Expert Coach: Do they need expertise in anything other than coaching?

How to deal with the negative side effects of coaching

Expert coaching

The Expert Coach: The clean v expert coach debate


  1. Clean v expert coach
  2. Clean coaching
  3. Expert coaching
  4. The clean coaching dilemma
  5. The expert coaching dilemma
  6. What the research says
  7. The expert coach
  8. Is it real expertise?
  9. Accidents and experience
  10. Expertise is more than experience
  11. Impressive



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Clean v expert coaching

One of the oldest arguments in executive, management and organisational development (OrgDev) coaching has been the ‘clean’ v expert coach debate. This is a topic I have seen coaches get very heated and upset about and the industry is often polarised in this aspect.


Clean coaching

On the one hand, the ‘clean’ coaching protagonists state that a good coach only needs to be an expert in coaching and they can / should be able to facilitate anyone to the realisations they need to progress. The idea behind the clean coaching model is that coaches without any subject expertise or knowledge will and cannot introduce any bias into the direction of the coaching. All the coach needs to do is facilitate the coachee by helping them structure their thoughts and think about things from different perspectives.


Expert coaching

On the other hand, there are those who believe that having a background or expertise in an area can not only help the coachee but help to better frame and contextualise the area the client needs help in. Knowing the topic area means that the coach can still facilitate the coacheee to realisations, but they are more likely to know new avenues and resources the client can use, where as the ‘clean’ coach is most likely going to be left with questions like “where can you find out more about this topic?”. The problem here is when the client has run out of ideas or doesn’t know or doesn’t know or have any contacts to ask outside of the coaching relationship, the quest often ends, incomplete.


The clean coaching dilemma

The problem with the clean coaching ideal is that it isn’t really clean and it isn’t / can’t be unbiased. As the clean coach explores more with the coachee the coach starts to gain knowledge and thinking (cognition) through the eyes of the coachee. That knowledge and thinking can’t be undone. You can’t pretend it hasn’t happened. The moment the coach starts to get exposure to the clients world they quickly become ‘unclean’. The problem is the coach’s view of the context and the world of the coachee, comes largely from the coachee. This means it is necessarily limited and biased.


The expert coaching dilemma

The problem with the expert coaching ideal is that the expert might not be up-to-date, may jump to solutions and ‘knowing’ what to do before the coachee has arrived at their own solution. Keeping a balance of expertise and naivety is not easy as an expert. Expertise has its inherent bias. Whilst the expert will probably see things in a wider and more experience way, and have evidence for their expertise, it is all too easy to fanipulate (facilitate+manipulate) the coachee into the coach’s answer and solution, often without either being aware of it.



Research takes time

What the research says

A study published in the Journal of Personnel Psychology in late 2016 (get this research briefing)looking at the negative side effects of coaching found that the frequency of negative side effects of coaching is reduced in 3 situations:

  1. The relationship between coach and coachee is on a professional but friendly footing – the researchers noted:  “The coach should be congruent and authentic, and show unconditional positive regard for the coachee, as well as an empathetic understanding of the coachees situation and goals.”
  2. The coach is considered by the coachee to have expertise and experience in the area under consideration, and
  3. The coachee has a motivation to change.

To download a free copy of this research briefing (The negative side effects of coaching): Click Here

The expert coach

The study found that if the coach is seen to have a background and expertise in the work area within which they are coaching and to have in-depth knowledge of the area, this tends to significantly reduce the negative effects of coaching. The authors of the study recommend that “coaches should not hesitate to emphasise their abilities.”


Is it real expertise?

The issue is what is this expertise based on? Often it is the coach’s experience in the area, say leadership or management for example. Experience as expertise is a funny thing. An individuals experience isn’t an objective ‘thing’, it is by nature very subjective. Our experience is not a history of incidents, rather it is a history of our perceptions and conclusions about what has happened. Two people can arrive at very different experiences from the same incident.


