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What is life coaching? And how to know if it’s right for you

yellow haired man wearing eyeglasses is learning what is life coaching

For better or worse, we’ve been taught to think about work in specific ways, usually involving productivity and innovation, and often rooted in metrics. These are what we’ve come to call “hard” concepts, i.e. they can be easily tracked and documented: earnings, revenue, growth, calls made, campaigns sent, products launched, etc. 

Then there’s an additional bucket of work that’s more “soft” concepts, i.e. compassion, empathy, active listening, effective communication, and the like. Those concepts are probably more important to effective work, but it’s much harder to track whether someone is an active listener vs. whether someone closed $1,000,000 worth of business in a given time frame. 

When we consider what is life coaching in the context of hard work concepts, we often think about consulting. A consultant, or a firm, comes in and analyzes data, market position, branding, sales channels, customer experience approaches, and more. They make quantified, data-driven recommendations to their client. Numbers and analytics rule the day.

But when we think about “coaching” along the soft skill continuum, we think of something different. These are more discussions and evaluations, personal growth understanding and soul-seeking. We think of people like Brene Brown and Oprah Winfrey and Tony Robbins. These are coaches who care about the numbers, of course, but they care more about the person and the soul and purpose they’re trying to fill, professionally and personally.

Into this soft skill coaching bucket falls this idea of a “life coach.” The idea can seem a little fluffy to hardcore business professionals, sure. It can even seem diminutive -- if you have a life coach, does that mean you’ve done something wrong in your life that needs coaching or correcting? Not necessarily. 

It’s worth exploring the core question: What is life coaching? Let’s give it a shot.

Table of contents
The basic definition of life coaching
A snapshot life coaching issue: Burnout
Are life coaches all-encompassing, or are there niches?
Is there evidence that life coaching works well?
What about the stigma of life coaching only being for those who are struggling?
What is life coaching: How do some current life coaches describe what they do?
The power of realization from some of the biggest-name life coaches
What is life coaching: The bottom line

The basic definition of life coaching

Per VeryWell Mind, a life coach is:

“... a type of wellness professional who helps people make progress in their lives in order to attain greater fulfillment. Life coaches aid their clients in improving their relationships, careers, and day-to-day lives.”

Now, the first question that may arise for you in “What is life coaching?” umbrella is: “How is the description above different from a therapist?” That’s a good question, and thankfully a resolvable one.

Therapists have degrees as licensed mental health professionals; some therapists are even medical doctors and can prescribe antidepressants and the like. As such, they are beholden to a board, follow an ethical code, need to keep up with continuing education, and are regulated around confidentiality. 

Life coaches are not governed by a board and don’t have to keep up with any regulatory environment. Life coaches generally do not treat mood disorders, anxiety disorders, addiction, or other mental health concerns. As a result, a life coach is not an effective substitute for a mental health professional. 

Rather, a life coach is more likely to work with you on:

For many life coach clients, the simple answer to “What is life coaching?” is accountability, in that it’s a person who helps you bridge the gap between the life you currently have and the professional-personal life interplay that you want. 

A snapshot life coaching issue: Burnout

2020 has been an insane year for many. When you add together COVID-19, a drastic shift to remote work, the gap between those who can work remotely and those who can’t, rural connectivity, safety concerns, racial unrest, layoffs/terminations, and virtual/digital school (plus elections all over the globe), it’s been chaotic. We know people are struggling in myriad ways, with NPR recently noting that “working moms are at their breaking point.” 

It leads to a lot of burnout, personally and professionally (moreso the latter, but definitely the former). The problem is that within organizations, there often aren’t people you can talk to about these topics. HR isn’t normally equipped to help, and executives often see signs of burnout as meaning you’re dedicated to your job and deserving of more. So where can you turn if everything feels overwhelming and you’re burning the proverbial candle at both ends?

That’s a good pocket for a life coach, who can help you focus on:

  • Priorities
  • Who matters
  • How to make more time for them
  • Workarounds for work pressures
  • Focus
  • Seeking purpose
  • Importance of health, exercise, and general wellness
  • Etc. 

You could also go to a therapist for burnout, but the approaches would be somewhat different. The life coach would be action-oriented, i.e. working through solutions and immediate action items you can pursue. The therapist would do that, but it would be more talk- and insight-oriented about the feelings and experiences that brought you to the moment of burnout. And, of course, in only one situation -- not coaching -- might medicine exist at the end. 

Are life coaches all-encompassing, or are there niches?

Many do take an all-encompassing approach to life coaching, but there are specific niches, which tend to include:

  • Career coaching
  • Relationship coaching
  • Financial literacy
  • Health, wellness, diet
  • Executive coaching
  • Sports performance coaching
  • Spirituality coaching

Based on their focus or niche, a life coach will take a specific approach to problems and working with you -- which is largely why this is such a referral-driven industry, because people need to know that the style of the coach will work with them. 

