What Is Coaching?

Written by Ravi Raman

July 8, 2020

“There is nothing outside of yourself, look within. Everything you want is there. You are That.”

Rumi

My first encounter with a real-life “coach” was back in the early 2000s. I was in my 20’s and working at a furious pace, eager to make my mark as a Senior Product Manager at Microsoft. I used some of my precious vacation days to attend a Tony Robbins seminar. I was hoping that Tony would teach me the secret formula for high performance. I was ready to listen, learn, and apply whatever was taught.

In a hall filled with two thousand people clamoring for self-actualization and higher levels of achievement, Tony roamed the room, teaching his best methods and strategies for living a great life. His tips were interesting, but what I’ll never forget was something else entirely. Tony was using powerful questions to turn our attention back on ourselves.

What did we want to create in our lives?
What did we value most, above all else?
What was holding us back?
No, really…what was holding us back???

The questions would come rapidly at first. Then we would take time to reflect, think, write, and share with those around us. The event was less about guidance from Tony and more about uncovering hidden answers buried deep within. My most relevant and useful insights rang out in the moments of reflection outside of the conference, not within the confines of the meeting hall. The shifts I experienced had nothing to do with Tony and everything to do with the click-moments and insights that emerged from the depths of my Self.

What insights?

They were vast and numerous, mostly relating to realizations about what I wanted to create in my work and life. Clarity regarding goals. A sense of reconnection to the source of my innate potential to develop and achieve things in life.

Since that time, I’ve worked with many coaches. Some called themselves coaches, many did not. After getting off the corporate fast-track at Microsoft (inspired, in part through a coaching experience where an insight emerged providing absolute clarity that it was time to change directions!), I found my way to coaching as a vocation.

For the past five years I’ve worked with leaders, mostly in the tech sector. I help them be their best with less stress. How I accomplish this is atypical but remarkably effective.

The Coaching Approach

The life of a modern human is based on obeying orders. This is a byproduct of mass-produced educational systems and rigid business environments. I remember sitting impatiently at my school desk at the age of 9, meticulously writing pages of repeated words in spelling class. At the age of 13, all students in my life sciences class turned in their notebooks to be graded. Did you capture everything the teacher wrote on the projector correctly? If so, you got an A! Did you take some liberties in your note-taking? That was dangerous ground.

This trend continued throughout high school. College wasn’t that different. Memorize and regurgitate. Learn external knowledge and apply it as if it were your own. This trend of putting utmost value in others’ knowledge carries most of us into adulthood, where we are trained to look extrinsically for the answer to whatever we seek. For every desire there must be an expert, method, or lifehack that can get us there.

Right?

If we can just find the magic bullet and the right weapon for it, we can slay our fears and “level-up.”

How I coach is based on the opposite approach. What I (and many other coaches) understand and know, as distinct from a hired expert, consultant, or mentor – is a profound realization: human beings are innately whole, capable, and carry within them the potential to solve their own problems and achieve their highest goals. Yes, mentors and coaches often believe in their clients’ innate capacity, but as a coach, I take this consideration as paramount in our relationship.

The attitude of a coach is one where the engagement with a client is a true partnership. Instead of a coach being the arbiter of wisdom and advice, the model is flipped. A coaching relationship is a partnership wherein fresh thoughts and creative insights flourish. There is no level of excellence where coaching cannot support progress.

Atul Gawande, surgeon and best-selling author, is at the top of his game and still benefited from working with a surgical coach, as recounted in his excellent New Yorker article. After experiencing his first coaching session, Gawande saw real value: “That one twenty-minute discussion gave me more to consider and work on than I’d had in the past five years.” Gawande is not alone, leaders in virtually every field continue to benefit from a coaching partnership.

Partnering For Real Results

If humans have a vast creative potential within themselves, then why would anyone hire a coach? The answer is straightforward. While humans do have enormous potential, it’s also true that realizing this capacity can be tough. Human psychology runs vast and deep. It presents a barrier through which signal struggles to be heard beyond the noise. Working with a coach creates a safe space where the potential for insight is more easily actualized.

How specifically does this magical result occur? Several specific coaching skills come to play an important role. When wielded by a savvy coach, as a master artist uses a paintbrush, barriers fall and results emerge. These elements include presence and observation capacities, deep listening skill and powerful questions that take a conversation to greater heights, among other skills that coaches continually develop and sharpen.

That’s not all.

Having coached hundreds of clients at varying leadership levels in leading technology companies, I also know that when clients better understand how their mind works at a fundamental level, everything in their life benefits. The mind has known patterns of operation wherein it naturally creates friction and forms problems while also holding an innate and robust capacity for revealing wisdom and an intuitive sense of how best to move forward. With an understanding of these innate capacities of the mind, results are more easily achieved. This last part would require an entire series of blogs to describe. You can learn more here about my coaching approach if you are curious.

At its most simple level, coaching is a lively partnership that supports looking within, in service of the client’s highest vision and goals. It’s a journey past the barriers of insecure thinking and limiting beliefs. It’s a vast exploration of what really matters with the placement of sincere attention in those directions. I can’t think of a more worthwhile journey to be on.

As Rumi said, “There is nothing outside of yourself, look within. Everything you want is there. You are That.”

What happens if we enter a partnership wherein this assertion is taken seriously?

That is the heart of coaching.

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