It can be said that the world of coaching mirrors and matches wider trends of modern life. In the 1990s, executive coaching focused heavily on performance and growth. Coaches were hired into organisations to help leaders ‘do’ more, achieve more. Fittingly, the model of choice at this time was the process-led GROW model.1

Thirty years on, this model remains one of the most popular, often taught on day one of coach training. Its use today mirrors the often paradoxical and divergent nature of the coaching journey. It can be both at once a simple, logical ‘coaching by numbers’ process easily taught and quickly applied, and the manifestation of some profound psychological principles of flow, consciousness, awareness and responsibility.  

The rise of bot coaching

Today, in 2024, we coaches are operating at a time when an AI bot can already coach pretty effectively. A 2022 Oxford Brookes study showed that the ‘Vici’ coach bot could offer increased goal-attainment versus the control group.

Vici’s website describes it as the ‘future of coaching’, and in the emerging market right now are AI coaching bot offerings from other organisations such as Rocky.AI. Coming soon, from the folks at CoachHub, we’ll be invited to meet AIMY™, ‘the world’s first conversational AI coach’. And in August 2023, The Guardian announced that Google is trialling its own AI bot that acts as a ‘personal life coach’.3 

In an already saturated market for coaches, with commoditised bot-coaching snapping at our heels, what is a human coach to do?  

Coaching to process 

In the years I’ve been providing coach training and assessment for executive coaches in training, one of the most concerning trends I’ve experienced is a slavish adherence to process; an over-indexing on structure and control within the session, clinging, white-knuckled to the side of the pool, fearful of the deep water.

The efforts to professionalise the coaching industry are, without doubt, well intended. One clear downside in how they have been articulated, taught and assessed is that many new coaches believe that ‘good coaching’ entails sticking as closely to the competences as possible. That ‘effective coaching’ is a box-ticking exercise; that ‘transformational coaching’ is born from an increasingly closer adherence to the structured coaching process that they ‘should’ follow.  

Good coaches, after all, always follow the client’s agenda.

Good coaches, after all, always ask open questions – and never ask why.

Good coaches, after all, will not bring any of their ‘stuff’ into the conversation.  

We coaches operate in an era where the largest accrediting body, the International Coach Federation (ICF), mandates a form of professional development that is focused on performance. Mentor coaching involved reviewing a recording of a coaching session, but one of the criticisms faced by this is an over-emphasis on the ‘doing’ of a coach.  

In my experience as both mentor coach and mentor coachee, a typical 60 or 90-minute mentor coaching session can turn away from the ‘being’ of a coach, in favour of a performance analysis against a competency framework, ie the ‘doing’ of a coach.

For many coaches I know, a refreshing tonic to an overly structured, logical and process-led approach to coaching can be found in the work of Carl Jung. It feels apt to offer his advice here: 

‘Learn your theories as well as you can, but put them aside when you touch the miracle of the living soul. Not theories, but your own creative individuality alone must decide’.4 

Structure and control

My professional experience as a coach trainer, assessor and supervisor has informed a deep and growing concern that an increasing number of coaches, qualified and unqualified, accredited and unaccredited, are operating with a need for control and structure. Having unpacked this topic in many supervision and mentor coaching sessions, I see an echo of a common, wider need in business of the deep, human need for certainty. 

The underlying belief is that as long as there is a process to follow, everything will be ‘alright’. Whether working with a paying client, a practice client or a fellow coach-in-training, there is an understandable keenness to avoid mistakes, to avoid being judged, rejected; to avoid social shame.  

Many coaches have shared with me that one of the strongest barriers to the effective coaching they want to do is the prospect of doing something wrong and that the client will lose respect for them.  

As a result, what happens? Silences tend to be filled. Challenges are left unoffered. The illogical remains unexplored. Intuition remains in the gut. The coach homogenises, relying on some of their stock questions. They continue playing it safe. 

Challenge and discomfort 

In the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, executive coaches John Blakey and Ian Day encouraged fellow practitioners to leave the ‘cosy club’ and to lean into a greater sense of risk, tension and provocation with their clients.5 They invited coaches to spend more time in the ‘zone of uncomfortable debate’, a space where coach and client are not necessarily agreeing, with some friction, some positive tension in the air. A coach might become more direct – ‘What is the heart of the matter here?’ – or more provocative – ‘What aren’t we talking about here?’  

In my own journey as a coach, leaning into more tension, becoming more aware of when I might be ‘agreeing’ with my client in an unhelpful way, or ‘colluding’ with their thinking, has been transformational. It is a sentiment echoed by what I hear from coaching clients. 

