This is one of the most asked questions on google (about coaching, not, you know, in general). Is life coaching a con? Is life coaching legit?
And there’s a simple answer, which is yes. Life coaching is legit.
But some people that call themselves life-coaches make questionable claims and are not trained in coaching skills and methodologies. When that happens, then yeah, it's not what it claims to be. And that's the con. It's the pretense that is problematic. The pretense of being skilled in coaching, and the exaggeration about outcomes.
Anything can be a con if its proponents are misrepresenting themselves and their offer.
What coaching can do for you
After a little trawl on google, I found some vitriolic mumsnet posts about the legitimacy of coaching, various articles claiming that coaching is a licence to print money, liberal smatterings of the word Charlatan, and some stuff about pyramid schemes.
I started to feel wobbly and doubtful. Am I a “woo” type person who can’t find anything proper to do? Is coaching a swindle. Who do we coaches think we are?
Soul-searching about coaching isn’t something that’s new to me. It’s why after I qualified that I didn’t do what I’m doing now: making a dedicated living out of coaching. Instead of immediately becoming a coach I used coaching at work in my leadership role. Then I a did masters and a Phd where I used coaching in my teaching and to help colleagues prepare for presentations and lectures. And what I learned was this: I wished that my own managers were coaches, I wished that my academic supervisors were coaches, and I was able to help my students in ways that got me consistently excellent feedback – largely because of my coaching skills.
(I actually learned academic stuff and research methods and all that too, of course. But that made me realise that coaching is a practical skill not, like what I was learning at university, an intellectual pursuit).
So coaching is a skill. And a very useful skill at that. I discovered through practicing that the skill of coaching: listening, synthesising, holding space, reflecting back the clients own thoughts, problem solving, individualising solutions: are things that we all want help with at some point. That kind of help is hard to come by. This here is a balanced article about why coaching is worthwhile.
One of my clients said it best in that coaching is good at:
Providing support that family and friends can't provide in terms of accountability partner, confidence builder and bullshit repeller (as in I believe my own bs that I'm lazy, which hinders my progress, but you as a coach won't buy it.
Last week the same client said:
I am successful in my work life
Successful in my personal life
100% happy and content
She was absolutely the one that made this happen. Which is as it should be. Who wants to feel like their success is down to someone else not themselves? But coaching helped her figure out what mattered to her, and kept her optimistic when things got tough.
What is the skill of coaching?
The skill of coaching is listening and understanding. To do that you also have to be good at asking the right questions.
I can explain it like this. While teaching undergrads, in the weeks leading up to essays or exams I might have seen more than 20 individual students needing help and advice. There were people at the university more academically gifted than me, more experienced, and with greater subject knowledge. But the students didn’t always want to speak to them. Why? Because they were more interested in telling the students what to do than in understanding what each individual needed to be able to do that thing.
It’s all very well giving standard advice about how to write an essay. But most students can find that information easily. What really helps is understanding the difficulty they personally are having. And the only way to do that is to move your own ego out of the way and listen.
Here’s a thing I know. I have been coached and I have been to therapy. Therapy requires a lot of knowledge and training on the part of the therapist because it deals with complex psychological problems. It can take a very long time and a lot of effort to be effective. But it is effective. There is a wealth of evidence to show the efficacy of CBT, for example. And from my personal experience I can say that therapy often gets a bad rap, but it has made huge difference to me.
Even despite the training that therapists undergo, and though it has been shown to be effective in well-designed research trials, not every therapist is good. And not every therapist is right for everyone. I’ve had a couple of truly awful therapists.
And I’ve had some therapists that have changed my life. Truly inspirational and compassionate people who are masters of their profession.
And likewise I have had some terrible coaches, and some great coaches who with a single question can open up a whole world of insight and possibility.
