What is Life Coaching?

If you were to stop 100 people in the street and ask them what life is, you would probably get some strange looks, but I would imagine everybody would be able to give you an answer of some description.

If you had too much time on your hands and you were to follow that up by asking them if they knew what a coach was, again most would be able to give you a satisfactory answer.

So why do you think it is, that if you stopped 100 people and asked them to explain what Life Coaching is you would get more blank stares than if you asked the way to the gym at a Star Trek convention?

You cannot get too many more obvious words than,  ‘Life’ and ‘Coach’,  but when you put the two together it often throws most people into a state of complete confusion.

Which is why every Life Coach is destined to hear uninformed comments from people such as, “I don’t need anybody to tell me what to do with my life”.

To which I always reply, “excellent, because I have no desire to tell you what you to do with your life”.

I think there are a number of reasons for this, not least of which is that there is no specific standardized universally accepted role for Life Coaching.

Life Coaching – Make It Up As You Go Along

Every Life Coach is free to make up the rules as he goes along if he so wishes. And trust me, some do.

Not only that, but Life Coaching is unregulated and likely to stay so because of the complexity of enforcing regulation.

If legislation were introduced for Life Coaching, how do you monitor people who will no doubt change the name of their job title to something like, ‘Life Designer’  or ‘Life Mentor’?

Therefore, if you want, you can start calling yourself a Life Coach right now and you have as much legal right as I or any other practicing coach does.

Similarly,  if you didn’t want to actually bother with one-to-one client work, but fancy yourself as a trainer, you can do what I have done and set up your own Life Coach training company.

I’m not sure how easy it would be to get people to sign up without a body of work to prove you know what you’re talking about, but hey if you’re a brilliant marketer you could probably pull it off.

That’s the downside.

The upside is there are a great many credible and highly competent Life Coaches helping people to get unstuck, hit their goals and live a more fulfilling and productive life.

If that is, you know what you’re looking for and can work you way through the marketing hype and spot who they are.

Equally, I am sure there are some effective training companies and larger organizations dedicated to maintaining a high quality and to safeguard the people who invest in Life Coaching.

Hiring A Life Coach Is All A Bit Airy-Fairy, Isn’t It?

Another reason for the confusion is because Life Coaching is still seen by many as a bit woo-woo and something that is best left for the arty types who spend a lot of time staring at their cats navels, drinking wild organic Himalayan snow water and knitting yogurt.

I’ve had many clients who haven’t even wanted to tell friends and family members they were working with me for fear of ridicule (no jokes about that just being me please).

I have even had a handful who told me I mustn’t call them at home because they didn’t want their family members to know they are working with a coach.

When I point out that many great business leaders, politicians, people working in the arts, and of course sports people use coaches. And that asking for help is actually a sign of strength and not weakness, it’s dismissed as though it were in some way different.

Of course there can be subtle differences, especially with sports coaches. A track coach is more likely to tell an athlete what to do than a Life Coach would a client.

Also sports coaches are a lot more visible.

If Tiger Woods hires a new swing coach it’s big news. If a senior executive of blue chip organization hires a new coach you never hear about it.

However, there’s one huge commonality that binds all coaches.

Yes they perform different functions, but equally every coach no matter what their specialty is looking to help somebody improve their performance, and Life Coaches are no different.

I’m writing this post in response to questions I  have been asked about Life Coaching, both by people calling me for a consultation, or merely in a social setting.

I want it to be a resource for people unsure of what coaching really is and that also includes new, or soon to be, Life Coaches, so they know what they’re getting into.

So if you have ever pondered any of those questions this post is going to be of interest to you. If you haven’t, read it anyway as an exercise in perseverance (it’s very long) because you never know!

Disclaimer Type Stuff

A lot (although by no means all) of what I am about to say is my opinion.

Please use your own due diligence and common sense if you want to either hire, or become a Life Coach yourself.

If this post proves  helpful to you, please share on Social Media or link to it.

I’m on a bit of a crusade to demystify Life Coaching and help people understand the value it can offer to a modern Society where stress, anxiety and dissatisfaction are now the norm rather than the exception.

