"What's in a name?"

This blog is intended for coaches and trainee coaches looking to deepen their capability and confidence in coaching. Each month we take a question, examine why it is important in coaching, some challenges we may face answering it plus pragmatic ways to engage with it.

This month we explore "What's in a Name: how do we describe what we do?"


Firstly, as Integral Coaches, we learn the huge role language has in shaping human experience. Giving a name to something makes a distinction, bringing the thing we describe into the foreground of our awareness and giving shape to our experience of it.

The term 'languishing' went viral this year, arguably because it captured what many were experiencing but struggling to describe. Having a name for it helped us better relate to the experience, allowing us to explore and ultimately take better actions around it.

Secondly, to truly enrol clients ready, willing and able to take on developmental coaching, we need to be able to describe it clearly enough for them to understand what they will need to put in, what they can hope to get out of it and what our role as coaches will be.

This is important particularly for those with less experience of coaching. In the early days of coaching it sometimes felt as though coaches were seen as the Fairy Godmothers of the workplace, expected to parachute in with Wands to effect magical changes, which doubtless gave rise to the joke:

"How many coaches does it take to change a lightbulb?

Only one. But the lightbulb has to really want to change"

The better we can create clear expectations, the better we can partner with our client coachees and sponsoring organisations.

Thirdly, for the ICF and other coaching bodies, contracting well with a client is a core competency and part of being an ethical coach. Poor contracting may mislead a client into signing up for coaching towards outcomes they are unlikely to achieve. For example, leaders hoping to 'put a stop to office politics once and for all' through 6 - 8 conversations with a coach are bound to be disappointed.

Last but not least it is important for our development as coaches. Particularly when we are starting out, knowing how, when and what we are delivering on the promise of our coaching is important to determine what we need to stop, start or deepen in our coaching practice.


An external factor that complicates matters is the proliferation of ways that coaching is described. With descriptions ranging from domains of concern (eg career, parenting, Life, transition, leadership, etc) to modalities and philosophies (eg person-centred, solutions-focused, Integral) to broader categories (performance coaching, developmental coaching), coaching can be a very difficult field to navigate.

Internally, we coaches may struggle with our coaching identity. Coming from the highly regulated legal profession, I was initially aghast at how easily one could 'become' a coach. When people asked whether I was a Life Coach, I baulked, partly due to what I saw of Life Coaches in the world (see articles like this recent one for instance).

Or we might have imposter syndrome and lack of confidence in describing ourselves in particular ways. Knowing that many clients unfamiliar with coaching might expect us to be experts in a field, how do we offer ourselves as coaches in a particular domain such as 'career' or 'parenting' or 'leadership'?


Most useful to the client will be the descriptions what they can expect in terms of process or outcomes so the descriptions below may not be what we share with a client but they may help us locate ourselves in the field of coaching and so find better ways to describe what we do.

"The Complete Handbook of Coaching, 2010" from academic publisher SAGE, describes coaching as

"..........as a human development process that involves structured, focused interaction and the use of appropriate strategies, tools and techniques to promote desirable and sustainable change for the benefit of the coachee and potentially for other stakeholders",

I would argue that this is a relatively mature definition of what may be understood as coaching which has evolved in ways that academics such as Anthony Grant and Reinhard Stelter have tracked in terms of three generations of coaching.

The aim of 'first generation' coaching was not development or sustainable change, but helping a client meet a specific goal or goals. This type of coaching aims mostly at exploring new strategies and behaviours to reach a stated goal.

This approach may be categorised as 'instrumental' in that the coaching is aimed at helping a client get something or somewhere in particular and can be exemplified by the weight loss App Noom. When you sign up wanting to lose weight, you are asked for your target weight. Having set your goal, you are not challenged as to 'why 65kg rather than 70 kg?' The app teaches 'daily tweaks to reach your goals' using the psychology of habit change.

Coaching that takes a more 'second generation' approach is still goal or solution oriented but takes into account greater exploration of a client's inner world. It may focus more on surfacing both a client's innate resourcefulness towards the goal and his/her limiting beliefs in pursuit of it. It is often intended to be more developmental in nature as this coaching works with aspects of how a coachee understands him or herself. Coaches who favour this approach may like to use assessments and instruments aimed at generating 'insight' for the client into his/her personality or traits and ways to 'get out of their own way'.

'Third generation' coaching broadly puts more emphasis on the dialogic relationship between coach and coachee. Coaching conversations explore values and how a coachee makes meaning. The coach is a companion on a meaning-making journey that the coachee is undertaking in which new ways of making-meaning emerge. In this type of coaching it is not uncommon for initial goals or issues to morph as meaning-making evolves. Like Dorothy on the road to Oz, what starts as a journey to somewhere afar turns out to be a path bringing someone closer to an understanding of home.


I often find myself using a gardening metaphor to describe the sort of coaching I practise. A client arrives wondering why some plants in their garden are not thriving, or why some weeds keep popping up. Our job is not just to yank up the weeds or replant, but to take time to understand the garden as a whole. We look at the condition of the soil, the roots of plants, the eco-system of other plants and creatures and the micro-climate.

The purpose of coaching in this approach is not to try and help a client meet an unrealistic or unsustainable vision of what their garden should look like but to help them discover and maintain the optimal conditions for their particular garden with all its unique characteristics to be healthy and flourish.


Integral coaching is a form of developmental coaching in that its purpose is to support clients in the process of their ongoing development towards sustainable change rather than to only meet specific short term goals.

It is fundamentally an ontological approach to coaching in that it doesn't focus on mindsets, or EQ, or the nervous system, or language, like some approaches, but focuses on the dynamic interplay between language, emotions and the body which we call our 'structure of interpretation' or 'way of being' in the world.

We work with clients towards resolving issues that may show themselves in any area of life - career, leadership, parenting -but we take a holistic approach to understanding and working with the underlying topics of a client's life that give rise to these issues.

It is a third generation approach, in that we hold that clients are innately resourceful, creative and whole at a deep level and our role is to accompany them in a process of unravelling the stories and patterns which have kept them stuck. This journey is fundamentally a journey of new meaning-making forged from the relationship between coach and coachee rather than specific 'tools' or method of coaching.

And, as stated by Integral coaching founder, James Flaherty, this type of coaching is about building a partnership in which someone becomes freer so that their suffering is less.


- Keep a 'self-supervision' journal for your coaching sessions to build a practice of self reflection on what you do as a coach. Here's an article from the Institute of Coaching with a great list of questions you may use for your reflections

- Develop a short template explaining what a client can expect in working with you. Videos such as this one may help orient you to both poetic and pragmatic ways to describe integral coaching

- Join a supervision group or engage a supervisor/mentor to help you reflect on your practice and how you continue to develop the practice of coaching, including contracting with your client - or re-contracting when there are pivots and breakdowns in coaching

- Set aside time to research and go deeper on coaching by reading about different types of coaching. The Complete Handbook of Coaching aims to give a comprehensive view of the field as it evolves.

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