The following article was published in ICF Malaysia
(International Coaching Federation) Newsletter Issue no. 003 /
“The map is not the territory” is a remark by Polish-American scientist and philosopher Alfred
Korzybski, encapsulating his view that an abstraction derived from
something, or a reaction to it, is not the thing itself.
Coaches, trained or certified, may have been taught by the coaching
institution, the importance and mechanics of such a concept.
Nevertheless, in coaching, this
idea is applied, consciously or not.
For example, a coachee comes with a challenge or problem, describing his
or her situation as the current reality. A reality, implies something
“real” like the territory, which is “concrete”, is the problem or
obstacle, as per his or her “mental picture” (map)
preventing him or her getting what he or she wants, or feeling
lost and does not know what to do.
A coach’s job is to help him or her to see the so called “reality” or
“territory” from different perspectives, thus creating different options
for action to create the results desired or achieve better situation.
To shift from one perspective to another is the key objective of the
Sometimes to create such a shift, is more difficult than shifting a
physical mountain to another location.
Currently held perspective can be a well anchored labeling, judgment,
belief, reinforced with powerful emotion and psychology.
example: “My financial loss is
due to the market crash” “My deteriorating health is due to the cancer
or diabetes, etc.” “My poor performance is due to my unjust boss or
demanding and un-reasonable work pressure.” “My difficult business
operation is due to my lazy and dis-honest staff.”
If one is lost in a wilderness and he has a map to help him out, surely
he will hold on to the map tightly, defends it fiercely when someone
tries to snatch it away. He may even kill you if you try to suggest the
map is not real, or the map cannot help him out.
A cancer patient firmly believes in Western medicine and chemo
treatment, ignoring other factors like positive lifestyle, calm mind,
proper diet etc. may eventually meet the fatality, though other cancer
patients, paying attention to those factors, get well from the Western
medicine and chemo treatment.
What is Cancer? Or, the understanding of cancer?
‘Cancer is a class of diseases in which a group of cells display
uncontrolled growth, invasion, and sometimes metastasis.”
The above is a definition or explanation. Simply it is a labeling.
Such a labeling or definition by the medical professionals, works within
the confine of science – (physic, biology, chemistry) something that can
be tangibly measured, analyzed, tests performed with consistent results
etc. They do not take into account other factors like state of mind,
feelings, beliefs, degree of stress, emotion, attitudes etc. of the
Have you even come across a drug with prescription like “Take 2 tablets
when your unhappiness or fear is X units, take 3 when you experience 50%
more of X units”?
A labeling is a Map painted (as per the definition of the problem),
trying to explain the “territory” (disease) from a set of underlying
assumptions or pre-suppositions.
When a person’s mind is entirely possessed by such a labeling, like the
above cancer patient, he will act (within the confine of that labeling)
and meet the consequences.
Rigid and restricted labeling, then, becomes not so useful.
On one hand, we create complication to our life by mistakenly taken the
“map” as the “territory” or the reality.
Furthermore we reinforced it with labeling. Labeling is a serious
matter – each of us has a name, which is a label. Once labeled, you
stick with it for life, like you do not change your name, as that may
destroy your identity. Isn’t that true?
As coaches, we cannot avoid not to have formation of maps on coaching
profession. After all, coaches are human beings too.
We have a lot of labeling in coaching profession. For example, Executive
Coaching, Life Coaching, Sport Coaching, Coaching for Performance,
Coaching for Success, Parent as Coach. These create a lot of
specializations in coaching, like in the medical professions: heart
specialists, lung specialist, skin specialist, etc.
“Coaching”, apparently a simple profession, can be very complicated. For
example, the definition (labeling) on coaching is a big challenge, or
often a tense debate among the coaching professionals in such related
fields: such as making distinctions from other similar fields like
Mentoring, Counseling, Therapy.
Some of us may have experienced as a patient, we are being passed from
one specialist to another specialist, which can create more complication
to us as patient.
In a similar like, we could have a situation for a coachee to be passed
from an Executive Coach, to Life Coach, to Counselor and Therapist. Good
business for the many different types of coaching professionals, just
like good business to the many different medical specialists.
Is that really good for the coachee?
Labeling of different coaching professionals is also being further
reinforced and anchored. Here comes Certification. Certification is
already being well practiced by medical professionals in different
Because of the above labeling, or mapping of coaching territory, more
activities are generated in debates, different seminars, training to
advocate a particular labeling of coaching. This can create many
different fractions and camps, each championing their own correct
version of coaching or label.
Hence we observe a “X” coach, after witnessing anther coach applying
NLP, “Sand Play method” reacts strongly: “that is not coaching, that is
therapy, which should not be applied in coaching session!”
Or, “The coachee jumps from
a high rise building, commits suicide, after a coaching session from an
un-certified coach” trying to prove a point the importance of
certification to be a qualified coach or rather therapist. Of course
this person who makes such remarks ignores many cases of coachee or
patients commit suicide after sessions with qualified and certified
coaches / therapists.
In our coaching work, we help coachee to generate more maps, or options
so as not to get stuck in the current situation, perceived as the
reality or territory, and facilitate a good focus for action to produce
desired worthwhile results.
After all, when the map is not the territory, what is viewed as
territory is Not a reality, but could be an illusion, or incomplete
Perhaps as coaches, we can help ourselves to steer away from excessive
labeling, maps that still cannot fully describe the coaching territory,
as that can never happen anyway – a full and perfect labeling or
definition, under the question “What is Coaching?”
In the above example, medicinal prescription does not take into account
the mental state : e.g, unhappiness level. This is because the medicine
is researched, designed and manufactured under the definition or
labeling of the diseases and such a labeling is a restrictive map.
As coaches, we also need to be mindful of the restrictive mapping we
made in our coaching service to clients. E.g.
“Dear coachee, please refrain from bringing up emotional issues
or spirits affecting your performance, just stick to GROW (Goal Reality
Options Will Do) process.” – this obviously is the coach’s agenda,
mapping on what is coaching and what is not coaching and impose on the
Perhaps we should pay FULL
attention and focus on the coachee – our client, his or her agenda and
desired outcome, using whatever tools and techniques, coaching,
mentoring, therapy, counseling etc.
Perhaps we do not need label for coaching, oops!, “coaching” again.
Let’s just call it “helping people business”.
Note: The writer is practicing the above concept, minimizing coaching
labeling, thus providing services to clients (individual and
organizations) on various types of issues, problems or challenges. For
details, please refer QuaSyLaTic Learning
System – http://www.360q.com.
20th Sept. 2009