Defining Coaching: Differing Perspectives and the Infinite Fluidity of Language

Author : Sam Chambers

4th February 2019

When it comes to defining words such as ‘coach’ or ‘coaching’, many of us are often caught in the trap of attempting to create a fixed meaning around a fluid concept. Whilst definitions are important, and at times we might have a desire to find certainty around a word’s meaning, ‘coaching’, to give but one example, has many varied meanings that differ based on individual perspective. As a result, what is more important is that we are clear on what we mean as a school when we talk about “coaching”. Let’s take a look at some ideas around this as we delve into the world of meaning-making…

I would wager that a majority reading this are familiar with the old proverb “curiosity killed the cat.” Fewer of you however, will be familiar with the early twentieth century extension that reads “but satisfaction brought it back”, an edit that takes the danger from its predecessor, and twists it on its head, rewarding our feline friend with satisfied resurrection for its curiosity.

Not all questions possess answers and not all problems have solutions. Ventures for quizzical satisfaction often turn up fruitless.

For many of us, there are untold questions to which we seek concrete answers and offer up theories. Is there other intelligent life in the galaxy? What is the meaning behind Stonehenge? What’s the difference between coaching and therapy? What is a coach?

And yet while I acknowledge that the lattermost is probably not a particularly pressing query for the majority; for those of you that are part of the coaching profession it is likely both familiar, and perplexing.

Take a moment to consider what is in a word. What is it that gives a word direction? Purpose? Something to drag itself out of bed for in the morning? It isn’t the way that we write or say it, nor the means by which we record it. It is the meaning that a word carries. The objects, or ‘things’ that it defines, labels, or points toward.

Now from one person to the next these meanings can, and very often will, vary. What one might call coaching, another might call teaching and vice versa. This comes down to different perspectives, individual and self-serving definitions and the free-flowing state of language.

For Animas founder Nick Bolton, a coach is fundamentally somebody who enables others to progress or improve in some area of their life or performance. Now the methodology by which you help them progress is prescribed by the school you come from, whether that be a humanistic school of actualisation like Animas, or a guidance school with a didactic approach. Neither of these are wrong, they are just different approaches to the same thing.

If you’re looking for more specificity than simply defining the word ‘coach’, you are able to chunk down and say “well what kind of coach?” As it happens, the coaching profession that we as a school call coaching, is the humanistic approach to coaching, which is actually just a sub-branch of this word ‘coach’. An approach which is about self-actualisation, you have the answers, you come to the best solutions, you’re the arbiter of what success means to you. Ultimately, that’s where Animas sits if you think about the family tree of the word ‘coach’.

There are many variations of coaching, of which as humanistic coaches we are but one. There’s skills coaching which is a coach that has a set of skills that they are passing on to somebody else. That could be tennis, it could be cookery, or speaking, all of these things could be skills based coaching. There’s remedial coaching, which might be ‘X has been sent to me because he’s underperforming and I’ve got to get him to perform at the level he needs to be at.’ A process that is going to involve goal-setting, laying down the law, so on and so forth. There’s sports coaching, which is different to skills coaching, as a sports coach is also about sport psychology and performance psychology etc. The list goes on. And it’s worthwhile recognising that there are these different branches of coaching, that vary significantly in their perspectives, approaches and definitions but they are still coaching nonetheless.

But hold on. What does it mean to define something? The simple, and obvious answer for most of us is to state the meaning of something, especially a word. However, if we go a step further and consider the etymology of the word, a slightly different meaning comes up. The verb ‘to define’ is a descendant of the Latin verb definire, meaning to “set bounds to” or “designate by limiting”.

So here’s the thing. As humanistic coaches, we find ourselves in a profession that endeavours to do the opposite of ‘setting bounds’ or ‘limiting’, and so to attempt to define the word ‘coach’ in such concrete fashion serves only to place certain limitations on it. Because coaching is a relatively new profession, a lot of people are trying to find certainty where it doesn’t exist. Trying to get linguistic rigidity when it’s not at all necessary.

Language is fluid. It isn’t rigid, or concrete. It moves, and twists and changes like the rivers, lakes and oceans that share its fluidity. Its definitions aren’t always set in stone. It comes down to perspective. As a coaching school it’s to do with perspective from our side. And at the same time it’s also to do with a desire for clarity from the other side, the receiving side.

The truth is it’s not our job to tell other people they cant use the word coach when they’re a tennis coach. We can’t take the word and say ‘excuse me, we now own that word, you have to call yourself a tennis teacher, sorry that’s the rules.” We wouldn’t dream of it because when we talk about coaching, we are solely talking about what coaching means to us as a humanistic coaching school. We have no ownership over a word that has numerous interpretations.

Let us turn to an experimental French Author for further elucidation. Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style (1947) begins with an intentionally pointless and flat short tale recounting a banal altercation between two gentlemen that he witnessed on a French ‘S’ bus. What follows this initial story is the same incident retold in ninety-nine different modes, including one which retells the story entirely in metaphor, and an account titled “Retrograde” which depicts the incident in reverse. Queneau supposedly revealed that he got the idea after hearing Bach’s “Art of Fugue” and decided that something similar centred around language might be achieved.

Besides being a very interesting, and playful literary concept, in this work, Queneau sufficiently proves one point. The infinite fluidity of language and its role in our perception of reality, demonstrating how writing and language draws our thoughts into specific channels, guiding how we construct narratives, and ultimately our thoughts on the world in which we find ourselves.

In a sense, we are ‘spoken’ by language nearly as much as we speak it. And so a mundane anecdote about a confrontation on a bus can be given as many linguistic hues as there are variations of human nature, all thanks to the free-flowing essence of language.

So what does all of this mean? What it means is that we haven’t trademarked the term ‘coaching’ and nobody can. It is about recognising that language is intrinsically fluid. Language isn’t trademarked, branding might be trademarked but language isn’t and it never will be. The critical thing is recognising that we live in a world where language is always fluid, but at the same time it’s about knowing for ourselves: What does Animas stand for? And what does the thing that Animas is part of, i.e. the humanistic coaching profession stand for?

It isn’t our job to try to pin down a definition of coaching. In doing so we fall into the trap of trying to rigidify the fluidity of language. It’s our job to explain what we mean by coaching. Our take on it. It’s about us finding our piece of land. Staking our little claim.

Language will forever be fluid. It constantly changes, and transforms as time passes. We cannot stop that and we should not want to. The fluidity of language is the reason that you can tell one story in one hundred different ways, or so vividly describe a beautiful setting, or moment that you’ve experienced. There is no reason to attempt to find certainty in such an uncertain state.

And so in a tumultuous sea of definition and perspectives, we need not attempt to pin down meanings or find concrete answers, even though we may feel a desire to, but embrace this evolution of language as not just part of coaching, but the wider world around us. The main thing is that coachees and coaches, and the people that explore this world of change making, together understand what we mean when we talk about coaching.


If you would like us to help tell your story or you would like to share your coaching niche, philosophy or agenda in the form of a blog, like this one – contact Sam to express your interest: sam.chambers@animascoaching.com

Categories: Coaching explained  

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