When I started coaching 15 years ago, it was all so simple!

Coaching was about helping people move from where they were to where they wanted to be by identifying their main sticking points and planning an active journey to overcome them.

This was best exemplified by the GROW model, with its logical and sensible steps of identifying the goal, reality, options and will. And, to this day, many still teach this model as the basis for all coaching.

Yet the reality in the coaching world itself is very different, in contrast to the training world, where simple, easily taught models predominate.

Coaching in the real world is about complexity, emotions, confusion, doubt and challenge. It’s about what goes on under the surface, far more than what happens above it.

As I interact with coaches from around the world, I notice an emerging pattern of a struggle to figure out, in the midst of this more complex reality: what coaching is, and how we describe it.

And this is where it gets curious!

Once upon a time, coaching was defined by what it wasn’t. It wasn’t counselling. It wasn’t therapy. It wasn’t mentoring. It wasn’t consulting. What was it? “Hard to say… but we know what it’s not!”

What I see emerging is a reversal of this. There is an attempt to define coaching as something that isn’t different! “It’s therapy for non-clinical issues”; “it’s consulting on the person, not the problem”; “mentoring and coaching are just two terms for the same activity”; “it’s a listening process like counselling, but with a more active focus”.

This all says to me that as coaching matures it is starting to suffer an identity crisis! But then, don’t all adolescents? Coaching wants to find its own identity but, at the same time, it also wants to be accepted, a bona fide part of the community of change agents that is explainable in relation to what already exists.

I am always fascinated by how we do things, rather than what we do. And what I see here is a fear of uncertainty. We felt safe by keeping coaching simple, and we could explain it by reduction (it’s not this, it’s not that). But now we realise that the demarcation between it and other skills is not at all clear, and we’re getting jittery.

It’s time to hold our nerve and know that coaching is different. If that means we have to enter a period of unknowing, where coaching changes and morphs, then so be it. But coaching does have an identity. It has a uniqueness that we need to value. And we need to take care that we don’t let it slip through our fingers.