Coaching has to be sense-ible

October 13, 2011

My ears perked up when I heard that Atul Gawande--my favorite surgeon/writer--has a piece in the New Yorker about coaching for professionals. You can read the whole thing online here.

Gawande’s piece skillfully  lays out the benefits and
barriers to coaching for professionals – people whose skills are already
at a certain level but who want to keep learning and improving. As
someone who is (almost) mid-40’s, doing complex work that few people
fully understand, I could relate at nearly every turn as he described
the desire to improve.  I was pleased that he names not only athletes, 
but also  musicians (who are, after all small-muscle athletes)  as
examples of the ways that an outside set of eyes and ears can be
invaluable to someone who already knows their business but knows they
can also get better. It doesn’t matter how many people are
watching what you do; if the only feedback you get is “Nice sermon,
pastor,” you’ll never know the real impact of your work, or what you
could be doing differently. Hearing someone comment on your use of
silence,  your body language, or your pacing, however, makes a world of

My own experience with so-called coaching in recent
years, however, has been the very opposite of the sort of well-trained
attention a professional coach might give. “Coaching” is now used as a
catch-all for all kinds of relationships that lack a key element of
coaching –namely physical presence. If you’re a writer, an editor can be
just about anywhere. But if you’re an executive, a preacher, a teacher,
or a musician, your coach has to be in the room to provide any
meaningful feedback. They need to see how you’re standing, hear the
inflections in your voice, and sense the response of the people around
you. Too much of what is called “coaching” is really just untrained
low-cost therapy – listening to you self-report about the way you see how things are going. If you’re a leader, that’s not the perspective you need.

Probably my worst experience with so-called coaching came
through my health plan. Like everybody else in health care, our pension
plan is trying to turn attention toward prevention – a laudable move.
We were offered “health coaching” over the phone with someone assigned
to us through Mayo Clinic’s wellness program.  It sounded like a good
idea, since I wasn’t making any headway by just reading more about good
nutrition and stress control.

So I signed up and was scheduled with a “coach.”  At the
assigned time, I got a call from a person who asked minimal questions
about me and my life, but launched into mechanically using my first name
in every sentence. It was obvious she was reading from a script,  the
way a telemarketer does. Every statement I made was repeated back and
then followed with a survey-like question. “You say you want to eat more
fruits and vegetables, is that correct Pamela?”  “Pamela, on a scale of
1 to 10, how confident are you that you can achieve this goal?”  It
went on like this for 15 minutes, at which point I wanted to throw the
phone across the room. What really irritated me was that I’d agreed  to
this torture. That and the fact that I really couldn’t blame the young
woman on the line, who was probably some nice 22 year old with a college
degree who now found herself stuck in a cubicle, staring at a computer
screen and talking to strangers in exactly the way she’d been trained to

Granted, I don’t know what the alternative is, in the
context of health,  short of having someone read my food diary and
observe me in my kitchen every evening. But let’s not call it coaching,
because what I experienced in that phone call was not coaching. It was
low-cost pep talk, at best. But I don’t want a pep talk from someone who
sounds like she could just as easily be reserving a rental car for me
on my next trip to Chicago.

So, yes, please, let’s have coaches. But let’s not
pretend that this is a low-cost , low-relationship, low-risk affair.
Real coaches have a lifetime of experience. Real coaches have license to
be bossy, irritating, and in-your-face because their success actually
depends on your success. And to be coached, I have to be willing to let
someone actually see me do what I do. It’s worth a lot to have someone
pay that kind of attention to your work, and it ought to be worth a lot
to the institutions we serve to have genuine improvement and struggling
and learning. I hope my surgeon has a coach. And I hope that someone out
there might care enough to have their pastor be coached as well.

Originally posted at Living Word by Word



A very insightful look at what coaching is and what it isn't. For readers interested in coaching, please refer to the International Coach Federation to find a coach best for you as the coaches certified by the ICF have gone through testing on certain coaching competencies. Thank you for your article,

Tina Mertel, Author, Meaningful Coaching