In the past week I realized I’ve been sticking my head in the sand around how AI will impact  coaching. The belief I was holding onto was that coaching is fundamentally about transformation through human relationships and that AI wouldn’t be able to match that. 

Thanks to global coach training company, Coaches Rising, and their session last week on AI and the Future of Coaching, I’m moving swiftly from fear and denial, to curiosity and energy about how AI can enhance coaching and what the opportunities are for human coaches going forward. 

In short, it seems AI will be great at transactional, goal-focused coaching and humans will be essential for more complex, person-focused transformational coaching. The future for human coaches is to bring the magic of being human.

These are some of the key takeaways I gleaned from Coaches Rising guests, Karim Hirani and Sam Isaacson, who are both coaches as well as experts in technology:

#1 AI will help democratize coaching by making it more affordable and accessible 

The reason I coach is to help people become more aware and responsive influencers in the world. If AI can help expand access to coaching for a wider range of people, that’s fantastic as more people will benefit! All it requires is a willingness to learn and grow and an openness to use AI coaching. 

It turns out that one of the thought leaders in the AI coaching space is based in South Africa. Nicky Terblanche, PhD, senior lecturer and research supervisor at the University of Stellenbosch Business School, says that business coaching in 2021 cost an average R1700 / hour which limited its accessibility to senior leaders at companies. In 2021 there were only 2000 International Coaching Federation (ICF) credentialled coaches in the Middle East and Africa (about 5% of accredited coaches globally), which couldn’t service the needs across the region.

What we’re seeing already are several AI coaches, like Woebot, Replika and, where you can ask questions of a specific leader like Steve Jobs. In South Africa, Coach Vici, which was launched in 2021 by the University of Stellenbosch, is a cost-effective and scalable way for companies to make goal attainment coaching accessible to all employees. It also opens up coaching for lower levels of management and for those in small businesses.

#2 AI can deliver goal-oriented coaching as well as, if not better, than humans 

Coaching, by its definition and as distinct from certain forms of psychotherapy, has to date focused around helping people achieve specific goals that are important to them. 

Machines are very good at achieving specific goals, based on what they’ve learnt from humans, and are more predictable than humans at replicating outcomes. Essentially, machines are great at being machines. Humans are great at being ‘human’ and this includes not being that predictable. For example, we can get triggered or lost and not stick to a pre-organised path. 

If the coaching need is around a specific goal, AI may well be even better than us humans at delivering. This has been verified by research into the efficacy of Coach Vici, which showed that it was as effective as human coaches in goal attainment.

AI coaches are already great at transactional coaching, essentially focusing on actions and performance, rather than on the human being. Where AI can’t meet the needs of the coachee, it refers to human coaches. 

#3 The opportunity for human coaches is to bring the magic of being human

The landscape around AI will continue to shape shift and at this stage it seems the opportunity for human coaches is in the nature of being human (i.e. not the predictable stuff).

There is something magical and synergistic about humans interacting that is inexplicable, creative and even ineffable, where we don’t know what will happen, and where often something greater emerges out of being human together. 

The importance and premium of human connection over machine connection will become foregrounded, based on the biological imperative of social connectedness and a basic human need for real, embodied connection and presence. Human coaching will be about presence, the practice of really being with someone in the here and now, not trying to get anywhere, listening, allowing, pausing, engaging. In this experience, people feel seen, heard and valued, and so much can be unconsciously transmitted and transcended, quite magically. 

Presence with another facilitates healthy co-regulation between nervous systems. It opens up qualities of love and empathy. It also unlocks the part of us that is needed to solve real world global challenges like climate change and inclusion. As humans, we have the ability to sit in the messiness of complexity, of unknown unknowns, with a sense of wonder and intuitive ability, to subtly navigate and make sense of, so that new ideas can emerge. 

Machines are not sentient and can’t feel or sense what a human coach can. AI can create a predictable experience that is very efficient and impressive but it won’t be magical. Robots are harmful when dealing with things humans have never dealt with before because they can only do what they have observed humans doing. They will come up with theories or hallucinations but don’t have the ability to create new thinking. Not yet anyway! Even with bots advancing their consciousness to a later stage of development, based on human advancement, bots will be able to ask more post conventional questions but can’t bring the presence, transmission and meaning-making in an immediate and embodied way. 

#4 The call for coaches to work with AI going forward

I loved the calls to action posed by the Coaches Rising speakers, which speak to a collaboration with AI for enhanced experience and impact:

Acknowledge our fear around AI, embrace the future in an aware way and stay up to date on tech developments so we can meet clients in our tech evolving world 

Use AI to do the more iterative, predictable tasks (e.g. scheduling, setting goals, tracking progress, research, data-driven insights) so we can focus on the human part

Augment clients’ experience by bringing AI into sessions e.g. coaching in a Redwood forest using Virtual Reality headsets

Cultivate our consciousness and our beautiful human side, inviting in deep humanity, presence, depth and empathy

Practice what we preach in coaching, inviting in questions and adaptive ways of being to our environment

In conclusion:

The future of AI and coaching holds great promise for enhancing coaching outcomes and making coaching more accessible. However, we need to strike a balance between the capabilities of AI and the unique value that human coaches bring to the coaching relationship.

The opportunity for human coaches going forward will be more in the realm of transformation, being able to navigate complex issues with senior leaders, individually and in teams, through expanding consciousness and exploring new ways of being. AI coaching will ultimately fill all the other gaps.

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