group of first line (first time) managers. I offered the sponsor a choice – that I take a pure coaching approach or I offer some models and information as might appear appropriate. The decision was that I did a mixture of the two.

So I began by coaching out need, the client’s available skills, lessons learnt by them from their own previous experience and knowledge, their ideas from seeing and talking to others, barriers they had encountered and overcome in the past and those obstacles they anticipated encountering at this point. We identified a number of options for effective ways forward. Some clients were highly imaginative and resourceful in generating options and thought they had sufficient steps to go forward.

For some, there were some feelings of needing more options and some additional input. For those, I introduced a couple of models and some research findings to prompt their thinking. I described each piece of information and then, back to coaching mode, I asked questions about the potential value to the client of the information provided, with the primary focus being on what the clients thought this might add to their list of possible ways forward. Three important considerations arise. Firstly the timing of that input, secondly the neutral manner in which it was presented and thirdly that the provision of information (note, not advice) was previously negotiated with the customer.

It has been suggested that clients will not buy coaching because the process seems vague and ill-defined. Further, non-directive coaching demands the question,

‘What exactly am I getting for my money?’

The answer is not to tell clients of your expertise in any particular area to establish your credibility and a reason for being engaged but to explain with clarity and passion the incredible benefits of the pure coaching process. You may not like this statement but I feel that some coaches knock the idea of non-directive coaching when maybe the challenge is for those same coaches to develop their own skill set to the next level to enable them to deliver great results through such methods. Clearly, I am talking about sophisticated and well-honed skills. But for me, this is part of the definition of a profession: high level skills obtained through education and hard work.

In conclusion, coaching stands and falls on the results it achieves. Some individuals and businesses seem to only want immediate, short-term results. Maybe that will be enough for a coach to short-circuit the non-directive coaching process and offer their advice and supervise its application, holding the client to account. It is my view that not giving advice, but rather facilitating the client’s discovery of their own way forward is what distinguishes coaching from related professions. My own passion is to help clients achieve great results and sustainable, long-term personal development that is transferable from situation to situation. This is achieved through a non-directive approach …coaching in its purest form.

*Effective Coaching by Myles Downey (Texere Publishing, 2003)

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