There are many confusing and false messages bouncing around in cyberspace about life coaching. After coaching 600 people over the past 13 years, talking with dozens of coaches and surfing the websites of about 100 more, I’m sharing my take on what coaching and isn’t. I’d like to say upfront that my intention is not to offend or denigrate. I’m simply stating my informed opinion, which is best taken with a grain of salt.
It’s important to start with the fact that the field of coaching is unregulated. This means that anyone, without any formal training, can call themselves a life coach. And they can coach any way they please. So caveat emptor! The onus of choosing the coach who will serve you best is on you.
In my research, I’ve found that there are basically 2 kinds of life coaches, and the contrast is stark. There are coaches who say they’ll hold you accountable and help you stay motivated until you achieve your goals. They tout their excellent listening and questioning skills as their core talents. In my admittedly unscientific survey, about 99% of the coaches I have met in person and online fall into this category.
In the other camp are coaches with excellent listening and questioning skills who say they’ll help you develop new ways of thinking and behaving. These coaches have studied and developed specific techniques that you can learn, then apply to any issue for the rest of your life. The goal of this type of coaching is for you to master the skills, using them independently to attain your desires faster, more efficiently and more enjoyably.
In my opinion, coaching that goes on indefinitely, with you relying on the support of your coach to achieve goals (but not learning new skills) is codependency, not coaching. Intentionally or not, anyone who does this isn’t a coach, they’re a parasite. True life coaches have a set of strategies you can use to evolve yourself for the rest of your life. Beyond merely achieving goals, coaching is about your growth as a human being.
With that said, I do believe that all coaches have a genuine desire to assist. However, most coaches’ training (if they have any) is, well, the nicest words I can think of are…incomplete and, in some instances, inappropriate.
With that background in place, let’s peek behind the curtain at the biggest secrets in coaching.
Secret #1: Promising You Instant Results is Impossible
The Industrial and Information Ages have proliferated a plethora of gadgets, pills, books and videos that promise instant results. Not surprisingly, you have been programmed to expect that coaching will immediately make your life better.
Accordingly, many coaches feel strong pressure to fulfill this expectation by producing some kind of dramatic breakthrough in every coaching session. The idea is that if the coach asks you the right deep questions, you’ll have a brilliant flash of insight. There are two fallacies here. The first is in thinking that coaches do something to their clients. In fact, it’s up to the client to take the actions that will produce the results they’re looking for.
Second, coaching is a process, not an event.
While you may see some improvement in one session, life-0altering, permanent improvements take time, repeated focus, and learning new ways to do things differently. Of course, major shifts can happen, but both you and your coach will put unnecessary pressure on yourselves by trying to force you to make a huge change you don’t need or aren’t ready for.
Sure, questioning is a major part of coaching. But the role of questions isn’t to sledge hammer you into a dramatic breakthrough. Questions are one tool used to guide you in your process of gaining incrementally deeper self-knowledge. The goal of coaching isn’t to rush to get it done, it’s to help you learn as much as you can.
The processes of learning and making internal shifts in thinking is as unique as fingerprints and as unknowable as the depths of the ocean. It takes whatever time you need. Even with the biggest crystal ball in the world, no coach can promise a specific result by a certain date.
Any coach who tells you that you’ll achieve a certain level in 1,3, or 10 coaching sessions is ignoring your individuality and your responsibility for your own growth. This is inconsistent with the basic philosophy of coaching.
Secret #2: Personality Tests are Worthless for Choosing Your Career
The widely accepted myth of personality is that, by adulthood, its set in stone. But in 100 years of intense study, psychologists can’t even agree on the definition of personality, much less the limits of its development.
Two popular personality tests that life and career coaches use are the Myers-Briggs and the DISC. Their thinking is that you should choose a career that matches your personality (shaky ground indeed).
The purported benefit of this strategy is to narrow the overwhelming field of career choices. To alleviate your suffering, the coach squeezes you into one of a handful of boxes, then hands you a relatively short list of careers that some undefined percentage of those with your personality type could be successful in.
Never mind that these tests have no scientific validity. Meaning, you could take the same test on two different days and get two very different results. On top of that, these tests compare you to arbitrary norms (which are gender, ethnicity and culturally biased), ignoring your individuality and your context.
The icing on the cake is that since studies have shown that the Myers-Briggs does not predict job success well, using it for this purpose is expressly discouraged in its manual. But inexplicably, lots of coaches make gobs of money doing just that. That just seems unethical, or at least antithetical to the spirit of coaching.
The DISC is based on the faulty logic that you possess one of four personality types, which can be teased out by forcing you to choose one of four options for each question on the test. What if you don’t agree with any of the choices? If you choose enough options that don’t reflect what you truly think, the results are less than worthless. They can be destructively misguiding.
The best coaches will tell you that your personality traits are simply patterns of behavior you have developed (and gotten comfortable with) over your lifetime. As a pattern of behavior, any trait can be consciously changed any time you like, if you have the tools. Accordingly, their conversation about your career won’t use the strategy of matching a job in Column A to a trait in Column B.
