What’s in a name? Everything, when it comes to first impressions.
My own first impression of life coaching was in 2008. I was at a wedding, when the groom announced in his speech that he had recently become a life coach. People smiled and listened, but I could feel shadows of smirks and confusion enter the banquet hall. “What’s that?” “Is he just doing it because he doesn’t know what to do with his career?”
Some of those thoughts entered my own seventeen-year-old mind. What did I see when he said ‘life coach’? I saw something like a pushy sports coach, blowing a whistle on a field and telling people how to live their lives. As the unfortunate kid who was always picked last in P.E. and sports, the word ‘coach’ felt scary and intimidating. And really, who was anyone to be able to tell me what was best in my life?
Now I know that it isn’t about advice at all. However, the phrase ‘life coach’ itself does nothing to bust the myths of advice and expertise. In fact, in a way it kind of perpetuates them, by suggesting that some enlightened beings know about ‘life’ itself.
People’s first impressions differ greatly. Some might see a Tony Robbins cutting a messiah-like figure on a stage of 50,000 frenzied fans, or a Michael Serwa dishing out the harsh ‘truths’ on Made In Chelsea, followed by a sea of people posing as ‘coaches’. This image troubled me.
I decided that I wanted to dig deeper. So, I asked some friends how they defined a ‘life coach’. I then asked fellow coaches what they initially thought a ‘life coach’ was and how that measured up to what they would define it as now. The results were pretty intriguing.
What my friends define Life Coaching as:
“Guiding someone in getting back on track and reaching goals in life” – Anushka
“Life coaching is the way to evolve through the wisdom and patience of other people who see in you what you don’t see” – Jack
I’m not a fan. They remind me of careers advisors at school… People who have a sh*t career trying to give advice about careers.” – An ex Tinder date
“To help people uncover and unleash their desires to fulfil their true purpose in life and live a happy and purposeful life.” – Caroline
While these descriptions are mainly nice (my ex Tinder date doesn’t mince his words), three out of four of them centre on ‘guiding’, ‘wisdom’ and some sort of expertise. Interesting. Let’s get on to the coaches…
How fellow coaches defined ‘Life Coaching’:
“I thought it was advice. I.e. this is how to live your life. Here is a cool model you can use. Etc. Now powerful, inquisitive questioning.” – Lee
“When I first heard the term ‘Life Coaching’, I honestly imagined a scenario whereby somebody (I thought it would have to be someone really wealthy or famous) had a coach shadowing them in their day to day activities. Almost like a guru. The coach would be with them and advising them.”
“Now, I see it as a very special and unique relationship between two people who begin as strangers; the coach and the coachee. They form a collaborative bond of trust and connection in order to explore depths that not even lifetime friends can often reach. The coach’s total respect, regard and belief in the coachee’s power to find solutions allows a space for deep introspection and new perspectives. It gently removes the mask that blocked the coachee’s vision and stopped them from expressing their full potential.” – Sharon
“When I first heard of it 10 years ago, I thought life coaching was a bit of a joke if I’m honest. I didn’t think someone could make a living from it! I also thought that to be a life coach, you have to have some special kind of life experience and ultimately be exceptional.”
“Now, I would say that a life coach is an agent of change! Someone who can whisk someone up and help them make important changes. To help transform their lives from a place they are unhappy with to a place they are very happy with. A coach is more than a conversation, it’s empowerment.” – Dez
“Before I became a life coach, I was helping clients to uncover and recover. I was attracted to life coaching, because it was about discovery and accountability. I could empower the client by helping them recognise they can’t change the past but could create a better future. Now, it is still empowering the client to find their own solutions, but more importantly to build resilience to uncertainties that are certain in life.” – Tereza
I wasn’t surprised that fellow coaches had similar assumptions about life coaches being exceptional guru-like species full of advice. Now, however, their definitions capture the essence of coaching being non-directory and collaborative.
But the problem remains. People form an initial assumption about what ‘life coaching’ is. Why? Because of the name. Because ‘life’ and ‘coach’ together form an impression of someone who knows more than you about life.
How can we change that? Maybe by thinking about being specific with that name. Samantha Dunnage, The High Achiever’s Coach asserts “I think the term ‘life coach’ is vague and misunderstood. A lot of people seem to think it means you are going to tell someone how to live their life and be a ‘better’ person which is wrong. It’s vague, like saying you are a ‘business consultant’. Coaches who can differentiate themselves and specialise, for example ‘fertility coach’ or ‘coach for female entrepreneurs’ will stand out and give potential clients more understanding of what they do.”
Fair point. Clearly niching out could be a step in the right direction. I would go even further and question the term ‘coach’. We spend our open days and introductory sessions on coaching analysing our job title. But our very profession is based on breaking shackles and creating mental plasticity. Why are we even boxed into this name?
Instead, I would work backwards and first find my own definition of this ‘thing’ that we do: “A collaborative relationship based on trust, deep listening and open and powerful questions, which re-wires the brain in an exceptionally empowering way.”
Then I’d ask, ‘What do I want to call myself?’ Aha. I am an ‘Empowerment Facilitator’. For me, that’s a lot more accurate and powerful than a ‘life coach’.
What would you call yourself?