Across the world, millions of people are turning to the field of personal coaching in order to better navigate their lives and figure out how to live more fulfilling, balanced, and meaningful lives. Many more people are curious about what working with a coach is like, and whether coaching can make a positive difference in their lives, too.
The image above, shared in one of my coaching training classes, breaks down coaching as the intersection of asking (vs telling) and finding solutions (vs problems).
Coaching, in other words, focuses on crafting solutions and creating the space for you to explore the future.
For those curious about how coaching in general works, here is an expanded look at what working with a coach is like.
What does a coach do?
A fellow coach named Simonetta Batteiger shared this insightful and accurate list of what a coach can help with in response to her 10 year old niece’s question of what a coach does. In Simonetta’s words, a coach is somebody who:
- Helps you be the best version of yourself
- Helps you find out what is important for you
- Helps you understand how you can reach your goals
- Helps you build out your strengths
- Helps you to find new ways to look at things. Then you can see new ways to solve a problem
- Is going to support and challenge you. It’s not that different from being a teacher. But one that helps the students learn themselves.
- Is really good at asking questions. Children are great at asking good questions. I learn from [Simonetta’s niece and her brother and sister] every time I visit [them]
My working definition of a personal coach is:
“A professional who empowers a client, or coachee, through conversation in order to identify a personal life goal, and who supports the client in being accountable to taking action towards achieving that life goal.
Life coaching is the most common sub-type within the field coaching and describes a generalist coach that focuses generally on empowering a client’s life fulfillment. Life coaching therefore touches on any area that can generate meaning in a client’s life, such as relationships, career, or self-exploration.
There are many other types of coaching specialties, too, including:
- Relationship coach
- Career coach
- Leadership coach
- Business coach
- Wellness coach
- Spiritual coach
- Habit coach
Generally, coaches serve a whole host of important functions that are vital for enabling people make progress in their lives. Here are four examples:
- Create a safe, confidential, and non-judgmental space for people to talk through any important topics/decisions/problems/opportunities in their lives
One of the main reasons that people choose to work with a coach is because they feel stuck. A key component to the process of coaching a client to become unstuck is for the coach to guide the client to talk through important topics on their minds. This can involve things like limiting beliefs or stories, problems, internal conflicts, feelings and emotions, motivations, insights, and goals.
Coaches accomplish this by using a combination of tools, such as reflecting what the coach is hearing back to the client (many times, just the act of reflecting what is being said back to a client can trigger novel learnings for the client), watching the client’s nonverbal communication for useful clues, calling attention to the words of the client’s saboteur (the voice in our heads that argues against change and is always a major force in keeping us stuck), and using questions to empower the client’s creative thinking muscles.
When provided a safe, confidential, and non-judgmental space to explore important topics with an impartial personal development specialist like a coach, clients often begin to explore topics and ideas that they don’t feel comfortable to discuss with friends, family, or colleagues; in doing so, a client can uncover powerful realizations that are instrumental to showing the path forward for the client.
2. Work with clients to clarify their values, goals, and ideal outcomes
Many clients have abstract ideas of what they want to accomplish and what kind of life they want to live, but find it difficult for many reasons to actually complete the work of refining these ideas into tangible forms. Without this pivotal step, actions taken are like building on sand: the lack of a firm foundation hinders cumulative and sustainable change, which can lead a clients who experience momentary progress to become stuck again before long.
3. Help clients better understand the issues preventing them from progressing in their lives
In particular, this involves exploring the blockers and self-limiting or sabotaging tendencies that live in the client’s mind. We can all tend to talk ourselves down into the dumps when we face setbacks or disappointments, and this represents a significant blocker to making sustainable change. Yet, we don’t have to struggle in isolation against these pervasive, negative forces. Exposing these limiting voices in our heads through conversation with others can weaken them, and through the process of coaching, these voices can be better understood and ultimately either overcome or replaced.
4. Provide accountability for clients to accomplish their goals and realize sustainable growth
Due to the many distractions in life and the difficulty of both conceptualizing and keeping track of our visions for our lives, self-accountability is a struggle for everyone; however, this is not a sign that we lack potential and the capability to progress towards our goals. As with athletes, working with a personal coach provides social and structural accountability that can be the factor that makes or breaks a client’s self-growth success.
What doesn’t a coach do?
