One thing that I often encounter when talking about coaching is the thought that in order to coach, you must be an expert. That is not necessarily the case. It depends on your objective.
If you are trying to “coach” people on how to do something, you will largely need to have expertise in the subject. However, if your “coaching” is really just telling people how to do something, it really isn’t coaching, it’s teaching. You see, most of our definitions of coaching are based on what we see on television when we watch sports. We see a person on the sidelines telling their teams what to do, where to go, the battle plans, etc. This directive behavior is more like teaching or imparting knowledge. Thus, the difference is between the noun, Coach, and the verb, coaching. A Coach can perform many actions from teaching to coaching to mentoring. And, in a similar vein, a Teacher can do all of those too. Hence the confusion. The difference lies less in the role, the noun, and more in the action, the verb.
So, what is the difference and how is it that you can coach someone without being an expert? To answer that, let’s define things first.
Teaching is a directive action. In other words, teaching is about telling someone about a subject or showing them how to do something with the objective of implanting that knowledge in the depths of their brain. This requires expertise and experience with the subject.
Coaching, by contrast, is a collaborative effort that includes both direction and support with the objective of helping someone get focus on a specific problem and guiding them in finding the answers to the problem. In other words, coaching is about helping people help themselves.
Think about it like this. If you remember your college days, your lecture classes were an example of teaching while your labs were more like coaching. In the lectures, the Teacher did the work (lecturing) while you sat and listened. All of this was directive because you were told information and/or shown what to do. In contrast, when you were in a lab, you, the student, did the work while the Teacher asked questions to gently direct, make you think, and find solutions yourself. In addition, if they were really good, they also provided supportive encouragement so you would stay engaged and not give up. This practice of questioning and encouraging was more coaching than teaching.
So, what about expertise? How can I coach without being an expert? Well, expertise is definitely helpful when coaching but not absolutely necessary. Again, it’s all about your objective. Imagine a young student who is struggling with math. They come to you for help. If, like many an adult, you have forgotten much of your high school algebra or sit with outdated thinking, so you have a choice, either throw in the towel right there and tell them you can’t help because you’re not a math expert, or, take a different tack and make your objective to help them find a solution regardless of your math amnesia. Your only objective doesn’t have to be sharing expertise, it can be helping them help themselves.
With this different objective, you can coach by asking the student if they know exactly where they are struggling. Perhaps it is some math fundamental or a larger conceptual issue. This gets them to focus on the specific challenge. You can then ask them what tools are available that might help. This gets them to begin thinking about solutions rather than just giving up, and these solutions could be things like a chapter in a textbook, fellow students, their teacher, a tutor, or even the internet. But by steering them to solutions, you may not be “teaching” them, which requires a level of proficiency, but you will be “coaching” them to find answers themselves. And you can do that without having to be an expert in math.
This is why coaching is such a good practice for managers to employ with their teams. By asking questions rather than telling people what to do, team members get engaged in problem solving and feel empowered to come up with solutions themselves. When people find their own solutions, they take more ownership and work harder to see things succeed since their name is tied to it. What manager would balk at that?
In addition, as we’ve seen, the manager (coach) doesn’t have to be the expert, and they often aren’t, so more informed and often more effective solutions can come to the fore from the people who actually have more expertise because they work with systems and customers more. It is a win-win.
Now you can see that Coaches don’t have to be experts, they just have to make their objective helping people find solutions, and that’s really what great coaching is all about.
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