Coaching is Not Kleenex

by  Julie Winkle-Giulioni  |  Leadership Development

Have you noticed how frequently the word ‘coaching’ is used these days? You don’t read an article, attend a leadership workshop, or even speak with managers without ‘coaching’ being generously referenced.  It’s used to describe the act of:

  • Helping someone do something
  • Chewing others out
  • Passing along information
  • Delegating a task
  • Recognizing what’s gone well
  • Giving feedback
  • Teaching a skill

It seems that for many, ‘coaching’ has grown to generically refer to any interaction a leader might initiate… much like Kleenex’s relationship to all other tissue. But, not all conversations are coaching; and coaching certainly is not Kleenex!

As leaders, many of us have gotten sloppy with our language. Maybe it’s because we know that coaching is a desirable behavior within most organizations. Or maybe we want to couch tougher conversations in constructive packaging. In any case, the lack of precision around our language translates to a lack of precision around our behavior… and that’s compromising the power of coaching.

Defining Terms


Consider just a few coaching definitions:

“Facilitating an individual’s search within themselves for the answers and resources they require to be limitless.”
– Michael Duffy

“Coaching in its truest sense is giving the responsibility to the learner to come up with their own answers.”
– Vince Lombardi

“Coaching is a powerful relationship for people who are making important changes in their lives.”
– Laura Whitworth in Co-Active Coaching

“Coaching is the art of facilitating the performance, learning and development of another.”
– Myles Downey

When we think about coaching from the perspective of these sample definitions, it becomes clear that coaching is an intentional and deliberate process designed to systematically help others understand themselves and take responsibility for making choices to support their own growth.

Deploying the Definition


This is easier said than done for many of us. Yet, reflecting back on the best coaches I’ve ever had, I realize they share three key practices:

They ask great questions…. and lots of them. Coaching is about unlocking what the other person knows, feels, wants. Skillful coaches have a seemingly unending array of questions at their disposal. Easy ones. Challenging ones. Interesting ones. Impossible ones. But all designed to help others reflect on and deepen their understanding of themselves and their options.

They listen exquisitely. Since questions are the currency of coaching, the real payoff comes with listening. The best coaches are genuinely curious and interested. They listen beyond the words – to the emotions, hopes, possibilities, and concerns. They keep track of what they’ve heard, tuck it away, and use it to continually build a deeper understanding of the other person…and they reflect that understanding back to the other person.

They hold the space for possibilities. In the presence of good coaches, more is possible.  The best coaches inspire and challenge others to grow by fundamentally knowing that it’s possible. They promote optimism and a sense of capability as they make change and help others find new ways forward.

Coaching is a powerful act that drives learning, development, and performance. Let’s use the word more intentionally. It’s not feedback, corrective action, or delegation.  And it’s certainly not Kleenex.

What’s your definition of coaching? What did your best coaches do for you?

Image: www.123rf.com and Liz Price

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What People Are Saying

Ben Morton  |  02 Apr 2013  |  Reply

Great article Julie.

To throw in another complication – mentoring is often mentioned alongside coaching by leaders; the two being thought of as one and the same.

My thoughts are that coaching is a time bound activity where the coach asks questions to challenge the clients thinking and enable them to arrive at their own solutions to meet their goals. Coaches provide support and encouragement.

Mentoring is an open ended relationship where the Mentor shares their knowledge, experience and skill in a particular area to help the individual they are working with.

Looking forward to other peoples thoughts and definitions…

Julie winkle giulioni  |  02 Apr 2013  |  Reply

Good add. You’re right. Mentoring is another activity that gets thrown into the mix. I like your definitions. Thanks for passing along the helpful distinction.

Jennifer V. Miller  |  02 Apr 2013  |  Reply


Great post! You’ve merely scratched the surface – not only are there internal coaches, which you’ve framed as a role that a person’s direct supervisor can fulfill but there are also informal coaches (or mentors, as mentioned) and external coaches.

This is when language becomes very important. Whenever someone asks me, “do you provide coaching services?” my first question is always – how do *you* define coaching?

David M. Dye  |  02 Apr 2013  |  Reply

Definitely! The asking of good questions and careful listening is vital to effective coaching…whether it’s internal with a supervisory leader or an external coach.

Great post!

Deborah L. Parker  |  03 Apr 2013  |  Reply

Thanks for the clarity and reality in this post Julie. I agree the tag coach is used in ways that don’t reflect the depth and breadth of this action. Coaches also do hard stuff. On a lighter note I played basketball in high school and college. I was a ball hawk. My coach, by keeping me on the bench, taught me that basketball was not my life’s work. But team and strategy skills were important.

Mike Henry  |  03 Apr 2013  |  Reply

Thanks for the great post Julie. I fall along the lines of being too general. Coaches are complex. Coaching is complex. Few definitions do it justice. Often I classify it as “what’s needed” in a person’s development. In sports terms, when a team fails, the coach is often the person fired. In an organizational or personal context, “coaches” seldom experience that fate. Coaching is more of a style and the supervisor or the individual get fired. So maybe, “coach” isn’t even that great a word because it has different meanings in different contexts. Just thinking out loud… Mike.

Julie Winkle Giulioni  |  08 Apr 2013  |  Reply

Hmmm…. interesting musings. And your point about the fate of coaches inside and outside the world of sports is well taken. It’s frequently the worst coaches in business that keep moving up the food chain! Wouldn’t it be interesting to hold leaders accountable to the growth and development of their teams? Wouldn’t it be interesting if those leaders were promoted and their coaching skill and influence were magnified across the organization? More thinking out loud… Julie

Dianne Crampton  |  06 Apr 2013  |  Reply

Excellent article.

I agree that coaching has become substandard in definition.

We look at coaching from the standpoint of training and transference. All too often in the business consulting and training niche, very little attention is paid to transference of skills learned or behaviors modified back in the workplace. As a result, businesses do not experience the ROI on these activities.

Coaching for transference is key.

Julie Winkle Giulioni  |  08 Apr 2013  |  Reply

That’s a really powerful word, Dianne… transference. And that does strike me as a significant dimension of the coach’s role. Thanks so much for introducing that into the discussion.

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