According to the International Coach Federation (ICF) Global Coaching Study, there are over 70,000 practicing life coaches worldwide and as a whole, the coaching industry brings in nearly $3 billion in revenue every year.
Simply put, the coaching industry is thriving. For many, though, the question remains:
What Does a Life Coach Do?
What is a life coach? Every organization, and for that matter, every individual coach seems to have a slightly different definition. Perhaps the best way to get an overall sense of what coaching is and what a life coach does is by taking a look at several different “official” definitions (all emphases ours).
The ICF Code of Ethics defines coaching as follows:
“Coaching is partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.”
The National Coach Academy defines coaching as such:
“A relationship in which a trained coach uses specific skills to work with a client to help them achieve personalized life or business goals.”
Finally, world-renowned coach Tony Robbins defines coaching this way:
“A coach helps you grow by analyzing your current situation, identifying limiting beliefs and other potential challenges and obstacles you face and devising a custom plan of action designed to help you achieve specific outcomes in your life.”
What a Life Coach Isn’t
Seeing as how life coaching as an industry is still relatively young, it’s easy to confuse coaching with other related forms of personal development. Let’s tease these apart to gain a better understanding of what coaching is, and importantly, what coaching is not.
Life Coaching vs. Therapy
“Isn’t a life coach just a therapist without a degree?”
We’ve heard this one before, and it couldn’t be further from the truth.
The main difference is that a therapist looks into your past, whereas a life coaching is more concerned about your future. This is an oversimplification, of course, but it helps to make this general distinction when trying to understand when it is appropriate to hire a coach and when it’s time to see a therapist.
In order for a therapist to be effective, she must ask you about your history: any traumas, broken relationships, recurring bouts of anxiety, destructive behavior, etc. In order to overcome these issues, a therapist will help the patient bring clarity to her past and sometimes give advice on how to overcome these episodes or negative thought patterns from recurring.
On the other hand, a coach starts from a neutral point of view. The client isn’t looking to overcome any negative habits, but rather to set into motion positive ones that will help her maximize her potential. A coach does not dwell or even necessarily inquire on a client’s past. To a coach, the focus is and always should be on the future. Lastly, a coach tries to avoid giving advice, but instead asks pointed questions and gently leads a client to her most authentic and productive self.
One of the key insights gleaned from our discussions with therapists and coaches on our podcast was that therapy starts with the assumption that there is something wrong with the patient. Not necessarily from birth or permanently wrong–but something that has gone astray in the patient’s thought patterns that needs to be rectified before progress can be made.
Coaching starts with the assumption that the client already has everything they need in order to succeed. The key is to make the client acutely aware of these strengths and help motivate them to use them to their distinct advantage.
Life Coaching vs. Consulting
“Isn’t a life coach just a consultant without business expertise?”
It’s true that coaches can’t match the business expertise of a seasoned consultant. However, it’s also true that sometimes the solution to a business problem has nothing to do with the business itself, but instead the psychology of the executive or manager facing the problem.
A consultant will take in the specific business problem at hand, draw on her years of business experience, and offer specific suggestions to tackle the challenge head-on. The consultant is literally helping you solve the problem right then and there by offering solutions that have been proven to work in the past. In this scenario, the consultant takes a more active approach in helping the client solve the problem she is facing.
A coach, however, knows that she is not the expert on the particular business matter at hand. The expert is the client. Nevertheless, the coach recognizes that in order for the client to function at maximum capacity, she needs to be free of limiting beliefs and achieve a sense of personal balance. The business itself is functioning perfectly fine–it’s the client’s psyche that needs realignment.
Life Coaching vs. Speaking to a Friend
“Isn’t a life coach just a friend-for-hire?”
If you have a friend who is professionally trained in asking powerful questions, uncovering deep seated motivations, can commit several uninterrupted hours every week solely for your benefit with unlimited follow-up and can do all of this without a shred of bias or self-interest, then yes, perhaps you should seek the counsel of your friend before hiring a life coach. (Your friend may also want to look into becoming a life coach herself!)
