“Coaching is an advice-free zone.”

Erickson Coach Facilitator

About a year ago I decided to pursue certification with the International Coaching Federation (ICF). That decision led to my enrollment in Erickson’s The Art and Science of Coaching which has been designated by the ICF as an Accredited Coach Training Program.


During our very first session, we explored the distinctions between coaching, consulting, mentoring, training, counseling and friendship. This made for a lively and quite interesting debate. One of the key distinctions which stood out for me was contained in the lead quotation.

As a consultant, HR practitioner and mentor, I’ve become quite used to clients, business partners and high potentials participating in succession planning or other professional development programmes looking to me for advice and guidance. In fact, I’ve also had staff make similar requests in the context of performance coaching conversations. Therefore, I became very interested in exploring different ways of navigating such territory.

Assuming Coach Position

Erickson describes coach position as a neutral, detached and non-judgmental perspective where one’s thinking and actions are governed by the following five principles:

  1. The client is truly okay just as s/he is  i.e. s/he is not broken and doesn’t need fixing;
  2. The client has access to all the inner resources required for him/her to be successful;
  3. Every behavior has a positive intention no matter what it looks like on the surface;
  4. The client is doing his/her best with what is available in the moment and deserves no blame, shame or reproach; and
  5. Change is happening in each moment; therefore, the coach needs to be listening and looking for growth and increased awareness.

When we hone in on the second principle, we see that the client already has access to the required resources. Therefore, advice is not only unnecessary but ill-advised since it could prevent the client from capitalizing on all available opportunities for growth.

From coach position, we support our clients in their quest to be, do and have what s/he wants. In order to be effective in providing such support, it is absolutely essential that we do not impose our own preferences, judgments, suggestions or opinions. Rather what is required is the masterful use of powerful questions to encourage deep reflection and ultimately the discovery of relevant meaning and solutions.

Yes, But?

Suppose you’re diligently maintaining coach position in keeping with the Ericksonian Principles and the client comes right out and asks for your advice. What do you do in that situation? I think one possible answer to that dilemma can be found in the use of an exercise called the Mentor’s Table.

The Mentor’s Table is specifically geared towards helping clients overcome inner obstacles thereby paving the way for them to generate winning solutions in keeping with Erickson Principle #2. In addition to situations where the client has turned to you for advice, this particular exercise is also extremely useful when the client has indicated that s/he feels confused, overwhelmed or helpless.

Visualization ImageThe Mentor’s Table is a visualization exercise during which the client selects three mentors who have helped him/her in the past. Alternatively, s/he may include one or more persons/experts with skills relative to the challenge/project at hand. The client then visualizes him/her-self engaging each mentor with meaningful questions related to the challenge. Further s/he then visualizes how each mentor would respond. The coach assists the client in harvesting the collective advice and wisdom gleaned from the mentors in order to identify specific action steps which s/he will take to treat with the challenge/obstacle.

The beauty of this activity is that it satisfies the client’s need to get advice without breaking coach position by imposing/injecting the coach’s judgment into the situation. There is an added benefit in that the process enables the client to move to a higher level of awareness of his/her inner resources since, after all it is the client him/her-self who ultimately provides the requested advice.

One Last Thing

Another reason why I really like the Mentor’s Table is associated with what it helps prevent  i.e. the dependency that clients can develop if their coaches don’t adhere to the advice-free zone approach. If we allow our clients to become dependent on us for advice and/or for validation of their ideas and actions, then we are truly doing them  and ultimately our profession a disservice.


  • Julie Meeks

    We had a great skit demonstrating the difference between a coach, a mentor and a psychologist/counsellor. This helps a great deal in explaining the role of a coach further. Summoning the inner mentor is another part of the visualization which could be beneficial when advice is sought.

    • Great point re inner mentor, Julie. That may work particularly well when the client is has a high level of self-confidence which you can tap into to have them self-mentor rather than look to an external mentor.

      Self-talk can be an especially powerful tool to have at one’s disposal.

  • Robert Gregory

    The reward is to see the client emerge from deep reflection with the glowing discovery of their own growth and empowerment.

  • Laurie

    This has been another eye opener and changed these concepts for me. I think though that many people see coach and mentor as somewhat synonymous.

    • Both mentors and coaches can be extremely helpful. However, the nature of the relationship is quite different. As the coaching profession promulgates standards through bodies such as ICF, potential clients will become more discerning. Therefore, those of us in the profession need to be quite clear on what service we’re offering in any given situation. Some of my clients want/need a mentor, and that is a service which I can provide. However, when I enter a coaching relationship, if a situation arises where the client is requesting mentoring I firmly believe that I have an obligation to ensure that it doesn’t take place within the context/under the guise of coaching.

      In some cases, I may make a judgment call that the client can and will understand and respect the difference in the roles and not seek to conflate them. However, in other cases, I may opt to have the client identify a third party to fill the role of mentor in order to safeguard the terms of our coaching relationship.

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