"What exactly is life coaching all about?"
A recent conversation with a family member that I had been out of contact with for a long while took a turn from discussing partners and children to the usual question around our jobs - “So what do you do?”.
Now this person was in a traditional marketing job, heading the marketing division of a large multinational firm. Having been in sales and marketing for the major portion of my long corporate career, there wasn’t much to probe there. So we moved on and then it was my turn.
As most coaches probably know from personal experience, talking about what we do is one of the toughest questions to answer for a coach who might be a relatively new entrant to the coaching arena. There is plenty of advice available to coaches on how to answer this question, dealing with niches, ideal clients, and the value proposition of “I help X achieve Y so that Z”. Despite all that information and advice, it can be daunting to answer very confidently the simple question of “What do you do”? It took me a while to get used to answering this question with some degree of confidence. At the start of my coaching journey, I remember mumbling something about life coaching and then trying to move the conversation on. I only started getting comfortable answering this question after I had my first few clients. #confessiontime!
Getting back to this particular conversation with my lost-and-found relative, after I told him I was a life coach specializing in career and personal development for mid-career professionals, he asked me the question “What exactly is life coaching all about?”
From the tone of his question, I gathered that he wasn’t exactly a fan of life coaching probably because he didn’t know much about it or he didn’t think much of it based on whatever little he knew or had heard about it. I wasn’t exactly in the mood to preach the virtues of a profession that I had chosen after a great deal of self-review and research so I just said “In simple terms, life coaching is a relationship between coach and client to help the client get clarity on what matters to them and to work out an action plan to achieve their goals”.
He replied rather flippantly “Why on earth would anyone pay another person to tell them how to live their life?”
There were many things wrong with his reply/question, not the least of which was his know-it-all attitude which made him the poster boy for someone not suitable for coaching! Anyway, our conversation didn’t last very long after that so I’ll just leave the story at this juncture but I think it might be beneficial to give a brief outline of what life coaching is mostly about. Maybe some others having similar thoughts to those of my “lost-found-lost again” relative might get a better understanding of this profession!
First and foremost, life coaching in its truest sense is non-directive. It is not about instructing or directing anyone how to live their lives. It is not even about advising or guiding. It is about working with someone, not doing something to them. The structure of a coaching session might be directive to ensure that maximum benefit is drawn from the duration of the call, but the content of what is discussed is intentionally free-flowing. No attempt is made to control or direct a client’s thoughts. Helping the client feel comfortable is a primary objective.
Life coaching is different from consulting, counselling, therapy, or mentoring in so many ways that it would take a separate article to get into those details. Each of these disciplines has its value, effectiveness, and suitability depending on the client’s circumstances. Similarly, life coaching occupies a space that is unique in its own way. It is the art of drawing the best out of a person through powerful conversations. Does this sound anything like telling someone how to live their life?
When you think of a conventional sports or fitness coach, for instance, they tend to be fairly instructional. But life coaching is far more subtle. No life coach worth their salt would ever claim that they know what is best for their client. What they are committed to doing is help the client uncover their best self.
The fundamentals of life coaching
Typical life coaching sessions comprise of three important elements – listening, questioning, and playing back what a client communicates. While this may sound simplistic on the surface, there is so much more to this. So let’s dive in!
Listening - There are many levels of listening in any conversation. To use a stereotypical example of a much-married couple, what the husband does when he’s got the TV on while the wife is talking to him about her day is not listening! Beginning from this level as the base, listening goes up many levels right up to listening deeply and intently to understand what is being said and also helping the speaker to understand the conversation fully. The reality of today’s world is that it is extremely rare to find a person who would listen to you at the highest level of listening. People simply don’t have the time or interest to invest in your life and struggles as they have their own life problems to deal with.
A life coach is trained to listen at the highest level - it's their job! Add to that complete confidentiality and lack of judgement or bias, and it gets a little clearer as to why good life coaches are so much in demand. There is also the importance of reading between the lines to understand what might not be said, staying silent at crucial points in the conversation to prompt new thoughts in the client's mind, and using techniques to prevent too much digressing or rambling. The purpose of active and attentive listening is to build a relationship of trust between the coach and the client, without which no coaching session can ever be successful.
Questioning - When it comes to the art of questions, the broadest classification of questions can be described as open and closed – open being questions that bring forth a yes or no answer and closed being the ones that elicit more detailed answers. Leading questions are another common form of questions. However, there are many other types of questions that coaches use to draw out information that not only provides the coach with vital information on the thought process of the client but also helps the client get clarity on what their issues might be and where they might be feeling stuck. Here are some examples of the different types of coaching questions –
Probing question – What is the actual reason behind this feeling?
Clarifying question – What exactly do you find frustrating about this job?
Hypothetical question – If you had reliable team members, what part of your job would you feel comfortable delegating?
Reframing question – If you forgot about the challenges of this change of role for a moment, what possibilities do you think it brings you?
Differentiating question – Of all the challenges, which one is the biggest?
Scaling question – On a scale of 1 to 5, how committed are you to take this action?
Playing back – The ability and willingness of the listener to play back the main points of what the speaker has said, demonstrate empathy and understanding while eliminating any possibility of misunderstanding. The art of playing back the gist of a conversation includes summarizing, paraphrasing, and reflecting back. The intent behind the playback is to ensure that everything that is in the mind of the client concerning the topic under discussion is totally out in the open. You might say it acts like a vacuum cleaner in sucking out every single detail.
The above-mentioned three main elements of life coaching contribute towards achieving clarity for the client in terms of where they are now and where they want to be. There are many other parts that make up the whole sum of this profession of life coaching, some of which are mentioned below –
1. Note-taking and mind mapping to accurately reflect all that was discussed in each session.
2. Maintaining files for each client.
3. Tasks and assignments to reinforce learning and provide food for thought in between sessions.
4. Coming up with action plans at the end of each session to take at least one step towards a chosen goal.
5. Experimentation in the real world, of the issues discussed in sessions thereby putting theory into practice.
6. Observing and monitoring the mindset and behaviour of the client from session to session and picking up clues on any changes.
7. Regular progress reviews to evaluate and adjust coaching plan if needed, based on client feedback.
In addition to all of the above, there is one overarching factor that could be the defining difference between having a dream and making the dream a reality. That factor is accountability. It is natural human instinct to feel more accountable to another person than oneself. Accountability gives you wheels to get moving and keep moving. Ponder this simple example – if you decide to go for a walk daily to improve your physical fitness, how much more likely are you to be consistent with this new habit if you had a walking partner?
In a nutshell, this could be a reply to the question of “what exactly is life coaching”. Now the challenge is to condense all this information into a short sentence that hopefully will reduce the number of people who shrug their shoulders or raise their eyebrows and react with “why would I pay someone just to listen to me or advise me on how to live my life?”!!!