A lot of life coaches will meet with a potential client several times free of charge to begin to develop the relationship, but this varies by coach (and, in reality, their name value and success at the point you want to begin the relationship).

Is there evidence that life coaching works well?

This is where we try to bridge the “hard coaching” -- numbers-focused -- with the “soft coaching” -- personality and purpose-focused. 

There is, in fact, some evidence that coaching works well.

One study out of Austria showed that life coaching, in both individual and group formats, can be helpful in reducing procrastination and increasing goal attainment. A 2013 study entitled “Can life coaching improve health outcomes?” found that, yes, it can -- it helps improve self-efficacy and self-empowerment. And a controlled trial study out of Spain this year showed that life coaches enhance well-being and improve the overall functioning of organizations. A 2016 integrative review of life coaching outcomes on PsycNet did show that it largely works, although outcomes obviously vary by individual. 

Michelle Duval (Founder of Fingerprint for Success) conducted a 20-year qualitative and quantitative study on the results of coaching individuals based on their motivational work traits, and was able to identify 48 unique traits that have clear implications for venture success and high performing teams and their leaders.

What about the stigma of life coaching only being for those who are struggling?

As Tony Robbins, one of the pioneers in the life coaching field, has noted: coaching is for anyone that wants to improve their performance, even if that performance is already objectively very high. This is often framed up in an athlete analogy. By the time an athlete becomes a professional in his/her sport, they are already elite. Less than .0001% of athletes will reach that level. Does that mean they simply stop because they’ve scaled the mountain to that point? No. 

For example, LeBron James is definitely one of the greatest basketball players of all-time, and potentially the greatest. He recently won his fourth NBA Championship. Yet as he explains in this interview with Tim Ferriss, he still employs coaches and works on effective routines, effective diet, the most-optimized icing schedule for his muscles, and more.

So can already-conventionally-successful people work with life coaches and see benefit? Absolutely.

What is life coaching: How do some current life coaches describe what they do?

From Oprah Mag:

  • “Life coaching focuses on what's happening right now, what a person wants next, and how that gap can be bridged,” explains certified coach Jane Scudder and founder of leadership development firm The New Exec. “My work is really centered on four things,” says Scudder. “Helping someone expand an idea; helping someone understand what their present experience is with mindfulness, exploring mindsets to help someone ‘see’ options differently, and helping someone understand personal value and belief systems, and how these show up in all areas of our lives.”
  • “A coach looks at your present to help you create the future you desire, while a therapist looks at your past to help you manage your present,” explains Tess Brigham, a licensed psychotherapist and board-certified coach (BCC). “So while coaching is action-oriented, therapy is insight-oriented.”
  • “A good rule of thumb is that if your issues are disrupting your personal or professional life, you should consider working with a therapist,” says Jacinta Jimenez, a psychologist and board-certified coach (although you don’t necessarily have to be going through a huge life event to benefit from therapy).
  • “A great life coach will know the boundaries of coaching and will refer you to a therapist if and when clinical work is needed,” says Angela Kenzslowe, a clinical psychologist.

If you had to condense the overall approach to three words? Guidance, empowerment, and improvement.

The power of realization from some of the biggest-name life coaches

When evaluating a field and asking “What is life coaching,” sometimes it’s helpful to look at some of the biggest names in the field and see what they discuss and what realizations they open up for others. 

For life coaching, Brene Brown is a big example. Her power of vulnerability TED Talk initially put her on the scene, but now she has huge speaking fees, popular books, a top podcast, and has even been profiled by 60 Minutes.

She helps clients (and non-clients too!) with issues around empathy, shame, compassion, mental health, and healing. One of her notable, but less-publicized, observations is about “the second act of life.” As she explained in a Fast Company article depressingly titled “Brene Brown Wants You To Wallow In Your Failure:”

Last year, Brown gave a talk at Pixar Animation Studios, where president Ed Catmull (who helped save Pixar with Toy Story) and his team explained that the middle of the creative process is the hardest part. In the script, for example, it’s where the main character must face a tough journey to learn a lesson. That shaped her theory: You can’t skip the second act. “People don’t recount the middle of the story often,” Brown says. “[It has] the most potential for shame. But it’s where everything important happens.”

That’s a powerful example of how a life coach can frame things for you. Many of us view “the second act” of life as a slog of work, relationships, children, and dealing with messy topics like death and mortgages. But as she notes, it’s where everything important happens. A life coach can help you see this reality, and help you understand that you need to take time to appreciate and savor what’s happening around you.

Tony Robbins, in an article in Inc. Magazine where he’s referred to as “the most confident man on Earth,” has good executive life coaching advice: “Every business has a business it currently is, and a business it’s becoming.” In the context of disruption, what could be more true?

What is life coaching: The bottom line

It’s a non-therapeutic, non-medical way for you to navigate the ups and downs of career, relationships, health, and finding purpose. It will work if you are ready to optimize some element of your life, and make a commitment to taking action.

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