The future of coaching, even in a world dominated by AI, will still be quintessentially human.
I love coaching. I really do. That moment when your coachee has that insight and that “aha!” moment, and you see it in the spark in their eyes, the same eyes showing the determination for the new course of action they now see clearly in front of them. That moment, like many others during the coaching process, is priceless.
I love coaching because it allows me to accompany others in their own personal growth journeys and through helping others I also grow. A lot. If used correctly, it is one of the most powerful development methods that exists today.
I highlighted the word “if” above because it is an important one. It is a big if. There are plenty of bad coaches out there (I won’t say I’m a particularly good one myself, I’m still learning), who pretend to be expert life coaches after a couple of days of training and little experience, and they mix coaching with some esoteric mumbo-jumbo with little grounding on actual science or evidence. There are also many people who call themselves coaches or think are coaching others, when in reality they are mentoring them, counselling them or advising them.
Good coaching is based on neuroscience, is evidence-based and it usually works. A good coach doesn’t know the answers the coachee needs, nor does pretend to know them, she is only a facilitator who through active listening, good questioning and clarifying, acts as a mirror in which the coachee can find her own answers and achieve her goals.
Good coaching is based on the premise that a coachee is whole and has all the answers she needs within her, or has the potential to find them outside, but it is her responsibility and has the capability to do so. It is powerful because it is empowering.
The most powerful and durable learning is intrinsic, it comes from within, not from others. It is when we reflect, have an insight and change our actions and habits that we learn and grow.
Coaching will have an increasingly important role to play in our workplaces. It has already an important presence today, especially in some regions like the US, Latin America or Western Europe, but I think this will only increase over time as we become lifelong learners and the rapid pace of disruption and change in our environment forces us to develop new mental resources to successfully navigate these uncertain seas.
Lifelong learning is one of the main drivers that will shape the Future of Work. We will need to keep learning and reinventing ourselves into our retirements, and this can be both thrilling and terrifying at the same time. There are many ways to learn new skills or develop new habits, but arguably coaching is one of the best ones.
As I explained above, good coaching helps an individual to find their answers and the insights that work best for them. It is also goal and solution oriented, which is proven to build the right hardwiring in the brain. It is a learning that is tailored to each learner, completely individualised, and that also matters.
For all this I believe that coaching will become an important element of the lifelong learner. Coaching will become widespread, we will all learn basic coaching skills, we will know how to listen and what questions to ask to help others grow and achieve their objectives.
In this context, the figure of the leader-coach will be very important. I think being able to act as a coach will be one of the most important leadership competencies of the future. A leader who is able to listen to her team members, accompany them to find their way towards their goals, not be too prescriptive, but let them make their decisions and learn from their mistakes… This is a leader who will help her team grow, which I think is what leadership should be about: growing people and inspiring them to achieve results.
Technology and the future of coaching
Technology, like in many other aspects of life, can bring many benefits to coaching. It is now possible to coach virtually and during the recent or current lockdowns many coaches have had to coach their coaches via Zoom or Teams.
This seemed anathema before, but not anymore. You had to be close to the coachee, sense all her body language, be present, build trust and rapport… and all that was better done when you were both in the same room. That’s still true, but the pandemic has shown us that the virtual replacement isn’t that bad, and it can work.
Obviously, this opens new possibilities and a coach based in New York can coach, time zone differences permitting, someone in Singapore. The technology will become better and better. Some companies are already developing lifelike avatars that imitate almost perfectly someone’s gestures and movements and will make us feel as though remote people were in the same room with us. Coaching in a virtual world, anyone? It sounds like science-fiction at the moment, but I think we will be using Virtual reality to improve the coaching experience sooner than expected.
Apps are another use of technology that can shape and improve the field of coaching. There are already some rudimentary apps around coaching that help you set up goals and follow them up. They have the name coaching in their title, but they are far from it. These are just goal-setting tools, but it is easy to envisage a near future in which coaches can use an app to support their coaching practice.
Their clients could use this app to look up videos, learning tools and resources around the goals they want to achieve; they could follow-up on these goals; take related notes; add milestones and actions; communicate with their coach in real time, both via instant messaging or videocalls; and a myriad other useful functions. This would allow a coach to reach more coachees and enhance the coaching process through technology, and the coachee would get an improved service just with the use of one single app. I don’t think this app exists yet, but I’m sure someone will develop it soon, and if not, I should start thinking about it myself…
This app would complement the real coaching practice, not replace it. A coach would have her sessions with her clients and in the meantime, they would use the app to improve their learning and achieve their goals. But what if technology could replace the coach?
The Robocoach is here!
There is a lot of talk about automation lately, but can the job of a coach be automated and replaced by AI? Any coach worth her salt will tell you that´s impossible. Coaching is too human. It requires sensitivity, emotional intelligence, building trust, looking at clues in the body language… there will never be a robot being able to do everything a coach does better than a human being.
Never is a long time, but it’s probably true that the AI technology is far from being able to coach better than a good human coach at the moment. Still, there are things that current AI technology can do passably well. It can look at enormous amounts of data, look at patterns and define the best possible course of actions. You could train a deep learning system by making it listen to many coaching conversations so it can pick the type of questions that get the better results.
There are some types of questions that are very often used in coaching conversations, so a machine could be trained to use them based on what is listening. Great questions come from great listening, but AI can also listen. It can even understand and react to human emotions.
The heavy lifting in coaching isn’t done by the coach, but by the coachee. The coach listens, paraphrases and asks the right questions here and there, but it is the coachee the one who thinks, makes most of the talking, makes new connections, has an insight, looks at alternatives and defines an action plan. The coach is there only to support the coachee on her journey. The coachee has all the potential to find her answers, she has them inside her, so in that sense an AI only has to do that supporting role well enough to help the coachee in her quest for answers.
I’m not sure the current state of AI would allow for some great coaching, but I’m sure in a few years’ time we’ll have a basic version of it. It won’t be excellent, but it can be good enough. Considering the cost per session of a good executive coach, I think there is a market for the very cheap version of coaching via the Robocoach. It won’t be as good as the human coach, but it will be much cheaper.
As the Robocoach gathers more data and the technology improves, it will get better and better, until one faraway day it becomes better than a human coach and the coaches follow truck drivers, paralegals and clerks into the growing list of unemployed due to automation.
Coaching as a philosophy of life
I started this article stating I loved coaching and I’d like to finish it on the same note. Coaching is not only a development method, it is a philosophy of life, a humanist one at that. A coach believes that anybody has the potential to grow and improve, and anybody has the capacity to get their own answers. In that sense, I find it profoundly humanist.
Coaching is based on listening to others, not giving advice or imposing your view on them, and on helping them grow through listening and questioning. I wouldn’t advise having coaching conversations with friends or family members if they didn’t ask for it, they can actually find it quite annoying, but you can stand by the tenets of coaching whilst you carry on with your day to day life: you can listen more and better, abstain yourself from telling others what to do, believe in the potential for growth of your fellow human beings, be future and goal oriented instead of problem and past focused…
That’s living coaching as a philosophy of life. I think it helps you live a better life, it works for me at least. I hope we will live in a future in which there will be more coaching, not less, even if that means being coached by robots…