What to look for in a coach

People who are looking for a professional coach often rely on: referral, reputation, credentials, or marketing profile. This helps but cannot be the whole story. Do we know what we are looking for in a coach when we meet with him or her for the first time? How can we tell if a coach is a good match for us? What are the characteristics to look for in an effective coach?

Coaching is about you, not the coach

The common media image of the coach is someone outgoing, success oriented, larger than life. The hidden agenda is “be like me”, lead a celebrity lifestyle, make millions. Is this what we want in a coach? Perhaps there is a part of us who would also like to live up to this idealized image: strut the stage, move mountains, be in a constant state of hype, look good. Of course, we are human! If we put this pinch of narcissism aside for a moment, what do we really want in a coach? We want someone to be a genuine human being who is both willing to focus on us and demonstrate self-awareness. We want someone who is willing to put their own self aside for a moment and deeply listen to our story, understand who we are, ask us questions, challenge us to think differently and take action towards our dreams. When you meet your coach for the first time, check out how she listens to your story, what sort of questions she asks, her body language and how she responds to you personally. This can you tell you a lot about who she is focused on: you or herself.

Developing a trusting relationship

Having checked out your coach’s response to you as a person, it is now important to find out more about your coach. Personal qualities of coaches are significant in creating a strong and trusting relationship. Effective coaches walk the talk: they are constantly learning and working on themselves, they know who they are, what they are capable of becoming and what they want out of life, and what is essential for them. Ask your prospective coach about her own learning as a person and a coach. What are her perceived strengths and weaknesses? How long has she been coaching? Does she show concern for others? How open is she to your questions? Does she display self-worth in what she says and does? Is she honest and sincere about what is on offer?

Coaching relies on the following personal characteristics and interpersonal skills (relevant to coaches and therapists alike) as essential for a deep, lasting and trusting relationship:

  • the ability to deeply listen to a story in a non judgmental way
  • empathy is the ability to imagine what it is like to be another person
  • to accurately reflect back and sense the feelings, thoughts of another person
  • a sense of optimism and humour
  • the willingness to be open, honest and sincere in her interactions with others
  • the ability to demonstrate self-awareness and admit mistakes
  • the capacity to be genuine about what she can offer you
  • Valuing diversity in coaching

A skilled coach will value and respect your different life experiences and cultural background and understand that she may have to learn as much about you as you do about her. A coach who demonstrates awareness of how her own culture and lifestyle affects the way she thinks, is able to analyze her own assumptions. For this reason she is able to acknowledge her mistakes and limitations in understanding others when they arise and work collaboratively towards greater sensitivity and mutual understanding.

At first, perceived differences may be off putting. Often we are more challenged by our differences than by our similarities. Meeting a coach for the first time, ask yourself: How can this person help me to create new perspectives on my life? How willing is she to challenge her own assumptions? How sensitive is she to who I am: my background, gender, culture and other influences? Is she willing to learn about me? Does she possess knowledge about the dynamics of my situation and cultural background? In turn, can she assist me to think about the future in a new and constructive way? Although it may feel uncomfortable to be challenged to think differently, a culturally skilled coach may also help us to practice alternative ways of being, to be versatile in the face of change, to live life in unexpected ways and identify the strengths and attributes we would like to develop further.

Collaboration in coaching

Does your coach feel adequate to allow you to share power with her? Sharing power involves collaborating on the process and agreed goals of coaching. Coaches who value collaboration readily entertain your perspective and assist you to work towards your goals without imposing their own perspective or being overly directive. At the same time, the coach is able to enter into your world without getting lost. She is able to help you to find a path through your story towards an outcome. Being curious about you, your coach is likely to ask lots of open-ended questions that allow you to truly formulate your own response and learn about yourself while doing it. This is a two-way process of discovery.

Ethics in coaching

Unfortunately, coaches in Australia are not required by law to be a member of a professional organization committed to ongoing professional development and excellence in their field. It is worthwhile checking out with your prospective coach whether she belongs to a professional organization and what steps she is taking to keep abreast of developments in her profession and her commitment to quality assurance.

An ethical coach will give you time to consider your rights and responsibilities as a client and will enter into an agreement with you about your coaching goals, confidentiality and the storage and disclosure of information. There will also be a commitment to the number of sessions agreed and payment arrangements up front. Coaches are required by legislation to abide by conditions of confidentiality and to manage personal information in a safe and secure manner.

Coaches who establish healthy boundaries with their clients from the outset will discuss the nature of the professional relationship and why it is important to honor boundaries. To provide an ethical service to clients the professional coach does not enter into dual relationships (e.g. have sexual or personal friendships, or be a relative of her client). Setting boundaries can be complex especially in the case of third parties when the coach is appointed to coach a person and is receiving payment from an organization, not the client. In such a case, an effective coach will discuss with the client and the organization the parameters for providing feedback to the organization on the outcomes of coaching. At all times, the coach is clear about how she will protect the confidentiality and privacy of her client while committing to a mutually agreed program of coaching between parties.

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