Accidents and experience

In a former life, I was a police officer and you could deal with an accident in which one person in a car is severely traumatised by the accident in a way that effects their lives for years. Yet a fellow passenger may just brush it off and the experience becomes little more than a ripple in their lives.

This analogy of the accident goes further than the subjectivity of experience. Experiential learning is necessarily episodic in nature. What I mean by this is it is founded on the episodes of the incidents that occur for that individual. One individual’s experiences and their perceptions of those experiences are often controlled by accident, the things they have seen and been involved in. One person may have experience of a wider range of situations where as the next may have experience of a narrower range but have more depth in those areas… or not.


Expertise is more than experience

This brings up the question as to whether expertise is experience or more than that. Usually, expertise is taken to mean more than just experience. It usually means that the individual has explanations, models and frameworks to understand, analyse and interpret the reality of work. Real expertise means that the coach knows and understands these. That they can analyse and interpret the reality of work in useful ways and vitally has proper evidence for their conclusions. Further that they know the evidence beyond their experience – that they know the latest research, thinking and ideas.



This level of expertise is very impressive. Having a coach that can do this, that can help you see things from different angles, help you analyse things in more structured and meaningful ways and is in touch with the latest thinking and research in an area is both deeply impressive and incredibly useful. A true expert coach will still let you explore the issue and come to your own conclusions but the value add is immense.


Book Review: The Art of Coaching: A Handbook of tips and tools

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David Wilkinson

David Wilkinson is the Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Review. He is also acknowledged to be one of the world's leading experts in dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty and developing emotional resilience. David teaches and conducts research at a number of universities including the University of Oxford, Medical Sciences Division, Cardiff University, Oxford Brookes University School of Business and many more. He has worked with many organisations as a consultant and executive coach including Schroders, where he coaches and runs their leadership and management programmes, Royal Mail, Aimia, Hyundai, The RAF, The Pentagon, the governments of the UK, US, Saudi, Oman and the Yemen for example. In 2010 he developed the world's first and only model and programme for developing emotional resilience across entire populations and organisations which has since become known as the Fear to Flow model which is the subject of his next book. In 2012 he drove a 1973 VW across six countries in Southern Africa whilst collecting money for charity and conducting on the ground charity work including developing emotional literature in children and orphans in Africa and a number of other activities. He is the author of The Ambiguity Advanatage: What great leaders are great at, published by Palgrave Macmillian. See more: About: About David Wikipedia: David's Wikipedia Page

  • Maggie Kelly says:

    This blog post provides a valuable perspective on coaching expertise and the skills that are most important for coaches to have. While expertise in a particular area can certainly be beneficial, the most important qualities for a coach are those that enable them to build strong relationships with their clients and help them achieve their goals. Whether you are considering hiring a coach or are interested in becoming a coach yourself, this post is a great resource for understanding the key skills and qualities that are needed for success in coaching.

    Life, Business, and Spiritual Coaching with Maggie Kelly
    4523 Sun Valley Rd, Del Mar, CA
    (858) 248-0488

  • james john says:

    Great Blog!
    Anyone looking for life coaching sessions so do visit our homepage.

  • Sridhar says:

    I do believe clean coaching helps to progress without selling yourself and harness your skill.

    Having expertise in the area and doing clean coaching helps to ask more sensible questions without advising.

    To do this coach needs to be RESPONSIBLE, COMMITTED and YET DETACHED.

    The more the wise the coach becomes, and does his duty being authentic there without getting forceful because of his expertise, the more impact/he or she will be able to create.

    Hence answer is use best of the both worlds to maximize impact.

    • Hi Sridhar,
      I like that you introduced the ‘wise coach’. I think developing wisdom is a much underplayed goal both in coaching and in life in general. I personally think that coaches who are themselves trying to develop wisdom and who are overtly helping their clients develop wisdom and understand that this journey is worthwhile are worth their weight in gold.
      Thank you for your wise comment

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