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What in the World is Life Coaching?
By Cameron Powell
In my speaking engagements I have often compared coaching today to psychotherapy in the 1920s. The level of public understanding of coaching, outside of people in a certain socio-demographic category, is still in its infancy. We are all so saturated with the language of psychoanalysis - it's difficult to read a book or watch a movie that isn't premised on this shared language - that we probably don't consider there was once a time when practitioners were asked:
"Now, you do what, exactly?"
"And I would tell you my dream because it would reveal what?"
"So there's this free association thing, which apparently still costs something, and I give you the first thing that comes to mind because there are these subconscious drives I have?"
To the not-yet-initiated, coaching can sound like this. What is it and why would I want to do it?
Coaching, whether for career or business, existential questions or relationships, begins with alignment.
Coaches get you, your actions and thoughts, and your very lifestyle aligned with who you say you are, or want to be.
That is, we will get the way you live, think, act, and work integrated with the core values and goals you say you have. If you don't know what your ultimate values and goals are, then that's coachable too.
It's not by magic that coaches help clients achieve their goals. From the practical and action-oriented to the great questions, coaches draw from the best of management consulting, best business practices, motivational and cognitive psychology, sports performance, ethics and spirituality, the Socratic dialogue and philosophy.
Most fundamentally, coaches help clients get out of their own way.
COACHING BRIEFLY DEFINED
Here is one definition of coaching, per the International Coach Federation:
"Professional Coaching is a professional partnership between a qualified coach and an individual or team that supports the achievement of extraordinary results, based on goals set by the individual or team. Through the process of coaching, individuals focus on the skills and actions needed to successfully produce their personally relevant results."
"The individual or team chooses the focus of conversation, while the coach listens and contributes observations and questions as well as concepts and principles which can assist in generating possibilities and identifying actions....Coaching accelerates the individual's or team's progress by providing greater focus and awareness of possibilities leading to more effective choices..... [R]esults are a matter of the individual's or team's intentions, choices and actions, supported by the coach's efforts and application of coaching skills, approaches and methods."
If your definition of a coach is borrowed from high school or college athletics, where the athlete is beneath the coach and can even be dismissed by him, then the term "coaching" may be a bit misleading to you. A personal or executive coach is more like the coach of a pro track star or tennis player: in these professional relationships, the coach and the client are two co-equals and partners, and it's actually the client who decides how long the coach stays on the team.
A coach begins, from a place of generosity of will and spirit, by getting to know you as a person and formally identifying your goals and values, using a variety of in-house or standardized assessments. Then the coach looks at the gap between where you are and where you want to be.
A coach will then work with you to close that gap by eradicating your self-limiting thinking, reducing your stress and enhancing your efficiency, and getting you to stretch and try new things and ways of being. A coach will help you implement strategies to reach your goals, tactical steps to carry out your strategy, and day to day accountability to keep you focused on the tactics, the strategy, the goal -- all while explicitly remaining true to your values.
Coaching is at its root about expanding your awareness and making you accountable to yourself. Coaches expand clients' awareness about themselves and then help them to be accountable to what they have learned. It can be a sophisticated form of teaching, mentoring, and partnering in an enterprise with a single focus: your personal, professional, and even spiritual development. Coaches show you ways to find clarity, guide you to awareness of your true situations (including how you get in your own way), and show you how to take action based on what you know.
To be coached, then, is to get experienced, committed, and insightful help in (1) finding clarity about subjects big and small, (2) deepening your understanding about what holds you back, and, crucially, (3) being guided toward acting on your knowledge to make desired and lasting change in your life.
WHO GETS COACHED?
Coaching clients are clear that they want something -- virtually anything -- sooner and with more certainty of getting it than they could manage alone. It could be learning, career advancement, satisfaction, higher performance, better relationships, or quality of life. Clients are not attempting, through coaching, to address emotional pain or psychological disorders. This is one of the key differences between coaching and counseling.
Coachable clients are functioning well and able to take action in the direction of their goals. Coaches look to the present and the future; they discuss the past primarily in order to clarify where the client is today. Critically, coaching need not resolve issues of the past in order to move forward.
THE RELATIONSHIP, IN A NUTSHELL
The coaching relationship is the key to its success. Coach and client are partners. Mutual appreciation and respect are not just a by-product of the time they spend together but the engine of coaching's success. A rarity in relationships, coach and client are collaborators in a joint enterprise: the client. At my coaching firm, our philosophy is that clients already have many of the answers within them, and to the extent that's the case, it's the coach's job to draw them out.
Coaches don't often hold themselves out as expert or authority on subject matter so much as on process. The client and her coach jointly choose the topics of their work together, the format, and the outcomes the client desires. Coaches are for the emotionally mature. Those who imagine that a coach can turn their lives around are not yet coachable under most coaches' ethics. A coach is someone you retain only when you are ready. To take with you that next, elusive step.
FUNDAMENTAL SKILLS, NOT SUBJECT MATTER EXPERTISE
There is rarely such a thing as a "type" or "field" of coaching, wherein life coaches could be considered somehow different from relationship coaches.
The reason there is usually no difference between, say, life or personal coaching on the one hand and executive
coaching on the other, is that these titles describe only the client, not the coaching itself. That is, the words describe the buyer of the services and perhaps even how that client perceives himself.
But the techniques and methods of coaching are very similar, because all coaching comes down to the process of guiding human beings through the discovery of their full humanity, their insight, and greater accountability to themselves. Even if you are an executive who wants "executive" coaching, you know there is no such thing as skills, attitudes, and behaviors that are used in, and useful in, only the boardroom or office. You are on a mission to enhance your effective personhood, not your, shall we say, executiveness.
What is the consequence of coaching being the same no matter who the client is? Well, it means that subject matter expertise is often irrelevant. To be a career coach, it may help to have some knowledge of career resources, of course. The same is true for specialty aspects of business coaching, entrepreneurship coaching, or leadership coaching. But in general, you should opt for a coach with superb coaching skills and chemistry over a coach with subject matter expertise.
About The Author
Cameron Powell, a writer and coach, is a professional ally and strategic partner who, as a life coach, when his clients most need it, will kick their butts into action now and then.