The Problem With Life Coaching

I’m convinced of this: Good done anywhere is good done everywhere. For a change, start by speaking to people rather than walking by them like they’re stones that don’t matter. As long as you’re breathing, it’s never too late to do some good.

—Maya Angelou

Coaching has undoubtedly exploded in popularity and into public awareness in the past two decades. And while there are as many flavors of coach as there are life issues and challenges for them to help address, no single area of coaching seems to have captured the public’s eye in the way that life coaching has. When coaches are asked about what work they do, if they simply respond that they’re a coach, most are very familiar with being confused with either a sport coach or a life coach even if they’re neither.

While the very fact that coaching is becoming more elevated within the public consciousness is broadly helpful to the industry, what it appears to be becoming known for — particularly life coaching — is something of a mixed blessing at best. When high popularity joins with a lack of clarity and oversight, the conditions for unethical practices and even downright flimflammery arise. While this certainly doesn’t describe all of the industry, some uncomfortable yet important questions regarding coaching are emerging.

On June 2nd 2024, the New York Times published the piece to the right titled “They Spent Their Life Savings on Life Coaching” which tells a pretty sorry story of several folk who, in wanting to shift gears themselves in life, decided that becoming a life coach was their next career move. This is a common enough tale for many making life and career changes and it was even mine. The spiel is very appealing, right? Work for yourself, make great bucks and also help others to live an awesome life!

Unfortunately, despite the flashy websites, promises of riches, glowing testimonials and polished marketing-speak, once the participants cited in the NYT piece commenced their eye-wateringly expensive training ($18,000 for the 6 month coach training + around the same again for further support and add on courses), the cracks in all the promises soon began to emerge! I’m not going to go deeper into the article (linked above) so please go read it to learn more. An even earlier piece (here) from the Guardian tells a remarkably similar tale and appears to be more explicitly naming the key player in the life coach training industry cited in the NYT piece.

The key argument made in the NYT article is that as life coaching is providing very similar services to many other client-centered helping professions which are regulated, why isn’t it?

I agree and frankly right there is the primary problem.

Without oversight or regulation, coaching is currently sadly a bit of a "Wild West".

On this very topic, The Salt Lake Times recently published an article titled “When Therapists Lose Their Licenses, Some Turn to the Unregulated Life Coaching Industry Instead” after Jodi Hildebrandt, a Utah based therapist turned life coach and social media influencer, was sentenced to prison for abusing two of her business partner’s children. Even when therapists have been stripped of their state license to practice, nothing stops them from setting up shop the next day as a coach.

Where other professions like doctors, therapists, psychologists etc. are bound to an ethical code of conduct which not only oversees their conduct with clients but also has limits on how they communicate and market themselves, unless a coach has decided to credential with a professional organization like the International Coaching Federation, then there are no limits or safeguards in place and no sanctions if they cause harm in any way. I’ve written about this many times, so go here to see more.

I’ve personally been asked for advice when an uncredentialled life coach had scammed a very vulnerable close friend of my wife, so I’ve sadly witnessed the harm done close to home as well. Unfortunately that client had no pathway for recourse!

Coaching is a self-regulated industry, which means that anyone can establish a coaching practice regardless of their training or professional background.

—Carrie Abner, VP of Credentials & Standards ICF

While the big problem is oversight and regulation both of individual coaches and the organizations that train them—which is precisely what industry federations such as the ICF provide—a significant part of the problem is also that, unlike other professions such as therapist and counselor, there is no universally agreed definition of or statutory protection over what the coaches role includes and use of the term coach — a confusion clearly shared even by many in the industry themselves.

Let’s have a look at some definitions of coaching and see if we can spot anything.

The ICF Definition of Coaching:

ICF defines coaching as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. The process of coaching often unlocks previously untapped sources of imagination, productivity and leadership.

Our definition:

Coaching is a collaborative process that supports clients to think and act in new and more creative ways in order to evolve their self-concept, self-awareness, decision-making and behavioral repertoires and help them achieve their personal and professional goals.

