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Should a Coach Have Prior Experience of the Subject in Which They Are Coaching?

Aug 8, 2008
So, you want to become a coach?

One thing you may be thinking about is what area you specialise in. There is definitely a case for becoming a specialist coach - you are likely to be perceived as an expert and therefore people will come to you and consequently you should be able to command higher prices.

Of course when you are starting out and you are desperate for your first customers it is very tempting to say you will 'coach anyone' but trust me (I'm a coach) this is taking a very short term view. Building up a reputation for being the area's leading relationship coach or the city's top public speaking coach will have you at the forefront of people's mind when they have a need for your services.

But, how experienced in a particular field do you need to be to coach in a particular area? Now there might seem to be an obvious answer to this question - after all doesn't experience count for everything?

But, let's start with a definition of coaching first and then you will see that this isn't so obvious. True coaching (sometimes termed as non-directive coaching) occurs when an individual is allowed to explore their own solutions and decide on their own plan of action for moving forward. The role of the coach therefore is to ask those questions to allow the client to come up with the answers and will ask those questions the client wouldn't ask themselves. The coach should not be 'leading' the client with their questions to pre-determined answers or imparting their own suggestions or advice.

So, if a coach is not imparting advice, instead only asking questions it follows that a coach does not need experience of coaching in a particular area. Many non-directive coaches believe that by not having experience in a particular area they can remain totally impartial to the situation and focus on taking the client through a process to find the solution that is best for them.

Advice and even subtle guidance can be great, however, whilst a particular solution may be right for one person, it may not be for another. Some coaches will admit if they have experience in a particular area they sometimes find themselves asking leading questions, albeit subconsciously, to help the client to a particular solution. This can stifle the client's own creativity and the client may lose out by not exploring all the options available to them.

So, is there a case for only coaching in an area you are experienced in? Well for me the answer is yes, and this is based partly on my own experience of being coached and also of coaching others.

Firstly if you have experience or expertise in a particular area and the client knows this, you immediately score points for credibility...afterall you have been there done it and got the T-shirt. People do like to feel they are being coached by an expert. For example if you want to lose weight and get fit wouldn't you prefer to turn to a coach who is fit, healthy and not overweight themselves?

Building rapport with your client is crucial to building a solid working relationship. If you have a similar background or share common experiences with your client, (although as a coach you will not be discussing you) there will automatically be a level of rapport as you will be 'tuned in' to their situation. This helps a client to open up to their issues.

If you have experience of a particular area as a coach, either direct experience or from coaching others, you have the capacity to naturally empathise more with the client. Imagine you are a 40 year old woman going through a mid-life crisis...wouldn't you like to feel that you are talking to someone who can empathise with your situation because they have been there before and got through it or has helped dozens of women before you. A client can feel that certain barriers are broken down knowing that 'they are not the only one.'

Also if you understand a person's situation you are better placed to ask relevant questions. This might seem contradictory to what has been said but I have been asked questions by a coach who didn't relate to my situation and found the questions showed a lack of understanding of my situation.

So, in conclusion there are pros and cons for having experience in the area in which you are coaching. Personally I think some understanding and experience of a particular area is positive not only from a client's point of view but also from a marketing point of view...you're out there as the 'expert'. However if you are committed to being a non-directive coach you need to be aware of the potential pitfall of falling into at the least asking leading questions, at the worst giving advice that just doesn't meet the client's needs.
About the Author
Qualified coach Louise Yates shares personal coaching information to describe what is coaching and what you need to know when choosing a coach for your private life, career development or business performance.
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