Coaching is a soft skill ... Is it?

Updated: Aug 30, 2019


How many times do we hear that coaching is a ‘soft’ skill? Indeed, many personal development training is often categorized as ‘soft’ skills.


If you dig deeper into those ‘soft’ skills, many of them are about people. People’s interactions with others and people’s interactions with themselves. Yet ask managers or any leader what is the most challenging part of their role, and the answer is often—dealing with others!


When looking at some definitions and distinctions between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ skills, it seems that ‘hard skills’ are often defined as those which are specific, teachable abilities that can be defined, measured and assessed; and examples such as mathematics, reading, computer programming etc. are often quoted. If, however we transfer these hard skill criteria of “teachable, measurable and assessable to coaching, do they map across? Nowadays the clear answer is, in my opinion, ‘YES.’ In coaching, there are sets of defined competencies that allow us to teach, measure and assess a person’s skill as a coach. Just like the ‘hard’ skills, there are also levels of skill and these too can be taught, measured and assessed.


I come from the International Coach Federation (ICF) philosophy of coaching, where the eleven ICF core competencies for coaching provide the framework for the skills student coaches learn that allow them to become professional and competent at coaching. This learning enables them to be assessed in a way that describes their skill level leading to a coach being awarded an ICF credential: Associate Certified coach (ACC: the entry level); Professional Certified Coach (PCC: the level to aim for) and finally the Master Certified Coach (MCC: the aspiration for many).


Why is all of this important? It not only supports a coach to understand their skill level and what development they can pursue, it importantly helps buyers of coaching understand who and what they are buying. As an unregulated profession, it is important that buyers know what they should expect from a professional coach. Whether the buyer is within an organisation or someone buying coaching purely for themselves, by hiring a coach with a professional credential, issued by an independent body, at least they know that the person has been trained, measured and assessed and has, as a result, attained a level of competency. This expectation is underpinned by research undertaken by ICF and PwC in the latest Global Consumer Awareness Study.


The word 'soft,' also has the potential implication that something is 'easy.' Given the many hours that coaches invest in their coach-specific training, the time they take to get independent observation of their skills, the ongoing learning every year they must undertake for their continuous professional development and the exams they go through, coaching is certainly not 'easy.'


There is a definite science to coaching, and a growing body of research that enables us to understand human behaviour in a much more detailed way. Great coaches become students of human behaviour in order that they can coach others. Like many of the skills we learn, it's when people let go of the doing of the skill, and just embody what coaching is, that the art of coaching takes over—and that’s what then makes it look easy and perhaps is perceived as soft. Of course, enlightened organisations know all of this and research is clearly showing an expectation that coaches have received accredited training and hold a professional qualification as mark of their professionalism and the standard of the services they provide.


In summary and in answer to the question: ‘Is coaching a soft skill? My answer would be a firm ‘no,’ coaching is not a soft skill, done well its very 'hard’!


Hilary Oliver is a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) with the International Coach Federation (ICF). She is also a trained Coaching Supervisor and Mentor Coach. Hilary trains coaches and works with managers and leaders to develop their coaching capability. She works as an international Corporate Executive and Board Level Coach, a leadership development designer and facilitator working with a wide range of organisations. Hilary also specialises in working with organisations to support them develop coaching culture. She has been the President of the UK ICF and is a Past Chair of the ICF Global Board.

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