Going back to the core of coaching: musings on knowledge vs learning

Image of some books accompanying a blog post about knowledge vs learning in coaching.

I have really struggled to write this blog post. Metaphorically, I am now sitting in the middle of a big pile of screwed-up balls of paper. Thanks to the delete button there is no evidence of my many aborted attempts to produce something over the last few days.  Generally, I enjoy writing, once I get the bit between my teeth and become absorbed in my subject — but this has been a very slow process and I have not been able to get traction on any topic that has come to my mind.

There are a few reasons for this, but the bottom line is that so much has been written about coaching and more is constantly being written. I keep asking myself what I can possibly add. Even looking at the range of subjects covered on the Catalyst 14 website is daunting. So, I’ve given up trying to be original and have decided to simply follow my musings and see where they lead, trusting that something will emerge that may provide you with some food for thought…

When I started coaching, there were comparatively few books and articles on the subject, and yet I don’t remember ever being at a loss for something more to read. Training to be a coach in the early 2000s, I devoured anything on the subject that I could get my hands on and was endlessly interested in new thinking, theories and approaches. I also felt a certain amount of pressure to read and read more, as though if I didn’t, I might miss something vitally important and be a lesser coach because of it.

Even as my confidence as a coach grew and I began to believe I was really ‘getting it’, someone would say ‘Have you read X? You really should, it’s really interesting’ and I would instantly question myself, thinking I was missing something — and off I would go to buy a copy of whatever they had recommended. Even now, if a colleague mentions a book or an article that I haven’t read (or sometimes even heard of), mixed with my ongoing attraction to anything new, there is still a slight feeling that I might be missing out, or worse still, not keeping up!

I find myself reflecting on how it may feel for coaches in training or entering the coaching profession now, when there is so much more of everything – research, articles, books, courses – and the number of theories and practices acknowledged to link with coaching (and that therefore perhaps you ‘should’ have some knowledge of) has grown exponentially. It is fantastic that the profession has grown as it has and is so much more established now, and that there is so much more choice for coaches and for their clients. Through my supervision of new or trainee coaches in particular, I see how exciting, energising and motivating that can be — and I also see how overwhelming it sometimes feels.

My observation is that both the excitement and the overwhelm can hold similar dangers for a coach – experienced or not. Both states have the potential to uncouple us from some of the real fundamentals of good coaching, which haven’t really changed in 20 years – creating a safe space, listening at a deep and empathic level, asking clear, open, questions and following the client’s interest.

And underpinning these, being truly present with the client, holding a belief in their potential and their agency, and an intention to raise their awareness.  It is easy to get so enthusiastic about a technique, style, theory or model that is new to us that when we are with a client we are constantly looking for a way to practice it. Or we are so stuffed full of things we’ve been reading or learning about that we can’t see the wood for the trees, don’t feel we’ve used any of it and therefore begin the self-talk about not being good enough. Either way, we are no longer fully present nor fully in service of the client.

Of course, the exploration of new theories and approaches, reading and listening to the voices of others – teachers, mentors, experienced coaches, researchers – is a vital part of ongoing development and growth as a coach, whether you have been doing it for weeks or years. However, as we often say on training programmes, coaching is a contact sport, it’s not an intellectual exercise, it’s about being and doing. Reading about others’ experiences or about new theories and ideas about coaching will undoubtedly enrich our work, but it’s quite possible to become extremely knowledgeable about coaching, and not actually be a very good coach.

Like most other forms of human interaction, coaching is sometimes pretty messy. It is rarely as smooth and controlled as a coaching demo on a training programme, nor is it guaranteed to produce amazing insights and breakthrough moments for the client every time. And it’s in this ‘messiness’ and our repeated engagement with it and reflection on it that we generally find the greatest learning (and often the greatest joy).

It can at times be very uncomfortable – in recent supervision sessions, particularly (but not exclusively) with new coaches, I have heard people use words like ‘clumsy’, ‘embarrassed’ and ‘out of control’ to describe how they felt in sessions that didn’t go how they had hoped.

It’s one of the main reasons why coaching can feel like a hard skill to master, especially at the beginning. However familiar we are with the principles of learning (see Kolb, Maslow, Senninger, etc.), it is our human nature to want to bypass the painful bits and to give ourselves a hard time when we do not perform as well as we think we should. Perhaps sometimes we look for ways to minimise or ‘tidy up’ the mess, by turning to books, theories, models etc, when what will help us most is to accept the mess, be present to it, fully engage with the human being sitting in it with us and trust those unchanging fundamentals at the heart of coaching.

“Wouldn’t it be nice … if fallible humans were infallibly perfect…Not really. The fact is, people often learn best when venturing forth in the midst of peril and excitement, deeply immersed in the activity at hand”  – Frank Barrett.


  • Yes to the Mess, Frank Barrett
  • The Learning Cycle, David Kolb
  • The Learning Curve, Abraham Maslow
  • The Learning Zone Model, Tom Senninger (developed from the work of Lev Vygotsky)

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