The truth is that few of us have a friend like this, and that is perfectly normal. Friends are, almost by definition, biased towards us in a myriad number of ways. Our friends have equally busy lives and aren’t always available to provide that crucial accountability that coaches are trained to provide.
And perhaps most important of all, our friends know and love us as we’ve been, not necessarily as we could be.
What makes our friends special is that they arrive at every conversation with years of memories, habits of thought, and yes, biases that have steadily built up over time. These predispositions make friends fantastic when dealing with personal issues (past focused), but less than ideal when it comes to overcoming challenges (future focused).
Lastly, there is one major advantage of a coach that a friend could never provide: anonymity.
There may be some negative elements of your thought process or perhaps some embarrassing, harmful, or even shameful behavior that you’re not especially proud of. A life coach will hear all of these aspects of your personality and refrain from passing judgment. Instead, he or she will help you turn these negative habits around and when your relationship is over, your existing social relationships are still intact and exactly how you left them.
Types of Coaching
Simply put, a life coach’s ideal client is anyone who is struggling to figure out how to make the leap from what is to what could be. There are a near-infinite number of ways this can manifest itself in real life, but here are some examples:
- A middle manager looking to get promoted as an executive
- A recent divorcee trying to start a new life
- A mother of two teenage boys struggling to maintain relevancy
- An overworked executive trying to reach work-life balance
- A bride-to-be trying to find peace and joy while planning her wedding
- A lifelong employee looking to make the leap to entrepreneurship
- A recent retiree looking for purpose after a lifetime of work
- A busy mom trying to find time for healthy living habits
- A recently appointed CEO struggling to become a leader
- A married couple looking to rekindle their relationship
- A busy dad trying to find more one-on-one time with his kids
- A mixed race couple struggling with their child’s identity issues
- A Division I athlete having a lapse of confidence
- A military spouse starting a new life with a deployed husband
While the list of examples is truly endless, most clients fall under one of the following categories:
Life Transition Coaching
The one certainty in life is change.
Some life transitions are easier to handle than others. That new job promotion. Having your office relocate five minutes from your house. An inheritance from a parent.
Other transitions come unexpectedly and rock the foundation of the life you thought you had under control. The death of a spouse. Getting laid off from a high-paying job. Moving cross country for work and leaving behind everything you know.
Life doesn’t give us a manual for dealing with these kinds of drastic, seismic shifts. Luckily, life does give us the opportunity to seek out a trained life coach who understands the impact these changes can have on a person’s sense of balance and well-being.
A life transition coach will listen to your situation, pinpoint the values and core beliefs that are threatened, compromised, or simply just forgotten in the wake of your transition, and gently realign your fundamental values with the situation you’re presented with today to ensure that you’ve retained your sense of self and purpose even though everything around you seems to have changed.
Or, maybe you’re ready to to let go of your “old self” and create someone entirely new–someone you’ve wanted to be for a long time but never had the chance to try out. A transition coach can help you achieve this as well.
According to one of the most famous longitudinal studies of all time conducted by researchers at Harvard University, it turns out that relationships are the most critical factor to living a long life. Not genes, not diet, not exercise, but the strength of our relationships was the key to longevity.
“When we gathered together everything we knew about them about at age 50, it wasn’t their middle-age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old,” said Robert Waldinger, director of the 79 year old study and Harvard professor of psychiatry. “It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”
Relationships are at the core of what it means to be human. Sometimes, though, those relationships are tricky to maneuver. Sometimes those relationships begin to crack. Sometimes they even shatter altogether, and we’re left with nothing but the broken pieces on the floor to pick up.
Whether you’re struggling to deal with new people at work, having marital issues that need to be resolved before it’s too late, or are dealing with the aftershock of a divorce, a trained relationship coach seeks to understand the intricacies of your personal and business relationships and helps you chart a course of action that allows you to navigate your relationships in the most authentic and productive means possible.
