A wall of concrete with a circular hole to symbolize that coaching can help to overcome blockades

What is Coaching?


Coaching is a collaborative dyad between two equal people, the coachee ( ) (the person with a demand) and the coach ( )(the person with the knowledge and expertise to facilitate the coachee’s learning). Coaching facilitates personal behavioural change or personal development that is typically goal-directed, solution-focused and result-oriented, focusing on performance enhancement, skill development and success. Coaching is a self-directed process of learning and personal growth with the consequence for the coachee to act.

A Definition

A general and most often used definition of coaching is given by Whitmore (2009: 10): ‘Coaching is unlocking people’s potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.’


Socrates Statue -Statue in front of the blue sky to symbolize the Socratic dialogue

The literature suggests several roots and origins of coaching:

  • The ancient Greek philosophy and especially the philosopher Socrates and his ‘Socratic dialogue’. A conversation based on questions to enable the seeker to find answers themselves while challenging their assumptions and guideposts to facilitate changes in their own thinking.

  • In the 1850s the ‘coach’ was a tutor who helped the students to prepare for their examinations.

  • In 1866 there was an article in the London Review about the ‘coach and coachee’ and this citation is seen as the first use of the term ‘coachee’ and the first emphasis on ‘reflection’.

  • In 1937 the term coaching was used in a peer-reviewed journal – a study that investigated how older employees coached younger employees to increase productivity.

  • Starting in 1970 Timothy Gallwey coined the term ‘Coaching’ in the areas of Sports and starting in 2001 in the business context.

  • Starting in the 1990s several authors published books and the number of papers in peer reviewed journals started to increase.

The Nature of Coaching

Coaching session: a coach is listening attentively and with interest to a lady

Executive coaching is a personal learning process that facilitates individual change and growth for the most critical talents, senior managers and executives. The coaching relationship between the coachee and the coach is regarded as the basis for successful coaching. Therefore, the ‘person-centred coaching approach’ is regarded as the sine qua in executive coaching. this approach can be understood as the attitude or intent towards coaching with the assumption that individuals have an integral propensity towards their own development, growth and optimal functioning. This means the coachee can be regarded as their own best expert.

Directive Versus Non-Directive Coaching

In coaching there is a distinction between the two approaches. Directive coaching is used when the coach acts as an expert and provides solutions to the client by a ‘tell rather than listen approach’, e.g. as technical-, executive- or management consultant, teacher, assessor, or tutor. In contrast, non-directive coaching aims to facilitate the coachee’s own learning by a ‘hands-off approach’ where the coach helps the coachee to find their own solution, as facilitator or stimulator.

Internal Versus External Coaching

Both forms exist in coaching: The internal coach works for the same company as the coachee does and should typically be outside the normal ‘line management’ or ‘chain of command’ to be distinguished from management job coaching. The external coach has normally no direct relationship to the coachee’s company. He / she will work with senior managers and executives, in assignments where confidentiality, integrity, trustworthiness, objectivity and external experience with other companies play a major role.

The Coaching Relationship

The coaching relationship is dynamic, exists only in the coaching-context and is normally based on a short-term and on an as-needed basis. This important relationship is described as a collaborative dyad between two equal people, placing the individual in the centre. The coachee-coach relationship establishes an environment in which coachees feel secure and where they can learn, grow and develop. Therefore, the quality of the relationship is the basis for a successful coaching assignment.


Confidentiality in coaching means that all private or entrusted information is kept secret. It includes keeping what has been said in confidence. It is therefore regarded as the cornerstone or foundation of the coaching relationship before, during and after the coaching assignment. Without confidentiality, coaching is severely limited in effectiveness and lacks openness and honesty in the coaching dialogue. Consequently, coachees prefer external coaches to maximise the likeliness of increased confidentiality. Furthermore, if the company sponsors coaching, confidentiality becomes of utmost significance for a strong relationship, while complexity in dealing with stakeholders increases.


Transparency increases trust and helps the coachee to better understand the coaching process. In fact, this enables the coachee to ask questions about the coaching process steps, coaching methods and techniques used and alternative methods and techniques. Consequently, this will help coachees to feel fully included and to become an active part of the coaching process.

Coaching Theories Overview

Bookshelf with coaching books

Coaching uses many theories which have their roots in psychology and which were adapted and transferred to the coaching context. A study conducted by Palmer and Whybrow (2007) described 28 models and approaches that are used in coaching, which predominately have their origins in psychology. The top five most often mentioned theories are briefly described below:

Solution-Focused Coaching (SFC)

SFC focuses on present and future solutions and desired achievements rather than on ‘problems’ and the past, while using the client’s strengths and resources to achieve the client’s ‘vision’.

Cognitive Behavioural Coaching (CBC)

CBC focuses on the here and now to solve problems concerning behaviours, emotions and perceptions through goal-oriented procedures.

Goal-Focused Coaching (GFC)

GFC focuses on helping coachees to control and direct their inter- and intrapersonal resources to better attain their coaching goals.

Person-Centred Coaching (PCC)

PCC aims to establish a learning environment where the ‘helper’ is non-judgemental and non-directive, shows empathy and unconditional positive regard towards the client to enable them to find their own solutions.

Boundaries to Psychotherapy and Counselling

A man with a suit lost in a white labyrinth

Coaching focuses solely on specific client areas while psychology, psychotherapy, counselling and therapy deal with the ‘fully functioning person’. Coaching is normally provided on a short-term basis, deals with the present and the future, is proactive and focused on solutions and goal attainment. In coaching, the coachee is seen as an equal partner who is whole, resourceful and creative, whereas in counselling / therapy the client is seen as dysfunctional, broken and in need of healing. Coaching deals with present improvements and what can be done more in the future.

Coaching will not and cannot substitute for psychology, psychotherapy, counselling and therapy. Therefore, the coach will work with non-clinical or non-dysfunctional clients, individuals with no acute mental health issues and normal level of psychopathology.

More information about the differences and similarities between coaching, mentoring, counselling and therapy can be found in our working paper.