Coaching skills are a powerful set of behaviors based in a belief that every person being coached has more wisdom about themselves and their circumstances than they may realize. And that with well-structured questions, and observations, offered to the person being coached, they can become more self-aware of choices for moving forward.
When we formulate and find within us our own answers to our own circumstances, professional or personally, confidence is being built in real-time, as well as for future problem-solving.
Coaching skills training programs are offered by professional educators that align with a code of ethical conduct and coaching competencies, such as those identified by International Coaching Federation (ICF). You can read their Code of Ethics, and Core Competencies. The ICF also has a coaching education search service to search for approved coaching training, anywhere in the world, online and/or in-person.
Coaching skills are powerful, yet it takes practice for most coaches to become proficient in their use, just as it does any new skill being learned.
This article explores the belief that many coaches have, often taught by their coach training program, that it’s okay to consult, advise, or offer tips at any time during a coaching session, as long as you say something like, “I’m going to take my “coaching hat off” for a minute and give you my recommendations / experience / advice…”
My assertion is that most coaches use this device (of taking their “coaching hat off”) too quickly and too often, either because the coach hasn’t mastered coaching skills, doesn’t know any better because of the way they were taught, or the client hasn’t been well educated by the coach about what coaching is, and isn’t.
What is Coaching?
It’s important first to know what coaching is, and isn’t. Below is some of what I explain verbally to potential and new clients, as well in writing in the coaching contract / agreement we discuss and sign. If a sponsor or other stakeholder/s are involved, this verbal and written information also needs to be explained, and agreed to, with them.
As a member of the ICF, I align with their definition of coaching as, “Partnering with clients in a thought provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.”
As your coach, we will work on;
Future: clarifying your vision or desired outcomes, whether they be short, mid or longer term objectives
Present: determining where you are now in relation to your vision or desired outcomes
Gap: supporting you through questions and observations to become aware of any obstacles to moving forward. Obstacles may be real or imagined, including becoming aware of your mindset, beliefs, or emotional (internal) considerations, which will then support you to determine (external) ways to move forward with clarity. This may include you (the client) choosing to engage with further reflection, specific strategies, timelines or other actions you come up with, to close the gap between your current state and future desired state.
As your coach, I may ask you about successful or unsuccessful experiences in order for you to potentially gain awareness and learning from those experiences, which may in turn help you to determine successful ways forward.
Distinctions between the role/mindsets of therapy/counseling, mentoring, consulting, teaching and parenting
A definition of Therapy, or Counseling is seeking to bring resolution to our personal history, often our childhood experiences, yet not always. There are adult traumatic events too which can be personal or work related, or caused by a sudden or unexpected change in life circumstances (e.g. divorce, a death). Or by issues caused by a personal impact, such as changes in laws that affect people unequally including discrimination, racism, exclusion, bullying…
Short definitions of each role/mindset:
Therapy seeks to bring closure or resolution to our past, or to come to acceptance about “why I am the way I am.” Counselling is similar, and either role can include support for processing grief, which is a natural part of being a human, or to explore other impacts, including felt and lived inequities.
Mentoring is defined by the characteristic of, “I’ve been in your shoes, and here’s what I learned that worked or didn’t work.” There is an imparting of knowledge from personal experience.
Consulting is where a person has a system, process, or way of doing things that they feel is the best or right way. Consultants often impose a process on a client, and expect that process to be implemented, as they instruct.
Teaching is where the person imparts theory or knowledge to the client.
Parenting includes different beliefs and styles, with a common theme being there is direct authority by an adult to influence and tell a child what to do or not do. For example, some people treat their adult children as if they are still their younger children. This role identity can also be present in the way some people treat other adults younger than themselves.
Therapy / counseling, mentoring, consulting, teaching and parenting all have a hierarchical approach, where the person holds knowledge, perceived or real power over a person. All are a form of advice-giving, although the method for doing so as a therapist may be very different than a mentor or consultant. The advice of a therapist is often based in knowledge of normal and not-normal human behavior, and evaluation of client mental health (all very important to understand).
Coaching is the only approach that believes in drawing forth the self-knowledge and wisdom of the client first and foremost, holding the client as capable of connecting with their own wisdom, in order to solve, resolve or create whatever is important to them.
Keep Your Coaching Hat On
This brings me to the title of this article. As mentioned earlier, there’s a common belief taught in many coach training programs to beginner coaches, that you can (metaphorically) take your coaching hat off, which means you can act in another mindset as long as you have said, “I’m going to take my coaching hat off for a moment and give you my (advice, tips, recommendation, etc.).
This means the “coach” has shifted to one or more of these mindsets; mentor, consultant, teacher and yes, somewhat a parent; because any of these roles is telling the client what the “coach” thinks or believes the client should do, based on the coach knowledge, information or personal experience. The coach is doesn’t trust the coaching process is enough, or doesn’t trust the client really does have their own wisdom.
From experience (note how I’m setting myself up as the expert 😊), most coaches don’t shift to role of therapist or counselor. Instead, a coach may miss that there is a conversation to be engaged with the client in the moment about what part of their topic might be better served by a different professional (such as a therapist or counselor). And what part of their topic might be best served by a coach.
What’s the Problem with taking your “Coaching Hat” off temporarily during a coaching session?
The bottom line is defaulting to advice-giving robs each client of the opportunity to access wisdom they might not initially be aware of, to come up with their own answers, their own solutions, their own creative or congruent ways of working through an issue, or an opportunity.
If any client wants advice, my advice is often to ask them if they want to use Google to research the topic further as there are any number of tips and advice available! I use Google every day to find the answer to anything and everything I want. I can find the best leadership, communication, conflict resolution tips, or anything else I want to know about. That’s basically what a coach who regularly takes their coaching hat off is doing; acting like Google.
What a professional coach does that Google can’t do is personalize and customize questions and observations to each client uniquely; how they act, react, feel, think, create.
My desire is that coach training programs be more responsible for teaching coaching skills and not teaching advice-giving, because the way a person is trained as a coach will become their ongoing habits. There are many beginner coaches I have mentored preparing to apply for the ACC or PCC credential who have been taught this “poor coaching skills habit” (yes, that’s my assertion) and equally those with only a few hundred hours of coaching who have superior coaching skills to more experienced coaches preparing to apply for the MCC credential.
I often hear from experienced coaches (1000 or more hours of coaching) that I interview to participate in my MCC mentoring programs, that they know they are not coaching, and instead are using a hybrid of coaching, consulting, and are giving their expertise and advice too quickly. Some realize as they go through the mentoring program, they don’t know how to stay fully in the mindset of a coach because they’ve never learned how to “keep their coaching hat on” as their modus operandi.
Can a Coach ever take their “Coaching Hat” Off?
Yes. However as mentioned above most coaches default to advice giving because it’s easy for them and they haven’t mastered coaching skills. Or the coach feels they’ve only given value if they give advice. Instead, coaches bring value through their masterful application of coaching skills, primarily asking open-ended customized and responsive questions. Or offering observations.
Nothing delights me more than when a client says, “Oooh, that’s a great question” or “Hmmm, that’s an interesting observation you’ve offered…” It’s like moving from an adrenaline based feeling to an endorphin based feeling; a different energy system is being used.
I deliberately sought to coach someone who would be open to having the recordings publicly available, to demonstrate how to stay in coaching mindset with a longer term client. That turned out to be the Butterfly on the Wall Coaching Series, which is 15 consecutive coaching sessions with one client. You can hear how similar themes arise, and how I could have possibly given advice many times. Instead I stay in coaching mindset throughout each session.
I truly believe coaching skills being applied to the best of my ability in every coaching session, provides the client with greater value, builds their confidence and provides them with growth, than if I take my coaching hat off and give advice.
The misrepresentation of where value is created is further exacerbated because the coach hasn’t communicated well enough verbally and in writing how coaching works to their clients. And where the role of advice fits within coaching.