What Is Life Coaching?

There have probably been as many different answers as there have been people that have asked the question.

Unlike a lot of professional disciplines, Life Coaching cannot be pinned down accurately (even if some people try) because the term is so generic and there are so many different modalities.

Some coaches prefer to separate themselves from the growing mass of Life Coaches by adopting titles such as Success Coach, Life Transition Coach, Achievement Coach, Personal Coach, and Life Design Coach to name but a few.

Then there are coaches that only concentrate within certain niches. These may be as broad as only working with female entrepreneurs or concentrating on coaching retired people.

Or as defined as working with smaller groups such as authors, people in the legal profession, sales professionals, goat farmers (probably), and of course, Life Coaches that only work with other Life Coaches.

Then there are coaches that focus on dating, relationships, religion, immigration, life transitions, adoption, grief and health to name but a few.

And none of that takes into account Career, Executive, and Business Coaching that require different disciplines and utilize different skills sets, but we’ll not muddy the waters by talking about them in this post.

There are also many different approaches to training because as I said anybody has the power to set up a coach training organization and teach whatever it is they want to teach, presuming people are prepared to sign up for it.

In fact I have done exactly that here!

Types Of Coaching

Even though solution or co-active coaching is the most popular method (of which, more later), there is also NLP Life Coaching, Grow Model Coaching (behaviorism), Transformational Coaching, coaching based upon Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and a whole host of lesser known models.

When you take all this into account it’s easy to see why many people are confused as to what a Life Coach actually does and why you hear ignorant comments like, ‘Life Coaches are just therapists without the education’.

I kid you not when I say that one of the most common questions I get asked by prospective clients is, “What exactly do you do?”

Before I get into that, let me begin by explaining what Life Coaching isn’t, just so we can remove any misunderstandings, because trust me more people misunderstand Life Coaching than realize that there’s no such word as alot in the English language.

Bill Murray quoteWhat Life Coaching Isn’t

First and foremost let me say this.

Whereas I go to great pains to encourage and support my clients, my job isn’t just to tell them how awesome they are and insist they can achieve anything they want to as I sit there grinning at them.

There are Life Coaches who believe anybody can achieve anything, I do not.

You cannot run faster than a Cheetah. You cannot become President of the United States by a week on Thursday. And you cannot stop the aging process.

As Bill Murray correctly says, you are indeed awesome and probably capable of way more than you give yourself credit for, but like every Human Being you have limits, so let’s be sensible, eh?

I may be stating the obvious but it would be remiss of me not to, but Life Coaching is not Counseling, it’s not Psychotherapy and it’s not mentoring even though there can be similarities and crossovers with all of those.

Interestingly, whereas some therapists look down on coaches for a lack of formal training they are often happy to offer Life Coaching services without the need for coach training. Go figure.

The fundamental difference between Life Coaching and therapy (other than the type of client) is that Life Coaching does not dwell on, or in, the past.

In fact, if I spend 10% of my time talking about past issues with a client that’s generally speaking, about 5% too long.

Unlike Psychotherapy and Counseling, Life Coaching nearly always looks to the future whilst keeping the client firmly in the present.

Now please don’t think, as many do, this means that therapists always work in the past with their clients, because of course that isn’t the case. They can, and do, work on future planning.

It’s just that Life Coaches should seldom be encouraging their clients to look backwards.

This is important to understand because I’ve had clients come to me with the express intention of talking about stuff that has already happened.

Unfortunately, neither I, nor anybody else I know this side of Marty McFly with his flux capacitor driven DeLorean can influence that and I refuse to get sucked into that kind of coaching conversation.

Leave The Past Where It Belongs – In The Past

I appreciate under certain circumstances it may be useful to delve around in people‟s history to help overcome current issues.

However, in my opinion, it’s really not as necessary as people are led to believe and in any event, Life Coaches are not trained to do this and sliding into therapy is a big no-no.

Therapy had a substantial head start on Life Coaching, which is still relatively speaking,  the new kid on the block.

