Questions About Life Coaching:
What Does a Life Coach Do?
You may be thinking about getting involved in life coaching if you’re navigating a tricky career change, want to get better outcomes in your relationships, are trying to increase your emotional intelligence, or are simply feeling stuck in one area of life or another. But what does a life coach do, exactly, and how can working with one help you reach your goals and build a happier, more meaningful life?
Understanding what life coaches actually do will not just help you find a life coach, it will also help you get the most out of the experience.
The first thing to know is that there are many different kinds of coaches, and they all operate a little differently. The coaching process will vary widely depending on the changes you want to make, the barriers to success you’re facing, and the type of coach you choose. If you’re working with an online career coach to get unstuck professionally, the game plan will look very different from one built with a relationship coach to help you improve your marriage, for example.
But all coaching has a common purpose — identifying the goals that are most important to you, the obstacles in your path, and the steps you must take to reach them.
To accomplish this, broadly speaking, all effective coaches will follow some basic steps. A good life coach will first guide you through a process of personal exploration that helps you gain insight and uncover what you truly want. When that’s known, they will help you make a detailed, step-by-step plan.
The action you take may be behavioral (like, actually doing certain things differently) or it may be internal (like learning how to manage your thoughts or feelings differently. Most of the time your personal growth process will involve both. Once you’ve “arrived” your coach will also help you craft a plan to keep growing forward, or at least maintain your gains and not backslide into old habits.
Clarity + Goals + Plan + Action = Coaching. That’s the formula. But again, how that looks in the coaching office is obviously more complex and nuanced. In this article, my goal is to help you gain a true understanding of what coaches do, and what they can do for you.
Let’s dive in!
What Is a Life Coach?
First, let’s define our terms here. What is a life coach? A life coach is a professional dedicated to helping clients achieve growth and goals. Like a football coach pushing players to be the best athletes they can be, a life coach can help motivate, advise, and support you to reach your true potential in one or more areas of life.
There are many similarities between effective coaching and good therapy. However, in my experience, high-functioning people who are eager to learn, grow, and make positive changes in their lives often feel frustrated and “stuck” when they attempt to use slow, introspective, past-focused therapy as a vehicle for change. They often feel like they’re just endlessly talking about things without things changing for them outside of the therapy room.
This is particularly true if they work with a therapist who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness, as most therapists do. More on “talk therapy” here, if you’re interested. In contrast, working with a skilled life coach is often a more positive and effective experience for them, because coaching is focused on growth, goals, and creating change “IRL” (as the kids say these days).
Here is more information about the differences you can expect when working with a life coach vs therapist.
That sounds great, right? But there’s a little more to this story, and I must share it with you before we discuss what coaches do. In this article I’m going to be talking about the process of effective coaching, and how genuinely good coaches structure their work with you. But it is vital for you to know that many, possibly most, coaches do not use evidence-based approaches to coaching like the ones I’ll be describing here.
While a good coach in your corner can be transformational, it’s important to understand that, unlike a therapist, a coach does not need any official license or certification. Anyone can decide to be a life coach and begin advertising their services to potential clients — without so much as taking a class or reading a book on the topic.
This means it’s incredibly important to choose carefully when hiring a coach. The more you can do to learn about coaching and what it should be, the more able you will be to make informed decisions and find a genuinely helpful coach who can guide you through a meaningful growth process. (I do have advice for you on this topic as well, if you care to check out these articles: “How to Find a Life Coach” and also “Understanding Evidence-Based Practice”
Taking the time to learn how coaching works, when coaching is appropriate (and when it’s not), and what good coaching should involve — as you are doing here today by reading this article — can help you, or someone you love, avoid very real potential harm.
Here’s why: People get involved in coaching for help in creating positive changes in their lives. But, the real source of dissatisfaction may or may not be something that coaching can assist you with. For example, for some, their “lack of motivation” and tendency to procrastinate may be a symptom of depression, an anxiety disorder, or related to trauma, or even a substance use disorder.
Remember, life coaches are not required to have any education or training at all. Your weird neighbor who never picks up after their dog could very well be some unsuspecting person’s life coach. Obviously, they are not qualified to diagnose or treat any of these mental health conditions.
