What Is Life Coaching?

What is coaching?

Life coaching is one of those terms that has been seeping into the national consciousness during this millennium. It was included in the dictionary in the year 2000 alongside words like arm candy and cyber-potato. But do people really understand what the practice of life coaching entails?  If you were to obtain your knowledge of what life coaching is solely through the media, you'd be forgiven for thinking it a rather trivial phenomenon, like arm candy! Yet life coaching is not just about organising your cupboards or your diary or running your life more efficiently. It is a process by which you can make profound transformations in your life. It requires you to look at your whole life and, together with your coach, to make an honest assessment of it. It can therefore be a journey of great self-discovery and awareness, capable of taking you as far as you want to go in your development. Your coach is with you all the way during this journey. Coaches operate in an atmosphere of love, trust and unconditional support. They are not there to judge you or criticise you or give you advice. Their role is to help you figure out who you are, what you want, and help you achieve it. Coaching sessions are usually done on the telephone when your coach encourages, supports, challenges and uses other skills to maintain the momentum for you to achieve your designated goals and dreams. 

Life coaching is a collaborative effort between client and coach where the client sets the agenda for the changes she wants to make. Coaching takes a holistic approach where all the individual areas of your life - career, finances, relationships, personal growth, spirituality and recreation are reviewed. The objective is to identify the weaker areas of your life so that through working on these, a greater balance is achieved. People often mistakenly interpret balance to mean a way to efficiently bridge personal and professional demands. In life coaching, the term balance describes the feeling many of us long to have - peace, balance, order. The idea is to integrate what you're doing both personally and professionally with your heart-felt values. Only when there is integrity between your values and your activities will balance in your life be achieved and sustained. Values are intensely personal, and it is the job of the coaching relationship to make sure that personal values are being honoured. If you value family, are you allowing work demands to take you away from it? If you value risk-taking, is there enough adventure in your life? If you value independence, are you making yourself miserable by working for a corporation? From the identification of these values, one can begin to live a life of purpose. It is about becoming all that you can become. The only requirement on your part is that you are willing to take the action needed to make the changes you want to see. Your coach helps you to maintain the momentum of these actions, always holding your agenda at the heart of the coaching relationship. 

 Coaching can be the longest journey of personal discovery you've ever embarked upon if you're willing to take a long look at your life and have the courage to change what's not working for you. This is easier when you have someone rooting for you, keeping you up when you're faltering, reminding you of your abilities when your confidence is low. Your coach will provide all this and more until your goals are achieved. To make deep-seated change takes time as well as commitment. This is why coaches expect to be working with clients for a bare minimum of three months. When clients see the power of coaching in their lives they usually opt to continue the relationship for much longer. And of course, clients may come back for further 'top up' coaching sessions after the initial period is concluded.

Who Needs Coaching and Why?

At the same time as the world is globalising and becoming ever more interconnected, so there is an equal and opposite phenomenon occurring. People are feeling increasingly isolated, often lonely and unsupported. We are naturally social animals and a sense of belonging to a community and being acknowledged in that community is vital to our wellbeing. Recent decades have seen us become ever more rootless, more geographically dispersed, less connected. If you'd been born a hundred years ago and wanted to talk over a problem you'd have turned to your kinship group - Aunt or Grandmother or some other member of your community, perhaps the priest. Where do you go today? Extended families are hard to find and even when you do find them sometimes vested interest on their part or yours makes it difficult to be honest and detached. Even when friends are sympathetic, too often they want to leap in to try to 'fix' things for you when maybe all you want is someone to truly listen. This is one of the reasons that the coaching industry is flourishing - you can open up completely about who you perceive yourself to be - warts and all. You have the undivided attention of someone who wants you to become the best you can be and will support you unconditionally. From the outset, coaching focuses on what clients want.

If you remember the 1980's you'll remember an era of individualism where the politics and economics of the time encouraged materialism - acquisition and consumption of epic proportions. Yet it took this decade to teach us that material wellbeing is only one kind of security but by no means the most important. We may have lined our pockets, but we emerged from the '80s with a hollow feeling in our gut and a yearning for something more purposeful, more spiritual in our lives. Many of us have turned away from orthodox religion, from doctrines and dogmas and prescriptions of how we should lead our lives. Yet we know instinctively that something is missing, that something needs to be healed or re-membered. For too long we have been dominated by a 'scientific' worldview. This has encouraged a purely rational explanation of life, the universe and everything. Logical, linear, analytical paradigms that use only 'left-brain' thinking have permeated the whole of our Western civilisation, from schools, universities, businesses, and even our relationships with ourselves. Only that which can be measured, labelled and replicated has held any sway in modern-day society. I.Q. testing determines the academic fate of our children even though its range of analysis is tiny in comparison with our potential capabilities. Intelligence, as far as I.Q. testing is concerned, is seen as a single, general capacity for conceptualisation and problem solving. If you're into this, read Frames of Mind by Howard Gardner and Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman.  Gardner shows that there are many human 'intelligences': musical, linguistic and logical/ mathematical capabilities as well as spatial and bodily intelligence and the capacity to achieve a mature emotional and mental sense of self and other people.  So coaching urges us not to put ourselves in boxes of any kind. Let's realise that we all have gifts and talents whether our particular society has deigned to see them as worthy or not. Scientific thinking gives no importance to abilities like intuition but we all have it! 