As such, therapy is often people’s default thought when their life isn’t going quite according to plan.

If they are stressed they think, ‘Therapy’. If they‟re confused about their life and its direction they think, ‘Therapy’. And if they hate their fifth consecutive job they think, ‘Therapy’.

The reason they think  this way is because they believe there’s something wrong with them, that they are broken and therefore need fixing.

They believe they should be able to deal with everything life throws at them in their stride with a smile on their face and a spring in their step. And if they can’t, then they think there must be something badly wrong.

This belief is exacerbated by the fact we seldom have a clue to what is going on inside other people’s heads.

We get to see people’s highlight reel, not the outtakes, which is frustrating because we often dwell on our own outtakes more readily.

Thus we presume (usually quite erroneously) everybody else has all their ducks in a row and therefore there must be something drastically wrong because we don’t.

NOBODY has all their ducks in a row.


Time To Understand You’re Normal

I cannot tell you how many sighs of relief I have heard from clients when after they have told me their issues I’ve responded by assuring them they are perfectly normal and nothing I haven’t heard dozens, maybe hundreds, of times before.

And that is in no way meant to demean their personal issues, but to explain that we all have our own set of problems to manage (including Life Coaches) and that’s ok, it’s just part of life.

However, for every person that contacts a Life Coach a huge number are considering or undergoing some form of therapy instead, and that saddens me because it’s often not necessary.

Unfortunately Google now guards the actual amount of searches done for each search term and only allows you to compare by volume, but you don’t need to know exact numbers to get the gist of the graph below.

I ran a comparison in Google Trends for the terms Life Coach, Therapy and Counseling and the results were shocking.

 coaching comparison 1

Although searches for therapy has declined somewhat, searches for Life Coach has remained relatively static, which considering some training organizations are eager to tell you that Life Coaching is the fastest growing industry in the country, is somewhat strange, don’t you think?

Last year (2013) there were 70 times more searches for the term therapy than for Life Coach or Life Coaching, or 35 times as many if you bundle the two together.

Then again if you do bundle them together you should also add psychotherapy into the equation that had more searches than Life Coach and Life Coaching combined.

There Are Often Alternatives To Therapy

Of course these figures are only there to give a general feel for trends, but it seems interesting to me that so many people think counseling and therapy is a better option than coaching, when there is plenty of evidence (both anecdotal and academic) to suggest that often isn’t the case.

I’ve no doubt a major contributory factor in the United States is that therapy is often covered under medical insurance and Life Coaching is not.

And in countries who implement a system of social medicine like the UK, therapeutic help is often free with no need to worry about co-pays or greedy unscrupulous insurance companies pulling your cover if you spend too much.

But the balance is so out of kilter it must also come down to education and people not understanding the benefits and value of working with a skilled Life Coach

I have had clients come to me after having been in therapy of one sort or another for literally decades, and no, I’m not joking.

I am absolutely NOT knocking therapy and I don’t doubt that there are many times when long-term help may be relevant and necessary.

Equally, I have no doubt that many more times when it is not and the risk of developing a co-dependent relationship, which is unhealthy on almost every level, can be very high.

On more than one occasion I’ve been tempted to ask a client when they have told me they’ve been in therapy for over a decade;

‘So when did you decide it wasn’t working for you, when your therapist invited you to see his new swimming pool that you’d paid for?”

I am in no way equipped (nor do I want to be) to deal with people who are suffering from severe depression, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, severe self esteem issues, post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), anger management issues, serious addiction issues or even marital breakdowns.

And neither is any coach who hasn’t had the training and become qualified in those fields.

Having said that, I have helped many people who were suffering from chronic stress, who had anxiety and panic issues and even people who had phobias and irrational fears such as flying, driving over bridges and spiders etc.

First Do No Harm

To do the above requires intervention technique skills (largely NLP – Neurolinguistic Programming).

Unfortunately, they don’t sit well with many coaching purists because, as far as I’m aware and these things are open to change as coaching continues to evolve, it’s not taught by ICF International Coach Federation accredited training companies.

