You’re ready for change, or perhaps change has found you whether you were ready for it or not. In either case, you don’t need to face those changes alone. Having the right support system can help you move through and manage change more gracefully. But what is the right support team? You may or may not have heard of life coaches before reading this article. What is a life coach? What do they do? How can a life coach help you, and would a counselor, consultant, therapist, or training program be a better choice?
What is a Life Coach?
Life coaches are relatively new to the professional helper scene. Seen by some as an alternative to self-help books, a life coach can cheer you on, hold you accountable, or help you deal with current emotional blocks or beliefs that may be holding you back. They are not, however, trained to help with clinical, psychological, or mental health issues; a good coach will suggest therapy or counseling if those concerns surface. Unlike a consultant or training program, a coach does not prescribe solutions; instead, a coach works with the client to develop an approach and strategy that is as unique to the situation as the client’s goals, lifestyle, and desired outcomes are.
Additional thoughts on coaching versus other options:
A Life Coach works with clients to help them clarify goals and implement them. Coaches also help their clients overcome obstacles and challenges to meeting their life goals, as well as providing support and encouragement along the way. Coaching is client driven; you choose what your objectives are for the coaching relationship as well as in each individual session.
In contrast, a counselor or therapist is trained to deal with clinical, medical issues. They help patients resolve past difficulties or trauma, as well as any emotional issues that are interfering with the client’s daily ability to function. Like coaching, counseling is typically client driven, though in my personal experience, it isn’t always. (I fired that therapist – fast!)
Consultants are typically hired for their expertise. While a coach or counselor focus on asking targeted questions to help a client develop his or her own answers, a consultant assesses the situation and offers a solution that may or may not be to their client’s liking. In my observation, some consultants are better than others at customizing their solutions to a client’s needs, so it’s important to establish expectations early on to avoid surprises later.
Training programs are designed to develop skills that support other objectives. These can take the form of classes, self-guided books, or one-on-one instruction. Be sure to review the curriculum and learn about the instructor(s) before taking a class, so you know that the material and teaching style is a good fit for your needs.
Are you ready to work with a professional?
Before beginning a coaching, counseling, or training program, it’s important to think about what you’re able to commit to the program, and not just what you hope to get out of it. Are you able to make time for your appointments? Do you have the financial resources to work with a professional long-term? If not, would a session or two be enough to get you started?
There are three main factors that I suggest potential clients to consider before hiring me, or someone else:
Are you ready to make a commitment to change?
You don’t necessarily have to understand your motivation, or feel fully motivated, to change when you start working with a life coach. And you don’t need to know what your goal is, either. A good coach or therapist can help with both of these barriers. But are you committed to making life changes – big or small – that take you in the direction of your goals? Alternately, if you need help navigating a change that wasn’t your choice, are you ready to take the steps necessary to accept your new circumstances and start from where you are, now?
If you’re not ready to make a change, or to take an active part in achieving the outcomes you desire, it may be premature to invest time, money and other resources into hiring a professional. Wait a few months, and re-evaluate your situation then before hiring someone.
Do you have the financial resources to continue the relationship, at least for a few months?
While not always a prohibitive expense, there is a financial commitment to working with a professional on an ongoing basis. Insurance may pay for therapy or counseling, but often coaching, consulting, and training programs aren’t covered. Can you make adjustments to your spending habits, or use savings, to make room in your budget for working with a professional? If you’re considering a training program, will your employer cover expenses? Are there discounts available to you, perhaps through a professional organization?
Also consider the expense – financial, emotional, or otherwise – of either not implementing change or making changes without professional guidance. Can you afford to NOT hire someone?
Are there other barriers to working with a professional that need to be addressed?
Consider your family, employment, and other commitments that require your time and attention. A coach or therapist can help you approach your life holistically, and will incorporate your desired outcomes within the context of the life you have. However, if you don’t have the time or means to have regular sessions, there may not be much a professional can do for you.