Coaching acknowledges and develops intuition. It also helps to draw out the uniqueness in you, the creative 'right brain' abilities. More importantly, it helps marry right and left-brain hemispheres. Neither is complete in itself; it takes a connection between mind and heart for us to reach our potential. If we are following paths that are not aligned with our heart’s desires then we doom ourselves to a life of mediocrity, a life to be endured rather than lived. Through coaching you get 'out of your head' and into your heart until the two are in unison. We are not just human beings from the neck up. In order for harmony to exist, mind body and soul must be in tune so that we can vibrate at our highest possible levels.

So, who needs coaching? It might be more appropriate to ask who doesn't (at least at some point in life). If you would you like to make changes in your life that would give you more love, more joy, more happiness and fulfilment. If you feel stuck, have lost your path, have never known your path, want to set up a new business, change your relationship with yourself and others. If you want to stretch yourself, die knowing you've lived, become the person that you were put on this planet to be, you'd benefit from having a coach. There are times when we all need someone.

Types of Coaching

Coaching is a new skill for coaches and a new way of being for the recipients if they commit to the process. The word's long association with sports is not helpful in clarifying the nature of lifecoaching. If you were to search the word 'coach' on the internet you'd only find ways of becoming more proficient at tennis or getting a large vehicle to take you to Blackpool! Many of the prevailing coaching models today derive from management development and focus on team building, increased productivity and related organisational performance goals.  Corporate coaching can be extremely effective so long as the coach does not assume the role of 'expert' in which case he would be no more than a management consultant. Again, coaching must be a mutually respectful collaborative effort. With the plethora of demands on today's managers, coaching can improve leadership skills, communication skills and can enhance emotional intelligence and strategic thinking. 

The world of work is changing so much that being an employee is no longer a credible option for many people. Automation is replacing jobs. Global marketing has caused so much cost competition that employees are being squeezed out of corporations every day. Charles Handy (in Beyond Certainty) says: 'Organisations are never again going to stockpile people. The employee society is on the wane. New models are needed, new role players who will make the new ways less frightening.' More and more people are looking to present the skills they have to potential clients and see career as only one aspect of life. Handy calls this 'portfolio living' which can be likened to a pie chart designating different occupations, each coloured for kind and degree of hoped-for remuneration. Some occupations will be paid in money, some in other kinds of reward: love, creative satisfaction, power, joy and the like. 

Coaches also operate in niche specialities like sales coach, career coach and executive coach to name but a few. However, if you want to make deep-seated change or even transformation in your life, your best bet is a life coach. Life coaches adopt a holistic approach because they understand the impact that each area of your life has on the whole - your health will affect your career; your career will affect your relationships and your finances will impact upon your recreation and social life.  They are concerned about your way of being as well as your way of doing.

Central Tenets of Coaching

Coaching embraces notions that don't always sit comfortably in our sometimes rather anal society. We Brits have never been comfortable with terms that our American cousins have no problem with - self love, analysis, the child within etc. etc. Yet this is only pedantry. Again, the disparaging British media doesn't help matters by belittling the efforts of those of us who take responsibility for our self-awareness and development. The accusation is that we are so self-absorbed and self-serving that we have scant regard for social responsibilities. Nothing could be further from the truth. If we want anything to change, we have to change. Any lasting change has to first come from within. When we change, everything changes. We are universally responsible for the global society we have created. Coaching encourages us to take responsibility for the environment we have engendered around us. When we begin to understand the universal law of cause and effect, we are liberated. We begin to appreciate that if our previous thoughts and actions have created our 'reality' then by changing them, we change our reality. As George Zalucki puts it "If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got". When we begin to understand the total interconnection of all universal things, we will begin to treat the land and other people differently.  Your environment is really a mirror that reflects your beliefs and perceptions. Coaching polishes your mirror, helping you to clearly see your life state. It exposes the patterns of thinking and ways of being that dictate the life you're leading now. 

Whether notions such as self-love make you want to go all gooey or run for the hills, there is no denying we all need it. How can you love others without knowing how to love yourself? We cannot love ourselves if we don't understand ourselves, and if we don't understand ourselves, we cannot understand others. Through coaching you can re-discover your passions, your innate abilities and how you sabotage yourself from achieving your full potential. Coaching works on the principle that you must hold yourself (psychologically) in the highest place. This means having respect for and honouring your life. Again, how can you demand respect from others if you don't respect yourself? The coach colludes in keeping you in your highest place. When I was first coached myself, my left brain wrestled continuously with the notions set out below. These are at the same time perfectly simple yet immensely profound when put into practice. 