Coaching is an unregulated industry, so you can be a coach without any kind of training or accreditation. The way to avoid these is to beware of “coaches” that promise unrealistic results. Coaching is about you, and only you can deliver results for yourself. Your coach is your guide and your support, not a magical guru that can fix your life on your behalf. Also beware people who seem to have learned their coaching from self-help books. Coaching is a specific discipline with a specific structure, based on proven psychological techniques, not a cobbled together soup of manifestation, self-help tips and dreaming.
That’s not my style at all. I struggled a bit with my training, in the sense that it didn’t focus on the theoretical underpinning of coaching techniques. My training did provide me with some excellent skills and with and understanding of how to do coaching. I try to dedicate a day a week to learning about how coaching works, and about the increasingly growing evidence for that. I am lucky that I can use my academic research skills to do that. But what has made me a good coach is being able to combine the learned skills with my own personal style and approach. A good coach is a coach that is effective for you. For me, as a coach, that means being compassionate and straightforward.
What exactly is life coaching?
Life coaching sounds a bit California doesn’t it. A bit sprouted beans and super-foods.
But coaching (any kind of coaching like performance coaching, executive coaching, well-being-coaching, business-coaching, change-coaching) is all a system of communication that enables you, the coachee, to understand what you want, the thing(s) that get in the way of you achieving it (sometimes practical restraints, but usually attitudes or beliefs that keep you stuck), and will then support you with taking the action required to get what you want.
It’s not a golden ticket to riches. It’s more like the best friend you wish for who doesn’t butt in with advice before you finish your sentence, that knows how to draw you out on what your struggling with, that has experience in the thing you are concerned about and can make some problem-solving suggestions, that really wants to listen to you and to understand your predicament, and then help you to come up with the right solutions. And when you feel like you are stuck, or muddled or have veered off down a cul-de-sac, your coach will help you get back on the right road to your destination.
How is coaching different to therapy?
Quite a few prospective clients of mine have found this distinction unclear.
Let me elucidate: the purpose of coaching is not to help you to manage your mental health, but rather to realise specific life and career goals.
Life coaches are not trained to understand and to treat psychiatric disorders, or mental disorders. Coaches should know their own boundaries and not claim to be able to help you with underlying depression, anxiety or psychiatric disorders. Their training is significantly shorter and less intensive than a therapists'. That is not to undervalue coach training: it is effective at what it is for. Good coaches will keep on top of their own personal and professional development through learning and supervision, and will have developed their skills through significant hours of practice. They focus on how you get what you want from your future, not on past traumas or maladaptive emotional coping mechanisms.
I, for example, have undertaken almost 100 hours of training with reputable coach training providers, and undertook almost double that of free practice sessions to sharpen the saw.
If coaching won’t make my wildest dreams come true, what’s the point?
The emphasis here is on wildest. Sometimes when we are promised what seems utterly impossible, we lose our sense of reality and want to believe that we can achieve enormous wealth, and that enormous wealth will solve all of the doubts, difficulties and shitty parts of being human.
Well, look, you know and I know that this is simply not the case. There’s no such thing as a struggle free life. But does that mean that you can’t have lofty goals and go for what you want? Absolutely not. My approach is to enable coachees like you to maximise what you value in your life, not what you think will remove all difficulties. With more of what you value life is more meaningful, more enjoyable and more peaceful. For some people that means more time with family, for others it’s to be challenged and excited at work. For some it means massive changes, for others small tweaks will get them where they want to be. I help identify and facilitate these.
I hope that this will have helped to clarify what a coach can do for you. If you have any questions, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can find out more about my coaching packages here.
Hofmann, S.G., Asnaani, A., Vonk, I.J.J. et al. The Efficacy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Review of Meta-analyses. Cogn Ther Res36, 427–440 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10608-012-9476-1
I'm Jodie Lamb and I have been running Trevnee Coaching since early 2020. I've been an accredited life coach since 2008. I focus on Careers and Change. I work with people that are either thinking about changing things in their work and want a plan and support with acting on the plan; and people that are experiencing any kind of change in their lives and need help to make the most of it.
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