Coaching and ‘Coaching Approach’: What’s the Difference?

One of the challenges of the coaching world has been the confusion over terminology. Just how is coaching different from or similar to other ‘helping by talking’ approaches like mentoring, training, consulting and counselling? Quite a lot has been written on this - some helpful; some just confuses things further.

Just to clarify, the definition of coaching that we use at GCI describes coaching as:

“…a one to one conversation focused on the enhancement of learning and development through increasing self-awareness and a sense of personal responsibility, where the coach facilitates the self-directed learning of the coachee through questioning, active listening and appropriate challenge in a supportive and encouraging climate.”(van Nieuwerburgh,2012,p.x.)

We think it is important that all of these ‘helping by talking’ terms, are defined as clearly as possible for several reasons:

  • If we are going to attend professional learning events to learn more about coaching it’s important to know just what kind of training will be offered. Will it in fact be coaching or will it be more like mentoring? Or, indeed something else altogether?

  • If we are looking to explore the research in the field it is important to understand just what the research is investigating. We are sometimes reaching conclusions about ‘coaching’ based on different interventions. More than once I have started reading a journal article and discovered that what is being referred to as ‘coaching’ is not how I understand the term. It might be helpful research but it is not exploring coaching as we define it.

  • Similarly, if we are going to undertake research it is important that we be really clear about what our research will be investigating.

When we use the term ‘leadership coaching’ another definitional challenge emerges. Can leaders really coach their staff team members in the way that we have defined coaching above? Yes, they can though there are some particular challenges in this coaching relationship. Perhaps the biggest challenge here is in the real and perceived difference in power. If a leader has direct, or indirect, supervisory responsibilities in relation to a team member this will, at least to some extent, impact upon the nature of any coaching relationship.

This is when it can be helpful to clarify what we see as a difference between ‘coaching’ and using a ‘coaching approach’. Can leaders coach team members? Well, given the power differential and all that this can mean, perhaps it may be more straightforward to find another coach for the team member. In other situations, it is possible as long as the coach is aware of the additional complexities that emerge when they are also in a supervisory role in relation to the coachee. Without doubt however, all leaders can bring a ‘coaching approach’ to growth and learning conversations.

What do we mean by using a ‘coaching approach?’

We define this as intentionally utilising the transferable elements of coaching in other conversations wherever they might be appropriate and helpful.

Some of these ‘transferable’ elements of coaching include:

  • A focus on learning

  • A focus on what’s wanted

  • A focus on the present and the future

  • A focus on growing self-awareness and personal responsibility

  • A focus on the other person’s agenda and self-direction

  • A focus on providing both support and challenge

(These are all in addition to the skills of active listening, questioning that provokes ‘aha’ moments, being present and the ‘beginner’s mind' among other coaching skills, all of which, will make a positive contribution to any human interaction.)

Many of these essential elements of coaching can be incorporated into a coaching approach. It is certainly possible, indeed highly desirable, if leaders bring these coaching elements to the way they engage in growth and learning conversations with team members. A leader may therefore bring a coaching approach where there are overt hierarchical differences in power; when working with groups; in formal performance appraisal contexts; when in conversations with parents; when in conversations with students – any situation really where someone wants something to be different but when the coaching nature of the conversation has not been made explicit. (Some of these other coaching contexts in school settings are explored more fully elsewhere (Campbell, 2016).)

In this way we believe that a coaching approach provides a way of leading. Effective leaders have been incorporating these kinds of practices into their leadership approach for some time but the focus on coaching skills and models provides a way of more precisely defining, sharpening and implementing these approaches in more nuanced ways, adding even further value to our ways of leading.

How might you apply all the coaching skills and knowledge that you have learned in a range of other leadership contexts? What would others be noticing if you did this?


  • Campbell, J. (2016). Coaching in Schools. In C. J. van Niewerburgh (Ed.), Coaching in Professional Contexts. London: Sage.
  • van Nieuwerburgh, C. (Ed.). (2012). Coaching in education: Getting better results for students, educators and parents. London: Karnac.