Coaching Definition (The Complete Guide 2019)

Coaching Definition

Coaching Definition and What Is Coaching?

Coaching is a vehicle for helping people to achieve a higher level of well-being and performance in life and work, particularly when change is hard. This guide explains the coaching definition and purpose of coaching. 


Coaching is a growth-promoting relationship that elicits autonomous motivation, increases the capacity to change, and facilitates a change process through visioning, goal setting, and accountability, which at its best leads to sustainable change for the good. This tutorial explains the coaching definition and purpose of coaching.


The emerging industry of professional coaching, which began more than 25 years ago, focused initially on the executive, business, and life coaching. Commercial and academic coach training and education programs have graduated more than 50,000 coaches worldwide.


Coaching is a partnership with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires and supports them to maximize their personal and professional potential, which is particularly important in today’s uncertain, complex, and often overwhelming environment.


Coaches honor the client as the expert in his or her life and work, and they believe every client has the potential to be creative and resourceful in order to fully self-actualized. Standing on this foundation, the coach’s responsibility is to:


  • Discover, clarify, and align with what the client wants to achieve
  • Encourage client self-discovery
  • Elicit collaborative and client-generated solutions and strategies
  • Hold the client responsible and accountable 


Health and wellness coaches are professionals from diverse health and allied health backgrounds who work with individuals and groups in a client- (or patient-) centered process to facilitate and empower the client to achieve self-determined goals related to health and wellness.


Successful coaching takes place when coaches apply clearly defined knowledge and skills so that clients mobilize internal strengths and external resources for sustainable change.


Professional coaches in healthcare and wellness form partnerships with clients to optimize health and well-being by developing and sustaining healthful lifestyles.


Coaches help clients enhance self-motivation and self-regulation, leverage strengths, navigate a journey of change, and build other psychological resources needed to change for good, including mindfulness, self-awareness, positivity, hope, optimism, self-efficacy, and resilience.


Health and wellness coaches assist clients in connecting the dots between who they are and who they want to be, and in taking the incremental behavioral steps that will enable them to succeed in their desired changes, leading to a higher level of health and well-being.


Although some life and executive coaches may help their clients address health or wellness goals, they are typically focused on aligning personal and professional goals and values with improving well-being and performance in life and work.


They don’t have a primary focus on helping clients to establish health-promoting mental and physical behaviors that are aligned with evidence-based guidelines in fitness, nutrition, weight management, health risk, stress management, and life satisfaction.


Whatever the focus, masterful coaches use evocative, less frequently didactic, approaches with clients. They do more listening than talking, more asking than telling, and more reflecting than commenting. Coaching is not primarily advising clients on how to solve problems, simply educating clients about what they should do, nor analyzing the root causes of client predicaments.


Although advising, educating, or analyzing problems are occasionally a part of coaching, they are not the primary purpose or approach of coaching. Coaches are collaborative and co-creative partners in clients’ journeys to reach their visions and goals.


Coaches don’t make it easy for clients by giving them answers; they facilitate the client’s own self-discovery and forward momentum. Mastering health, wellness, and other life domains and developing the confidence to sustain one’s well-being is a journey of personal growth.


A coach is a partner in defining “Point B” and co-designing and co-navigating the journey to get there.


The outcomes delivered by coaches include the following:

  • Increased self-awareness and self-knowledge
  • Increased personal responsibility
  • Acquisition of new knowledge and skills
  • Attainment of personal and professional goals
  • Sustainable behavior change
  • Increased life satisfaction
  • Increased self-efficacy
  • Developed sense of purpose and meaning
  • Becoming one’s best self


Why We Need Health and Wellness Coaching

Wellness Coaching

As it gains recognition over coming years, health and wellness coaching and wide dissemination of coaching skills have the potential to be a transformational force in the health care system in many countries.


Coaching competencies can be applied in many settings (in-person and telephone, individual, and in groups) and by many professionals (professional coaches, health professionals integrating coaching skills and tools into current protocols, and peer health and wellness coaches for community outreach).


Coaches are focused on self-care reform as an important endeavor in the health care reform underway in many countries.


Fewer than 5% of adults engage in the top health behaviors and only 20% of adults are thriving. This is the first time in human history where being in control of one’s health and making health investments day in and day out are poised to be dominant societal themes, just as smoking cessation was two decades ago, or sacrificing for the greater good was during World Wars I and II.


Health behaviors include stress management interventions as evidence mounts for the role of chronic negative emotions in impairing the brain’s ability to learn and change in the present moment, and accelerating the onset of chronic diseases and early death.


Meanwhile, mindfulness practices, which improve emotion regulation, have been shown to ameliorate a growing number of medical conditions. Early research is showing that positive emotions and shared positive emotions in caring relationships improve mental and physical health.


Helping people take better care of their health is among society’s most pressing priorities. In the United States, where employers assume a good deal of the responsibility for employee healthcare costs, organizational leaders are called upon to create workplaces that foster rather than damage health to both reduce healthcare costs and improve productivity and engagement.


Yet health care providers often do not have the skills nor are they reimbursed to help people learn and sustain new health-giving habits and leave behind health-damaging ones. The healthcare system was designed to manage acute medical emergencies and conditions.


It is not well-suited to helping people manage a lifelong journey of developing and sustaining health-promoting behaviors. To date, a focus on prescriptive and expert educational approaches to helping people adopt health-promoting lifestyles has shown limited success.


Despite widespread knowledge about the serious risks of unhealthy lifestyles, many continue unhealthy habits or pursue quick fixes that don’t last. Most people are not confident in their ability to lose weight or change their lifestyles. The demands of everyday life have never been greater.


People face a bewildering array of health and wellness guidelines, products, and services, making it difficult to create a personal formula. Navigating the inevitable obstacles to making changes, including confusion, resistance, and ambivalence, is challenging.


Many have histories of repeated failure. Most people do not believe they can reform their self-care or master their health and wellness.


People want to be well. They yearn to be in control of their health, to feel better, and to have more energy. But there is an enormous gap between wanting to be well and the everyday reality of living with the physical and mental health consequences of overeating, under-exercising and having too little downtime to recharge one’s batteries.


New life skills are needed to develop a personal blueprint for well-being and become confident in one’s ability to implement it. Most don’t believe they are able to master these life skills.


For example, the increasing numbers of those who choose bariatric surgery over lifestyle management techniques for healthy weight loss may be indicative of a lack of confidence in one’s ability to implement healthier behaviors.


The health and fitness industry is working hard to help. Never before have there been more experts, assessments, resources, guidelines, technology, blogs, web tools, and beautiful high-tech facilities. The wellness revolution is underway with a welcome new emphasis on enabling long-term behavior change or “changing for good”.


Although all of these resources are valuable, more is needed. The “expert approach” of telling people what to do isn’t ideal when they have low self-efficacy.


Experts are trained to deliver prescriptions and advice, and they often work harder than their clients in trying to help them. But the expert approach subtly lets the client or patient off the hook, sending the subtle message: You are not in charge.


The expert approach is vital when one is facing an immediate health crisis or considering surgery. It is not ideal when one wants to lose weight, reduce stress, or develop a positive and confident mindset. Delegating to experts comes with a price—loss of control and autonomy. Building confidence requires new patterns of thinking, doing, and relaxing.


The field of health and wellness also needs a shift in emphasis on strengths and opportunities, building on what’s working and away from an emphasis on diagnosing and fixing what’s not working. The more focus on the latter, the more self-confidence is undermined.


It makes it harder, not easier, to change when the focus is on what’s wrong and what’s not working. Not enough positive energy and emotion are harvested to fuel the pursuit of change.


Moreover, clients need a whole-person view of health and well-being given our complex lives. Specialists who work in only one area, such as exercise, nutrition, or mental health without integration of the others, often experience a limit in their effectiveness. Multiple areas are intrinsically intertwined and are most successfully dealt with together.


Most people need assistance with integrating information from multiple experts to decide what actions to take and how to prioritize them. People find it confusing when experts contradict each other. It is certainly not a recipe for promoting an “I can do it!” attitude.


In addition to unique genetics, each person is unique with respect to their history and preferences, diet trials and tribulations, and exercising or sedentary habits. More and more information on dietary allergies emphasizes the unique differences in our biology.


 People have their own food and exercise preferences. Some people love to jog and have been doing so since they were teenagers. Those same people are not necessarily swimmers. Other people love cycling or spinning.


Disability or pain, such as knee pain from osteoarthritis, might limit the exercise options for some clients. Team sports such as basketball or soccer might be the best recommendation for an exercise routine.


Zumba (a form of exercise dance which started in Latin America) has taken off among women as a fun, musical experience that doesn’t feel like exercise. Preferences depend on the person, their past experiences, and their current interests and resources.


When it comes to providing information, different people have different learning styles. Some adults are visual learners who can benefit from graphs and pictures, whereas others are auditory learners who rely on lectures and conversations to consolidate information.


Knowing your client and his or her learning style helps you adapt your approach so that your efforts will be effective and efficient.


