Can Life Coaching Actually Make Your Life Better?
I became a life coach to find out if there's really anything to the booming industry.
(Top photo: the author before life coaching lessons, ready to open her mind)
"I'm going to be a therapist," Jez announces, realising his career is still going nowhere after eight seasons of Peep Show. Mark looks at him with those dilated shark's eyes and replies, cynically, "Yes, but what kind of mad therapy? Jezicise, where you hump people better with crystals?"
I have personally experienced what could be reasonably classed as Jezicise. I've spent thousands on psychotherapy, CBT, counselling, hypnotherapy, mentoring, crystal healing, lightworkers, guided angel meditations. I have paid close to £100 for a very beautiful woman to hover her hands over my body and tell me I had monkeys in my stomach. I once paid £125 for an hour with another woman with no qualifications, but with very a calming voice, who told me I didn't get a job I wanted because it wasn't meant to be. I don't know which is more of an attack on my dignity and overdraft.
In Peep Show, Jez doesn't plan to qualify in any of those specialist subjects: he decides he's going to become a life coach. "It's basically all the best things about therapy and self help without all the…" he starts. "Hard work?" Mark offers. "...unnecessary bolt-ons. The extras," Jez finishes.
A few years ago I went to see a life coach. Like Jez, she had no qualifications to speak of. However, she was attractive, had a flat in north London and a very aesthetically-admirable Instagram account, through which I found her services. She sat me down in her Cath Kidston catalogue living room, listened to me moaning about not being able to find a job and asked me obvious questions like "How did that make you feel?" (miserable, useless, panicked) and "How will you feel once you get a job?" (probably happier and less miserable, useless and panicked).
If that's all there is to it, I started to wonder, maybe I too could become a life coach? I mean, I already employ my own personal cocktail of extensively researched pop-psychology, woke Russell Brandisms, astrology and new age spiritualism for free when it comes to advising my friends. Some life coaches, meanwhile, are charging over £200 an hour for a session. And as I'm sure any self-respecting life coach would tell me: "Stop doling out free advice to friends who don't take it. It's time for you to monetise your efforts."
It's a booming business; a report at the end of 2014 found that life coaching is a $1 billion industry in the US alone. So I went on a two-day taster course to learn how to make a bunch of money out of changing lives for the better.
The training was free and hosted by The Coaching Academy, the UK's leading coach training company. It was held in a function room at a Holiday Inn, which couldn't have looked more like the conference room Jez was taught in if we'd been in Croydon and they'd hired the original extras from the show. Tea and biscuits were available throughout the day and "The Club Is Alive" by JLS was playing on a stereo somewhere.
The audience was diverse: young people who had no clue what they wanted to do in life, people who'd been made redundant, mums who'd never had a career before, high-powered office workers or visibly miserable employees who'd been sent by their companies to be trained up to become in-house coaches. The confusion was evident: no one knew what was going to happen over those two days, and no one knew exactly what a life coach even was.
Personally, I went in believing that a two-day introduction to life coaching would teach me nothing, serving only as a honeytrap to get suckers to fork out for the real £4,000 complete-at-your-own pace adult learning courses.
I was wrong. Frustratingly, I had to sign something that meant I couldn't share what we were told in the room, and we weren't allowed to take photos inside, but I can say that what we learned was very helpful: how to actually listen instead of doing that thing where you think about what you're going to say rather than what your friend is saying, and how to avoid being judgmental or forcing an opinion of how you would do something on others. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to be a better person.
"If we want to think differently, we need someone to break our own pattern of thinking."
We also learnt what life coaching isn't about: severe depression, anxiety or serious relationship issues. This is where life coaching deviates from most types of therapy – we're told to leave sadness at the door; this is just about self-improvement.
After two days I started to understand what I was actually learning to be. Simply put, a life coach helps a client reach their goals by questioning their thinking and helping to signpost without judgment.
