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What does a life coach do?

I’m going to level with you. I really dislike the term life coach. In the UK, it doesn’t have such a great reputation. For some people, it has become synonymous with:

· ‘Woo woo’ processes that have zero scientific grounding

· Advice giving

· People who think they live a perfect life

And probably many more things that I’m not even aware of!

The truth is, a life coach is none of those things. However – and this is a big, huge ginormous however, as coaching (all aspects of non-sports coaching, including executive, personal, corporate, business) is totally unregulated, anyone can call themselves a life coach. And they may be any or all of the above, or someone trying to be a good life coach but with no interest in investing in qualifications, training, supervision or even getting to grips with what coaching is and what it isn’t.

There are many problems with this and there are two that impact on potential coaching clients directly. 1) You may not really know what coaching is and therefore either discount it as a tool for self-development or actively loathe the very idea of it. 2) When you get to the stage of thinking of coaching as something you could embrace, you have a very diverse range of coaches to choose from, many of which may not have done anyform of training.

The first step around the latter issue is to check that your coach is accredited by a professional body such as the International Coaching Federation (ICF) or the European Coaching and Mentoring Council (EMCC). Coaches that are accredited by one of these bodies have to have had high quality training, proven their knowledge and be working towards or already conducted a set number of hours of coaching (depending on the level of their accreditation).

The International Coaching Federation is dedicated to advancing the coaching profession by setting high ethical standards, providing independent certification, and building a worldwide network of credentialed coaches across a variety of coaching disciplines. They define coaching as:

‘partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.’

Which is great but may still leave you a little in the dark if you’re wondering but what exactly it is that a life coach does. And how it differs from, for example, executive coaching.

Let’s start there by looking at life vs executive coaching.

Who pays for it? Executive coaching is usually paid for by the coachee’s organisation. The organisation usually sources the coach which may mean the coachee has less choice in picking the coach. Life coaching is usually paid for by the person receiving coaching, who sources the coach themselves. (Quick tip, almost all good coaches do a free discovery or chemistry call. Take them up on that. It’s a good way to see if you’re a good fit.)

What does it look at? The divide isn’t really as black and white as some people think it is. In executive Coaching, the programme sponsor (a representative of the organisation), the coachee (the person getting the coaching) and the coach will come up with broad programme goals. These usually (but not always) relate to enhancing some kind of performance at work which could look like increased sales, more harmonious working relationships, improved confidence or simply transitioning to the next level. In life coaching, the coachee sets the programme goal which could be anything. I most often coach people who have a work-related goal (and a lot of self-employed/business owners). However, with both executive and life coaching, there is an acknowledgement that you’re the same person at work or at home, so issues in your home life can affect your work life and vice versa.

When does the coaching happen? For executive clients, self-employed and business owner clients, coaching often happens during the workday. For employed personal clients, coaching sessions are often off-shift, unless the coachee has negotiated time away from work with their line manager/boss.

Which is the most productive? Both executive coaching and life coaching can be incredibly productive and equally both have coachees that don’t reach their goals. Sometimes that’s because a coachee isn’t ready to make a change and it is more often that I see that with an executive coachee. This happens because not all executive coachees are 100% on board with the idea of coaching at the start of the process. They’re doing it because they’ve been invited to (or told to in some cases). It is a lot rarer to have a life coachee that isn’t ready to make a change because most people don’t invest time and money in a programme until they are ready. That’s not to say that that doesn’t happen, but it is infrequent.

Great, executive coaching and life coaching are really similar. But I still don’t get what it is that coaching does!

Ok, perhaps an example can help. The most well-known coaching model is called the GROW model by Sir John Whitmore. The acronym stands for Goals, Reality, Options and Way forward. Not only is this one of the simplest models to teach, but it’s also a great one to use as a lot of clients like the structure and signposting. There are many (many!) more coaching models, but the reason I like to use this one to explain what coaching does is because all models will use these elements (even if they do this in a different order and/or add other components).