It is important to approach each client as a unique individual, supporting his or her journey to find the formula which best fits his or her genetics, history, capacity, and way of life. Clients need to develop wellness, health, and fitness habit portfolio that is tailored to their personal circumstances and capacities.


With a focus on building self-efficacy and autonomy, professional coaches are trained to:


  • Accept and meet clients where they are today
  • Ask clients to take charge
  • Guide clients in doing the mindful thinking, feeling, and doing work that builds confidence
  • Help clients define a higher purpose for health and well-being
  • Uncover a client’s natural impulse to be well
  • Support clients in tapping into their innate fighting spirit
  • Address mental and physical health together
  • Assist clients to draw their own health and wellness blueprint
  • Encourage clients to set and achieve realistic goals (small victories lay the foundation for self-efficacy)
  • Harness the strengths needed to overcome our obstacles
  • Reframe obstacles as opportunities to learn and grow
  • Enable clients to build a support team
  • Inspire and challenge clients to go beyond what they would do alone


What Coaching Is Not: The Expert Approach

What Coaching Is Not

Coaching is an especially powerful methodology when it comes to stimulating individual behavior change because it is focused on helping clients grow into becoming more autonomous experts in their own well-being and personal path.


Coaches first look to collaborate and partner rather than showing up as experts who primarily analyze problems, give advice, prescribe solutions, recommend goals, develop strategies, teach new skills, or provide education.


Although such expert approaches can be helpful in a coaching relationship, they are used “just in time” and infrequently. In the coach approach, the client is called to become the decision-maker and to grow into the expert on the path forward as well as the evaluator of success.


The goal of coaching is to encourage personal responsibility, reflective thinking, self-discovery, and self-efficacy. We want clients to discover their own answers and to create their own possibilities, as far as possible, rather than to be given answers or direction by the coach. Client-originated visions, plans, and behaviors are the ones that stick.


In 2010, Pollak and colleagues explored the impact on weight loss counseling when physicians were trained in motivational interviewing techniques. After one visit, the patients whose physicians used motivational interviewing techniques (collaboration, empathy, open inquiry, reflections) lost an average of 3.5 lb three months later.


The patients whose physicians were not using motivational interviewing techniques gained or maintained weight. In just a few moments, coaches and health-care providers can make a difference by using a collaborative rather than prescriptive dynamic.


Using the coach approach rather than the expert approach, coaches generally don’t direct the client’s goals and strategies, although they do guide the coaching process. They engage in coaching inquiries, asking powerful and insightful open-ended questions (what? how?) rather than closed-ended questions (do you? will you? did you?).


They use reflections to mirror what they are hearing, such as, “You’re feeling unhappy about your life balance, and you want to have more energy” or “You’re excited and proud that you were able to walk three times this week, and it allowed you to time for peace and calm.” And coaches listen, listen, and listen some more, with empathy and curiosity.


Coaches engage the minds and hearts of clients by assisting them in discovering their strengths, clarifying their values, increasing their awareness, setting their priorities, meeting their challenges, brainstorming possibilities, and designing positive actions.


Such engagement enables clients to generate a new self-concept (Who is my best self?), to create new supports and environments (What supports my best self?), and to take new actions (What manifests my best self?). By empowering clients to find their own answers, through asking nonjudgmental and provocative questions and delivering powerful reflections, coaches become catalysts for lasting change.


In transitioning from the expert to the coach approach, many coaches report the challenges as well as the rewards of:

Asking questions with a beginner’s mind—not assuming that they already know the answers

  • Not making decisions and judgment calls quickly, but allowing clients the chance to go deeper and get to important topics
  • Not thinking about what to say next, but instead listening for a dangling thread hanging off of a client’s last words
  • Not generating quiet resistance with even a hint of know-it-all energy
  • Reading, respecting, and working with clients’ emotions as possible guideposts to insights
  • Not rushing clients through their “muck,” but instead compassionately helping them sit there until the desire to change gains energy
  • Not being on “automatic pilot” to ensure that a checklist gets completed, but instead being fully present to the client’s reality and present needs


These and many other shifts can assist people with successfully mastering the health and wellness challenges of the present day.


It can be especially difficult for healthcare professionals who have been trained extensively as experts and who are armed with large quantities of authoritative knowledge and written materials to support their expert status, to take off the expert hat, and shift to the coach approach.


In many cases, it can also be difficult for clients to see and work with their coaches in a different way because they have long been conditioned to be told what to do rather than to take charge of their own health, wellness, and self-change. It is a challenge for coaches and clients alike to come from a new framework, but when the shift is made, the transformations follow.


Thomas Gordon has outlined twelve ways of being that do not demonstrate a coach approach:

 coach approach

  • Ordering, directing, or commanding
  • Warning, cautioning, or threatening
  • Giving advice, making suggestions, or providing solutions
  • Persuading with logic, arguing, or lecturing
  • Telling people what they should do; moralizing
  • Disagreeing, judging, criticizing, or blaming
  • Agreeing, approving, or praising
  • Shaming, ridiculing, or labeling
  • Interpreting or analyzing
  • Reassuring, sympathizing or consoling
  • Questioning or probing
  • Withdrawing, distracting, humoring, or changing the subject


Coaching Research

Coaching Research

The health and wellness coaching research literature while at an early stage, with studies trailing the latest developments in coaching education and skills training, is beginning to show that coaching interventions, multiple in-person or telephone coaching sessions for three months or longer, are improving health outcomes for several chronic diseases including diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and cancer survivors.


  • A process that is fully or partially patient-centered
  • Includes patient-determined goals
  • Incorporates self-discovery and active learning processes (rather than more passive receipt of advice)
  • Encourages accountability for behavioral goals
  • Provides some type of education along with using coaching processes
  • Coaching occurs as an ongoing relationship with a coach who is trained in specific behavior change, communication, and motivational skill


Coaching competencies will continue to evolve as new discoveries are made by psychologists and neuroscientists. Coaching outcomes research addressing a wide spectrum of health and wellness needs from childhood to end of life is a vital endeavor to support the integration of coaching interventions into evidence-based medicine, healthcare, and consumer wellness offerings.


How Coaching Works

How Coaching Works

This blog describes the process of coaching as taught and implemented by Well coaches trained coaches and continually upgraded since 2002 and serves as an excellent starting point for new coaches or coaches who wish to expand their toolboxes. However, it is important to note that one cannot become a masterful coach by reading a blog.


As in any skill-based work, the development of coaching skills requires practice, feedback, reflection, mentoring, supervision, and continued practice.

This is why organizations such as the International Coach Federation (ICF), a coach credentialing and coach training program accreditation organization, and the Well coaches School of Coaching, a coach training organization, require mentoring and tests of a coach’s practical application of skills to earn a coach certification.


The Process of Coaching

Process of Coaching

Health and wellness coaches are not limited to helping clients improve diet and exercise. Health and wellness coaches address the whole person, what it means to thrive mentally and physically, and how to leverage the biology of change. The coaching relationship is designed to facilitate sustainable change and optimize health and well-being.


With self-determination as a driver, clients move from dependency to empowerment, thereby making longer lasting, confidence-building, internally motivated changes that are appropriate for their evolving lives.


Given that chronic stress directly damages health, the positive emotions generated by coaching will potentially be shown to reduce the incidence of disease symptoms, preventable chronic diseases, and early mortality.


In broad strokes, coaching progresses through several stages:

Coaches and clients discuss a coaching contract so that clients understand the coaching process and expectations for the role of coach and client.


Before and during the first coaching session, clients provide background information so that coaches are well-informed on the priorities, key concerns, and any medical conditions. Increasing self-awareness is an important goal of coaching, and assessments are an effective tool to support self-discovery in the beginning.


During the first coaching sessions (which may occur in one longer session or over the course of several sessions), clients work toward the creation of a vision, and three-month plan and goals to move toward a vision.


Clients confirm that they are ready and want to do the work to make changes in at least one area. This is also described as a wellness vision process and ideally is completed once per year.


The vision and three-month goals are reviewed and agreed in detail. Clients also commit to three to five goals or small steps or experiments each week to enable progress toward goals and vision. 


In each subsequent coaching session, weekly or as needed, coaches and clients review progress, elevating energy, brainstorming strategies, meeting challenges, developing solutions, generating possibilities, and agreeing on goals for the following week.


During most sessions, a key topic is explored and resolved in a “generative moment” so that the client navigates around emerging challenges to continue on the change path.


The ideal length of these sessions is 30–45 minutes, although some circumstances require more or less time. In fact, some protocols suggest that longer sessions (e.g., 60 minutes), occurring less frequently (once or twice a month) can have a greater impact than shorter, more frequent sessions.

With the use of the coach approach, an impactful, life-giving, growth-promoting session is possible within even 10 minutes.


After a few weeks of coaching sessions, clients begin to notice some early wins and subsequent rewards, including improvements in how they feel and in their motivation to change. It’s also not uncommon, after a burst of enthusiasm in the first few weeks, for clients to encounter challenges or setbacks.


Both coaches and clients work hard to help clients engage their strengths, reignite motivation, find solutions, and brainstorm possibilities for meeting these challenges to reach the goal of establishing new behaviors. Anticipating, welcoming, and overcoming such challenges is a critical part of mastering new behaviors. It is what turns challenges into learning experiences.