For me that last part was the hardest bit. I can't tell you if I think you're being lazy or I know you're going about something in the wrong way because I went through the same thing before. I can't even tell you that your husband sounds like a terrible human being who you should leave immediately. There is no room for judgment in coaching. This is exactly why you shouldn't coach people you're close to – you'll be too tempted to tell them what to do or be frustrated by their lack of effort.
After my training I wanted to speak to a highly successful life coach to see if I had the chops to coach in the real world. Natalie Dee is one of the best in London, coaching a number of top executives.
"Just because you've been on a six month course, doesn't mean you know what you're doing," she told me, to my mild disappointment. "I believe we're limited by our own thinking, so even I have a life coach to stretch my thinking. For me it's about asking questions. If we want to think differently, we need someone to break our own pattern of thinking. I'm not saying you couldn't do that on your own – but when you work with someone you can do it quicker. It's the job of the good coach to push a few buttons and be the catalyst for new thinking."
I wanted her to watch me life coach to both see if I – a chump who had been on a two-day introductory course – was ready to get paid by the public, and what she – a qualified professional – would do. We got two volunteers from the office to bring a goal and let me work my magic.
Charlotte came along with the aim of doing more in marine conservation. The problem is that she doesn't have a degree in it and can only do work on a volunteer level, of which there are few opportunities. I asked how and when she was looking into opportunities and she said she was subscribed to some emails. I questioned whether it was that the opportunities weren't there, or if it was that she wasn't trying hard enough to find them. Deep, hey? Did she really believe she was good enough to work in conservation, and was that affecting how hard she was looking for the opportunities? She said it was probably a confidence issue. I felt like I'd made a breakthrough; my powers of empathy were undeniable.
But soon I had literally nothing to say and asked Natalie to bail me out. Natalie suspected there were many more opportunities out there than Charlotte was saying, and suggested that Charlotte doesn't believe she has the right to go for them and is self-sabotaging. Once Charlotte had done more work on her confidence, she said, things would change for her.
The second willing victim was Zoe, who came in wanting to quit sugar, saying it was a full on addiction that was impacting her career, confidence, looks, energy levels and general satisfaction with the way her life was going. I asked if she could substitute the reward of sugar for something else – a walk, a tea, a tiny purchase, something obviously shit compared a Crunchie? Natalie stepped in to say anything to do with addiction can be tricky for a life coach to handle, that this addiction stemmed from something buried in teenage years and that she would either suggest a longer series of sessions to break this down or refer Natalie elsewhere. This in itself was helpful to know – as with therapy and "heavy stuff", there were limits to life coaching.
Both guinea pigs left wishing they had the spare cash to hire Natalie as their life coach. I did too after she did a session with me. The way she interjected and posed questions that undermined my thinking was uncomfortable. It was mentally hard work, in a way that sessions with none of my other lifestyle-slash-wellbeing-slash-self-improvement experts had been. I felt that someone had reached in with a spoon and mixed everything inside me around.
Life coaching is never supposed to be a substitute for therapy. "Very often people come to me after years of therapy," said Natalie. "Therapy is supportive in a very different way. If you need to talk and be safe. Sometimes it's historical. People come to coaching because they want change now. These people are goal orientated, often senior people in business who can't be seen to be vulnerable."
Would I be a decent life coach, I asked Natalie. She essentially said: maybe, in the future. "Would you want a doctor to work on you without seven years of training?" she asked. Absolutely not. "I'm not saying you need seven years behind you to be a life coach, but you want someone with a bit of life experience. You've got that: you've gone to therapy, to CBT and all the rest of it. You know the difference between all of those things. I'm a better coach now than I was 13 years ago – it's experience."
It's easy for people with no idea of what it's really about to sneer at the concept of life coaching. Even the name – "life coach" – makes it sound like you're going to be stuck with someone who soars through life with the pompous assumption that they are so competent at the game of life they're entitled to take vast sums of money to help people with their own.
But really, life coaches – the good ones, anyway – give you a no bullshit workout for your brain; they know that you're only going to listen to yourself, because ultimately we're all little idiots who must have our own miraculous epiphany to change anything about our comfortable but unsatisfactory lives. Jez is a life coach, but not every life coach is a Jez.
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