And, (here is the part to pay attention to) unless they are also licensed therapists, they don’t know enough to know when their clients are struggling with something more serious than what can be addressed through coaching. When someone is actually in need of mental health treatment, getting involved with a life coach can delay them from getting the help they need, and can even make their symptoms worse. There are a number of mental health conditions that can be absolutely debilitating, and even potentially fatal. If this is the real “obstacle” or underlying issue, it is really important to 1) know that and 2) get effective treatment sooner rather than later.
To be sure you’re not hiring a coach to do a therapist’s job, your best bet is to seek out a licensed mental health professional who has also been certified as a life coach. This ensures that your coach has the educational background and experience to catch any serious issues that may be holding you back, like major depression or severe anxiety, and to direct you to the appropriate mental health treatment if that is the case. Therapists-turned-coaches will also, on the bright side, be much more likely to have invested in the education and training that lead to extremely effective coaching, like the coaching process I describe here today.
If you are seriously considering working with a life coach, please take the time to learn more about your options and how to avoid the potential pitfalls. There are links to informational articles throughout this one, and I have a “life coaching questions” knowledge base prepared for you at the bottom of this page.
With that very important disclaimer and “warning label” out of the way, let’s discuss the process of high-quality coaching.
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What Does a Life Coach Do?
The Process of Coaching
Step 1 — Exploration and Assessment
Most people seek out the help of a coach — whether it be a relationship coach, a career coach, or an online dating coach — when they’re unsatisfied with the state of some area of their life, and they’re unsure about the best path forward.
When a Denver life coach begins working with a new client, they start with an assessment that helps them understand the current situation and the changes the client would like to make. The coach will help you to identify your core values, strengths, personality traits, the direction you’d like to move, and the why behind that desire.
This first part of the coaching process can feel a little like therapy, because it is introspective and focused on understanding rather than doing. For people who are super-eager to jump right in there and start making changes (“I’m going to do ten push ups every morning and it will change my life!!”) this discovery process can feel annoyingly slow.
However, what is important to understand is that the process of exploration and assessment helps to lay a foundation for the work ahead by ensuring your plan aligns with your values and takes full advantage of your personal strengths.
It also generates the kind of true understanding that is absolutely necessary to tap into your motivation, and uncover the real obstacles that are holding you back — those subconscious ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving that will always sabotage you unless you are aware of them, and know how to actively manage them well.
Step 2 — Insight and Self-awareness
A thorough assessment with a life coach should bring you some insight about the gap between what you want out of life and what you’re currently getting, as well as the implicit beliefs and patterns of behavior that have led to your less-than-satisfying situation.
Maybe you’re unhappy in your relationship, but don’t know how to create the close, secure connection you want to have with your partner. Or maybe your dream career feels out of reach, but taking the necessary steps toward change, like going back to school or starting your own business, feels too risky.
The benefits of life coaching are many, but one of the biggest is that it can help you examine the beliefs that are keeping you stuck and consider new points of view that may be more helpful — and more accurate. You’ll also gain insight into your own decision-making process that will help you see the cause-and-effect relationship between your choices and your outcomes.
Step 3 — Clarity About Goals
Working with a life coach will, perhaps above all, help you to set clear coaching goals that align with your values, providing a North Star for you to strive toward as you carry out your coaching plan.
These goals will be based on the insight you’ve gained into what’s truly important to you. They’ll be specific and measurable, ambitious yet attainable, and they’ll have a timeframe attached for when you plan to reach them.
In addition to identifying what your particular goals are, your life coach should help you link your goals to your larger life’s purpose to understand why they’re meaningful for you. It’s one thing to say you’d like to lose 30 pounds, for instance, and to create a step-by-step plan to hit that target. It’s another thing to appreciate why that goal is important — possibly because you want to feel more energetic so that you can spend more time playing with your kids, because being the best parent you can be is your deepest purpose in life. See the difference?
Step 4 — Identifying & Overcoming Obstacles
Unfortunately, obstacles are indeed inevitable. If they weren’t, you would already be living your ideal life, without help from a life coach.