Consider doing a self-audit; are you able to stay fully in coaching mindset and use coaching skills throughout an entire coaching session, on a regular basis? Or do you regularly default to advice-giving?
Below are my expert recommendations (yes, that means tips and advice 😊 ) for how and when to take your Coaching Hat off.
Evaluate your own level of coaching skills competence
If you aren’t comfortable (or don’t know how) to use coaching skills for entire coaching sessions, there’s your first growth edge. Develop that capability and you will be amazed at how powerful coaching is for clients and the results they receive. Not because you gave them your ideas and solutions, but because the client gained confidence from their ability to think for themselves, to find their own solutions and their ways to move forward.
“If the coach thinks the client needs the coach’s help and “heroically” swoops in to save the day, the coach will prevent the client from growing, changing, and saving his own day.” Chad Hall
You may want to work with a coach you hired with explicit understanding they are not to offer you advice, and instead are to stay fully in coaching mindset (and make you, the client, “do the work” by answering their questions, or considering their observations).
You could also work with a mentor coach to uplevel your coaching skills. Or participate in different coaching skills training, only if you have specifically heard what their beliefs are about coach giving advice (and that they don’t teach that you can give advice, at the “drop of your hat” 😊 )
Educate your coaching clients
Coaches need to be able to fluently verbally explain what coaching is to every potential and new client. As part of the coaching intake process, ask the client what their experience is with being coached is, and if they’ve had a coach before or not. Listen for what they believe coaching is and how it is structured. Depending on what the client says will then help me to formulate my response and explanation of how the coaching process works.
Besides verbally explaining what coaching is and isn’t as part of your intake conversation, make sure you put explicitly in writing in your coaching contract with each client, state what coaching is and isn’t (like I have earlier in this article). Be explicit in explaining how coaching works, and how a coaching session is structured. Give the potential or new client a sample coaching session with you so they know what to expect.
Sometimes, the client does want someone to tell them what to do, which means they are likely overwhelmed in some way, which could be a great coaching topic 😊.
At other times, something is called coaching when it’s really consulting. Examples include most Career “Coaching” which is actually a consulting because there’s a “coach” driven methodology being used. Assessment debriefs are also consulting sessions as the “coach” is leading the debrief, and holds expert knowledge about the assessment. A coaching opportunity exists after the debrief session, for the client to determine how they want to use the information.
If a client says they are seeking advice from me, I respond with something like the following;
“Advice has it’s place in coaching, yet it’s not the first thing we do as coaches but rather the very last thing, because you know more about your situation or about (leadership, communication, etc.) than you might realize.
What’s often missing is dedicated time where you have space to think, reflect on (a more effective leadership style, changing careers, asking for a raise). As well as practice in a safe setting what you might say to others you are having challenges with.
I use my professional coaching skills to support you determine the outcome you are seeking (from our coaching, and from each coaching session). Then to determine what you want (future), where you are now (current) and what’s in the gap including obstacles and opportunities.
Through my customized and responsive (open-ended) questions, you get to explore your thoughts (and feelings). Or I might offer observations about what I hear, how you are communicating, or changes in the way you are using your body or facial expressions.
This type of dedicated time for reflection in a structured manner, is rarely engaged with on our own, because it’s also challenging to ask ourselves questions.
Given my background and experience is not in your industry, or have the same background as you, I use my knowledge of coaching skills to ask questions that you might never think of, which can expand your awareness about possibilities for moving forward.
If you ask me directly for advice or what I think, I may respond with an observation about the words you are using, the energy / emotion that might be present, or some other way you are communicating. I might ask you first what you are already thinking, because I don’t want to say something you already are aware of.
If after the above, I still feel it would benefit to offer you my experience or expertise and cannot do so within the questions or observations I ask you, then I will OFFER you my personal experience or what I’m aware of, for you to consider or reject as is right for you.”