If you were to ask someone who has received executive coaching what quality they found most helpful, you will probably hear that their coach challenged them – ‘really made me think’.

The gift of presence 

As coach-training schools and institutions continue to facilitate thousands of new coaches into the wider world each year, this can be seen as broadly a good thing. This also presents several downsides. 

First, ChatGPT-style bots will, if not already, out-perform and undercut those human coaches who continue to operate from a place of strict logic and process.  

Second, what is getting missed, stifled and repressed when a coach is fixated on strictly following a crib sheet? Where is the room for creativity, for spontaneity, for intuition? Simply put – where is the humanity?  

While many coaches play their own ‘inner game’6 , trying to remember the rules, what they should and shouldn’t be doing, what that perfect question is… while all this chatter is happening – what gets lost? 

Presence. Becoming present to the person opposite you; the beautiful gift of being fully with that person. Hearing them at a deeper level… listening to you own body, emotions and intuitions. Connecting with the person opposite you in a more profoundly spiritual, beautiful, human way.  

One encouragement I regularly offer coaches is to turn down the volume of the mind, and turn up the volume from their heart, their gut, their soul. It is a sentiment beautifully encapsulated in the Co-Active Approach, where the coach is encouraged to ‘dance in this moment’ with their client.

Dance, dance, dance 

To stretch the metaphor further, I advocate that, rather than aim to rigidly and robotically regurgitate line dancing, or endlessly repeat the macarena, the coach aims to flow with their client, be fully with their partner and effortlessly attuned to the music, the silence and the present moment. To dance as if nobody else is watching. 

In my experience, what sets apart great coaches is the quality of presence. Their curiosity to pick up on a breath, a pause, a tiny gesture. Their courage and confidence to experiment, to get things wrong, to improvise. Their intuition to challenge, to disagree, to provoke, to stretch, to hear at deeper levels the meanings, emotions or repressions sitting underneath the words. Their ability to work with humour, intuition, silliness and the illogical.

Our humanity is our best coaching quality

Our body is our best coaching tool. This will need to be harnessed more and more if we are to compete with AI coach bots. We – and our clients – are relational, tribal mammals who seek connection and community. To fixate on process and structure is to overly intellectualise, overly mechanise and commoditise coaching.  

Casting a beautiful, humanist shadow over the coaching industry, Carl Rogers said ‘the individual has within themselves vast resources for self-understanding, for altering their self-concept, their attitudes, and their self-directed behaviour’.8 (p49) 

Rogers spoke of a careful environment to be created, characterised by non-judgment, openness and authenticity, and that ‘when persons are approached in this way, when they are accepted as they are, we discover them to be highly creative and resourceful people in examining and changing their own lives’.8 (p187) 

De Haan offers supportive evidence for this approach through results of his meta-analysis, which suggests that the key factor in an effective coaching engagement is not the modality or method of coaching – but the relationship between coach and client.9 

A wider context of connection 

In my own experience as coach trainer, I have witnessed sessions in which the coach is asking excellent coaching questions but something deeper is missing. On paper, according to logic, they were brilliant questions – and yet my intuitive experience was that these weren’t really helping the client.  

On reflection, things remain at a seemingly superficial level. The questions feel clunky, as if reeled off from a mental list, from a cognitive filing cabinet marked ‘Good Coaching Questions’. Instead of responding to the person – or even responding to what the person was sharing – the coach moves onto the next excellent coaching question. It feels transactional. It feels like there is no wider or deeper context.  

This experience mirrors my own journey as a coach. I used to believe that the key quality of a coach was the ability to ask clever questions. In the years since, my thinking has evolved.  

I wonder if I believed that effective coaching was purely about moving the client towards a goal? I wonder if I was hiding behind the safety and objectivity of questions that gradually moved the client towards that goal? I wonder if I enjoyed the neutrality and distance – a cold objectivity that I can trace all the way back to Freudian psychoanalysis? I wonder if I believed that the greatest value I could provide would be in sticking as closely as possible to the structured coaching model? 

I do know that I was scared of silence. Scared of not knowing. Scared that the mask might slip – my carefully constructed persona of the executive coach – and I would be revealed as a fraud. 

I now know that the best way I can help my coaching client is to really be with them. To hold the space for them to share, to understand, to unfold. To engage my human-ness and to think less and feel more. To model not-knowing and the illogical, to leave the map and the compass in the backpack and trust that my client will figure out the right path for them.  

Doing the work on ourselves

I believe that some of the most valuable work a coach can do is on themselves, in the privacy of their own mind and heart. I advocate that coaches work with a qualified professional to do the inner work, to safely go to their own depths that they might safely and effectively help their clients go to the places they need to go, while honouring the boundaries with other helping professions.  