Having said that, if you stopped another 100 people in the street and asked if they knew what the ICF was, 99 would have no clue and the person who did know would probably be a Life Coach accredited to the ICF.

In the hands of a skilled practitioner, the worst that can happen by intervening is, it doesn’t work (and yes, skilled is the operative word because there are a couple of processes in NLP that can make things worse if messed up by the coach).

My Approach To Life Coaching

On a number of occasions over the last decade or so since I started coaching I’ve stopped to analyze what it is I do and compared it to what I think I should be doing as a co-active trained Life Coach.

No matter how I looked at it, I could never get the two to match exactly; there were always gray areas.

Solution or co-active coaching relies almost exclusively on asking the client searching questions until (hopefully) they come to their own conclusions.

When I was trained we were told never even to offer an opinion unless we prefaced it with something like;

“Would it be ok if I offered some information that may be useful at this stage?”

Whenever I spotted a short cut and wanted to dive in with practical advice it led to some doubt and confusion as to whether I was doing my job properly, especially in the early days.

However, I‟d usually push it to the back of my mind by asking the following question:

“What is the most important thing when I am working with a client?”

The answer always came back the same. It is to help clients get from where they are to where they want to be.

It‟s not to stick to some unwritten, or even written code that will hopefully get them from where they are to where they want to be.

The rationale behind the co-active/solution coaching approach of asking questions of clients and letting them come to their own conclusions, is very sound and grounded in neuroscience.

If a coach can do this effectively, then change is not only more likely to happen, it’s more likely to stick because the human brain responds much more favorably to arriving at its own conclusions rather than being told the answers.

Your Brain Loves Solving Puzzles

Imagine you’re trying to figure out a complex puzzle and have been doing so for some while when I tell you the answer.

There will be little sense of achievement, no nice little dopamine rush supplied by a happy brain that has just raised its status. And the chances of you remembering the solution to that puzzle is massively reduced.

You’ll probably also want to punch me.

On the other hand, if I keep my big mouth shut and you battle on and find the answer, the reverse of all of the above is true.

That’s the power of co-active coaching.

The conventional wisdom in Life Coaching is that if a coach does a very good job with a client he gets complimented, but if he does an excellent job, he doesn’t.

In other words, the client often walks away thinking it was all his or her own work because after all, the coach never actually told them to do anything.

Let me be honest, it can be somewhat disconcerting to the ego when a client thinks it was purely a coincidence that the change they wanted happened whilst employing me as their Life Coach.

The urge to stick up a hand and  say, “Oo-oo what about me, look  what a great job  I  did” in  a whiny ego-driven voice can be almost overwhelming.

As I say, the upsides of subscribing and practicing the co-active coaching model are obvious and unarguable.

When a client makes a breakthrough it can be huge and it is very likely to stick.

It also removes the risk of the coach inflicting upon the client his world view and reality. Something that is the antithesis of good coaching.

However, the more I work with clients, the more I grow to believe that the downsides to this type of coaching, whereas not as glaringly obvious or prevalent, are nonetheless present and not insignificant.

The Answers Are Still Within You

Yes I believe we all have the resources within ourselves to make the necessary changes. In fact that‟s the only place they are.

Sadly, neither I nor any Life Coach I has a magic box full of determination, courage, enthusiasm, tenacity and belief ready to hand out to our clients.

If I did, I’d be charging a lot more than I do now and probably be sipping a girly cocktail on a Balinese beach rather than writing this post.

Experience has taught me some people do not respond as favorably to the co-active version of Life Coaching as well as others. After all, we are all wired up slightly differently.

It took me a few years to really get my head round this.

Some people actually like to be shown options, they like to be pushed rather than be lead and they respond much more favorably to that approach.

As a coaches I believe I should respect that and work within their framework.

And that is often where NLP (neurolinguistic programming) can be useful as it is more of an intervention/hands on approach than co-active coaching, which is why I teach elements of it in the Coach The Life Coach course.

It can also exponentially speed up the coaching process, and therein lies the rub.

