Call it whatever you want, but please don’t call it coaching


A leader has to communicate with others in lots of different ways. It makes sense to have a number of tools in your leadership toolkit as well as the flexibility and know-how to pull out the right tool at the right moment.

I must admit that as a trained and credentialed executive coach, the use of the term “coaching” in the workplace to encompass many types of communication frustrates me. So I’m taking a deep breath and trying not to rant, but I do want you to know the difference between the tool called “coaching” and giving advice, telling someone what to do, or solving their problems.

You may weave various communication tools you use throughout your day, but it helps to make distinctions between the tools so that you know when to pull which one out. There is a time and a place for giving advice, telling, and problem solving and a time for coaching. Coaching is a distinct methodology that doesn’t involve those other tools.

In a word, coaching is “non-directive”*. That means that you pull out the more directive communication methods when you need to, but save coaching for those times when you want to help someone figure things out for themselves. Use coaching as a development tool that will help others to think and learn.

This is hard because you’ve likely been someone who has been a directive type of communicator for much of your career. Yet consider the times someone has attempted to solve your problem, tell you how to do something, or give you advice. If you love learning and are independent and driven to seek out your own answers, these tools are rarely helpful.

Instead of giving advice and solving others’ problems try:

Asking open ended questions that will help them to solve their own problems. These are simple questions like, “What have you tried?” and “What will you do next?” and (my personal favorite) “Who can help you?”. These questions go a level deeper, assisting those who are smart and driven to learn on their own.

Listening to the answers they give as they work through their own issues out loud. It’s fascinating how much people need to talk sometimes to figure things out. Don’t interrupt them, don’t step in with advice or opinions. Just listen.

Letting go of your need to have all of the solutions and solve all of the problems. This is the hardest part, because you just might know the perfect answer to the thing someone is trying to figure out. They’ll like their solutions better, because they are the ones they chose. And they’ll learn in the process.

I know it’s tempting to give advice and solve others’ problems because you’ve lived a life, you’re the boss and you know a lot. But you need to give others the chance to figure it out for themselves so they can think and learn too. Coaching is a form of showing that you respect them enough to come to their own answers.


*The term “non-directive” is from a great book about coaching called Effective Coaching by Myles Downey, in case you’re interested.

I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

4 comments on “Call it whatever you want, but please don’t call it coaching

  1. Thank you Mary Jo!

    People need to understand the difference between coaching and advising.

    Coaches do not solve problems, they direct you to solutions, so you can think and learn for yourself.

    Thanks for the rant!

    Great Post!

  2. Thank you Lolly! I think coaching has become a “catch all” term and many managers and leaders don’t understand the distinctions, important to using the tools properly.

  3. Brilliant!

    Thanks for writing what I’ve been wrestling with as I’ve heard more and more leaders refer to the tools of advising, consulting, and counselling as Coaching.

    Great post!

Comments are closed.