Towards a definition of coaching

WARNING – Slightly longer post than usual

As some of you know, I am currently ‘executive lead’ for research within my professional body, The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy – Coaching Division (BACPC). I was recently asked to provide a quick ‘paper’ for the management board of the BACP defining ‘coaching’.

Again, some of you will know why I do not describe myself as an ‘executive coach’. I was driving along a motorway one evening and found myself behind one – it had 52 seats and was owned by Wallace Arnold! When I got home, I ‘Googled’ “Executive Coach” and found that more than half the entries on the first page were for similar companies. So, I asked myself (and a number of clients) what it was that I did and hence the label “Confidant”. A few days later, the film of the same name was launched. So, it seemed a good omen!

Preamble over. Here’s my response to a definition of coaching. The rest of the committee have to add their versions, so this isn’t the BACPC definition, and I may amend my own to accommodate their ideas too.

In the meantime, what do you think? Can you add more references and interpretations?


At the outset, it is worth noting that coaching as an area for formal study is still in its relative infancy. Most efforts at producing a definition, therefore, come from people who have a relatively limited repertoire of sources on which to draw and to inform their own thinking. For many authors, the motivation behind defining ‘coaching’ is to distinguish it from other interventions with overlapping purposes or skill sets, rather than to define it itself. Thus many definitions are really aimed at defining what it is not, rather than what it is.

Tobias (1996) suggested that coaching was not sufficiently distinctive as to warrant definition, as it was effectively an amalgam of techniques borrowed from elsewhere. This view doesn’t seem to have gained credence with other authors since. However, as most authors are practising in the field, they may have a vested interest in perpetuating the impression of the independence and significance of coaching.

Coaching is a term applied in a wide range of seemingly un-related ‘domains’, including weight-loss, life-satisfaction, sports performance, executive development, financial management, addiction management, careers, therapeutic (esp in the management of neuroses), teaching, staff development, induction, and a myriad of others. Thus, any all-encompassing definition of coaching needs to be capable of being applied in each of these.

Conversely, it may be a false path to seek to contrive a definition, if coaching in each of these domains draws on different techniques, whether there is consistency of these within a particular domain or not, just because we use the same word to describe them doesn’t necessarily mean that they are all the same thing.

Already, the coaching community has become politicised with commercially dependent interests endeavouring to have their definition accepted as a standard. These definitions may then be used to exclude others and to create an elite. It may be a sign of greater maturity to accept that it is a broad term with many loosely connected applications and qualities that does not need further definition.

The present era of coaching owes much to the stimulus provided by the popular best-seller, The Inner Game (Gallwey (1986)) in which the author emphasised the importance of an individual critiquing his- or her-self and thereby enhancing their own performance, in other words reflective practice.

By extrapolation, the coach supplements the self, however, their role is not to critique but to teach the skill of critiquing. Hence, this early definition; “Coaching is unlocking people’s potential to maximise their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.” Whitmore (1992)

Whitworth et al (1998), supplemented this view by emphasising the conditions of the inter-personal relationship between the coach and their client: “a form of conversation with unspoken ground rules of certain qualities that must be present: respect, openness, compassion, and rigour, our commitment to speaking the truth.

Grant and Stober (2001 and 2006) try to expand on the outcomes of the process: “A collaborative and egalitarian relationship between a coach, who is not necessarily a domain-specific specialist, and Client, which involves a systematic process that focuses on collaborative goal setting to construct solutions and employ[s] goal attainment process[es] with the aim of fostering the on-going self-directed learning and personal growth of the Client.

The degree to which outcomes, exemplified by goals, are explicit in the relationship, and to which the coach and client might subscribe to both the goals and the process of achieving them, could be debated. However, goal setting frequently appears in basic coach training and is included in many commercial definitions of coaching.

Most of these definitions fail to describe the distinction between coaching and many other interventions. Drawing on his executive development experience, Peltier (2001), tried to achieve this; “Someone from outside an organisation uses psychological skills to help a person develop into a more effective leader. These skills are applied to specific present moment work problems in a way that enables this person to incorporate them into his or her permanent management or leadership repertoire.” Clearly, this is domain specific, though it could be applied (with suitable changes) to many other coaching environments. Peltier also avoids defining those “psychological skills”. However, he introduces the idea that coaching is delivered by someone from outside. Patently, this is not the situation in many contexts.

Another important element in some coaching is that it is sometimes paid for by another agency with a vested interest in the outcome. The growth in use of Employee Assistance Programmes in the last decade or so, blurred the distinction between personal and sponsor’s objectives for counselling, and few coaching scenarios even maintain a pretence of isolation.

One of the earliest authors to embrace the third party was Kilburg (2000), although he was working in a clearly defined market; “Helping a relationship formed between a client who has managerial authority and responsibility in an organization and a consultant who uses a wide variety of behavioural techniques and methods to help the client achieve a mutually identified set of goals to improve his or her professional performance and personal satisfaction and, consequently, to improve the effectiveness of the client’s organization within a formally defined coaching agreement.