When to Hire a Life Coach
You want to work with a trained professional
While there are no legal requirements that need to be met before someone markets themselves as a life coach, most have been through at least one training program. The International Coaching Federation offers three levels of accreditation for coaches, as well as a code of ethics that member coaches are required to follow. In other words, feel free to ask about a prospective coach’s background, training, and credentials. If you don’t like their answer, find someone else!
You need help clarifying goals
Coaches focus on where you are and where you want to go. If you know you want to change something, but don’t know what or feel caught between multiple possibilities, a coach can help you clarify your priorities, values, and desires.
You want a holistic approach
Good coaches focus not only on what you want to achieve, but who you are and who you will become as you make progress towards your goal. While not necessary – remember, this is client driven, so it’s up to you – a coach can help you put your desired life changes into context with the rest of your life, for a holistic approach to goal-setting and personal development.
You’d like help breaking a bigger goal into manageable steps
Often, clients have a big dreams, such as starting a new business, opening a spiritual retreat center, or changing their career. A life coach helps to break these down into manageable steps, so the client makes progress toward their goal from session to session.
You need a cheerleader
It’s not unusual for clients to be so focused on their end goal that they forget how far they’ve come. A good coach will remind you of progress that’s been made since you started working together, which helps during those discouraging moments when it seems like your goal is insurmountable.
You need support overcoming an obstacle
It’s rare that we meet our goals without facing at least one challenge. Whether it’s a tactical struggle, such as scheduling or prioritizing, or something more abstract, such as overcoming a fear of public speaking, a coach will discuss these challenges with you and help you strategize ways to overcome or move around them.
You need external accountability
Many of my clients look forward to their sessions as a deadline for making progress on goals that would otherwise fall to the wayside. These clients usually have a variety of personal and professional commitments that require their immediate attention, as well as long term objectives that seem like less of a priority. With these clients, each meeting includes a brief check-in on their short-term goals, evaluating what they were able to accomplish since the last session and discussing any obstacles they have encountered. Without this external accountability, they would struggle to make any progress on their goals.
You want to be an active part of the planning process
Coaching is client-driven. Coaches are trained to listen to clients, make observations, and ask targeted questions that increase a client’s self-awareness, clarify their values, and help the client make critical decisions about next steps. A good coach will not tell their client what to do, but will support their client in whatever he or she decides is their best path forward.
You struggle to set aside time to focus on your goals
Working with a coach means that, at a minimum, your scheduled appointments will be spent focusing on you, your needs, and your objectives. For many clients, this time is a welcome break from the obligations and chaos of their day-to-day life, and gives them much needed breathing space to step back and re-evaluate what they’re doing with their lives.
When to Consider Counseling or Therapy
If you’re dealing with the past in a way that hampers your present or have a clinical mental health of substance abuse concern, a counselor or therapist is your best option. They’re trained to work with patients on a variety of mental health and emotional concerns; sessions may even be covered by your health insurance.
Additionally, counselors and therapists can offer an official clinical diagnosis. This diagnosis is often required for insurance payments, FMLA consideration, and other legal or financial considerations.
Can you work with a coach and a therapist at the same time? Of course! In fact, the International Coach Federation’s code of ethics requires member coaches to refer clients to mental health professionals, if such an issue arises during their work with a client.
When to Consider a Consultant
If your primary need is for expertise in a specific subject area, or a desire for someone to design a program for you without your input, a consultant is a good choice. Do your research to find someone whose style, expertise, and price range are compatible with your needs. Accountants and attorneys are examples of consultants that individuals hire on a regular basis, for their various legal and financial needs.
When to Consider a Training Program
If the main thing holding you back from your goals is a skill that you need to develop, consider a training program or class that will get you the skills you need. Community colleges, libraries, or specialty clubs such as Toastmasters are examples of environments that support personal and professional skill development.
When pursuing goals, there are a variety of professionals who can help you. Depending on your situation, any one – or all – of these professionals may have a role. Whether or not you hire someone, and who you hire, is not a decision to take lightly! Do your research, find someone whose style works for you, and don’t be afraid to change relationships midstream. If your current coaching, consulting, or therapy relationship isn’t working for you, discuss it with the relevant person; if they aren’t able to adapt to your needs, it may be that you need someone else – or are ready to do without.