Coaching sessions can be done face to face or by telephone or video conferencing. Phone and video conferencing coaching have become increasingly popular, particularly in addressing the needs of larger or remote populations.


Although there are obvious benefits to working with a coaching client in person, sometimes more can be accomplished in the phone and video sessions than in face-to-face sessions because there are fewer distractions and the distance helps minimize the client’s disruptive, negative self-talk relative to the presence of the coach. Additionally, distance lives coaching sessions can be more cost-effective to implement.


If clients confirm that they need to acquire new knowledge and skills to reach their goals and visions, help clients define the path to gaining the new knowledge and skills, with input from other experts when needed. “Less is more” is a good rule of thumb for coaches when it comes to teaching, advising, and educating.


Integrating the Coach Approach

Coach Approach

The following considerations can assist coaches in knowing whether a coaching relationship is functioning effectively:

  • Make sure clients are working at least as hard as you are.
  • Make sure clients are talking more than you are.
  • Make sure clients first try to find the answers for themselves.


  • Ask permission to give expert advice, if you think it might be beneficial so that the client is still in control.
  • Brainstorm two to three choices with a client so that the client taps into his or her own creativity and is the informed decision maker.


  • Speak less, and speak simply—deliver only one question or reflection at a time.
  • At every turn in the coaching conversation, stop and consider how to use the coach approach (inquiry/reflections) with the client before offering an expert approach.
  • Balance questions with reflections so that clients don’t feel like they are being interrogated.


Use silence to elicit deeper thinking.


Coaching Case

Coaching Case

Example #1: Lynda Well hangs up the phone and reflects on her coaching session with Coach Steve. Lynda recalls all of the insightful questions that Steve used. She wonders how he got to be so intuitive that he just knows what she is thinking without even having to say it.


She is grateful that he is so wise and able to create great learning moments for her to move forward toward her goals. “Steve is a good coach,” Lynda thinks as she smiles.


Example #2: Lynda Well hangs up the phone and reflects on her coaching session with Coach Steve. Lynda recalls all of the insights she had during the conversation. She tapped into her intuition and said things about herself that hadn’t been said out loud until now. She is feeling wiser and is discovering new ways to move forward toward her goals. “I’m doing great!” Lynda thinks as she smiles.


In the second example, the coach has collaborated with the client in a way that builds her self-efficacy, confidence, and creative capacity for insight.


What Brings Clients to Coaching?

Although people come to coaching for their own unique reasons, 12 themes are commonly cited by clients when they make the decision to invest in working with a professional coach:


Quick fixes over—“I’m done with quick fixes and want to make changes that last.”

Precious asset—“I have decided that my well-being is my most precious asset, and I’m ready to invest for the long term.”

Get off the fence—“I am fed up with sitting on a fence and want to commit to a wellness path.”

Not about weight—“I realize that it’s about well-being and not weight.”


Be the boss—“I want to be the boss of my health and wellness and quit delegating responsibility to others.”

Health style—“I’d like to develop my unique style of health rather than use one-size-fits-all approaches.”


Mental game—“I know what to do and now want to master the mental game, turning intention into reality.”

Peak performance—“I recognize that to reach peak performance at home and work, I need peak wellness.”

Big picture/small steps—“I know that an extreme makeover isn’t the answer, and I want to take small steps which are powerful.”


Confidence—“I’m finished with self-doubt and want to build confidence in my ability to master wellness.”

Winning the wellness game—“I want to focus on winning the wellness game and not losing or quitting.”

Close the gap—“I want to close the gap between where I am and where I want to be when it comes to my health and well-being.”


Becoming a Coach

Becoming a Coach

Although the mastery of health and wellness and the life domains which impact mental and physical thriving are among one’s highest priorities, most would agree that managing these are among the greatest life challenges, especially today when the environment is stacked against us.


Supporting those whose spirits are buried under significant excess weight, those who haven’t moved their bodies with vigor for a long time, or those who are “stressed out” is perhaps the toughest arena the world of professional coaching faces today. It is wise then for coaches to seek out the best training available. This blog helps set the bar.


Authentic empathy and complete acceptance come out of the pores of masterful coaches. They cannot summon an ounce of judgment. They have an uncanny ability to sniff out client strengths, values, and desires. They prefer to listen rather than talk. They love and enjoy client stories. They see the funny side in ways that facilitate growth.


They hold up the mirror with courage when necessary. They have the patience to allow clients to sit in the muck, even in tears, without succumbing to the urge to rescue. They assist clients to achieve more than they otherwise might on their own.


Masterful coaches take risks to challenge clients to reach higher at the right moment. They know that lives are at stake if clients don’t take great care of themselves. Best of all, masterful coaches know how to celebrate client success.


Learning to Be a Coach

Learning to Be a Coach

It is important for credentialed health and allied health professionals who are performing the role of a health and wellness coach to be trained and certified in coaching competencies.


By learning how to competently use coaching skills and processes, experienced health and allied health professionals can improve the impact and results of their roles in helping clients and patients improve their well-being.


Some people are natural-born coaches with an amazing aptitude for empathy, inquiry, mindfulness, insight, or courage. Others have developed their coaching skills through life experience. Even the best talents, however, benefit from formal training, mentoring, and certification (followed by years of practice, more training, and more mentoring to improve mastery).


Learning and growth for coaches never stop, just as the process doesn’t stop for clients; it is a lifelong journey. The coach training industry has plenty of opportunities ahead in developing more masterful coaches who assist people in becoming masters of their own well-being and of their lives.


The International Coach Federation is one resource for identifying accredited coach training programs covering diverse specialties and niches.

Well, coaches, coach training programs are a top recommendation for coach training, for both health professionals focused on health and wellness and nonhealth professionals combining coaching with domain expertise such as career, retirement, or financial planning. Most of all, when selecting a coach training program, consider choosing one that:


Provides evidence-based competencies, skills, and tools grounded in well-respected theories regarding the psychology of change and well-being or thriving

  • Acknowledges the value of positive psychology and other tools honoring one’s strengths, values, and resources
  • Encourages client autonomy, self-efficacy, and collaboration
  • Requires live practice of newly acquired skills and feedback from master coaches and mentors
  • Employs faculty with training and extensive experience as professional coaches and coach trainers


Practicing to Be a Coach . . . and a Client


To be an effective coach, it is important to experience being a client. It helps coaches understand the change process a client goes through. It also allows the coach to personally experience the results that can occur from a coaching partnership.


Qualified coaches can be found through the ICF or Well-coaches, depending on the area of focus. Working with a mentor who may provide more advice and training than a coach and developing a buddy or peer coach relationship are other avenues to help one grow as a coach.


Secondly, as with any new skill set, practice is the only way to learn to ride the coaching bike. The most important step one can take throughout the learning journey is the intensive practice of the new skills and ways of being—shifting from being an expert to being a facilitator. 


Early in the learning process, it is valuable to recruit three to five practice coaching clients. There is much to be gained from applying the new skills of coaching early and often to better understand what works best, which skills come most naturally and which skills will require the development of new coaching muscles.


Create a Professional Development Plan

 Professional Development Plan

Being a great coach is a lifelong journey; the learning and professional growth never stop. It is extremely important to sustain a deliberate and organized effort to continue to develop and expand one’s skills as a coach. One possible step is to create a professional development plan:


Assess your coaching skills on a scale of 0–10 (review all blog blogs to identify the most important coaching skills for self-rating). Set up your intended outcomes—where you want to be in six months and one year. Choose a couple of skills to work on at a time in three-month increments. This helps you focus.


Develop an action plan to get there—what you are going to do. Use blogs, peers, skill practice, role-plays, classes, conferences, etc. in your plan. Set up a review time and make revisions. Celebrate all of the good things in your coaching life as well as your milestones as a developing coach!


Note that this same process can be applied to assess the coaching process while working with a client. For example, at the end of a coaching session or client relationship, reflect on the following questions:

  • What am I learning about myself and others in coaching?
  • Am I modeling wellness? If not, how do I see my role as a coach?
  • What are ideas of mine being challenged in the coaching process?
  • What am I discovering about myself?
  • What are my strengths and weaknesses in working with this client?
  • What mindset works best for me to facilitate my coaching?
  • What stops me from saying what wants to be said?
  • What don’t I understand about my client, and what does this show me about myself?
  • In what ways am I flexible, rigid?
  • In what ways am I being supportive or critical?
  • What judgments am I making about my client’s life?
  • What surprises me in coaching?
  • What did I learn about the coaching process?
  • What in coaching makes me the most uncomfortable?


Self-Care for the Coach

Self-Care for the Coach

Taking care of oneself on all levels, or self-care is an important part of optimal wellness. In fact, mastery of wellness can be considered mastery of self-care. Self-care can be defined as a way of living that incorporates behaviors that enable one to maintain personal health and balance, replenish energy and motivation, and grow as a person.