Some of the obstacles standing between you and your goals are likely circumstantial. For instance, you may want to improve your relationship, but your toxic workplace leaves you feeling drained and with little time or energy for connecting with your partner. Circumstantial obstacles can be overcome using externally-focused strategies, like hiring a part-time assistant to improve your work-life balance. Your life coach will help you identify the circumstances getting in the way of your desired life, and brainstorm some practical solutions for conquering them.
But many of the obstacles holding us back are actually internal, and require a different approach to overcome. You may have big ambitions for creative projects, but when faced with doing the work, you find yourself procrastinating. A coach can help you identify the self-limiting thoughts behind the obstacle (like imposter syndrome), the feelings that those thoughts produce (anxiety and fear of failure), and the behavior that those feelings lead to (avoiding work through procrastination). A great coach can help you figure out what’s leading to the outcomes you don’t want, and reprogram your brain to get you on the trajectory you want to be on.
Once you see the thoughts underlying the unhelpful patterns of behavior, you’ll know where to begin making internal changes that can lead to better outcomes.
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Step 5 — Identifying Strengths and Skills Gaps
While everyone has their own unique set of “personal growth opportunities,” you also have strengths that can help you achieve your goals — as long as you’re aware of them and know how to use them to your advantage.
Maybe you’re great at connecting with people, and making new friends comes easily to you. If so, a Denver career coach may help you incorporate networking into your plan to shift into work you’re passionate about. Maybe you’re bilingual, a talented artist, or just phenomenally hardworking. Whatever your personal strengths, the right coach will help you build a personalized plan that takes them into consideration.
In addition to identifying and using your strengths, your coach will work with you to find areas where your skillset may need some work. If unhelpful communication patterns are currently an obstacle to having a better connection with your partner, a relationship coach can help you find strategies to increase your emotional intelligence and improve your communication skills so that you can make real and lasting change.
For many people, the biggest growth area and need for skill-building are around changing their inner narrative and learning how to confront and question some of their automatic assumptions about themselves and others. Our mental filters are powerful. The story you tell yourself about whatever is happening has a huge impact on the way you feel, and the way you respond. A talented coach will help you understand not just how you are thinking, but can also provide you with tools to help you use your strengths to re-write your story.
The process of identifying your strengths, and developing the ability to manage internal obstacles, as well as the areas where your skills may be lacking, helps you to make real progress towards your goals. You’ll see more growth once you learn to direct your energy to the areas where it’s needed most while making good use of your natural advantages.
Step 6 — Developing an Action Plan
Learning about yourself and identifying your goals is valuable, but the life you want won’t just magically materialize unless you translate those insights into a clear plan of action. A life coach can help you do just that, tracking your progress and helping you stay motivated along the way.
Your coach will help you develop a scaffolded, multi-tier plan that builds on the insights you’ve gathered at previous stages of the coaching process, makes use of your strengths, and lays out clear steps for building the skills you need to reach your goals. Then, your coach will help you stay accountable for practicing!
A coach will break the plan into bite-sized chunks, ensuring that you’re pushing yourself, but that the effort will be sustainable. You’ll receive assignments that build on each other to gradually move you forward. A career coach may ask you to revise your resume one week, and then ask you to apply for three jobs the next, for example. A relationship coach, after helping you get clarity about what, specifically, needs to change in order to improve the interactions with your partner, will help you create targeted homework assignments to practice the new communication skills you’ve been learning.
Learning From What Works
As you work through the plan of action, your coach will frequently help you step back and assess what’s working and what’s not. This should be a judgment-free process designed to help you gain insight into the approaches that are effective for you, rather than to make you feel like a failure for falling short of perfection (as you inevitably will). The true goal of coaching assignments is not to execute them perfectly. The goal is to continue learning and growing, through our observations of ourselves in action.
When you accomplish a mini-goal easily, your coach can help you understand what made those changes stick. Maybe that step took great advantage of your strengths, or maybe you approached it with a positive mindset. Understanding the reason behind your success allows you to approach future goals in ways that have proved effective for you in the past, making it more likely you’ll trust yourself, and succeed again.
Developing a Growth Mindset
When you’re working with a good coach, the concept of “failure” doesn’t exist. The struggle to achieve a goal, even if it doesn’t come to fruition exactly as you’d originally hoped, can give you an even more valuable opportunity to learn what’s working for you and what isn’t. With the right mindset, you can cope with disappointment and move forward better than before.