I know that the above might be a lot, however over 24 years of coaching (so far), I’ve practiced versions of the above and can say in 5-10 minutes at most, so it’s natural for me to speak about. Or when a client asks for my advice in real-time I can easily say, “As you may recall, advice is the last thing I’ll go to. First if I can ask you (what you are already thinking / ask you some questions / offer an observation…) then if there’s something I feel would be of value to add, I can do that.
Internal Coaching – distinctions
Internal coaches often tell me I have no idea what it’s like working internally and being told how to coach and that they are most often required to be a hybrid coach/advice-giver, even if they know better. To keep their job as an internal coach (or through a contracting company for coaches) they acquiesce to being hybrid consultant/coaches. These coaches attempt to convince me that it’s impossible to be a “pure coach.” To which I respond that I have coached many clients I didn’t choose, and ALWAYS do my best to bring my best coaching skills to the forefront.
I worked for a consulting company hired to be a coach, for 2.5 years. I was allocated clients, I didn’t choose my coaching clients. So I’ve had the experience of the variety of expectations of clients from coaching them to advising them. The consulting company did have a good understanding of coaching, yet some clients still expected advice to be given to them (which can put the coach in a legally compromising position, depending on what the advice is).
It’s personally disappointing to hear how many people who set up coaching companies, or coaching departments within larger organizations, are set up by consultants who have little experience or idea of the power of “pure coaching” mindset. The coaches I mentor who do come from coaching cultures are astoundingly different in their way of coaching, than those who have been taught to be a consultant/coach.
I personally enjoy working through a coaching company that really understands what coaching is, and look forward to continue to do so.
The lack of awareness of the power of being coach first and foremost by those in management positions is hard to change. However, I encourage every coach to continue to practice being a coach 99% of the session and only become a consultant/advice-giver after you’ve done your version of what I outlined earlier in this article.
No matter if I had 4* sessions or 12* sessions with a client, I always asked them in the first session if we could take 10 minutes to align on their understanding of coaching, and the coaching process. Then I went through a version of the above I gave you as part of my intake for potential and new clients.
*Coaching is an ongoing process, and once-off sessions are always going to be more problem-solving and possibly advice-giving oriented. If you are an internal coach with an “open coaching door” policy allowing once-off sessions, you are going to have to find your way to continue to educate your clients on what coaching sessions are. IF they want mentoring sessions, then perhaps that is a different person. Or you determine that once-off sessions you have with them are fully mentoring. If they are interested in coaching, then determine client-desired objectives, and the frequency of coaching sessions in a month, or quarter.
My coaching clients are educated by me from the beginning that if they ask me for advice, there is a sequence of events that will occur.
- I’ll first ask them what they are thinking or already considering, as they might know more than they think they know.
- I may ask them further questions, or offer further observations
- If I then consider there’s something I could add as advice, I will offer it simply, without imposing my advice as the right way or only way.
I rarely find I have to do #3 because the client finds they do know more or have more knowledge than they realized. I’d only be adding my “great advice” to feed my own ego, or to feel valued. In which case, I know I need more personal development so that I examine why I “need” to get my feelings of being valued met in my client relationships. That is not the place for getting my needs met to be valued.
I’m aware that many coaches feel it’s unrealistic to never give advice, or never to use their personal experience. Many coaches find great satisfaction giving advice, because that’s where they feel they add value.
Instead, I encourage all coaches to uplevel their coaching skills so they most often hear from clients that they were astounded by their results and increased confidence through answering questions the coach asked they would never have thought of themselves. Or by the (non-judgmental) observations offered. Or yes, at times, the offering of a hunch, intuition or gut feeling by the coach, without coach being attached to what the coach says as being right.
I hope this article has been provocative 😊. And that you consider where you can further uplevel your coaching skills. Or create or advocate for a coaching culture if you are hired as a sub-contractor to a coaching company. Or as an internal coach that you continue to educate management on what coaching sessions are. In every circumstance, keep you coaching hat on for the whole session, with advice-giving being an anomaly rather than your normal behavior.
Written by Carly Anderson, (acting in the role of expert for this blog article 😊)
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