The distinction between coaching and conversations

How can you approach discussions with employees without making them feel like you have all the right answers?

Steffan Surdek
June 7, 2021
Amy hirschi K0c8ko3e6 AA unsplash

At times, being a coach creates something interesting for me when I listen to the people around me. One of my pet peeves is when some of them talk about coaching others.

There is a belief out there that senior leaders, directors and managers need to be coaches. I agree with this to a certain extent, but I have reservations about this as well. The challenge is that coaching implies different things to different people.

In this article, I want to explore with you some of my personal views on coaching. I also want to share with you a key distinction near to my heart: The difference between coaching and having a conversation.

What is coaching?

I will qualify this once more before I begin. This is my personal viewpoint on coaching and is not an official definition by any means.

At its core, coaching is helping people reach their goals. There are many different ways of going about doing this. For example, coaches on sports teams will help their teams train and put in place strategies to win games.

There are business coaches who help leaders in different ways in organizations. For example, some help people launch their businesses or get them back on track. Others, such as Agile coaches, help companies put in place different frameworks.

There are personal development and life coaches who support individuals in their growth. These coaches help people adopt a new way of seeing and interacting with their world.

The question for you now becomes: As a leader in your organization, which of these do people expect from you?

The pitfall of coaching as a leader

With my clients, I often see leaders follow some form of internal coaching course. The key thing they learn is to ask powerful questions to their employees. They also learn not to give solutions and to let people come up with their own answers to problems.

While this is fine in theory, it creates a weird dynamic in conversations. Leaders often feel as if they cannot bring their ideas to the table, so they ask leading questions instead. You know, the type of questions that steer people towards what the leader is thinking.

Now be honest with me: Is this something that you learned? Is this something that you actually do and practice?

If this is the case, let me guess what happens next. Your employees are catching on to what you are doing. They are starting to ask you exactly what you are thinking instead of playing the cat and mouse game. They are even answering your questions with questions of their own to mess with you.

The problem is that this approach to coaching creates a bit of distance between you and the other person. It can take away from the natural flow of a conversation and make things feel awkward.

It can also create a posture where you seem to know the problem of the other person. It can produce a false sense of certainty that you are right as the coach and you are "educating" the other person. If you also manage the person, it makes things worse as you are in a position of authority as well.

How about having conversations instead?

You need to remember that above all, coaching is a conversation. The key skills of a coach are being present, being curious and deeply listening to the other person. When you think about it, these skills apply to any conversation in your life.

As a leader, "coaching" is often about giving your employees feedback on something they did. Coming back to an earlier point, calling it coaching can sometimes make you right and make them wrong. Especially if you only give them feedback when they did something in what is perceived to be the wrong way.

Approaching it as a conversation can open new possibilities for you, for example:

  • You could share your observations and be curious about why the person acted a certain way.
  • You could share your thoughts on a situation and explore how to resolve a problem together.
  • You could share what the person could do a different way next time without implying that they were being incorrect this time.
  • You could talk about what the person did well in the situation.

The important thing to remember here is you can use the key skills of a coach in the discussion you are choosing to have. Using them in this way, though, does not mean you need to call it a coaching conversation.


Learning to guide people as a leader may seem challenging, but with practice, you can learn how to do it. When you frame your talks with employees simply as conversations, it can remove some of the weight or awkwardness that comes with the "coaching" label.

Being present, being curious and deeply listening to the other person are important soft skills that coaches use to create powerful conversations with their clients. You can learn and practice these skills and use them in any conversation in your life. They can make a huge difference in the impact that your discussions have on people!

How are you currently having conversations with your employees and other people? What are the skills that you could develop to better support them?

Article Photo by Amy Hirschi on Unsplash.