Health and Wellness Coaching
It’s ironic: we know more about health and nutrition today than we ever have, and yet, it seems that the amount of time we have to devote to our own well-being is at an all time low. Everyone knows what it takes to be healthy: diet and exercise. The problem seems to be finding the time and motivation to devote to our own health as well as devising a plan to actually stick to a health regimen once we start one.
Health and Wellness Coaching isn’t about specific food recommendations or developing a fitness routine (although some coaches are trained to do both). Rather, it’s about freeing the client of the kinds of limiting beliefs that have prevented her from taking control of her health and replacing those beliefs with self-efficacy, confidence, and determination.
Maybe you’re too shy to go to the gym and look “unfit” in front of all the gym rats you’re expecting to see. Perhaps you’re a father of four children and you can’t seem to find the time in your hectic schedule to fit in a workout. Or maybe you have all the motivation and time in the world but you can’t tell a carb from an amino acid and you need someone to help understand what you should and shouldn’t be eating. A trained wellness coach is equipped to help you tackle each of these challenges.
As mentioned earlier, not all challenges in a company are business problems. Sometimes–in fact, very frequently–they’re just personal problems that simply require a change in mindset and habit.
A high stress, highly demanding work environment can and will create an environment that is conducive to psychological imbalance. This type of imbalance can manifest itself in a number of ways.
Most commonly, busy professionals struggle with achieving work/life balance in their day to day lives. More often than not, they feel like their business is taking away from their family, but on the other end, they feel like their family obligations sometimes takes away from their valuable work. It’s like burning a candle on both ends, and the end result is usually feeling inadequate at both.
A trained life coach who specializes in work/life balance will be able to help you reassess, reprioritize, and regroup so you can begin making choices that align with your core values. A coach will help you get rid of habits that take up valuable time and contribute to the work/life imbalance, as well as helping you get rid of the guilt that often comes with making sacrifices.
Sometimes the business challenge to be overcome is completely internal. Holding a high-powered executive position at a large company is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it carries greater autonomy, greater power, and higher pay. On the other hand, holding such positions of power comes with a lot of responsibility, and this degree of responsibility can create moments of doubt.
“Am I really good enough to carry this much power? They must have made a mistake. What have I done to deserve this position?” These are the kinds of private, limiting thoughts that can hold back an executive from becoming her best, most productive self. It’s the job of a business/executive coach to help rid the client of these limiting beliefs and repurpose that energy into productive habits that enable you to become the executive you would fear you weren’t worthy of.
If you get the feeling that executive coaching is probably more lucrative than personal life coaching, you’d be right. Executive coaches earn double the hourly rate as a general life coach. This makes sense seeing as how they are often hired by large corporations and can directly impact a company’s bottom line.
An Evolving Profession
When Thomas Leonard founded the International Coach Federation in 1995, it was hard to imagine that nearly 30 years later it would be possible (and quite common) for coaches to achieve their certification, coach clients, and complete all follow up and accountability 100% remotely, using an array of electronic devices–some of which comfortably fit in the palm of their hands.
Likewise, coaches practicing today would likely be equally astounded if they knew what the art and practice of coaching will look like 25 years from now. More likely that not, it will be vastly different from coaching today.
As technology shapes and then reshapes our way of communicating with others, coaching will naturally evolve with it. And as coaching evolves, the answer to the question, “What is a Life Coach?” will itself evolve, as well.
The best course of action for the aspiring coach is to remember that technology simply provides the tools to help people achieve the same basic goals they had at the dawn of the coaching industry: improved careers, improved mental health, and improved relationships. No matter how the twists and turns of technology do away with old ways of communication, the core human values that make coaching possible will remain the same.
For as long as there are people looking to make a lasting, positive change in their personal and professional lives, there will be coaches ready to guide them.