“What kind of coach is she?”
I’d heard the question before, but I was surprised to hear it from another coach. “My mentee is a professional, credentialed coach,” I responded, trying to be helpful. “She’s equipped to work with you on any topic you want to bring to the session.”
“Yes, but what kind of coaching does she do?” the client persisted. “Health coaching? Career coaching? Business coaching? What kind of coaching?”
Dang it! Another misperception about coaching had reared its head – this time from a member of the coaching profession.
The “what kind of coach?” question is common, and stems from a core misunderstanding about what coaching is. Professional coaching is not consulting, mentoring, advising or training (I recently wrote an article explaining the difference). In other words, it’s not telling, directing, or instructing. I describe professional coaching as “the facilitation of a client’s self-discovery through provocative questions, insightful observations, and invitation to action”. In professional coaching, the coach facilitates the client’s access to what the client already possesses: their own answers, insights, and truth. In coaching, the client holds the power and expertise, not the coach.
Professional coaching is more akin to therapy than consulting or advising. While coaching isn’t therapy, the professions do overlap more than many practitioners would like to admit. In fact, I’ve argued for a more permeable, ethical barrier between professional coaching and therapy that I believe serves clients and the general public. And like therapists, professional coaches are qualified to work with a variety of clients on a variety of issues.
However, in my experience few people ask a therapist “what kind of therapist are you?” If they did, they might hear the tradition in which that therapist was trained, such as “psychodynamic”, “behavioral”, “humanistic”, or “somatic”. Or the therapist might name a specific model like CBT, DBT, gestalt, somatic experiencing, drama therapy, or internal family systems.
Similarly, there are a variety of coach training traditions such as co-active coaching, transformational coaching, narrative coaching, gestalt coaching, integral coaching, and somatic coaching. However, none of these mean anything to the average person, just like a therapist’s description of their training means little to anyone but the most savvy consumer.
The question people are more likely to ask a therapist is some version of “what kinds of issues do you work on?” or “what kinds of clients do you work with?” The therapist might name issues like addiction, depression, anxiety, trauma, or relationship difficulties. They might mention clients like gifted adolescents, grieving parents, child abuse survivors, newlyweds, or neurodivergent adults. These responses reflect the therapist’s specialty, interests, or strengths – but not necessarily their training. Therapeutic traditions and models don’t work with just one issue or type of client. For instance, behavioral therapy can be effective in working with addiction, anxiety, and grief. Therapists trained in CBT don’t only work with clients with eating disorders.
In the same vein, asking a professional coach about the issues and clients they work with can provide more useful information than the “what kind of coach?” question. Coaches may specialize in any number of topics including leadership development, effective communication, stress management, life purpose, relationship fulfillment, performance anxiety, or career advancement. These specialties say nothing about that coach’s training, but rather the coach’s interests and strengths.
Using myself as an example, I’m trained in transformational coaching as well as somatics. However, the issues I specialize in are clarity, confidence, direction, and purpose in life and work (including leadership). The clients I most enjoy and attract are “unicorns, oddballs and onlys.” At work, they’re often different from those around them because they’re the only person of color or woman on their team, the youngest leader, or the newest arrival. They might be neurodivergent, queer, introverted, or a creative seeker in an organization or family that doesn’t value those qualities.
Like a therapist, my ability to serve these clients as their coach isn’t contingent on the tradition or models of my training. However, the experience and joy I bring to my work narrow the range of issues and clients I could work with to the ones that are the best fit – for me and the client.
When most people ask “what kind of coach are you?” they’re usually asking about issues and clients, not training traditions and models. They’re looking for themselves in the answer.
Also, a misperception about what coaching is fuels the “what kind of coach are you?” question – but driving in the wrong direction. Like the client in the above conversation about my mentee, most people asking that question are listening for a label like “health/wellness coach”, “career coach”, “financial coach”, “trauma recovery coach”, “business/marketing coach” or “writing coach.”
However, these types of “coaching” usually aren’t coaching at all! As I’ve described, these “kinds” of coaching are usually some form of advising or mentoring. And some – especially “health coaching” – are closer to “motivational interviewing”. Motivational interviewing (MI) is a communication modality created by two psychologists in the 1980s to better support patients struggling with substance abuse and addiction. While MI shares many techniques with professional coaching, and shares values of collaboration, respect for the client’s autonomy, and empathy, MI differs from professional coaching in two key ways. One, its scope is narrower and more explicitly goal-oriented; its purpose is to enhance a client’s motivation and commitment to adopt a specific behavior change. Two, MI involves a combination of listening and teaching or advising.
MI (when practiced well) is certainly more equitable, compassionate, and respectful than other methods of facilitating behavior change. However, the power and expertise still reside primarily with the interviewer (“coach”) who tries to get the client to change for the client’s own reasons rather than through scolding, directing, warning, or confronting. MI was created as a kinder, gentler form of persuasion when patients resisted more coercive ones. This original core purpose is at odds with professional coaching, where the topic, goals, pacing, meaning, motivation, and actions are entirely the client’s. The distinction is very subtle but critical.
My intention is not to denigrate MI. It’s a powerful and effective modality, but it’s not coaching. Likewise, my intention is not to dismiss the professionalism of “health coaches”, “career coaches”, “business coaches” etc., nor to question the importance of their work. I have hired such “coaches” myself in the past, and I count several among my valued colleagues.
My intention is to challenge the use of the word “coach” to describe these approaches and professions. Calling them “coaches” muddies the water for the public, and leads to questions like “what kind of coach are you?”
Training ourselves and others to think and talk about coaching less as “kinds” and more as traditions, specialties, and issues elevates the field of professional coaching. It reinforces what coaching is, so clients arrive at coaching with appropriate expectations. It also prevents people from believing they’ve experienced the unique power of professional coaching – when they haven’t.
And it saves everyone from the awkward dance that begins when a well-intended person asks, “what kind of coach are you?”