In her book, Mentor Coaching, Clare Norman advocates a dual approach to coaching support and development: ‘supervision keeps the coach safe and sane; mentor coaching keeps you sharp’.10 (pxxiii). My own coaching experience encourages a third element as well: working with a therapist.  

In my own journey, one of the most helpful and important experiences for my coaching effectiveness was to work with a therapist. At a practical level, this helped me clarify and articulate my professional boundaries as a coach. After all – how can a coach fully understand the boundaries between coaching and therapy if they haven’t experienced both? 

But at a more profound level, working with a therapist has helped me to better understand my inner workings, my biases, my trigger points. It has helped me get a better handle on ‘my stuff’, so that I can show up more helpfully for my coaching clients.  

As someone who came into coaching from a non-therapeutic background, I am honoured to work alongside therapist-trained coaches, with the wealth and the depth of experience that they bring. If coaching was keen to break away and lean more heavily into performance and business in its infancy, looking ahead, one of my deepest wishes for coaching is that it continues to honour and espouse its therapeutic heritage; to ‘come home’ to itself.

This process shows up nicely in the BACP Coaching Competence Framework11, and to me signposts where the future of coaching will go. To paraphrase David Britten, one of the consultants to the creation of BACP’s coaching competences, a set of competences is simply a map. We still need our intuition, our wisdom, our humanity and presence to navigate the rough terrain of real-world practice.12 

Like the roots of a tree, today’s coaching landscape seems to be expanding into so many beautiful directions. Recent years have seen the growth and prominence in coaching of, for example, neurodiversity, climate change, social justice and AI.  

These are, I believe, important and fascinating opportunities for learning, growth, evolution and maturation for the industry. There is a danger, I believe, in coaches and the coaching industry also falling into a habit of chasing the ‘new thing’; of coaching conferences and publications seeking the latest developments, the next shiny new topic to get excited about.  

The danger is that this possible magpie effect of always seeking the newest, shiniest thing will first perpetuate a sense of continual deficiency in coaches. Constantly on the treadmill with an incline, always trying to keep up. A sense of deficiency and ‘not good enough’ which might, indeed, make its way into the coaching space. 

The added danger is that a constant sense of newness risks distracting us from our monsters under the bed. That we look ‘over there’, instead of ‘in here’. That coaching continues to break away from its therapeutic ancestry, instead of coming back home to it.  

Perhaps the work of coach training schools, accrediting bodies and supervisors is to teach the rules so that our coaches know when to break them; to codify competences for broad guidance rather than for formulaic process. To help us coaches understand our ‘stuff’, our ‘baggage’ and our deeply held emotional needs so that we can be more aware of how those might infiltrate and taint the thinking and the feeling of the person sitting opposite us.  

I feel drawn back to the words of Carl Jung, to close with a fitting encouragement to us coaches and, perhaps, the coaching industry: 

‘Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes’.13 


1 Whitmore J. Coaching for performance: the principles and practice of coaching and leadership (5th edition). London: John Murray Press; 2017 (originally published 1992).
2 Terblanche N, Molyn J, De Haan E, Nilsson VO. Coaching at scale: investigating the efficacy of artificial intelligence coaching. International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring 2022; 20(2): 20-36. DOI: 10.24384/5cgf-ab69.
3 Farah H. Google DeepMind testing ‘personal life coach’ AI tool. The Guardian 2023; 17 August.
4 Jung CG. Contributions to analytical psychology (translated by HG Baynes and CF Baynes). London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co., Ltd.; 1928 (p361).
5 Blakey J, Day I. Challenging coaching: going beyond traditional coaching to face the FACTS. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing; 2012 (p21).
6 Gallwey T. The inner game of tennis. London: Pan; 1986.
7 Kimsey-House H, Kimsey-House K, Sandhal P, Whitworth L. Co-Active coaching: changing business transforming lives (3rd edition). Boston: Nicholas Brealey; 2011.
8 Rogers C. A way of being. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company; 1980.
9 De Haan E. Relational coaching. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd; 2008.
10 Norman C. Mentor coaching: a practical guide. London: McGraw Hill; 2020.
11 British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. Coaching competences. Lutterworth: BACP; 2023. [Online.] competences-and-curricula/coaching
12 Britten D. A map for the journey: announcing the new coaching competence framework. Coaching Today 2023; January/45: 8-12.
13 Jung C. Letters, Volume 2. Princeton: Princeton University Press; 1973 (p33)