Until recently the model of the child was one of being 'born bad'. This is the legacy of the Christian church and its doctrine that we are born with sin - the starting point in its efforts to control and manipulate us. The 'badness' had to be beaten out of us for 'our own good'. Hence "Spare the rod and spoil the child" became the mantra of many parents. This is hardly likely to promote a relationship of equality - the only kind in which love can become manifest. As children we have great difficulty in becoming the person we know we can be when we feel unloved. To realise ourselves as we truly are, we must have around us people who are ready to realise ourselves in the same way. I remember as a child sitting on a hard bench in a Presbyterian Sunday school singing songs about Jesus that terrified me - "Well he sees and knows it when our light grows dim". I had visions of this 'person' Jesus watching me at all times, reading my mind, judging my acts until Doomsday. How could I love him when love and fear are diametrically opposed emotions? These opposed emotions are often played out in families because of this notion that children, being born sinful, are somehow dangerous and frightening and need to be controlled. Just as love and fear are incompatible, so too are love and power because power instils fear. 

So, many of us don't know how to love ourselves for a variety of reasons not least of which is not having been taught how. Not loving the self usually expresses itself in feelings of not deserving, not being good enough, or more generally feelings of guilt, anxiety or fear. Fear is the big one for most of us. If you want to work on conquering fears, read Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers and Beyond Fear by Dorothy Rowe. What many of us don't realise is that most times it's not fear of failure that stops us trying things but fear of becoming the wonderful human being we know, in some small place, we can be. This is the only 'truth' worth knowing. Everything else is illusion. When we love ourselves, we acknowledge ourselves. 

We live in a 'blame' culture that prevents personal responsibility being taken. People can always project what they don’t want to own in themselves – all the parts of them that they consider to be negative - onto other people, or institutions like church or state. Unfortunately, we also project inwards and paralyse ourselves with stories we've built up over the years which confirm how awful we are, how guilty, how blameworthy, how useless. Yet these are, quite simply, stories. There is no objective reality beyond the interpretation we place on objects and events. 

If we start from a point of choosing to love ourselves, then we quit with the blame and recriminations, especially of ourselves. Through loving ourselves, loving feelings begin to radiate outwards to those in our environment and thereby to the world as a whole. Coaching wakens you up to the absolute necessity of living in the present moment. It is only in this moment now that change can take place. The past is gone, and the future doesn’t exist but in this present moment you can choose how to be in your head and in your heart. Happiness is not around the corner or in the past or when we find the person to 'make' us happy.  Happiness is a now experience and can be found in the now moment when we are not in our heads but in the flow of our direct life experiences. 

Coaching is a form of mind training. Self-defeating thoughts often lie just below the surface of consciousness but with practice you can identify them. Very often these thoughts are social prescriptions in the form of 'musts', 'shoulds' or 'oughts'. You know the kind of thing: "I must be a lousy Mother since my kid's in trouble at school"; "Because I should not fail at important work and have done so, I must be a complete failure": "I should be rewarded for being good". Through coaching, such self-sabotaging beliefs can be exposed, challenged and replaced. As Adler said, "Meanings are not determined by situations, but we determine ourselves by the meanings we give to situations". 


Part of love is to trust - oneself, others and the universe. I'm not talking here about blind trust. Naturally we can use our instincts to determine who and what to trust on a day-to-day basis. I'm talking about a way of being that goes beyond instinct. It's tied again into perception. If you believe that good things will happen they generally do and vice versa. It's the same with our behaviour. As Henry Ford put it "Whether you think you can, or think you can't, you're right". So, trust in your power also starts with self-belief. It doesn’t matter if no one else has encouraged you to believe in yourself. They don't need to - you do! The point of departure for any achievement is to believe you can do it. This happens first in your head and then in outside reality. 

We can entertain the notion of trust on many levels of our consciousness. We can go beyond our sense of individual consciousness to connect to a transpersonal source. Then trust can mean putting faith in a higher power, whether that be a divinity or the mystical power of the universe. When we begin to trust we see life experiences as learning opportunities. Then there is no right or wrong, no mistakes, simply situations from which we can learn and grow. Suffering is an intrinsic part of life, but it is how we handle suffering and what we learn from it that distinguishes us as human beings. If your spiritual beliefs come from a system that preaches notions of guilt, blame and fear, you'd be well advised to ditch them. Love and fear, as stated before, are not compatible phenomena. Conditional love is not love at all, but you won’t realise this until you begin to see that your essence is love.  