We all know the importance of eating a healthy diet and engaging in regular physical activity. But self-care goes beyond these basics and can include the following activities and many more: improving your physical surroundings;


Developing a practice that exercises your mind and soul; balancing family, social, and work demands with time to unwind by spending time in nature; soaking in a hot bubble bath; watching a beautiful sunrise, and listening to one’s favorite music.


Practicing self-care does not come easily to many people who work in the “helping professions” because they are so accustomed to taking care of everyone else. It may feel selfish to “put yourself first” and take care of one’s own needs when so many other things demand your time, energy, and attention.


However, nurturing the body, environment, relationships, and spirit is a vital part of maintaining good health and vibrant life, and it is a key factor in having the strength and motivation to continue to give to others.


Burnout is a stress syndrome that is prevalent among those working in health and helping professionals. It happens when people try to reach unrealistic goals and end up depleting their energy and losing touch with themselves and others in the process. Burnout mainly strikes highly committed, conscientious, hard-working people and can be experienced by those who care passionately about the work they do.


Burnout is “the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one’s devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results”. Because burnout is a condition caused by good intentions, it is easy to see how preventing it is important for coaches.


Modeling to Be a Coach

Modeling Coach

Coaches share the same journey as clients: we are all seeking to walk the talk and to thrive. As ICF-Master Certified Coach Jay Perry says, “Coaching is not a service profession, it is a modeling profession.”


Throughout this blog, we will focus on how to structure the coach-client relationship so that it generates life-changing movement, learning, and growth on the part of the client.


That is the point of coaching—to assist clients to clarify and reach their goals and to enjoy developing and strengthening their true selves in the process. However, this takes more than just the masterful use of coaching techniques.


It takes a presence, a way of being in the world and with clients, which brings out the best in people through the quality of the connection itself. It’s not just what the coach does, but who the coach is that determines our effectiveness in coaching.


For health and wellness coaches to manifest this presence and to generate this quality of the connection, they need to “be the change they seek.” In other words, coaches need to model in their own lives the very attributes of health, fitness, and wellness that they assist their clients to create.


That doesn’t mean a coach has to be “perfect,” but he or she clearly should be on the path to discovering his or her best self. The more coaches experiment with and put into practice the wisdom that is developed with clients, the more transformational their presence will be. Clients respect and are inspired by coaches who “walk the talk.”


To put on the mantle of role model without being boastful, coaches need to take care of themselves on all levels—physically, emotionally, intellectually, socially, and spiritually.


Clients draw on the energy of a coach who is masterful at self-care, experiencing greater movement and change than they otherwise might. The better coaches attend to their own needs, the better they can help clients to do the same.


Distinguishing Coaching and Therapy

Coaching and Therapy

Coaching and therapy are synergistic and different interventions, although there is an overlap in the tools and skills used by coaches and therapists delivering solution-focused, positive, and future-oriented therapy models.


At its simplest, coaches help clients who are not experiencing serious mental distress build a better future, whereas therapists generally work with clients in distress and help them heal small and large emotional traumas and/or manage mental health conditions and dysfunctional mental patterns.


Coaches are not clinical diagnosticians, and coaches do not focus directly on improving a clinically diagnosed condition, although coaching programs have promise as an adjunct to mental health interventions.


It’s important that coaches are vigilant in noticing issues that may require the support of a licensed mental health provider. Some of the more obvious reasons that coaches would refer to an equipped mental health provider are when a client.

  • Is exhibiting a decline in his or her ability to experience pleasure and/or an increase in being sad, hopeless, and helpless
  • Has intrusive thoughts or is unable to concentrate or focus
  • Is unable to get to sleep or awakens during the night and is unable to get back to sleep or sleeps excessively
  • Has a change in appetite, whether a decrease or increase
  • Is feeling guilty because others have suffered or died
  • Has feelings of despair or hopelessness
  • Is being hyperalert and/or is excessively tired
  • Has increased irritability or outbursts of anger
  • Has impulsive and risk-taking behavior
  • Has thoughts of death and/or suicide


Additionally, it is important to look for the less obvious indicators of mental health concerns that extend beyond the realm of coaching. Notice if a client keeps making attempts to change their way of living but keeps holding themselves back with self-defeating behavior or if a client wants to process feelings repeatedly rather than moving forward toward learning and insight.


Coaching Case

Lynda Well set a goal to have a conversation with her supervisor about decreasing her workload three weeks ago. Each week, Coach Steve and Lynda have discussed this goal, and no progress has been made.


Instead, Lynda continually expresses doubt in her ability to have this conversation and often refers to her childhood experiences when she was criticized by her parents for speaking up when she had a concern.


Steve notices this rumination on past experience and the need to process these childhood feelings and says, “I’m noticing that the topic of your parents and their influence on you has been a part of our session for the last three weeks. It seems there are feelings to be resolved here that go beyond the work that you and I can do together in coaching.”


Distinguishing Coaching from Other Professionals

Coaching Professionals

Following are distinctions among a variety of professions that are similar yet distinct from coaching, as provided by ICF (2015) and the National Commission for Health Education Credentialing (2014):


Consulting: Individuals or organizations retain consultants for their expertise. Although consulting approaches vary widely, the assumption is the consultant will diagnose problems and prescribe and sometimes implement solutions. 


With coaching, the assumption is that it is ideal for individuals or teams to generate their own solutions with the coach supplying facilitation, supportive, discovery-based approaches and frameworks, several options, and expertise when needed.


Mentoring: A mentor is an expert who provides wisdom and guidance based on his or her own experience. Mentoring may include advising, counseling, and coaching. The coaching process does not focus primarily on advising, mentoring, or counseling. It focuses instead on individuals or groups and teams setting and reaching their own objectives.


Training: Training programs are based on objectives set out by the trainer or instructor. Although objectives are clarified in the coaching process, they are set by the individual or team being coached with facilitation provided by the coach. Training also assumes a structured learning path that coincides with an established curriculum. Coaching is less structured without a set curriculum.


Education: Educators, particularly health educators, work to encourage healthy lifestyles and wellness by educating individuals about behaviors that promote healthy living and prevent diseases and other health problems.


They attempt to prevent illnesses by informing and educating individuals about health-related topics and the habits and behaviors necessary to avoid illness. Although coaches may provide education, it is combined with coaching in a thoughtful way that enables client autonomy and choice.


Athletic development and personal training:

Athletic development

Although sports metaphors are often used, professional coaching is different from sports coaching. The athletic coach is often seen as an expert who guides and directs the behavior of individuals or teams based on his or her greater experience and knowledge.


Professional coaches possess these qualities, but their experience and knowledge of the individual or team together determine the direction in a more co-creative, collaborative model.


Additionally, professional coaching, unlike athletic development, does not focus on behaviors that are being executed poorly or incorrectly. Instead, the focus is on identifying the opportunity for development and new goal achievement based on individual strengths and capabilities.


Therapy: Therapy deals with healing pain, dysfunction, and conflict within an individual or in relationships. The focus is often on resolving difficulties arising from the past that hamper an individual’s emotional functioning in the present, improving overall psychological functioning, and dealing with the present in more emotionally healthy ways.


Coaching, on the other hand, supports personal and professional growth based on a self-initiated change in pursuit of specific actionable outcomes. These outcomes are linked to personal or professional success. Coaching is a future-focused.


Although positive feelings and emotions may be a natural outcome of coaching, the primary focus is on creating actionable strategies for achieving specific goals in one’s work or personal life. The emphases in a coaching relationship are on action, accountability, and follow-through.


Liability and Scope of Practice


The potential for the negative impact a coach can have on a client’s well-being is important to consider. A coach needs to set clear limitations around his or her scope of practice to minimize liability risks of advice that could be harmful to a client.


A coach should provide expert advice and teach only in the areas in which he or she has nationally recognized credentials and follow evidence-based guidelines.


Every client should be informed of the scope of practice and of the expert knowledge as validated by respected credentials that a coach brings to the relationship. If a coach is working with paying clients, professional liability insurance is also critical.


It is also important for coaches to apply their expert knowledge and step in when clients are doing or planning to do things that will endanger their health, fitness, or wellness (such as over-exercising, exercising unsafely when injured, not following a physician’s prescription, sharing medication, following an unhealthy diet, or remaining in a high-stress situation).


It is also important for coaches to not give advice on areas outside their areas of evidence-based competence and professional expertise. Coaching is no place for amateur advice.


The professional coaching industry takes the matter of coaching ethics very seriously. The ICF’s Code of Ethics outlines expectations around conflicts of interest, professional conduct with clients, and confidentiality.


As a certified coach, you may provide expert advice only in the areas where you have nationally recognized credentials.


You will inform clients of your scope of credentials and expertise.

Any existing professional, licensure, or certification affiliations that certified health and wellness coaches have with the governmental, local, state, or national agencies or organizations will take precedence relative to any disciplinary matters that pertain to practice or professional conduct.


Well, coaches, certified coaches shall be dedicated to providing competent and legally permissible services within the scope of practice of their respective certification. These services shall be provided with integrity, competence, diligence, and compassion.


Well, coaches certified coaches are truthful about their qualifications and the limitations of their expertise and provide services consistent with their competencies.