Secret #3: Taking Action For The Sake Of Action Undermines Your Real Power
To achieve the results they tout, coaches preach action. Lots of it. They think that if you do more, you will get more, faster. They’ll sell you fancy spreadsheets and planners to track your actions, too.
But in all of this act-act-act, you can lose sight of your motivation: why you want what you want. Its by staying focused on why you want something the benefits of having it that you will find the juice to keep pursuing it until you get it.
As I stated in my previous post, most coaches describe their role as holding you accountable to take big actions before the next coaching call. Their strategy is that you’ll be motivated by the desires to avoid the humiliation of having nothing to report, and this scheme does work. Avoiding humiliation is a strong motivator, but it pulls you away from your greatest source of power: your passion.
So accountability is the default strategy for coaches who don’t have any tools to address the real issue: how to deal with the negative thoughts that block you from freely pursuing your passion.
The best coaches don’t rely on your human drive to avoid pain (humiliation, guilt, etc). Instead, they fan the flames of your motivation to seek whatever you’re passionate about.
Secret #4: Success Isn’t A Destination, And You Can’t Possess It
Coaches talk a lot about achieving success, as if success were a thing you could possess. Well, if it were, then success would also be a destination. Once you achieve it, you’ll be able to sit back and coast for the rest of your life.
When you’re driven to succeed, you allow yourself to feel good only after you’ve completely achieved that desire. But in this scenario, the good feeling eventually fades, which prompts you to go after another goal so you can feel good again.
However, there’s a huge difference between being successful and having a fulfilling life. Success is a distant external goal you might achieve someday. Every day until then is about work, effort, sacrifice and pain. Deferred gratification.
On the other hand, when you choose a fulfilling life, every step you take in the direction of every desire becomes an act of fulfillment. You experience fulfillment as an internal choice that creates a perpetual state of being: you feel fulfilled every day.
Secret #5: Success Doesn’t Require Discipline. Even If You Think You Need It, You Have Plenty Of It
Coaches insist that it takes discipline and commitment to be successful. But you already possess all the discipline, commitment and courage you need to get anything you want. You just don’t know it, you certainly can’t feel it and you don’t need it, anyway. In their defense, most coaches are unaware of this, too.
Here’s the proof: If you’ve ever worked a job you didn’t like for more than 10 minutes, you have discipline. My bet is that you’ve worked for years at jobs you found boring or otherwise uninspiring, did favors for others you didn’t want to do, and performed admirable household chores to boot. That takes HUGE discipline!
So give yourself some credit. Just because you struggle to lose 10 pounds doesn’t mean you’re a wimpy, undisciplined loser. It just means you don’t know how to focus yet.
After coaching 600 people, I’ve seen that you don’t need to develop strong skills of commitment, courage or discipline to enjoy a fulfilling life. All you need is passion.
You see, passion isn’t just a feeling, it’s a tour de force. When you engage your passion, tons of energy, discipline, courage and commitment (more on this next) come along for the ride. What’s true is that it’s your nature to think about, talk about and pursue the object of your passion until you get it. When you think about it, discipline and commitment are just synonyms for the desire to stay focused on what you want until you get it.
But discipline is a heavy word. Baggage-laden with guilt, frustration, disappointment and failure. Coaches are useful for easing the weight of that baggage only if they emphasize the pursuit of passion as the basis and driver of every goal.
Secret #6: Commitment Doesn’t Create Limitations You Just Have To Live With
There’s a pervasive belief in our culture that making a commitment creates limitations. When you choose one career or one mate, you’re essentially unchoosing every other possibility. You’re stuck with your choice, forever sacrificing other attractive options.
This perspective misses an important point. Ultimately, a commitment is an expression of your freedom to choose. Once you choose, you’re free to express yourself fully in the context of that career, relationship, hobby, whatever. And as long as you live, you’re always free to choose again, and again, and again…
When you order the fish, you’ve excluded the steak or the chicken from that meal. But from herbs to cooking methods to side dishes, there are innumerable variations on any food you choose. Don’t forget that every meal also includes a salad and a dessert more ways to satisfy your palate. The point is, there are infinite ways to spice up your career, your relationships, and every other part of your life so that you’ll feel full (fulfilled) every day. The only limitation is your imagination.
You can’t earn a living without choosing a career path. You can’t have a fulfilling romantic life without a beloved. So choose the steak career or mate. Or the chicken or fish career or mate. Just choose, live and learn. You can always choose again if you discover you need to do that.
About the Author
Judy Widener is a Certified Life Coach and author of Power For A Lifetime: Tools You Customize to Build Your Personal Power Every Day Of Your Life. You can download two chapters of her book at no cost at http://www.myinnerfrontiers.com. Her passion is assisting her clients to discover what is most important to them, then to create more balance and satisfaction in their lives. Empowerment Life Coaching is a comprehensive program that teaches clients simple ways to build their personal power and overcome obstacles to achieving their dreams. Judy has coached more than 600 people over the past 12 years. Her website is http://www.myinnerfrontiers.com.