You’ve been there. You’re on an airplane, or at a party or meeting someone at a lunch appointment and they ask “What do you do?”

If you’re a coach like I am, this is a particularly awkward moment because what coaches do is difficult to describe.

I’ve been coaching since the late 1990s. I have to admit, it’s been a struggle to come up with a good answer to this seemingly simple question. My wife describes what I do as a coach as “He talks on the phone with people who want to solve problems.” Not bad, but it doesn’t quite get to the essence of what coaching really is.

The Secret to Explaining Coaching

In CoachNet training events, we talk about coaching as a simple equation Relationship + Purpose + Intention = Coaching. All the key pieces of what coaching actually is and does are there. Over the next few blog posts we’re going to look under the hood of this easy definition of coaching.

Every effective coaching situation starts with a baseline of relationship. Coaches must be able to ask questions that dig beneath the surface.

A team coaching relationship I have right now is a great example. The team leader and I have a great relationship. He’s one of my best friends and a terrific leader. He brought me in to work with his leadership team and framed the situation by telling the team directly that I wasn’t there to provide guidance or advice, but rather to help the leadership team find their own way. It was a great setup and we’ve dug beneath the surface ever since.

The team leader didn’t say this, but he implied that he trusted me completely and because of that, the team could as well. This allowed me to tailor my questions and dig beneath the surface because the team was ready to go there with me.

This team and I built trust very quickly. We moved to the ideal level of connection for a coaching situation. We got to the stage of relationship without any roadblocks.

Relationship in a coaching situation is different than other relationships. It’s NOT a two-way street. Coaches leverage all of their gifts, knowledge, experience and training for the client’s benefit. The client has a chance to receive and apply all of that insight.

This demands an unique kind of trust in the relationship, and a high level of compatibility.

A church planter I know has tried to engage me as a coach three different times. In each situation, three or four sessions into it, the planter has said “I don’t like this, because you never let me help you.”

He’s right. I don’t.

In coach mode, the relationship is slanted toward the client’s benefit.

And the client has to be ok with that.

If they’re not, it’s probably not an ideal foundation for a coaching relationship.

It’s the relationship that makes deep reflection possible. It’s the relationship that gives the coach permission to ask a hard question and the client to allow the coach to focus on them and what they want to accomplish.

Your coaching presence informs how you show up in your coaching relationships. Learn more here. But there’s another, even simpler way to get a sense of how you are in your coaching relationships: How you are in your relationships is generally how you are when you coach.

Lots of coaches have terrific senses of humor. Some are goofy and some are sarcastic. Those traits show up in coaching all the time. But when you evaluate your coaching relationships, ask yourself this: “Does this trait of mine help the client gain clarity?”

(If you don’t know what your go to behavioral traits are, ask 3–5 friends to tell you what they see you doing consistently. But be prepared for what they tell you! Then, ask yourself how that trait might apply to your coaching!)

How you come across as a coach speaks into what the client gets out of the relationship. Your sense of humor and/or compassion might help your client put together a very specific and aggressive action plan. Or it might make assembling that plan harder for the client. You want to be helpful.

This is hard for a lot of coaches to accept, but it’s true: How you interact with the client has an influence on what they end up accomplishing. Do you know what tendencies of yours bring out the best in other people? (I think this is MUST KNOW INFO for coaches!) How are you leveraging those behaviors in your relationships?

Bottom line in a coaching situation is that the client can do whatever they want on the key issues/action plans they choose to work on. You do have a role of influence in the client’s actions. Use your powers for good.

Even if the client changes their action plan in between sessions. Which is going to happen!

But, as your coach, I do request that you tell me what you’ve done and if you change what we talked about.

We’re in this together. This is a relationship. That’s the core of coaching.

What do you think? How do you know you’ve got the right kind of coaching relationship? What signs do you watch for? I’d love to hear your thoughts.