Goals. There are two types of goals I’m going to be asking you about as your coach. The first is the overall programme goal. I may ask you to imagine we are at the end of the coaching programme and it has been amazingly successful. How would you know it was successful? What is different for you? I’m also going to ask you, every single session, what your goal for the session is. Sometimes we might spend most of the session discussing your goal. You don’t have to come with a specific goal, that might be what we work out together. You might have a vague idea like ‘be better at work’ or you might have a highly specific idea like ‘increase my self-confidence so that I put myself forward for a promotion at the end of the year’. Either way, we’ll work together so you have a goal that you can clearly imagine, describe and articulate. Sometimes, I may encourage a client to really dig into why a goal is important which often sees the goal change slightly. What might have started as a goal to lose weight becomes a goal to be confident in your own body. When the goal is specific and really firmly rooted in something that is meaningful to you, you’ll be able to understand exactly how it would feel to have that goal become a reality and why it’s important to you.

Reality. Where are you now? We’ve pinpointed where you want to be and now it’s time to look at where you are. What’s the difference between now and your goal? This may involve some exercises to build your self-awareness. It could involve asking more about how others see you, using tools such as a 360 appraisal or Johari’s window.

Options. What different ways are there to get from where you are now to where you want to be? We could be looking at multiple long-term steps, or single actions in the short-term.

I do not give you any answers here. You’re the expert in your life and you know more than I do about what you can do next. Occasionally, it might be pertinent for me to offer some information, reflect back what you’ve said, but I do not tell you what you should do.

Way forward. Which of the options you’ve come up with feels the one you’re most comfortable with? Which one is going to be the most productive? Which one are you going to pick? Can you incorporate multiple options? What is it you are actually going to DO? Coaching can be about you making changes to the way you view things (your mindset) or the way you think about thing (your cognition), but we’re also looking for you to make changes to the things you do (your behaviour). There’s a fascinating interaction between mindset, cognition and behaviour, but unless you find that you are changing anything, then coaching isn’t working! And the level you are most likely to see change on is in your behaviour. To give you an example, say you want to be more confident in meetings and prevent yourself being spoken over. You might come up with a couple of strategies to help with this. They could be:

· Doing Amy Cuddy power poses before the meeting

· Writing your goal in the corner of your notebook so you can refer to it at all times

· Have really good notes so you are confident in the content of your speech

· Internally repeat ‘I have good ideas that deserve to be heard’

· Deliberately slow down your speech and make eye contact with allies

· Practise a line to use if you are interrupted such as ‘Thanks. Let’s come to that after I’ve finished this.’

· Avoid fiddling with pens, water glasses, notes

All of these are behavioural changes, but some also work on a cognition level by affirming that you are confident and competent to be speaking. Done for long enough, you’ll change your mindset to being one where this is something you can do. (It doesn’t necessarily mean that you are confident at all points, but confident enough in a given situation. Because, honestly, there are very rarely people who are confident about everything all the time. But there’s a hell of a lot of people that are great at strutting their stuff and pretending to be!)

There may well be a lot more to your coaching programme that that. We might look at resistance to change, the neuroscience of engaging your pre-frontal cortex over your limbic system, holistic tools such as mindfulness and anchoring, self-limiting beliefs, or…well anything really. As a coach, I may mention that I’ve observed certain themes in how you relay information, or I may invite you to do exercises such as writing your life story or get you to practise forms of behaviour we’ve discussed.

The outcome is also highly varied because it really comes down to what your goals were to begin with. It might be that your goals change as we move through the programme. In fact, this is highly usual because as coachees spend more time on their self-development, the more they grow, the more their vision of their future selves change and adapt. But the best outcome a coach can hope for is a client that has made meaningful change and is living a better, happier and more fulfilled life (as they themselves judge it).

When I put it like that, maybe I can embrace the life coach label a little more closely!

If you feel like coaching is something for you, you can book a free chemistry call with me

If you’re looking for a different kind of coach, check to see if they are accredited, access regular supervision and commit to their Continuous Professional Development. You don’t need to spend your time and money on a coach that hasn’t spent their time and money getting qualified! There are 36 680 coaches in 134 countries (at last count!) that hold a ICF Credential, so there are lots out there that have invested in their training, knowledge and experience.

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