Whether your notion of spirituality is an established religion, a love of being close to nature or experiencing the inter-connectedness of all life, the important thing is to acknowledge the role of spirituality for fulfilment in life. 

What Coaching is Not

Coaching is not therapy, it is not counselling, it is certainly not psychoanalysis. It may use many of their skills like highly developed listening skills and empathy, but the focus is to drive the game plan of your life forward. Both parties get to know the client’s loves and hates, fears and dreams, thoughts and feelings but there is not much wallowing. We all have our stories and we could all blame our lousy Mothers or our spouse or God or the weather for why we are stuck where we are. The truth is we stay stuck where we are because it's comfortable and familiar, if not very exciting. It is an excuse for not growing up and taking control of the direction of our lives. Courage is required to get out of our 'comfort zone', but as the man said: "The greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing. The person who risks nothing gets nothing, has nothing, is nothing. Only a person willing to risk not knowing the result is free".

Psychology has variously reduced the human condition to explanations of 'stimulus-response' or 'cognitive dysfunction' or 'genetic biochemical inheritance' or beings mentally crippled by their childhood experiences. Each of these factions has had the audacity to assert that its particular view of man is the only and necessary one. If there were a real desire to understand the complexity of the human experience, there would be much more collusion and much less competitiveness. It is indisputable that many of us suffered horrors in childhood, but the uniqueness of the human is that she can use intelligence and creativity to move forward from such experiences, turning them into a healing experience that opens up the capacity to empathise with others and evolving into a love of all mankind. (Read Louise Hay's You Can Heal Your Life). 

Deriving from humanistic psychology, coaching combines philosophies from both East and West. Uncovering uniqueness and opening up to 'peak experiences' are encouraged. Peak experiences often include feelings of ecstasy, wonder and delight, of limitless horizons, of belonging and understanding. Such experiences can be triggered by listening to music, attending to a sunset, attaining a sense of spiritual ecstasy through prayer or meditation, working at a task that involves you totally, making love and the tranquillity which can follow this, or listening to poetry. Peak experiences serve to release psychological energies and to stimulate a sense of purpose and renewed perception. This is why tools to promote these experiences are so often utilised by life coaches. Meditation, creative visualisation and other ways of altering consciousness form part of the coach's repertoire. These exercises will promote 'self-actualisation' - the flowering of all of the client's unique skills and talents and often feature in the homework the client undertakes between coaching sessions. Those looking to develop their creativity would do well to read The Artists Way by Julia Cameron.

Humanistic psychology gave rise to client-centred therapies. Having said that coaching is not therapy although it is true that clients coming out of therapy can benefit enormously from coaching. It provides the framework for them to redesign a new future after they've dealt with the past. There is a growing need for coaching because, unlike therapy, it focuses not only on what the client would like to change in his life but the how to. With a coach he has a guide to help navigate round the pitfalls, a partner to remind him of his greatness when he forgets, the tools to get unstuck, and is challenged to take action in spite of his fears. 

Coaching Skills


Life coaching is a kind of understanding which is not pejorative or patronising. Its aim is to liberate and not imprison with dogma. Listening is one of the key skills required of a coach. Coaches have to make the effort to truly listen in order to hear what the other person (with their own unique construction of meaning) is saying and not echoes of the coach's own thinking. This takes much effort as we are habituated to only perceiving our own set of values. Listening as a coach necessitates being truly present. This means suspending all judgement in order to be conscious and aware. It is about 'generous hearing' as opposed to simply listening. This involves listening to the spaces between the words - hesitations, tone, pitch, mood, aliveness - and sensing what is not being said as well as what is.

To be a coach is also to divest oneself of ego, another tall order in a society which is obsessed with being 'right'. In coaching there is no right or wrong - and I don't mean that in a moral sense - there just is no right or wrong! The assumption is that the client has all the intelligence and resource to work through whatever obstacles lie in the way of achieving goals and actualizing potentials.  Obstacles usually take the form of self-sabotaging mechanisms like negative self-talk. The coach's role is to break these down in order for the client to have a breakthrough. Breakdowns can be emotionally tough, but they come with the territory. With the love and support of the coach, breakdowns can be not only borne by the client but are the key to liberation and the casting off of self-defeating thoughts and actions.


Given that the client has the answers, the role of the coach is to ask the right questions. The build up of trust in the relationship ensures that the client knows the coach is on his side, so it is much less scary to look in the dark places, expose the issues and break through the old defences. Challenging questions add to the resources of the client in the long term. After the coaching relationship the client can coach himself. This is the most important learning experience - learning new ways of being: able to question oneself honestly, able to reframe thinking in a way which serves one's life, able to give oneself permission to follow one's heart's desires. It reflects the old adage that says if you give a man a fish he can eat for a day but if you teach a man to fish, he can eat for a lifetime.