Some coaches don’t want to speed up the process, they want you to sign up for as long as possible because that means they don’t have to generate as many clients to earn the same amount of money.

But maybe that’s an altogether different issue beyond the remit of this post.

Being an effective coach able to deal with most people (within reason, I have no wish to work with certain extreme personality types) requires flexibility and a willingness not be confined to a certain way of doing  things.

Good Coaching Is Reactive

In other words coaching is reactive not proactive.

It’s not accountancy or surgery, it’s not an exact science, and there is no one way of doing things.

When I first started coaching I carried a lot of my approach from sales forward with me. By that I mean I did a lot of prep work before each call as is necessary in big ticket sales.

And 95% of that prep was a waste of time because one question would often send the call going in an entirely different from what I expected.

Now I merely read my notes and kick off a call with an open-mind and frequently no idea what’s going to happen.

Screw The Rule Book

When I think of the great change work coaches/therapists like Fritz Perls, Richard Bandler, John Grinder, Virginia Satir and Milton Erickson, I  think of people who pushed the boundaries and didn’t conform to the norm.

The one thing that combines all of the people above is that they really didn’t care what the rule book said and yet they were still incredibly successful and produced amazing results in their own particular areas of expertise.

Erickson completely changed the face of hypnotherapy with his introduction of artfully vague language (now called the Milton Model) and now the vast majority of hypnotherapists are trained in Ericksonian hypnosis.

Satir did the same with family therapy, and Bandler and Grinder introduced an entirely different approach to helping people make beneficial change with the development of NLP.

A great many Life Coaches I’ve come into contact with work with clients at the level of actions. What I mean by that is they take a look at where a client is and where a client wants to be.

Then they put an action plan in place to bridge the gap.

That can be effective with clients that know where it is they want to be and don’t know how to set goals etc.

It can also be fairly useless in many cases because it doesn’t get to the root cause of what was stopping the person from moving forward in the first place.

It’s equally problematical for clients who aren’t even sure where it is they want to be, and that is a surprisingly large group of people.

When I first started coaching I used to get freaked out by people who would call me and admit they didn’t know what they wanted out of the process.

My Ideal Client

I didn’t feel able to deal with such people, I was under the (false) impression that clients would come to me knowing their passions and what they wanted to achieve, but that wasn’t the case.

Now this is my ideal client. When I get such an inquiry I’m licking my chops in anticipation.

Actions can only ever be the results of thoughts (even if those thoughts are unconscious), so for many Life Coaches it means working with the symptoms rather than cause, in the same way that an aspirin is dealing with the symptom of pain rather than what caused the pain in the first place.

Changing somebody’s thoughts purely by asking questions and using reframing techniques can be very complex and time-consuming.

Sometimes the rapid intervention techniques that NLP offers are a better option.

I’m  a much better Life Coach in terms of the results I help clients attain when I’m  prepared, under the right circumstances, to offer opinions and give advice rather than biting my lip because some coaching purists may look down their noses at me.

Having said that, there is equally nothing wrong with a coach sticking strictly to one coaching model if they are getting great results because in the final analysis results are what it’s all about.

If a coach isn’t helping his clients then it doesn’t matter what approach he is taking, it either needs changing, or the relationship should be terminated.

I’m not even sure I have answered the question of what Life Coaching is because I don’t think there is one answer, so I’ll just give my highly personal take and let you decide if you agree or if it’s even useful.

“Life Coaching is the art of helping people get from where they are to where they want to be using a combination of encouragement, offering advice when pertinent, asking the right questions to help people think differently and occasionally even intervening”

And by the way, thinking differently is the key.

If I cannot help a client think differently about things, then I’ve failed.

So what’s your take on Life Coaching?

I’m especially keen to hear if you have a different take or if you yourself are a Life Coaching.

It was a very long post and I appreciate that you took the time to read it, thanks a lot!

Note:  There were a number of reasons why I wrote this post and I share those exclusively with the subscribers of the Coach The Life Coach newsletter today.

if you’re a coach or want to be it will be an interesting insight. if you’re not, it probably won’t be.