The ICF Standards of Ethical Conduct (International Coaching Federation)

Preamble: ICF Professional Coaches aspire to conduct themselves in a manner that reflects positively upon the coaching profession; are respectful of different approaches to coaching, and recognize that they are also bound by applicable laws and regulations.


Section 1: Professional Conduct at Large

Professional Conduct

As a coach:

I will not knowingly make any public statement that is untrue or misleading about what I offer as a coach or make false claims in any written documents relating to the coaching profession or my credentials or the ICF.


I will accurately identify my coaching qualifications, expertise, experience, certifications, and ICF Credentials.


I will recognize and honor the efforts and contributions of others and not misrepresent them as my own. I understand that violating this standard may leave me subject to legal remedy by a third party.


I will at all times strive to recognize personal issues that may impair, conflict, or interfere with my coaching performance or my professional coaching relationships. Whenever the facts and circumstances necessitate, I will promptly seek professional assistance and determine the action to be taken, including whether it is appropriate to suspend or terminate my coaching relationship(s).


I will conduct myself in accordance with the ICF Code of Ethics in all coach training, coach mentoring, and coach supervisory activities.


I will conduct and report research with competence, honesty, and within recognized scientific standards and applicable subject guidelines. My research will be carried out with the necessary consent and approval of those involved and with an approach that will protect participants from any potential harm.


All research efforts will be performed in a manner that complies with all the applicable laws of the country in which the research is conducted.


I will maintain, store, and dispose of any records created during my coaching business in a manner that promotes confidentiality, security, and privacy, and complies with any applicable laws and agreements.


I will use ICF Member contact information (e-mail addresses, telephone numbers, etc.) only in the manner and to the extent authorized by the ICF.


Section 2: Conflicts of Interest

Conflicts of Interest

As a coach:

I will seek to avoid conflicts of interest and potential conflicts of interest and openly disclose any such conflicts. I will offer to remove myself when such a conflict arises.


I will disclose to my client and his or her sponsor all anticipated compensation from third parties that I may pay or receive for referrals of that client.


I will only barter for services, goods, or other non-monetary remuneration when it will not impair the coaching relationship.


I will not knowingly take any personal, professional, or monetary advantage or benefit of the coach-client relationship, except by a form of compensation as agreed in the agreement or contract.


Section 3: Professional Conduct with Clients

Professional Conduct

As a coach:

I will not knowingly mislead or make false claims about what my client or sponsor will receive from the coaching process or from me as the coach.


I will not give my prospective clients or sponsors information or advice I know or believe to be misleading or false.

I will have clear agreements or contracts with my clients and sponsor(s). I will honor all agreements or contracts made in the context of professional coaching relationships.


I will carefully explain and strive to ensure that, prior to or at the initial meeting, my coaching client and sponsor(s) understand the nature of coaching, the nature, and limits of confidentiality, financial arrangements, and any other terms of the coaching agreement or contract.


I will be responsible for setting clear, appropriate, and culturally sensitive boundaries that govern any physical contact I may have with my clients or sponsors.


I will not become sexually intimate with any of my current clients or sponsors.

I will respect the client’s right to terminate the coaching relationship at any point during the process, subject to the provisions of the agreement or contract. I will be alert to indications that the client is no longer benefiting from our coaching relationship.


I will encourage the client or sponsor to make a change if I believe the client or sponsor would be better served by another coach or by another resource.

I will suggest my client seek the services of other professionals when deemed necessary or appropriate.


Section 4: Confidentiality/Privacy


As a coach:

I will maintain the strictest levels of confidentiality with all client and sponsor information. I will have a clear agreement or contract before releasing information to another person unless required by law.

  • I will have a clear agreement upon how coaching information will be exchanged among coach, client, and sponsor.
  • When acting as a trainer of student coaches, I will clarify confidentiality policies with the students.
  • Define the coaching relationship, the “heart of coaching”


Definition: Ensure a safe space and supportive relationship for personal growth, discovery, and transformation. Effect: The client is open to sharing and receiving; the client perceives the coach as a personal advocate; the client sees transformation and growth as manageable, and the client has realistic expectations of results and responsibilities of coaching.


Key Elements: Mutual respect and acceptance; confidence and reassurance; and the client feels safe to share fears without judgment from the coach.”—International Association of Coaching, 2014


Identify additional tools for developing the coaching relationship Connect the building of strong relationships to self-determination theory


Relationship: The Heart of Coaching and Growth

Coaching and Growth

A trusting, authentic, and the connected bond between coach and client is the first goal of any coaching relationship. The following summarizes the perspectives of a variety of expert coaches and coaching organizations who place a high value on the coach-client relationship:


Coaching Mastery: Establishing and maintaining a relationship of trust.


Coaching Competency: Co-creating the Relationship How: Establishing trust and intimacy with the client— ability to create a safe, supportive environment that produces ongoing mutual respect and trust.

  • Shows genuine concern for the client’s welfare and future
  • Continuously demonstrates personal integrity, honesty, and sincerity
  • Establishes clear agreements and keeps promises
  • Demonstrates respect for the client’s perceptions, learning style, personal being


Provides ongoing support for and champions new behaviors and actions, including those involving risk-taking and fear of failure


“Coaching is that part of a relationship in which a person is primarily dedicated to serving the long-term development, competence, self-generation, and aliveness in the other.”—Doug Silsbee, Presence-Based Coaching, 2008


“Coaching is the art of creating an environment through conversation and a way of being that facilitates the process by which a person can move toward desired goals in a fulfilling manner.”Tim Gallwey, The Inner Game of Work


“Coaching is a process that fosters self-awareness and that results in the motivation to change as well as the guidance needed if the change is to take place in ways that meet organizational performance needs.”David Dotlich and Peter Cairo, Action Coaching


“Coaching is essentially a growth and results-oriented conversation—a dialog between a coach and a coachee. Coaching helps individuals access what they can discover given a deeply reflective and collaborative mindset. Clients may never have asked themselves the coach’s questions, and they have a greater ability to discover answers than they often appreciate.


A coach assist supports and encourages individuals to discover their answers. Coaching is about fostering learning—yet a coach is not a teacher and does not always know how to do things better than the client. A coach can notice and observe patterns, set a stage for new actions, and then work with a client to put these new, more successful actions into place.


Through various coaching techniques such as listening, reflecting, asking questions, and providing information, clients become more self-reflective, self-correcting, and self-generating.


Coaching starts by asking the right questions—a coach engages in a collaborative alliance with the individual to establish and clarify purpose and goals and to develop a plan of action to achieve these goals.”—Perry Zeus and Suzanne Skiffington, The Complete Guide to Coaching at Work


Despite nuances of perspective and emphasis, these definitions of coaching share a common denominator: relationship.


Human beings are fundamentally and pervasively motivated by a need to belong, by a strong desire to form and maintain enduring personal attachments; they seek frequent positive interaction within the context of long-term, caring relationships.


Coaching is one such growth-fostering relationship that enables clients to reach their goals and get closer to their visions.


It has long been thought that the relationship between a helper (therapist or coach) and a client is the fundamental ingredient in positive outcomes.


This was confirmed in a meta-analysis completed by Norcross and Lambert, which found that the therapy relationship makes substantial and consistent contributions to patient success in all types of psychotherapy studied (e.g., psychodynamic, humanistic, cognitive, behavioral, systemic) and accounts for why clients improve (or fail to improve) as much as the particular treatment method.


Based on coaching research, De Haan reports that the quality of the coach-client relationship (also called “working alliance”) is the best predictor of client success.


It’s not that the client who experienced positive outcomes described the relationship as positive, but that a relationship deemed positive at the beginning of the engagement leads to subsequent positive outcomes.


The second most important factor reported was a set of personal characteristics for the coach—being empathetic, inspiring confidence, appearing competent, his or her own positive mental health, and the ability of the coach to operate from the client’s value system.


The core coaching skills described in this blog are also consistent with International Coach Federation’s core coaching competencies and the International Association of Coaching’s list of coaching masteries (International Association of Coaching | Expanding the Path to Coaching Mastery) and are widely taught by coach education and training schools.


These skills are not new discoveries by coaches; rather, they are foundational relational skills of counseling and clinical psychologists and are core skills of the motivational interviewing approach used both in therapy and in coaching. Most importantly, a respectful, collaborative, client-centered coaching relationship also supports self-determination.


“Many models of intervention and change have suggested that the practitioner-patient relationship is an important medium and vehicle of change. In health-care, this is especially so, as vulnerable individuals, often lacking in technical expertise, look for the inputs and guidance of professionals.


In this process, a sense of being respected, understood, and cared for is essential to forming the experiences of connection and trust that allow for internalization to occur.”


Relatedness, one of the key components in the development of self-determination, is nurtured when one is in a relationship; it conveys respect, and the individual feels valued and experiences warmth and empathy from the coach.


Establishing Trust and Rapport

Trust and Rapport

The coaching relationship requires the establishment of strong trust and rapport in order to generate a productive and fulfilling change process. When trust and rapport are absent, so is a growth-fostering environment.


