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Artificial Intelligence – You give coaching a bad name!

This is not a title I ever expected to write, but there you have it. I hope you are at least humming the Bon Jovi tune…

I am a passionate supporter of using AI in Coaching. Based on numerous academic studies I have done or been involved in over the years, I believe we have sufficient evidence to be optimistic that AI could play a very important role in the coaching industry. We have initial proof that AI chatbot coaches such as Coach Vici can hold their own against human coaches in certain contexts (structured goal setting). There is also emerging evidence that some people actually prefer to engage with coaching chatbots rather than human coaches (they feel psychologically safer). We have also seen that certain applications of AI in coaching such as teaching coaches and managers coaching skills (e.g. Ovida.org) are changing the coach skills training game. The obvious advantages of AI coaching are the scalability, cost savings and their ubiquity and I have written about this on several occasions (see https://www.coachvici.com/news/). So why then my misgivings in the title of this article?

In short: I am concerned about WHAT the word “coaching” means in the phrase “AI Coaching”. I am seeing a proliferation of AI coaches that don’t coach, but rather give advice, teach or play in the waters of mental health. Quick solutions to complex problems. I have observed this phenomenon in the feedback sessions after we roll out Coach Vici in organisations. A sentiment we often hear is that users were surprised about the amount of effort they had to put in engaging with Vici. “It kept asking me questions!” Users expected to type in their question and be given a magic solution, perhaps a bit like with ChatGPT. This is not coaching by my definition. It is spoon-feeding without doing the hard work of reflecting and finding your own answers and hopefully insights into your thinking processes and patterns.

This confusion about the nature of Coaching is not new. And of course coaching is not a purest activity. We may sometimes briefly move into directive even therapeutic mode. It doesn’t help that we still don’t have one agreed upon definition of coaching and in fact I often see and hear people use the word “coaching” in the context of mentoring, training or directive guidance. This recent, thoughtful article on this conundrum by Prof Tatiana Bachkirova provides much food for thought: https://radar.brookes.ac.uk/radar/items/458749c0-39c3-4502-b9b6-4a3db4c81f93/1/

So where does this leave AI coaching? On the one hand one could argue that perhaps AI is pushing coaching in a new direction. Perhaps it will change the very nature of what coaching is and how it is defined. Maybe when we use AI together with coaching it is acceptable to provide advice, guidance and quick, immediate solutions to problems by tapping into the vast knowledge-base of the AI. Perhaps AI can now actually do that quite convincingly – far better than a single human coach can on the spot.

Or, maybe we need to push back and resist the temptation of quick solutions, just because there is an AI involved. We know through numerous meta-studies that non-directive coaching as prescribed by ICF, EMCC, AC, COMENSA etc works well. Just like we had to work hard to move away from the “Wild West of (human) Coaching” (see https://hbr.org/2004/11/the-wild-west-of-executive-coaching) 20 years ago, we need to find a way to harness AI in the service of non-directive, facilitative coaching.

This is where I believe the coaching bodies such as EMCC, ICF, COMENS, AC etc need to step up and provide the necessary leadership. I have been part of a group working with ICF on a set of AI coaching standards that will hopefully be published soon. While it is not perfect, it is a starting point to further debate this important issue.

I can’t wait for the first Coach Body accredited AI coach. No more “bad name giving” in AI coaching!

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