What the hell is a life coach?

I haven’t been asked this question directly yet; but when I say “I am a life coach,” the blank stare I get in response says it all. And my long silence probably suggests that I don’t know either. But that isn’t really it. The silence is because I have not prepared and rehearsed a succinct response and I am not quite sure where to begin.

So, here goes. What is a life coach?

The term “life coaching” covers many activities and different approaches. What all life coaches have in common is that they facilitate their clients in reaching goals. Ideally, these are goals of the clients’ own choosing. Realistically, however, there are situations in organizational settings where the goals are imposed by performance reviews (job evaluations). You could argue that the person in front of you wants to keep his/her job and, therefore, is the client and is choosing the goals. This, in my opinion, is a bit of an ethical stretch and the client is really the organization and only incidentally the person in front of you. Such is the ethical dilemma of all three-party contracts.

Ideally, however, the client comes to a coach wanting support in reaching goals of his or her own choosing. The coach’s job is to support the client in finding solutions (or means to an end) that is congruent with the client’s own values and worldview. There may be thousands of ways to get there from here but one of the biggest stumbling blocks is selecting a means that is not congruent with the client’s higher values.

Now I know this can sound very New Age-y and peace and love; but that really depends on the client. Some clients want to win at all costs. Coaching that client is very different from coaching a client that has relational harmony as a higher value. It really is not my job as a coach to persuade a client to adopt different (my) values. My job as a coach is to facilitate the client in finding where he or she really wants to be at some future point and in finding a congruent route from here to there.

Stated in this way, it seems pretty straightforward. It is. On the other hand, that is like saying that getting to the top of Saddle Mountain is just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other until you get there. As an overview, that is true, but there are a lot of details buried under that generality. The issue of how to manage those details has given rise to myriad theories and models of coaching.

Solution-focused coaching is a very popular among trainers and clients, as is NLP Coaching, GROW Coaching, Transformational Coaching, Spiral coaching and Brief Coaching or Cognitive Behavioral Coaching. This only begins to name what is available. There is a multitude of lesser known models such as Narrative and Ontological Coaching.

The reason there are so many approaches is that coaches borrow from the theories and models of many different fields as they can apply to coaching, especially philosophy, sociology, communications, psychology and counseling. Once these are incorporated into coaching there are no longer any of these fields in their pure form. In addition, coaching is still in the freewheeling stage that newer fields go through, so anybody can devise their own system of coaching and set up a coach training organization and teach it.

Besides different theoretical foundations and practical models, coaches often specialize in some particular area of life where the coach and the client find mutual interest. As only a few examples, coaches specialize in work-life balance, creativity, career development, executive development, small business and entrepreneurship.

Then there are coaches who only concentrate within certain client niches: perhaps gay or lesbian clients, or only men or only women, veterans, sales professionals, photographers, writers, painters.

Little wonder that so many people are confused about what life coaching is and why life coaches are baffled about how to describe it in just a few words. If forced to answer in the proverbial 25 words or less, I would say:

Life coaches facilitate their clients’ process of devising smart goals and reaching them in ways congruent with their own values and worldview.

Rodney L. Merrill, Ph.D.
Personal & Professional Development Coach
Tools forBrilliance


About Rodney Merrill

Certified Life Coach with B.A. degree in Sociology, Master's in Health Education, and PhDs in Social Psychology and Applied Social Sciences. TOOLS FOR CREATIVE LIVING EDUCATION Comprehensive Coaching U Certified Comprehensive Positive Psychology Coach Erickson College 2012 Professional Coach Program Solutions-Focused Coaching Life Coach Institute 2011 Certified Life Coach Goal-setting & Self-Talk Coaching Tilburg University 2011 PhD in Applied Social Science California State University, Northridge 1989 MPH in Health education Columbia Pacific University 1983 PhD in Community Psychology Columbia Pacific University 1980 MA in Community Psychology Humboldt State University 1975 BA in Sociology Ventura College AA in Liberal Arts Lisbon Regional 1968 High School Diploma
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