Megan Tschannen-Moran defines trust as the “willingness to be vulnerable to another based on the confidence that the other is benevolent, honest, open, reliable, and competent.”


Understanding the importance of these five qualities, masterful coaches pay constant attention to using them in every conversation. Additional dimensions of relationship building are expanded in the following.


Hold Unconditional Positive Regard

Positive Regard

According to Steve Rogers, unconditional positive regard is defined as “being completely accepting toward another person, without reservations.” Holding such regard for clients is essential for establishing rapport and trust. The coaching alliance will be weak and unsuccessful if clients do not believe that their coaches are on their side, accepting them unconditionally.


Judgment, criticism, and disappointment—both spoken and unspoken—do not motivate or support behavior change. It is not appropriate for the coach to point out clients’ shortcomings and teach them better ways; rather, a coach is called to champion clients’ strengths and invite them to figure out better ways.


When a coach believes in his or her clients and holds positive regard for them—regardless of what they do or do not accomplish—the relationship can bolster both self-efficacy and self-esteem. Unfailing positive regard is the key to establishing rapport and trust, and it is the foundation for masterful coaching.


Show Empathy

Show Empathy

Traditionally, empathy is defined as “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions: the ability to share someone else’s feelings.”


The difficulty with this view of empathy in the coaching relationship is that it can distract from the focus on the client’s agenda and shift focus to the experience (feelings, perspectives, opinions) of the coach.


This can lead to more undesirable attitudes such as sympathy (identifying with the client’s experience on an emotional level and experiencing the same emotions or emotional contagion) and pity (a strong feeling of sadness or sympathy for someone or something that causes sadness or disappointment).


In the context of coaching, empathy is more accurately defined as a respectful understanding of another person’s experience, including his or her feelings, needs, and desires.


From this perspective, empathy is quite different from sympathy. Someone who is sympathetic identifies with another’s experience, whereas an empathetic person seeks to understand and appreciate that experience.


And empathy acknowledges the client’s right to feel and experience the situation however he or she chooses without needing pity, sadness, or disappointment from the coach. Coaching is made possible by the empathic engagement that builds relationships and facilitates growth.


Empathy helps build trust and rapport. When clients are struggling, it's especially important to connect with their feelings, needs, and desires in a positive, supportive, and understanding way.


When clients feel judged, their self-efficacy and readiness to change may be undermined. When clients feel a lack of compassion, they may become resistant to coaching resources.


Be a Humble Role Model

 Role Model

To develop trust and rapport with clients, coaches serve as humble role models for optimal health and wellness, “walking the talk” without being boastful, arrogant, or rude. Humility is present when a coach is continually working on his or her own fulfillment, balance, health, fitness, and well-being, knowing there is still much to learn.


The challenge is to be a role model without placing oneself on a pedestal or talking too much about one’s own successes. The key is to never dominate the conversation with one's own experiences in an eagerness to help and to always remain humble.


At the start of a coaching partnership, coaches typically deliver a brief yet inspirational introduction that captures our passion for health, fitness, wellness, and coaching.


A succinct summary of a coach’s background and how he or she works with clients should be included. “What more do you want to know about me?” is a great way to end the summary and invite questions that build rapport.


People come to coaching not only to learn but also for inspiration. Most people already know or at least have a sense of what they “should” be doing to improve health, fitness, and wellness. They just don’t know how to do it consistently. By drawing close to someone who does, like a coach, they hope to gain insight and inspiration for the journey.


Personal disclosure on the part of the coach is appropriate and valuable when it serves the best interests of the client and the coaching program, not because a coach wants to share and be understood (subtly inviting the client to play the helper role).


A coach must carefully discern if and when to share who he or she is; why he or she cares about health, fitness, and wellness; how he or she lives; his or her victories and struggles; and what he or she knows and doesn’t know about health and wellness.


Slow Down

It is important to continue to establish trust and rapport in each and every coaching session. Trust and rapport are not earned in a single moment. They are earned or lost during every moment of coaching sessions. If coaches are in a hurry to “get down to business,” trust and rapport will be compromised or lost.


Coaches need to set aside the time to have a relaxed—and relaxing—presence with clients. Even when appointments are scheduled back to back, it is important to slow down, be completely present, and savor every moment with each client.


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Under-Promise and Over-Deliver


Nothing undermines trust and rapport more than broken promises. That is why it is extremely important to monitor and select one’s words carefully, both during coaching sessions and in communications between sessions.


A professional coach delivers on every promise. Some promises, such as being ready and available when clients call for coaching, are unspoken parts of the coaching agreement. Other promises, such as sending clients information, are offered in the course of conversation.


Delivering on all promises is crucial to the coaching relationship. Be careful to not fall into the trap of over-promising and under-delivering. This may be common in our society, as people seek to make themselves look good, but it quickly leads to failed coaching relationships and poor outcomes. Delivering more than was promised creates an even stronger bond.


Going beyond the expected minimum is a great way to build rapport and trust. For example, coaches may contact clients by e-mail between coaching sessions to congratulate them or to remind them of something important. Offering the opportunity for an occasional extra coaching session or check-in at no extra charge is a real “wow!” and a great relationship builder.


When clients e-mail or contact a coach, it is best practice to respond within 24 hours business hours, if only to acknowledge the contact and to promise a date and time for a more thoughtful response.


The Client Finds the Answers, as Far as Is Possible


The more that clients, in creative collaboration with their coaches, discover new insights, perspectives, strengths, goals, and plans, and the more they design their own strategies for growth and change, the more autonomous and competent they become.


When clients need to gain knowledge or learn new skills to move forward, it’s important to preserve client autonomy when helping them gain knowledge and skills. If coaches have relevant knowledge and expertise, they ask permission to offer their expertise and teaching, while leaving clients in control of their decision and choices.


If coaches do not have relevant expertise and knowledge, coaches can help clients find and pursue appropriate knowledge and expertise from other sources. Coaching is about fostering growth, not forcing it.


It can be especially difficult to encourage clients to find their own answers when the coach has expertise in particular areas (e.g., diabetes, weight loss). Clients may ask for advice in managing medical conditions, making medical decisions, or learning new skills (e.g., strength training or meditation).


The more expertise one has, the easier it is to slip into the role of expert or advisor and to insist on what clients must work on or do. Given that telling clients what to do can damage trust, create resistance, and hold back self-determination, imagine that the client is sitting in the driver’s seat, and the coach is offering expert information to consider from the passenger seat, rather than grabbing the steering wheel and deciding what a client should do or where a client should go next.


There is a growing and hopeful shift in the healthcare industry to become more client-centered (patient-centered) and allow for increased client determination and self-discovery.


In a systematic review on health and wellness coaching, 61% of coaching processes could be described as a patient-centered, 45% allow clients to determine their own goals, and 42% encourage self-discovery.


The healthcare field still has a long way to shift away from top-down and authoritative directing, prescribing, and educating in order to foster autonomy, competence, and self-determination.


When it is given, information should be offered in response to a request or offered as a choice, and it should almost always be framed as a possibility rather than as a prescription. Allowing the client to make the choice supports autonomy and is mutually constructive for coaches and clients alike.


Something is wrong in the relationship when coaches are working harder or talking more than their clients in coaching sessions, whether to create goals, figure out strategies, or develop the case for change.


Coaching Case

Coaching Case

Coach Steve notices that his client, Lynda Well, seems frantic at the beginning of their coaching session. When he mentions this, she acknowledges that it has been a hectic day and she is feeling stressed.


Steve has taught many stress management courses in workplace wellness programs and could easily make suggestions about stress reduction techniques that Lynda could use.


Instead, Steve uses the coach approach and asks Lynda what she would like to do in this situation and what would be most helpful as his support. Lynda, still frenzied, responds saying she’s not really certain; stress just seems to be a way of life.


Next, balancing the expert approach with the coach approach, Steve asks Lynda whether she would like to discuss some quick techniques to tame her frenzy right now. Lynda agrees.


Steve remembers the importance of allowing a client to feel autonomous and says the following: “One thing that has been helpful to my clients in the past is to pause for 60 seconds to do some deep breathing.


Another client really enjoyed taking a moment to explore what she was grateful for. And another got a real boost from doing a simple chair yoga exercise. Which of these appeals to you? Did any give you an idea for something you could do right now that would work for you?”


Confidentiality Is Crucial


The coaching relationship is built on a foundation of confidentiality. Clients need to know that the information they share with their coaches will not be shared with others.


A coach should make this clear both orally and in writing. Some clients may initially be intimidated or uncomfortable about personal disclosure. It is up to the coach to create a safe place by establishing a policy of confidentiality from the beginning.


There may be instances when a client wants to share something personal but does not want it to be recorded in your paper, electronic, or web client files. A client may say something like, “I want to tell you something, but I don’t want it to be written down or be part of my record.” It is important to exclude such confidences from records or coaching notes but only if it does not create liability.


Be Authentic

Authenticity is not only the best policy, but it is also the only policy when it comes to coaching. Clients and coaches alike should agree to “share what is there” with courage, because honest communication leads to learning and growth. However, coaches should never be or sound critical or judgmental.


