PSA:”Coaching”​, and its many (mis)interpretations

I recently had a very disturbing experience that prompted me to write this article. For many of my connections, this will appear as though I’m stating the obvious, and yet this is for the people who might still benefit from the following clarification.

The word ‘coaching’ has become one of the most ambiguous terms in the collective business vocabulary. Everyone has their own definition/interpretation of what it means and how it’s used. For the purpose of this article, I’m omitting the sports coaching point of reference.

My observation has been that the vast majority of people within organizations and/or in private practice interpret ‘coaching’ as some version of:

  • Performance feedback – pointing out areas for growth and development
  • Mentoring – sharing experience(s) and personal lessons-learned to inspire
  • Consulting – suggesting a new or different way of creating or doing something
  • Training – teaching new tools, skills, and processes
  • Counseling – seeking to address mental health challenges

For those of us who have invested in pursuing a career in the professional coaching industry by becoming formally trained, certified, and credentialed by the International Coaching Federation (ICF) and other global governing bodies, our definition is quite different.

In its purest form, professional coaching is a co-created partnership in which the client is their own expert, and the coach is merely a facilitator of heightened self-reflection and confidence. Having said that, many trained coaches go on to offer a blend of coaching and consulting/mentoring/training. The critical difference is that they are trained to know when to use which approach for the highest good of the client.

It’s like someone pursuing a career in music. They choose what instrument(s) they wish to master, start out learning the basic notes, how to read music, how to play without reading music, and eventually it becomes so natural that they’re able to freestyle songs. Learning to coach professionally requires a similar dedication to consistent practice. Imagine what it sounds like to hear a novice musician learning to play…it can be rough at times.

Now, back to the disturbing experience, I had recently…

I was participating in a group discussion focused on marketing and sales techniques for business development when someone said, “I’m concerned that I’m lacking confidence in marketing myself as a coach because I’m not sure I know what I’m doing unless I have formal training.” Another person chimed in that, “No, you don’t need a piece of paper to prove that you’re a coach. You simply have a marketing and sales issue.” To me, this is synonymous with someone calling themselves a ‘musician’, booking shows at various venues, selling tickets, only to get on stage with no skill or ability to perform.

A few caveats…

I recognize that not every formally trained coach is good at what they do, especially if they don’t invest in continuing education (as with any field). I have also met some awesome coaches that have no formal training, but who have done an extensive amount of personal development work in their life, and have educated themselves adequately enough to handle strong emotions with grace and ethics.

The danger arises when you have untrained people selling coaching services who haven’t done the inner work necessary on themselves, therefore bringing their “stuff” into the coaching space.

Stuff consists of:

  • Needing to be the expert, making it about themselves
  • Not knowing how to manage their own emotional/baggage triggers, or their client’s
  • Projecting their own stories onto a client
  • Attempting to rescue instead of support
  • Unable to recognize when a person requires therapy
  • Giving feedback in a way that’s more harmful than good
  • Empty ‘coaching’ as a sales technique to sell marketing
  • and so much more…

If you or anyone you know has any questions about pursuing formal professional coach-specific training, reach out to or call (919) 322-8433.


Some useful information about the International Coaching Federation:

In 2020, the International Coaching Federation (ICF) celebrates 25 years as the global organization for coaches and coaching. ICF is dedicated to advancing the coaching profession by setting high ethical standards, providing independent certification, and building a worldwide network of credentialed coaches across a variety of coaching disciplines. ICF defines coaching as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.

 As of May 2023, there are currently 48,786* coaches in 143 countries and territories who hold one of three ICF Credentials.

• 25,828 Associate Certified Coaches (ACC) 56%

• 20,882 Professional Certified Coaches (PCC) 40%

• 2,076 Master Certified Coaches (MCC) 4%

 *This number is subject to frequent change.

 ICF has 143 Chapters in more than 80 countries and territories.