- Tell clients what to do
In coaching, the answers and actions of what to do ultimately come from the client. Coaches may provide perspective or ideas (and on rare occasion advice, although this act always involves momentarily stepping out of coaching mode), but the coach does not live the client’s life outside of the sessions, and so it is always up to the client to decide what to do. The goal of coaching is to empower the client to be able to make progress and establish sustainable habits; telling a client what to do is incongruent with this goal and would serve to create a long-term dependency on the coach and limit the client’s own growth.
2. Focus only on the problems at hand
Sometimes problem solving is important in order to alleviate something pressing, such as a time-sensitive decision. That said, in order to best serve the client’s interests and empower sustainable change, a coach necessarily needs to identify and guide the client to explore the root beneath the client’s surface problems. Problems are, after all, like weeds. If they are not pulled out by the roots, then the problem will only spring up again in the future.
3. Ask only questions
It is a misconception that coaches speak only in questions. Reflective statements based on what the client says are also a handy tool in the coach’s toolkit, as is commenting on what the coach’s internal spidey sense is illuminating. Coaches are also trained to ask open-ended questions in order to guide the conversation towards meaningful directions and outcomes, although sometimes closed-ended questions may be necessary to clarify a coach’s understanding, confirm a client’s learnings, and solidify which direction to guide the conversation into.
4. Determine agendas or work indefinitely with clients
The goal of coaching is to empower the client in the task of figuring out how to live a more fulfilling, balanced, and meaningful life. To support the client in this endeavor, the client must be the final arbiter of what to discuss. A coach may also suggest a timeline or duration for work with a client based on the client’s goals and life situation, but in the end it is up to the client to decide for themselves on what, when, and how long to work with a coach for. That said, there is nothing wrong with a client asking for a coach’s suggestion for a coaching agenda; coaches may also sometimes use their intuition to suggest an agenda. There is also nothing wrong with a client who chooses to continue working with a coach for many years, or who picks up work again down the road after concluding earlier on.
What can a coach help me with?
A personal life/career coach can help clients with many different goals, but here are a few common examples:
- Find a more fulfilling balance between areas of life which compete for time
- Define a set of core values to act as a blueprint to design a fulfilling life
- Become more fulfilled outside of — or through — work/career
- Conclusively make a major decision
- Reduce stress or anxiety
- Improve a relationship
How does coaching work?
The first step in the coaching process is to find a coach! Posting on LinkedIn asking for coach recommendations is one place to start, as is an internet search, or checking out BetterUp. I’m also a personal development coach and would be happy to answer any questions you still have about the coaching process and even give you a trial run so you can see how it works and whether it’s worth continuing on with.
*Book a free, 60-minute exploratory session with me here.*
Next, your coach will likely ask you to fill out a survey to gather some information and prepare for your first call, including what you may want coaching on. If you don’t know what you want to focus on at first, that’s okay, too! Coaches are trained to help you zero in on the most important aspects of your life that may be good starter topics for coaching.
In your first call, you’ll exchange introductions and the coach will explain in more detail how coaching works under their particular approach. The coach may explore any preferences you may have, too (such as communication style or sensitive topic areas).
From that point in the first call or a following call, you will select a topic that will be your first focus agenda, although this can change throughout the discussion and in future calls, depending on whether another topic proves more helpful for you and your coach to delve into.
The majority of each discussion will be spent exploring the topic in focus, as well as any tangential and relevant or deeper roots around the primary topic. The end of a coaching call is spent aligning on action items and accountability, wherein the coach will likely assign you some homework and ask your commitment to do the homework within a defined timeline.
The following session begins with a review of the last session’s homework — findings, learnings, surprises — and discussing any pertinent new information that came up since the last session. Then, the 3-segment approach continues again (topic selection, topic exploration, wrap-up and action items/accountability).
Coaching vs Therapy
Lastly, let us touch on a frequently asked question on coaching:
What is the difference between coaching and therapy?
Typically the difference between the two can be encapsulated in the following way:
While both professions involve the present, therapy is typically focused on exploring the past, in order to understand the experiences and dynamics that have made us who we are today. Therapy focuses on resolving and healing problems from our past so that we can be more free in the present.
Coaching may occasionally explore the past in the course of exploration, but typically focuses on envisioning a desired future, in order to understand what goals/ideal outcomes will help us progress towards that desired future state. Coaching focuses on planning our actions in the present, so that we can achieve our goals in the future.
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