Coaches are called to share thoughts, feelings, and intuitions with compassion, empathy, and care. A trusting and meaningful coaching relationship is built through authentic inquiries and reflections.




Mindfulness is the nonjudgmental awareness of what is happening in the present moment. The topic of mindfulness is now supported by a large body of knowledge and practice; it is considered a health-promoting intervention that enhances the coaching process.


In order to increase client awareness of the critical variables which influence their success, coaches ask questions, give feedback, and co-create assignments that increase client mindfulness.


More often than not, clients are not fully aware of and awake to where they are and what they are doing. That’s because people often walk around on automatic pilot.


When they are eating, they may simultaneously be reading, working, or worrying about past or future events instead of tasting fully each bite of food. When they are working out, they may be thinking about all they have to do that day instead of being in tune with their bodies and what they are doing.


Mindfulness is a way to break free from being on autopilot. By paying attention to our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, relationships, and environments without judgment or condemnation, we wake up to the experience of what’s going on around us and within us while it’s actually happening. This frees us to make informed decisions about new directions.


Everyone has the ability to be mindful. For example, eating provides a wonderful opportunity to become mindful.

Instead of rushing through meals or snacks, doing two things at once with hardly a thought as to what we are eating, where the food comes from, or how it will impact our bodies, minds, and spirits, we can slow down and pay attention in ways that increase enjoyment, change our relationship to food, and make us more conscious of our consumption.


Such mindfulness can lead not only to improved eating habits but also to fuller experiences in other areas of life. Increased mindfulness in one area leads to increased mindfulness in all areas.


One strategy for promoting mindfulness is to ensure that a coach’s working space has minimal distractions, (e.g., foot traffic, noise, phone, and computer alerts) that could interfere with one’s ability to remain present and focused.


Relaxation and reminder techniques can assist you in leaving your thoughts and concerns “at the door” in order to focus entirely on the client. “Set your intention to pay attention” is a great refrain to use prior to each coaching session.


To give clients an experience of mindfulness during coaching sessions, coaches may want to include mindfulness exercises. For example, coaches may want to start their coaching conversations with a minute of silence and breath work. They may also choose to guide clients to discover an object with a beginner’s mind.


For example, the coach can guide clients to experience a raisin very slowly by examining its surface, feeling its texture, smelling it, etc. Clients can then be told to put it in their mouths and get a sense of it on their tongues.


Then and only then should they take the first bite, eating it as slowly as possible, noticing each sensation as it comes. This exercise allows clients to awaken from their automatic reactions to food which may not support healthy eating.


By increasing mindfulness during coaching sessions, clients learn to increase mindfulness in their daily experiences. They naturally grow to pay more attention not only to the food but also to the many dynamics of health, wellness, and life. Jon Kabat-Zinn writes:


“When, through the practice of mindfulness, we learn to listen to the body through all its sense doors, as well as to attend to the flow of our thoughts and feelings, we are beginning the process of re-establishing and strengthening connectedness within our own inner landscape.


That attention nurtures a familiarity and an intimacy with our lives unfolding at the level of what we call body and what we call a mind that depends and strengthens well-being and a sense of ease in our relationship to whatever is unfolding in our lives from moment to moment. We thus move from disease, including outright disease, to greater ease and harmony and, as we shall see, greater health.”


Because it is important to be mindful in the everyday moments of our lives, coaches may want to offer advice to clients on how they can elevate mindfulness between coaching sessions. For example, clients can ask themselves the following questions before, during, and after eating:

  • Where am I?
  • What is my body position?
  • What is going on around me?
  • Am I really hungry?
  • What does the food look, smell, feel, and taste like?
  • What am I thinking about?
  • What am I feeling?
  • What do I really want to eat?
  • How can I enhance my experience of eating?


Coaches cannot facilitate the development of mindfulness in their clients unless they become mindful. It is only in the practice of mindfulness that we can come to understand the process and its effect on health, fitness, and wellness.


By practicing mindfulness in our everyday lives and showing up mindfully with clients, coaches enable clients to learn, grow, and develop beyond what they might otherwise have imagined possible.


Mindfulness is also a critical ingredient for coaches in managing their emotions during coaching sessions. The more a coach knows about what is going on with themselves, the less they will allow their own events, feelings, opinions, and worries to get in the way of being present in the moment.


When clients trigger an emotional response, a coach needs to notice those feelings and then gently set them aside, staying focused on the client. Examining those feelings later outside the coaching session—alone or with a mentor coach—is important to a coach's development.

Here are some tips for activating mindfulness before coaching sessions:

  • Take three deep breaths.
  • Close eyes for five seconds.
  • Become aware of your breathing.
  • Say to yourself:
  • I am grateful for this opportunity to connect and make a difference.
  • Core Coaching Skills
  • I have the opportunity to make a pivotal contribution.
  • I am open to and curious about what will unfold.


Three Core Coaching Skills

Although different coaching models and platforms have their own inventory, language, and description of what’s in the coaching repertoire, three coaching skills are consistently found across platforms, and these form the basis for developing the coaching relationship. They are introduced here and are explored again from different angles in later blogs.


Open-ended Inquiry

Open-ended Inquiry

To enable clients to open up and explore their stories, it’s important to ask open-ended questions. Open-ended questions elicit long, narrative answers. Closed-ended questions elicit short, “sound-bite” answers.


Coaching Case

Closed-Ended Questions

Coach Steve is checking in with Lynda Well to see how she did with her goals from last week. “Did you eat salad for lunch last week?” he asks.

“Yes,” she replies.

“OK, great!” says Steve, “Did you enjoy it?”

“Yes,” she replies again.

“Good. Will you do it again next week?” he asks.

“Probably not,” she says.

Closed-ended questions can lead to a dead-end, lifeless conversation, creating more work for the coach and fewer insights for the client.


 “What” and “how” are often the best ways to begin open-ended questions because they encourage storytelling. Because stories are the stuff that moves people to change, “what” and “how” are the starting points for great coaching questions. “Why” questions are often not as useful, as they tend to provoke analysis rather than storytelling.


They may also evoke resistance because they can suggest judgment. For example, asking “Why did you eat the whole cake?” may cause a client to respond defensively.


“Why” questions, however, can be powerful when deployed to elicit autonomous motivation. You can connect clients to their deepest motivators by asking, “Why do you treasure your vision and goals, and why do they matter deeply?”


Although coaches use more open than closed questions, there is a place for closed questions. For example, when coaches ask clients whether they want to commit, whether it is to a vision, strategy, or goal—“Are you ready to move forward?”


Do not rush clients through the telling of their stories sparked by open-ended inquiry. By taking the time to evoke and listen to a client’s stories, a coach reflects a genuine interest in a client’s experience and aspirations. It’s never helpful to grill a client with a series of questions, especially one right after another.


Instead of asking clients to cut to the chase, invite clients to elaborate in order to tease out the nuances, meanings, and treasures in their stories. Displaying curiosity is a wonderful way to help a client open up. It’s also not helpful to make assumptions or launch too quickly into advice giving.


Take the time to listen to what’s being said, to what’s not being said, and to what clients may want to say, gently guiding them to discover their own answers. Great inquiries elicit what is on the client’s mind rather than what is on the coach’s mind.


When clients avoid or fail to respond to a question, or if you think they aren’t being totally authentic in their answer, drop it and come back to it at another time. If this happens consistently regarding the same issue, you may want to share this perception with your client without judgment. Accept the client’s decision about what to share and what to keep private.


Examples of Open-Ended Inquiry

  • What would you like your wellness to look like in three months, one year, two years, five years, etc.?
  • What are the top three values in your life?
  • What are the top three goals in your life?
  • What part of your life is most important to you?
  • What would you like less of in your life?
  • What would you like more of in your life?
  • What excites you?
  • What would you like to accomplish in the next three months?
  • What motivators are important enough to you to enable you to overcome your obstacles to meet your goals?
  • What would your life be like if you achieve these goals?
  • What would your life be like if you do not achieve these goals?
  • What is the best case scenario?
  • What is the worst case scenario?
  • What will it take for you to make changes?
  • What have you tried and succeeded to accomplish in your life that is similar to this goal?
  • What are some new possibilities that you haven’t considered before?
  • What do you think is the best possible outcome of our coaching program?
  • What do you think is the likely outcome of our coaching program?
  • What do you think is the worst possible outcome of our coaching program?
  • What would you like the outcome of our coaching program to be?
  • What is happening when you feel _______?
  • What are the triggers that are stimulating you to feel _______?
  • What would it take to deal with your feelings of ______?
  • What is holding you back or standing in your way? How is it holding you back?
  • What are you afraid of?
  • What is at risk for you?
  • What is more important to you than meeting this goal?
  • What would make this the right time for you to do this?
  • What is on your plate right now that may be getting in the way, this week, this next month, in the next three months, etc.?
  • What would you like to do?
  • What are you able to do to overcome ____
  • or meet your goal?
  • What are you willing to do to overcome ____
  • or meet your goal?
  • What do you want to do to overcome _____
  • or meet your goal?
  • What can I do to best help you today (or in our coaching program)?
  • What might I do better to help you today (or in our coaching program)?
  • What would your life be like if you do not achieve this goal?
  • What would your life be like if you do achieve this goal?
  • What is the best case scenario if you achieve this goal?
  • What is the worst case scenario if you don’t achieve this goal?
  • What might be wrong about this goal?
  • What might be right about this goal?
  • What will it take for you to reach this goal?
  • What would it take for you to be ready to change?
  • What motivator is important enough to you to help you reach this goal?
  • What can you/we learn from this?
  • What is the solution here?
  • In the next week, what could you think about or do that would move you forward?
  • What have you tried and succeeded to accomplish in your life that is similar to this goal?
  • What are some new possibilities that you haven’t considered before?


