Why physician coaching is not about “helping”

in Physician Coaching Insights

All of us who enter the coaching profession want to support physicians to better manage stress, avoid burnout, and foster resilience.  We often use the word “help” — and why not, we genuinely want to help doctors!

In the process of becoming a coach, though, we learn that the language we use may betray an incomplete understanding of professional coaching. In particular, the word “help” deserves further examination.

Let’s start with how the International Coaching Federation (ICF) defines coaching.  Per the ICF, the coach-client relationship is one of partnership–a partnership of equals.   This concept of partnering, then, invites a new language of relating.  As a coach, I aspire to support my client’s personal and professional growth.

So, how is supporting different from “helping”?

One resource we offer our coaching students to understand this concept of supporting a client comes from author and educator Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen.  While Dr. Remen’s distinction of “helping” versus “serving” is made in the context of being a physician, her insights are aligned very well with being a coach.  Here is her distinction:

Helping, fixing and serving represent three different ways of seeing life. When you help, you see life as weak. When you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole. Fixing and helping may be the work of the ego, and service the work of the soul.

Service rests on the premise that the nature of life is sacred, that life is a holy mystery which has an unknown purpose. When we serve, we know that we belong to life and to that purpose. From the perspective of service, we are all connected: All suffering is like my suffering and all joy is like my joy. The impulse to serve emerges naturally and inevitably from this way of seeing.

Serving is different from helping. Helping is not a relationship between equals. A helper may see others as weaker than they are, needier than they are, and people often feel this inequality.

Having interviewed many candidates for our coach training programs who say they want to “help” physicians, I know what they really mean is they want to serve.  Furthermore, I know their desire to support physicians is indeed emerging naturally.  They recognize we all share a connection of humanity.   That’s what I appreciate so much about our coaching cohorts — their desire to serve is coming from the soul.

Find more Physician Coaching Insights from Dr. Gaillour on our blog.