What is Life Coaching?

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Just what is “life coaching,” anyway? The designation “life coach” is fairly new to the helping professions, so many people do not have a clear understanding of what it is, how it differs from other counseling/mentoring models, and how/when it can personally useful.

A casual internet search of the term immediately leads to Wikipedia’s definition:  “Coaching, when referring to getting coached by a professional coach, is a teaching, training or development process in which an individual gets support while learning to achieve a specific personal or professional result or goal.”

Although Wikipedia is not a definitive authoritative source, this definition is as good place as any to start — a dry but essentially accurate definition. What does this mean in real-life terms? Sherene Zolno, President of Proaction Associates, puts it this way: “…as a coach, you have a commitment to help [a] person see their world in a new way… [breaking] open possibilities.” The job, says Zolno, is “to create an opening for people to go forward.” It’s a creative endeavor, most successful when done with openness, curiosity, humor, and the belief that possibilities always exist.

People come into this world with inborn personal inner truth. Each of us was created for a reason. Somewhere deep within, we “know” who we are. Sometimes, however, we lose sight of our true selves, because challenges to this inner knowing arise as our lives unfold, adding layers upon layers of experiences, impressions, exigencies, and expediencies, muddying and covering this inherent inner truth. We feel adrift without knowing why, or even how to articulate our sense of disconnect, let alone what to do about it. Or, we get stuck in some situation or thought process, immobilized in a place of not-knowing, unable to move forward. What to do, where to turn?

Life coaching is an effective method for “putting Humpty Dumpty together again,” helping clients explore their mental and emotional landscape in order to rediscover their inner truth and rhythms. Coaches do this by using “access tools” (thoughtful and/or playful exercises to discover what is going on) as well as specific exercises to find solutions and then create plans for dealing with whatever issues come up.

Life coaching is tailor-made, designed for one client at a time according to their needs and issues. Often, coaching sessions take place by phone or Skype, which, perhaps surprisingly, is totally effective. The course of coaching includes extensive conversation which may lead to use of specific exercises,  according to the client’s needs and circumstances. In addition, coaches introduce clients to specific tools which they can put into practice independently in their daily lives. Over the course of the coaching period, clients assemble a “tool box” of techniques to use whenever they need them.

Only the client can know what is right for him/herself, even if that knowing is sometimes temporarily hidden from their view. Therefore, life coaching is never about giving advice. Rather, it is always about helping clients uncover or rediscover their personal inner truth. Life coaches have the tools and experience to help clients access this inner truth, guiding them and teaching them how to help themselves. Ultimately, the coach’s goal is to work him/herself out of a job!

How are life coaches different from therapists, counselors, mentors, and other helping professionals? Part of understanding what coaches are comes from understanding what they are not. Here are some definitions of helping professionals, followed by explanations of how coaches are either the same or different:

  • Therapist: “a person skilled in a particular type of therapy.”
  • Psychotherapist: “a therapist who deals with mental and emotional disorders.”
  • Social worker: “promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being”

According to Kara Jones, of the Grief Coaching Studio,  “A traditional definition is coaches talk about moving forward and therapy is about looking backward.”

Life coaches are generalists. They are skilled in ferreting out issues, feelings, and limiting beliefs. They help clients put their finger on and articulate what is underlying or triggering their sense of disequilibrium. Coaches have the requisite skills to help clients redirect their paths, restore equilibrium, and/or achieve specific goals. However, if the coach senses deeper underlying psychological issues, he/she will help their client find a more appropriate path, possibly referring them to a licensed psychotherapist.

Of these categories, social work is the most similar to coaching, although social workers have more extensive training in psychology and social systems. Often they are involved in larger programs with groups of people or institutions, whereas  life coaches typically focus on attending to circumstances and problem-solving for individuals.

(Caveat: unlike psychotherapists or certified social workers, life coaches are not licensed. Technically, anyone can decide to add that title after their name. People who are interested in working with life coaches should investigate the training and/or certification of any coach before deciding to work with them.)

  • Counselor:  “A person trained to give guidance on personal, social, or psychological problems.”

In the strictest sense of this definition, coaches are not counselors. They do not make specific suggestions or give guidance directly. A coach’s mission is to help the client discover their own answers, which they do by skillfully asking probing questions.

  • Mentor: “An adviser”
  • Adviser: “A person who gives advice”
  • Guide:  One who shows the way by leading, directing, or advising”

Again — coaches do not advise, so they also are not “mentors,” “advisers,” or “guides.” per se.

  • Teacher, instructor: “Shows or explains to (someone) how to do something.”
  • Consultant: “One who gives expert or professional advice.”

Occasionally there may be an element of teaching involved in coaching, but only in the sense of helping clients learn to use specific tools —  for example, teaching them a strategy or process to follow to implement goals that the client him/herself has identified.

  • Confidant: “One to whom secrets or private matters are disclosed”

Certainly, there is an element of confiding in most if not all relationships between clients and helping professionals. Like other helping professionals, life coaches adhere to a strict standard of maintaining confidentiality.

For many people, the designation “confidant” carries an aura of friendship with it. While coaches strive to be “friendly,” welcoming, and approachable, they are not “friends.” They stand outside the client’s world in order to be able to help the client see inside it. By being objective outside observers, coaches help clients examine their lives realistically in order to learn how to operate within their circumstances according to their own wishes to achieve their own goals.

To summarize, life coaches help people clarify and articulate what they want most from life and then work with them to figure out how to achieve it. Coaching is an ongoing collaborative partnership, resulting in clients taking themselves more seriously, doing more than they would on their own to create momentum and consistency, and taking more effective and focused actions to become more balanced and joyful.

Life coaches fill an important purpose, creating sacred space for clients where they can be free to explore the depths of their being, knowing they will be respected and held gently in conscious presence as they find their ways forward on their journeys. Life coaching goes beyond labels and classifications, beckoning clients to wholeness and the wonder of living fully and joyously.

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