Maybe you planned to wake up early and go for a run four days a week, but you were only able to follow through twice. Your coach can help you analyze why you succeeded on the days that you did, and why your plan fell apart on other days.
You might learn that you’re more likely to get up and go for a run when you go to bed early the night before, and you’re more likely to sleep in late when you don’t. With this information, you can make adjustments to increase your chances of success going forward. This is how we learn.
However, what is much more common (and helpful, honestly) is that working towards goals creates further clarity, understanding and growth. For example, it’s often the case that people have competing goals. One goal, the conscious goal, might be to get up and exercise in order to reap all the benefits of health, energy, etc. But having difficulty in following through may reveal the presence of a formerly unconscious goal: The legitimate and valid goal of having rest, nurturing, sleep, and time to just be quiet.
Without an authentic understanding of all the competing parts of yourself, and how to intentionally meet their needs, you will always be at war with yourself. Insight + action is the secret to changing everything. It is the key to not just self-understanding, but a cohesive plan of action that is built around the entirety of your needs — not just the aspirational ones.
Furthermore, learning how to use your inner strengths to effectively manage your internal obstacles requires a shift in your internal process. The way you talk to yourself, the way you think, and the actions you take to support your growth all come out into the open when you falter. Meaningful, inspired change is always experiential, and a good online life coach can help you wring every drop of growth and self-awareness from all your life experiences — especially the challenging ones. These are not failures. These are the “gifts of growth” a good coach can help you unwrap.
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Tracking Your Progress
As you work through your plan of action, it’s important to stay organized and keep track of your progress so that you can see how far you’ve come, as well as the areas that aren’t going according to plan.
A life coach will help you see and acknowledge the small gains you make in pursuit of your ultimate goal. This is vital to maintaining motivation. Our most ambitious goals are always accomplished one step at a time, with plenty of stumbles (i.e., new growth opportunities!) along the way. It’s easy to forget how far you’ve come when you’re not taking the time to celebrate small wins and appreciate your progress. Maintaining a growth mindset, and carefully monitoring your own, will help you persevere as obstacles arise.
If your progress and its time to stop and rest at some stage of your plan, that’s okay too. Partnering with a coach will keep you from backsliding. Also having that balance of insight and action is key to continue moving forward. Sometimes taking a break and reflecting is the best opportunity to continue learning about yourself. Your coach can help you understand the pitfalls to your progress, and brainstorm some effective work-arounds.
Step 7 — Emerging Awareness and Clarity
Life coaching is about more than hiring someone to help you develop a plan of action and stick to it, although that’s a vital component. It’s about understanding yourself, what’s important to you, and the changes you need to make in order to build the life you desire.
As you work with your coach, you’ll learn things about yourself that you didn’t know before. Maybe your definition of what qualifies as fulfilling work will shift as you gain a deeper understanding of your values. Or maybe you’ll discover that the relationship you entered coaching in hopes of strengthening is actually one you’d like to end.
This is all perfectly fine — positive even. It’s only natural that our understanding of our goals, skills, and obstacles would evolve as we go deeper into the process of personal exploration that meaningful coaching provides. Even if the outcome of coaching is not exactly what you expected, the process of coaching will give you greater clarity about what brings you joy, the miracles all around you, and how to appreciate the people in your life for who and what they are. By staying connected to your most deeply held values, and learning how to be the very best version of yourself, your success is assured.
Once you’ve completed your work with a coach, you’ll have to decide how to proceed with what you’ve learned. You may feel so inspired by your progress that you want to dive straight into a new plan of action, possibly in a completely different area of your life. If so, the self-awareness and the tools that you’ve gained can be applied to your next goal, whether you choose to work on it with a coach or on your own.
Or maybe you’d like to take some time to appreciate your success or to focus on maintaining it, before embarking on a new journey of growth. That’s fine too! You’ve worked hard to make the strides you’ve made, and you deserve to enjoy your success and feel proud.
While not all coaches use this type of evidence-based process, good ones do. This is the kind of experience you deserve to have. I hope this discussion helped provide you with clarity about what good life coaches do, and whether or not this approach would be helpful to you.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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