The hiring platform Indeed.com:

A life coach is a results-oriented mentor who helps clients develop important skills, set goals and change their lives. Life coaching is a great field for those who enjoy working with people and affecting positive change in others. [1]

The coaching services provider BetterUp:

A life coach is someone who counsels and encourages clients through personal or career challenges. A life coach helps guide clients to reach their ultimate goals. [2]

The Life Coach and Life Coach trainer Tony Robbins:

A life coach is someone professionally trained to help you maximize your full potential and reach your desired results. They are like a supportive friend and a trusted adviser rolled into one. Life coaching will push you to identify your goals, hold you accountable and provide encouragement throughout your journey to become a better version of yourself. [3]

Ok, I made it easy here by highlighting a couple of areas to make my point, but both our and the ICF definitions are clear that a coach is a support, a partner and a collaborator, whereas the others describe a life coach as: a mentor; someone who counsels, encourages and helps guide; and a supportive friend and trusted advisor rolled into one. That these final three definitions come from ostensibly leading coaching industry voices is quite concerning to me. The industry accrediting and credentialing bodies (Yes, such as the ICF!) ethically require their members to ensure clients know the difference between coaching and these other types of modalities yet these “experts” see otherwise.

One of the biggest public misconceptions about a life coach is  thinking that they’re an expert voice who will advise and guide you, whereas the real skill of coaching is pretty much the total opposite to that approach.

While coaches have expertise in coaching skills, the client is the expert in themselves and always in charge of their decisions and actions.

Coaches are not trained to diagnose, prescribe, treat, mentor or advise. What they train in are the conversational skills that help a client to think more creatively so they can gain new insights and take the actions that can help them to change their lives and achieve their goals. But it’s always the client who makes the decisions and takes the actions.

Look, sure coaches may have resources and information the client doesn’t, and they may really help a client by supporting them to become more informed, but whether the client sees any of it as relevant or helpful to them or takes action is entirely up to them.

It’s sadly clear that many of the problems stem from the misinformed voices populating the industry, some of whom are unaccredited coach training providers.

In fact, the first coach training program I took was one of these. It was run by someone who I later learned had never certified as a coach but who had considerable kudos as a professional development “expert” among their other impressive-looking professional titles. While it wasn’t a total disaster, once I actually took an accredited program and my eyes were opened to what coaching actually was, I certainly felt pissed about the misleading lessons, blatant untruths and waste of my hard-earned cash.

I could easily go on here as this lack of regulation — both of coaches and the organizations that train them — has sadly led to an industry prone to confusion, mistruths, musunderstanding and downright scammers. There’s even a new subset of “coaches” out there who scoop up the newly minted coaches selling them  high priced marketing services with promises of getting them 6-7 figure incomes which defy any industry statistics. Go read my post on all this. Heck there’s even “coaches” selling programs on “How to become a 6 figure life coach WITHOUT certification”.  I mean who needs training, right? It’s just a life coach.

Considering all of the issues covered, it’s hardly a surprise that the term life coach has simply become something of a joke in many circles, or at least the punchline of one. You know like when someone retorts,

"Who are you, my life coach or something?"

While often funny, these type of quips always tend to highlight the fundamental misunderstandings about what coaches actually do (ie. that life coaches do not advise people on their lives etc.)

Here’s a pretty good factual short from CNBC in the USA on life coaching.

Yet despite all the issues and challenges, I truly love the profession and I know its value. Done well by a well-trained and credentialed pro, coaching truly helps people’s lives change immeasurably.

Let me also acknowledge that there are some great coaches out there who don’t have credentials and there are some mediocre ones who do. But the only way we can truly guarantee an ethical level of service and behavior is by working with coaches who have signed up to an ethical code as all credentialed coaches have. Equally true is that coaches who have credentials have also demonstrated a certain level of industry agreed standard of skill.

This isn’t to say that there also aren’t issues with the industry organizations and some of their standards and competencies, but those niggles are relatively minor in the face of the problems we see without their oversight.

I’m honestly not sure where all this goes at this point or what the solution is or will be. Having some statutory recognition of the industry bodies like the ICF is a beginning. My hope is that those organizations will also initiate and push at state and federal levels for the same. Until then, the best we’ve got is to keep creating public awareness ourselves about these differences and what certification, accreditation and credentialing means.

References:

1. https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/finding-a-job/what-is-a-life-coach (Accessed 6.15.24)

2. https://www.betterup.com/blog/life-coaching (Accessed 6.15.24)

3. https://www.tonyrobbins.com/results-life-coach/ (Accessed 6.15.24)

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