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What's the Difference?

Updated: Aug 31, 2020

Is coaching different from support work?

Often, I get asked this question. What’s the difference between coaching and support work, “aren’t they just the same, isn’t this just semantics”?

Over recent years there has been an increasing move to name what the community mental health sector provides as coaching suggesting a radical shift in what and how people are offered assistance to lead and live their best life.

This month the NDIS embraces coaching in its range of service offerings. NDIS customers can purchase a recovery coaching service. More now than ever it is important to really get clear about the difference between being a coach or being a support worker. Both approaches are valid in the right circumstances but very different from each other.

What images come to mind when you think about being supported over being coached? Support conjures up the image of a safety net, being protected from falling or a prop that is holding up something because it cannot stand without support. Being coached conjures up an image of a trampoline where it provides a resistance to propel me to even greater skill or development.

The belief about a person requiring support is that they have something disabling them and require support to maintain their balance or status quo. The belief that underpins coaching is that people want to develop new skills, knowledge and control in order to maximise their life opportunities.

Coaching can be supportive – although its intent is to challenge by mutual agreement. The very basis of a coaching draws upon a person’s existing self-determination and self-agency, support work tries to enhance a person’s self-determination and agency, sometimes failing to see it is already there. In order to coach people, one must be willing to see the potential in every person – it is this stance that makes a coach different from support work.

Someone who accesses a coach wants more than the simple answer or for the coach to do the task for them. A “coachee” engages a coach when they want more skills, knowledge or control over the sticky situations they face. Ultimately, they want to experience a sense of increasing mastery and self-agency, and this is a world away from support work.

Changes in mastery and control do not come from doing our everyday things better. We don’t get excited that we can do the washing up faster, or sweep the floor more skilfully, or know how to hang the clothes on the line in better colour order. We also do not get any greater sense of self agency from doing the things that we already can do. We can lose a sense of mastery and control though by not being able to do the everyday things well. Losing mastery and control can simply be eroded when these everyday opportunities are taken away by others when they do it for us. The only way we increase our sense of self mastery and control is by tackling something that is new is important to us and is a little bit outside our comfort zone. Having a coach to assist and challenge us to do this can be useful.

Heifetz in his work on organisational and personal change, highlights the importance of creating a productive zone of disequilibrium for any sustainable change to occur. Although Heifetz is highlighting the importance of this in creating adaptive change in personal and organisational life, this frame of reference is useful to apply to a coaching lens as well.

It requires the coach and coachee to identify the’ limit of tolerance’ and to turn up the heat to work within this. Working outside of this, either too high or too low will result in no adaptive and sustainable change occurring. Heifetz stresses the commitment and intentional effort required by both the coach and the coachee saying, “it might be difficult, and it might be worth it”.

Support usually protects people from experiencing their ‘productive zone of disequilibrium’ either through the beliefs held about a person’s capacity or the perception that support work is “do for people”. This would be akin to providing a quick or technical fix and not result in any change of capacity or self-mastery.

At times we just need support as we don’t have a desire or need to build mastery area. I don’t necessarily want to know how to fix a computer, but I might want to learn how to use one, so I have greater resources at my fingertips to lead and live my life.

Coaching has a learn, try stretch focus that intentionally disrupts our status quo. Once self-mastery is reached in a particular area the need for coaching may no longer be warranted. The success of the coaching intervention can only ever be gauged by the coachee. Coachees usually will only stay engaged in the coaching relationship if coaches are willing to transfer learning and scaffold skill development, enabling a person to experience their own mastery.

Heifetz reminds us that we can have it quick or we can have it right, but we can’t have it both. Yes - Coaching and support work are qualitatively different, it’s not just semantics.


“The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, Tools and Tactics for changing your organisation and the world” Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Gradshow, Martin Linksy Harvard Business Press Boston, Massachusetts 2009

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