We have a problem in coaching. And even more so in life coaching.
It’s the word itself.
It evokes all sorts of fury and scoffing at the arrogance and hubris of someone who thinks they can coach another person on their life.
“Who the #$@% do you think you are to be a life coach?”
Variations on this question pepper our social media threads from time to time and I find myself answering them with some degree of sympathy for their underlying challenge.
To give a couple of examples in the last month:
The truth is that coaches don’t really coach. At least, not in the sense that people often think about coaching. Nor, indeed, do counsellors counsel!
Sometimes a profession gets stuck with a name (due to its roots or some other arcane reason) that really doesn’t do it justice. Even worse, it can get stuck with a name that actually inflames people’s anger through a fundamental misunderstanding of what the profession is.
And so it can be with life coaching.
I have huge empathy for people whose hackles are raised by the idea of life coaches setting themselves up as gurus who condescend to tell other people how to live a good life. Indeed, it goes against everything I, my school, and coaching as a profession stand for.
Yet there’s no doubt about it: the term “life coach” does indeed sound like the kind of person who does just that.
But, let’s be absolutely clear. It’s a misconception.
Life coaches don’t tell anyone what to do or how to succeed in life. They don’t give them advice and they don’t have a stack of nifty life hacks at their disposal.
Before I explore what coaches really do, however, let’s think about the assumptions that posts such as the ones above contain.
There’s an assumption here that there may come a point in life where you can “qualify” to coach someone to have a better life but that it’s based on your life experiences not on any kind of training. In the posts above, we see that we can earn that ability by going through tough struggles – imprisonment, drug addiction, family separation. Or, in the second post, that we earn the right through living life, going through stress, pushing yourself and then reaching out to people willing to learn.
And, by the way, both of these are entirely credible and amply travelled paths to become someone who helps.
Both paths might make for powerful, wise and resourceful individuals who can give back to others. And we see this a lot in the field of youth mentoring, addiction recovery, bereavement support and many other areas of life. More typically, we call this mentoring rather than coaching. Here experience counts.
However, this approach can equally make for people who think their way is the right way and that anyone who doesn’t do it is failing themselves! There are plenty of gurus who exemplify that particular path!
Think about it. Even on a basic, day-to-day level, how many of us have been given advice by people older or “more experienced” than us yet whose advice we know is not right for us. It’s not that they’re wrong but there are a multitude of factors that can make one person’s solution, another person’s false promise. We’re not them and they’re not us.
Take all those people who have lost huge amounts of weight and are convinced that they now have the answer. Ironically, they might disagree with someone else who has achieved the same outcome in a different way. “Don’t listen to her! Do it my way! Her way is just a fad; my way works!”
The multiple knowing voices kick in: They should go vegan, paleo, do HIIT, go running, reduce calories, pump iron, attend Weight Watchers, buy smaller plates! It’s mindset; it’s situational, it’s genetic; it’s diet; it’s modern-day living; they’re victims of a consumer society; they’re weak willed.
Everybody has a view and each is convinced they’re right! It’s no wonder people go back to the old habits that kept them stuck.
The truth is, of course, that any and all of these approaches to weight loss might work. But which one will be right for this particular individual who has this particular set of beliefs, motivations, values, situational forces and so on? That’s the real question.
The same is true for career development, business building, parenting, relationships, money management and on and on.
And that’s where life coaching is so different.
Life coaching assumes that there is no one right answer. Our starting point is one of exploration, not explanation! We begin from the Socratic position that asking questions leads to clarity and then individual choice.
Coaching assumes that the best answers come from a process of a person thinking, deciding, experimenting in the real world, seeing what changes and reviewing to make adjustments. Ultimately, coaches believe that the client’s experience and outcomes are what matter not the coach’s own beliefs or personal journey.
At its heart, coaching is about “not knowing”, not “knowing”.
It respects that the person who must make the change can and will find the answers for themselves if they care enough. And it believes that this process is helped when that person has the space to think and the support of someone who cares, who is curious, who can point out blind spots, who can hold them to account, who can reflect what they’re seeing, and who can help clarify by asking powerful questions that make that person stop and think rather than repeating well-worn answers.
Coaching is not about teaching someone how to have a better life; it’s about creating a conversation that enables someone to face and embrace their choices that lead to that better life.
Now, it would be reasonable to ask, “well, if coaching is about helping someone find their own answers, why don’t they just do it for themselves? Why even bother with a coach?”
Sounds like a pretty good question, right?
But let’s be honest about people here. For all our self-knowledge, for all our inherent ability to solve problems, for all our intuition, for all our desire to move to a new state, most people remain stuck thinking within a set of constraints about what’s really possible or what they just have to live with.
Take yourself. When confronted by a difficult problem, is staying in your own head usually the best way to solve it? For you, it might be; in which case you might be someone who wouldn’t value coaching. But for the vast majority of people, having someone help them to voice their challenges, their attempts to deal with them, their beliefs and assumptions around them and what they might do differently moving forward is the beginning of real change.
“Fine”, you might say, “I’ll talk to my family, my friends, my colleagues.” That could work. But again, experience shows that often the people you are nearest most often are stuck thinking in the same way as you – they’re part of the same circle of social, intellectual and behavioural influences.
It’s the coach’s job not to do the thinking but to help clients think outside of their constraints by thinking with them – to ask questions that probe more deeply, to challenge where they perceive assumptions are being made that are untested, to hold the client to account for what they say they are going to do, and, if they didn’t do it, to dive deeper to understanding why. They’re about helping their client actually say, often for the first time, what they really want rather than what they think they should put up with.
The specifics of what you learn as a coach are outside the scope of this article but it’s important to say that coaches don’t learn solutions of how to live well, which they then repeat parrot-like to clients! That’s the myth that would rightly infuriate people if it were true!
What they actually learn is how to build conversations that most effectively help a client find their own way. That’s a rich set of psychological theories, practices and skills which can take just days to learn but many months to become good at (and a lifetime to master!)
So let’s wrap this up by answering the opening question as best we can.
“Who the #$@% do you think you are to be a life coach?”
Given what coaching actually is, rather than what’s it’s often mistakenly thought to be, what gives someone the ability to coach is not their personal history, not their struggles, not their accomplishments, not their credos. It’s their natural tendency to be interested, to care, to be OK to not have the answers, to be able to ask the questions that make a difference, to be willing to challenge, to be honest in what they see, to be able to let someone have space to think. Quite simply, the true quality of a life coach is to be there and to believe that change is possible.
Of course, I know this article will not convince everyone, maybe not even many. If you’re set that coaching is a waste of time and money, then this article has probably done little to enlighten you. But then you probably aren’t reading it either! And if you have read it all the way through then it shows you’re at least willing to challenge your assumptions of what it means to be a coach and to help someone improve their life. And that’s a pretty good place to end at!