This is the first in a series of posts where I’ll bust some common myths about coaching. As a coaching psychologist, I regularly get to explain what coaching is when talking to new or prospective clients.
Having an open discussion about coaching can highlight misconceptions about the role of the coach, the coaching process and the underlying ethos of coaching. In doing so, I get to hear people’s questions about coaching, but also some of the myths that seem to persist.
So let’s turn to the first of these myths: “Coaching is just about goals”.
Where goals can be helpful.
Don’t get me wrong. Goals can be incredibly useful when it comes to personal and professional development.
Goals can be helpful in giving us a target to work towards – a measurable future state we want to attain. They can act like a magnet in the future, drawing us towards them. And of course, attainment of our goals can feel fantastic, boosting our self-esteem and self-efficacy.
When it comes to straightforward performance coaching in the workplace – managers who coach can use a framework like GROW to help an employee get clarity on where they want to get to,
Keeping our goals visible and front of mind can help us to focus our efforts on a daily basis, translating effort into steps we can take, one after another.
Consider contexts like a sales target, the acquisition of a new technical skill, or a discrete aspect of performance improvement. Each can be explored through goal-setting to good effect. But these examples don’t mean that all coaching can be boiled down to goal-setting. Nor does it mean that goals are the right tool for every situation.
The downside of a goal-focused approach
We’ve discussed the various reasons that goal-setting can fail on the podcast – these include inauthentic goals, overly demanding goals or simply failing to take any action. But even when goal-setting is done with skill, it’s not the only toolkit in the coach’s toolkit.
If you only look at all coaching conversations through the lens of goals, it’s easy to miss out on the other aspects of human psychology that play a role in our lived experience.
A focus on goals and goal-setting to exclusion of everything else means we don’t get to discuss someone’s rationale for change, their prior attempts at doing new things, or the role that their thoughts and emotions might be playing in their decisions.
If we’re not focusing on goals, then what are we doing?
A coaching programme might not need to involve goals at all, depending on the topic we’re working. When we bring Acceptance and Commitment Theory (ACT) to life in coaching, we might explore:
It’s just as important to understand the ‘why’ that comes before a goal. Helping a coachee to clarify what really matters to them in life can mean the difference between meaning and purpose and fruitlessly chasing a goal they’ve set due to social pressure. Consider the coachee who believes that “I should go for this promotion. Right?”
How we view ourselves and our personal attributes can play a huge role in our performance, our decisions and day to day behaviour. Exploring self-concept and identity can help flag overly rigid or outdated ‘stories’ about ourselves. It can also help us see where we’re over-simplifying our identity in unhelpful ways. Out fictional coachee might believe that “I need to go for this promotion, because I am my job.”
Responses to discomfort
Psychological discomfort can show up inside in countless ways, and our responses to it can mean the difference between living a meaningful life and a life marked by self-imposed limitations. ACT-infused coaching will frequently explore the discomfort that can stop us living the life we want. But more than this, how to overcome the discomfort in sustainable ways. Our coachee might hold themselves back, believing “I can’t go for this promotion as failure would be unbearable“.
Goals in context
So goals can either be a helpful tool, or a limiting and rigid framework that keeps coaching at a superficial, behavioural level. It all depends on the coaching context and whether goal-setting is viewed as a tool or whether it’s seen as coaching itself.
If you’re considering coaching this year, don’t worry if the topic you want to work on doesn’t neatly fit into a single goal. Working with a coaching psychologist can either help you clarify the destination you’re aiming for, or help you work on aspects of you that have very little to do with goals.
Next time, I’ll tackle another common coaching myth: “Coaching will make me happy.”