Perceptive Reflections

Perceptive Reflections

Asking too many questions of any sort in a row can lead to a client feeling interrogated. Perceptive reflections are another form of listening. They enable clients to hear what they are saying from the vantage point of another person. This process is often


Coaching Case Open-ended Inquiry

Coach Steve is checking in with Lynda Well to see what she learned from her goals over the last week. “Tell me about what happened with your goal of eating lunch salads last week. What went well?” he inquires.


“I had a salad for lunch every day last week. I experimented with putting new sources of protein on it every day and even tried not having any salad dressing,” she replies.


“Sounds as though the experimenting went well,” says Steve. “What did you enjoy about that?”

“I was really surprised that with the right combination of things, the salad was just as fulfilling as the hamburger or pizza I would usually get,” she answered.


“Good. What will you do with this learning next week?” he asks.

“I would like to have a salad for lunch Monday through Thursday next week. But Friday is my coworker’s birthday and I know that we’ll have pizza that day to celebrate.


Still, I think I’ll experiment with veggies instead of pepperoni on the pizza,” she says. more provocative and transformational than inquiry because it causes clients to connect more deeply to their emotions and the truth of the matter.


When coaches ask questions, clients objectively think about and formulate an answer before responding. The “CEO” (or analytical) region of the brain (mostly the left prefrontal cortex) is activated as people are drawn into their analytical minds.


When coaches perceptively paraphrase and reflect what they think clients are saying, clients react with a deeper, more emotional response generated from the limbic region of the brain where emotions, rewards, and pleasure are regulated. The combination of questions and reflections may integrate the use of higher and lower brain regions.


The purpose of perceptive reflections is to elicit ideas and conversation in the client which support change. Instead of the coach making the case for change, the client is encouraged to pick up the ball and run with it. When the case for change comes from the client rather than the coach, rapid progress can be made in the direction of desired outcomes.


It's not important to focus on making reflections that are “right” or “perfect.” If the reflection is accurate, clients agree. If it is off target, clients disagree. Either way, the reflection moves clients forward and engages them in the search for more self-awareness, higher well-being, and the “best me.”


The simplest reflection is to restate what a client says in more or less his or her own words. Like a mirror, such simple reflections enable clients to see themselves more clearly and make adjustments if they so desire. Other, more complex reflections are intentionally designed to be more evocative.


They communicate not only that the coach is actively listening but also that the coach is noticing things the client may be overlooking. They can serve to make the prospect of change sound bigger, brighter, or more inviting. They enable clients to stop and consider whether they want to spend more time on those issues.


Examples of Simple Perceptive Reflections

Lynda Well: “I am worried about setting a running goal because I haven’t run since high school.“

Coach Steve: “You are concerned about running because it has been a long time since you last ran.“

Lynda Well: “I’m looking forward to setting a running goal because I haven’t run since high school but I used to enjoy it a lot.“

Coach Steve: “You remember enjoying running in high school, and look forward to feeling that way again.“

Lynda Well: “I’m so glad I set that running goal. I haven’t felt this good since high school.“

Coach Steve: “You are happy that you set a goal because running makes you feel good.“


In the blog, “Harnessing Motivation to Build Self-Efficacy,” we describe additional forms of perceptive reflections: empathy, amplified, double-sided, and shifted-focus.


Additional Relationship-Building Tools

Along with mindful listening, open-ended inquiries, and perceptive reflections are high-impact coaching tools, here are several more tools for enhancing client progress.


Positive Reframing

Positive Reframing

Positive reframing means framing a client’s experiences in positive terms. Once the conversation takes a positive turn, it is easier to engage in brain-storming, action planning, and forward movement. It is a natural human tendency to look at, focus on, and talk about problems.


Indeed, many people who come to coaching would say they want help with a problem. “I’m overweight,” “I’m out of shape,” and “I’m stressed out” are three of the most common complaints in the health and wellness arena.


From week to week, many clients also want to start the coaching conversation with a problem as the issue of the day. For example, “I blew my diet,” “I didn’t exercise like I said I would,” and “I took no time for myself this week.” Masterful coaches avoid the temptation to respond to such complaints with a root-cause problem analysis, which can be demoralizing, overwhelming, and counterproductive.


Instead of inspiring and empowering change, problem analysis can weigh people down with more reasons not to change. Without dismissing people’s problems, masterful coaches know how to reframe the conversation in positive terms.


At times, clients need to be reminded that setbacks are an essential part of the change process. When learning to walk, infants fall many times. These are not failures, but essential lessons that help them learn how to walk. By encouraging clients to positively reframe, a coach can enable them not only to get back on track but also to avoid


Coaching Case

As she shares her experience in working on her goals last week, Lynda Well is frustrated and disappointed.

“I was certain that I would be able to eat salad for lunch most days last week. I’d had such a good experience with it last week, and this week I blew it! I’m so mad at myself!”


“I hear that you are disappointed and frustrated because you really wanted to feel successful with this goal,” Steve responds. “Tell me about the good choices you did make last week.”


“Well, I did choose to have vegetables on the pizza we had during the celebration on Friday,” she reflects.


“And what good came from that?” Steve asks curiously.


“You know, I really enjoyed the banana peppers; I didn’t even miss the pepperoni,” she recalls with a smile. becoming attached to feelings of failure, even if they think they failed.




One thing is certain—if the coach is talking, the coach is not listening. Given the importance of listening in coaching, it’s vital that coaches become comfortable with silence. When clients are speaking, do not interrupt them and/or think about what to say next. After asking a question, do not talk again before the client answers.


Be prepared for the surprises of silence! It is a wonderful gift and a core tool in coaching. In masterful coaching sessions, clients talk more than twice as much as coaches. Nicola Stevens encourages coaches to remember the acronym, “WAIT—Why am I talking?”


Silence evokes deeper exploration by sending the empowering message without words, “I believe that you can figure this out by going deeper.” Often, silence will lead to new insights and directional shifts that clients and coaches may have never anticipated. Silence supports the client in providing a sense of autonomy and sends the message the coach is confident in the client’s competence.


Humor and Playfulness

Although coaching is a serious business with serious goals in which people are seriously invested, this does not mean the coaching conversation itself needs to have a serious tone. In fact, a consistently serious tone may cause clients to dread their coaching sessions and consequently fail to connect and progress.


The more often a coach can make clients laugh and see the lighter side of their challenges and opportunities, the more they will open themselves up to change. A playful approach can make clients more open to experimentation and to trial and correction. Be careful not to joke about something that may make a client feel vulnerable.


Use empathy to distinguish between those areas that are ripe for humor and those that may make your client feel worse if treated too lightly. Be sure clients never think you’re laughing at them. It’s fair game, though, to laugh at yourself!




At all times coaches champion their clients’ ability to realize their goals, especially when they lack self-efficacy. When the coach has an upbeat and energetic attitude, combined with a positive outlook, clients are more able to find the courage for change.


Coaching Case

Coach Steve champions Lynda Well:

At the beginning of the coaching session: “I’ve looked forward to speaking with you today Lynda. You are so engaged in our work together, and I’m always eager to see what insights you have.”


During the coaching session: “How exciting to hear that you were willing to continue with your vegetable experiment. You are tenacious!”


At the close of the coaching session: “Today your strengths of curiosity and compassion for yourself were definitely present.”


Continually focus on and champion the positive changes, without dwelling too long on the negatives. Coaching is about possibilities, action, and learning, not blame and shame.


Solicit Input and Suggestions


It is important to ask clients to share input and make suggestions on how the coaching process can be made more productive and enjoyable.


Soliciting input builds the coaching relationship by making it clear to a client that the coach is totally devoted to the client’s success. Frequently ask, “What was most valuable about today’s session?” and “How could our sessions work better for you?”


Listen for what is unspoken but conveyed in a client’s tone and hesitations. Ask for clarification if it seems there might be an issue or a shift in energy. Keep private notes and follow-up on the points raised as soon as possible.


Most new coaches experience clients who go missing in action, not showing up for coaching sessions or disappearing without explanation. By asking clients at the outset of the coaching program to make you the first to know if anything isn’t working; then there is an opening to talk about their concerns rather than act them out by not showing up.


Upon the receipt of criticism, listen for and respond to needs that are going unmet for the client. Thank clients for their input and use it to get better as a coach. Consult a mentor or engage in coaching supervision to develop strategies to improve. Never jump to conclusions; always ask for the client’s perceptions, interpretations, and points of view.