Cox et al (2010), observe that most coaching definitions are contextual because they incorporate elements that describe the ultimate purpose, type of clients, and/or process used. Rather than isolate it from other interventions, they fit coaching within the context of [human] development generally, and at the same time embrace the possibility of the third party; “as a process that involves structured, focused interaction and the use of appropriate strategies, tools, and techniques to promote desirable and sustained change for the benefit of the coachee and potentially other stakeholder.

Sadly, their language probably alienates some users of the definition, but Passmore and Fillery-Travis (2011), following a review of recent literature, have proposed a summary; “A Socratic-based future focused dialogue between a facilitator (coach) and a participant (coachee/client), where the facilitator uses open questions, summaries and reflections which are aimed at stimulating the self-awareness and personal responsibility of the participant.” Unfortunately, this also precludes (or, at least, fails to embrace) forms of coaching that are not based on language and dialogue, do not involve an extant coach, and involve multiple participants, as well as not acknowledging the potential involvement of a third party.

Not all coaching is delivered by a human – there has been an interest in virtual coaching for some time. Nor is the recipient of the coaching always human – a dressage instructor coaches both the rider and the horse, for example.

It wouldn’t seem right to merely criticise others’ efforts, and so I propose my own version: “Coaching is a generally future-oriented, strategic developmental intervention that takes place in an evolving relationship of mutual confidence, and uses a variety of tactics to enable its subject(s) to develop the resources within them to achieve improved performance and/or personal satisfaction, with possible benefit(s) to other stakeholders.

As with any definition, most of the words have implicit meaning;

  1. Generally future-oriented – Not seeking to address past woes, it starts with what we have now – a distinction from many therapeutic approaches.
  2. Strategic – There is some kind of bigger picture.
  3. Developmental – assumes that growth has some direction and is unlikely to be entirely reversible.
  4. Intervention – avoids implying that this is all about conversation between two people in real time etc etc.
  5. Evolving relationship – Most coaching begins between people who are strangers, therefore the relationship evolves.
  6. Mutual confidence – Whereas counselling and psychotherapy often assume complete confidentiality, this is not always the case with coaching – some examples of which take place in a very public domain. In some coaching environments, there remains considerable imbalance between the power states of the coach and the coachee, therefore terms like honesty, respect, openness, and egalitarian, are unlikely to be sustainable. For coaching to work, I believe that the coach must have confidence in the potential of the client to benefit, and the client must have confidence in the potential of the coach to help them.
  7. Variety of tactics – Yes, many coaches use ‘listening skills’ almost exclusively, but there are many other approaches – practical skills-based, technology-related, and tools drawn from an andragogic learning set generally, that can be applied.
  8. Subject(s) – Coaching is not exclusively a one-to-one process, it may take place in a group environment and involve a number of participants at once. Some people do not resonate with the term, ‘coachee’, and in some contexts the ‘client’ is a confusing term referring to either the immediate recipient or their sponsor.
  9. Resources within – to distinguish coaching from most other forms of teaching, I propose that its use is largely restricted to situations where the subjects have internal potential. Coaching may encourage them to supplement their knowledge, but its focus is on developing their ability to use whatever knowledge they glean by drawing internally.
  10. Improved performance and/or personal satisfaction – Some coaching is driven by a desire to improve performance, however the emotional motivation behind this is often personal satisfaction and there are situations where the acceptable outcome is one of a sense of satisfaction rather than a particular achievement – indeed there are situations where the performance may be disappointing but the sense of satisfaction is high.
  11. Benefit(s) – I originally thought of these as additional to the benefit derived by the main subject, but the more I think about it, the more I can identify situations where individuals may not feel that they have gained much, personally, but another entity does. The classic example would be a team coach – whose interventions may lead to better performance of the team as a whole, for example by enhancing the group dynamic, but individuals might not feel that they have gained anything (indeed they may even consider that their own needs have been compromised).
  12. Other stakeholders – Whether it is a partner in a life-relationship, the employer paying for the coaching, the shareholders of a PLC, the spectators at a football match, listeners to an orchestral CD, or members of the community served by a fire and rescue watch, there are potentially many ‘other stakeholders’ who have a vested interest in the results of the coaching interventions. I believe that it is important to acknowledge the presence of these parties with their potentially conflicting objectives.


Cox E, Bachkirova T, and Clutterbuck D (2010) The complete handbook of coaching. Sage, London.

Gallwey WT (1986) The inner game of tennis. Pan, London.

Grant AM and Stober D (2001) Evidence-based coaching. Wiley, NJ.

Grant AM and Stober D (2006) Evidence-based coaching. Wiley, NJ.

Kilburg RR (2000) Executive coaching: developing managerial wisdom in a world of chaos. APA, Washington.

Passmore J, and Fillery-Davis A (2011) A critical review of executive coaching research. Coaching: An international journal of theory, practice and research, 4(2):70-88.

Peltier B (2001) The psychology of executive coaching. Theory and application. (2nd ed) Brunner-Routledge, NY.

Tobias LL (1996) Coaching executives. Consulting psychology journal. 48(2): 87-95.

Whitmore J (1992) Coaching for performance. Nicholas Bearley, London.

Whitworth L, Kimsey-House H, Kimsey-House K, and Sandahl P (1998) Co-active coaching: new skills for coaching people towards success in work and life. Nicholas Bearley, London.

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