As a coach, I’ve been asked this question many times: “How does life coaching work?”
I don’t think this can be answered simply. Many factors influence the ways that different life coaches work with their clients. For example, the type and depth of a coach’s training can play a major part. Additionally, the coaching industry is unregulated, meaning that anyone can start a coaching business. Life coaches without accredited training (such as is approved by the International Coach Federation) might have very different offers to those trained by reputable organisations.
However, I have outlined some factors that I think are quite common between coaches who have training in line with coaching best practices.
Life coaching session structure
A common set of life coaching sessions might look like this:
- Initial discussion, agreement on purpose of coaching relationship
- Discussion of goals, measurement
- Tracking of progress, uncovering possible greater issues for development, redefining goals if necessary
- Maintaining progress and finalising the coaching relationship
Of course, everyone is different and this may vary between people.
The foundations of life coaching are similar to those of counselling, also known as talk therapy. Theory-wise, coaching (and counselling) usually rely on a good relationship between the coach (or counsellor) and the client. In order to help this relationship develop, coaches often use person-centred therapy (or “Rogerian Psychotherapy”). Person-centred therapy’s most important features are that the practitioner has:
- Congruence with their own thoughts and emotions
- Unconditional positive regard (for the client), and
- Accurate empathy (for the client’s experience)
The coach-client relationship is the foundation upon which a client can create change in their lives. Without this foundation, it is difficult to help another person to change. To illustrate this, think about the number of times you’ve given someone advice during a difficult time in their lives, only to have that person do the exact opposite of what you advised.
Life coaching techniques and method
The techniques and methods that life coaches use can vary widely. Many coaching workshops and training programs appear to make such techniques their main selling points. Meanwhile, pure person-centred therapy relies on the client observing themselves through what is reflected back to them from the coach. In time, this process allows the client to make some kind of change in their lives.
Solution-Focused Brief Therapy, however, can speed up the process, getting the client to focus on solutions and options for change. Meanwhile, Narrative Therapy allows the creation of a narrative (story) about the client’s life. This helps them to see problems from the outside, and establish values and strengths to confront those problems. As a final example, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, makes use of acceptance and mindfulness to help a client become psychologically flexible, thereby allowing them to change behaviour and commit to behaving in more valued ways. Other common techniques can include cognitive behavioural therapy, hypnotherapy, Gestalt therapy and more. However, there are different amounts of evidence for the effectiveness of different techniques. This makes it difficult for potential clients to select a reputable coach (see “How to find a good life coach“).
My personal preference is to use a combination of person-centred therapy and solution-focused brief therapy. Additionally, I like to measure progress and outcomes, to ensure my clients are actually progressing in meaningful ways.
The effect on the individual
So how does life coaching work, exactly? Combining these two factors – the coach-client relationship and effective techniques – is what makes life coaching work. The environment that a skilled life coach creates allows a client to look inside themselves and consider their options. For some clients, this means having a non-judgemental and supportive listener to help them make sense of a difficult period in their lives. Meanwhile, other clients find the environment fosters a partnership which helps the client become clear on their goals and to select their best options. For others still, the coaching environment creates a sounding board, or a kind of “psychological mirror”. This allows the client to see themselves from the outside and make decisions about their own life. Each individual circumstance is different, but with tried-and-true processes and techniques, coaching can have a definite impact.
Life coaches do not act as counsellors or psychologists
It is also worth noting here that life coaching does not and cannot replace the roles of counselling and psychology. To avoid confusion, common roles and brief explanations are shown below:
- Psychiatrists deal with medical care, prescriptions and hospitalization, if necessary.
- Both Psychologists and Counsellors deal with how people think, feel and behave, often to do with mental health issues. However, psychologists may tend to use science-based mental illnesses over the long term, whilst counsellors are trained in therapeutic techniques, generally for over the short term.
- Psychologists registered with the Psychology Board of Australia.
- Psychiatrists are registered with the RANZCP (Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists).
Coaches who are members of the International Coach Federation are required under the ICF’s Code of Ethics to accurately identify their qualifications, expertise, training, certifications and ICF credentials.
More information about coaching and counselling
For more information related to how life coaching works, see: