Life Coaching

April 12th, 2008 by Steve Pavlina

Life coaching (or personal coaching) is fairly popular these days. Many people have asked me what I think of life coaching, so I’ll share my thoughts on this subject.

A life coach is someone you hire to help assist you with your personal development, especially in the area of setting and achieving specific goals. Typically this involves paying a few hundred dollars per month to speak with a trained coach by phone for 30-60 minutes per week. Pricing and service offerings vary tremendously. Your life coach may share advice, offer guidance, help you make plans, and hold you accountable for taking action. You can hire a health coach to help you with health and fitness goals (like a virtual personal trainer). You can hire a business coach to help you build or grow a business. You can hire a productivity coach to help you get organized and increase your productivity. Every life coaching situation is unique, so there’s a great deal of flexibility here.

At two different times in my life, I hired a life coach, each time for about six months. The first time was in 1993 while I was in college. The second time was around 2001 when I was running my games business.

Life coaching experience #1

When I hired my first life coach, I thought it might be useful in helping to increase my productivity. This coaching program began with a very thorough personality assessment test, so ostensibly the coach could use this info to make the coaching more personal.

My results with this particular coach were mixed. I hired him during the time I was going through college in 3 semesters, and I liked that he helped hold me accountable to getting certain things done. Unfortunately he decided to use my test results to try to improve what he considered some of my personality flaws, so he would sometimes coach me to work on his goals for me instead of my goals for me. Today this practice is largely considered unethical by the coaching community. Most coaches now know they must work on their clients’ goals, not their own goals for their clients. Some coach training and referral organizations have written standards of ethics to clarify this.

This particular coach wasn’t a great fit for me. He wanted to mold me into a more well-rounded person, whereas my goal was to become sharper in a few key areas. For example, he determined that I needed to improve my social skills, so he gave me assignments like, “Smile at 10 people today.” As a computer science and math major, I thought that was a stupid assignment, so I didn’t do it. I think his heart was in the right place, and later in life I did put some serious effort into developing my social skills, but as a coach it really wasn’t his place to set goals for me. This caused me to lose respect for him, and it made our relationship less productive than it could have been.

This coach worked as part of a larger coaching operation, and they had a very generous money-back guarantee. I paid about $900 for six months of weekly 30-minute phone coaching sessions. The guarantee was such that if you weren’t satisfied for any reason, you could get a full refund on your entire six months of coaching. That guarantee was one of the reasons I signed up; I figured I had nothing to lose. In the end I did ask for the refund, and to their credit they promptly refunded the full fee. I was excited about the coaching at first, and even at the halfway point it seemed like it was going somewhere, but in the end I realized it didn’t meet my expectations. I felt bad asking for the refund, but I would have felt worse if I didn’t. I did get some value from the six months of coaching, but it wasn’t worth $900 to me, and the terms of the guarantee made it clear that I should have been delighted, not disappointed. On a scale of 1-10, I’d rate this coaching experience a 4.

Life coaching experience #2

The second time I hired a coach was during a period when my games business, Dexterity Software, was growing nicely. I thought it would be good to have a coach to help me sort through all the projects on my plate and to solve some tricky problems.

This time I hired an independent coach instead of going with a larger organization. Most independent coaches offer a free session (try before you buy), so you can decide if they’re a good fit for you. I tried 3-4 different coaches and picked the one I liked best. I paid $70 per 60-minute weekly phone call. I also had the opportunity to do simple follow-up emails with this coach throughout the week.

I liked this coach, and I was happy with the service he provided. He was an experienced programmer like me, but he was also a very right-brained person. He taught me some creative problem-solving and visualization techniques. He was also very intuitive, so he would often detect the unspoken problems behind my spoken words. This made our conversations very efficient because he was able to get to the core issues quickly. We worked mostly on business challenges but also on some personal goals. My sales increased during this coaching period, so that was certainly nice.

This coach especially helped me understand the importance of intuition in business. When I first came to him, I was extremely left-brained, and he helped me integrate more right-brained qualities into my decision making. In the long run, this was very beneficial to me.

After about six months, I decided to discontinue our coaching, not because it failed but because it succeeded. This coach helped me achieve a higher level of performance, but after a while I was so familiar with his style that I didn’t need the weekly phone calls anymore. Eventually the law of diminishing returns kicked in.

On a scale of 1-10, I’d rate this coaching experience an 8.

I should also mention that this second personal coach was in the same time zone as me, but the first one wasn’t. Being in the same time zone made it easier to schedule appointments. Usually we’d speak at the same time every week, but that wasn’t always the case.

Life coaching lessons

Life coaching can work nicely. The skills and ideas you gain from your life coach may endure well beyond the paid coaching period, so you aren’t just paying for your time on the phone or for short-term benefits. Ideally you’re paying for a permanent shift to a higher level of performance. For example, if a life coach can help train you to become an early riser, that gain is yours for life. Even though good life coaching isn’t cheap, the results can easily make it worthwhile.

When it comes to selecting a life coach, it’s important to shop around to find someone compatible. You want a coach you like and respect. You want a coach that is knowledgeable and experienced. And you especially want a coach that will help you achieve the results you desire. This doesn’t necessarily mean hiring a coach who’s just like you, only better. It may mean hiring someone who’s very different from you.

When you identify some coaches that seem like a good fit for your needs and your budget, request a free trial session. I don’t recommend hiring a coach who doesn’t offer a free trial session — it’s too much of a gamble. Try several different coaches until you find one you feel confident will help you. If the free trial leaves you feeling doubtful or hesitant, definitely pass.

After the free trial session, ask yourself, What do I honestly expect will happen if I hire this coach for several months? Pay attention to your honest predictions. If you don’t think you’ll achieve your desired results, you probably won’t. If you’re excited that this coach can surely help you succeed, that’s a good sign.

Understand that a coach is your helper, not your boss. You must be the one to decide what you want out of each session. You’re always in command. My coaches began their sessions by asking, “What would you like to work on today, Steve?” It was up to me to share my goals, challenges, and problems and to request help where I felt I needed it.

If you aren’t clear about what you want to work on, a good coach can help you gain clarity and set new goals. Just be sure that the emerging goals are your goals, not your coach’s goals for you.

Life coaching relationships are usually short-term. Partly this happens due to saturation. Eventually you become so familiar with your coach’s style that your coach isn’t challenging you as much, or perhaps you’ve achieved the major goals you wanted to achieve, such as losing a certain amount of weight or starting a business. On the other hand, greater familiarity can also create a stronger bond that increases accountability. You’re less willing to disappoint your coach by dropping the ball. You’ll have to decide if your coaching is generating sufficient results to justify the ongoing costs.

If I were to work with a life coach again, 6-12 months would probably be my limit with any one person, and 12 months really seems like a stretch. The exception would be if that person was growing and improving very rapidly, always learning fresh ideas and techniques that could be applied to our coaching sessions. Otherwise it’s like taking classes with the same teacher year after year — you eventually reach the point where you’ll grow faster by learning from someone new.

Life coaching can be especially fruitful for self-employed people and independent professionals. When your income is performance-based, a good coach may be able to help you boost your performance at least enough to pay for the coaching. I’d say that was true for my second coaching experience. I paid about $300/month for the coaching, but I ended up boosting my income by many times more than that.

If you have your own business, and you hire a coach to help improve your business’ bottom line like I did, you can deduct your coaching fees as a business expense. I was able to do this with my second coach but not my first. If you generate income from blogging, you should be able to justify deducting personal coaching if you blog about the experience as a service for your visitors or if your coaching experience benefits your business.

My first life coaching experience involved 30-minute sessions, but with my second coach they were 50-60 minutes each. I preferred the longer sessions. A 30-minute session would probably be okay for most people, but I had a lot of complex business issues that took a while to work through. Longer sessions are generally more expensive though.

How to find a life coach

Finding a decent life coach is fairly easy. Lots of independent coaches who’ve gone through formal training programs can be found online. One good site is FindACoach.com. That’s where I found my second coach. I don’t have any financial interest in whether or not you decide to hire a coach from there.

You can also find a coach via personal referral, but you’ll still want to get a free trial session. You need to determine if the coach’s style is compatible with your goals.

Many coaches specialize, so if you have a specific area you want to work on, consider hiring a specialized coach just for that area. For example, if you want to build or grow a business, you can hire an experienced business coach. Often these are people who worked in business for decades and then retired, later starting a coaching practice to share their hard-earned wisdom with others.

Why life coaching works

The main reason life coaching works is that you’re hiring someone with greater experience than you in a certain area. Your coach can quickly identify patterns that may not be clear to you. Then your coach can help you devise and implement solutions. When this works well, it’s a very high-leverage relationship. It’s one of the fastest ways to solve challenging problems. Businesses often hire outside consultants to help solve important problems, and life coaching is basically the individual equivalent of business consulting.

While I’ve never done any formal paid coaching myself, I’ve done plenty of informal coaching sessions with friends and family members and also online with visitors to this site. In addition to my own growth experiences, I’ve read about 1,000 personal development books, I’ve communicated with thousands of people regarding their growth challenges, and I’ve talked with many others who work in this field. Consequently, I have a lot of experience recognizing patterns. There are many problems people are working on that I’ve (1) already solved, or (2) know how to solve in a variety of different ways.

Similarly, a good life coach will have superior knowledge and experience in the area(s) in which you want to improve. A coach can use all of this expertise to help you solve specific problems efficiently. This is essentially a variation on the principle of overwhelming force. A problem that may seem daunting to you might be a fairly simple matter for an experienced coach.

The real challenge of life coaching is for your coach to help you implement the solutions to your problems. Coming up with solutions is easy. Your coach will probably identify some good solutions during your free trial session. Implementing those solutions is the hard part. That’s where good life coaching really shines. Your coach can work as a guide to help you stay on track, leading you safely through the quagmire of mistakes, blind alleys, and delays.

When you work with a life coach, your coach’s mindset will gradually rub off on you. This is a great thing when you find a coach whose mindset already contains the solution to your problem. For example, this year I decided to become a raw foodist, and one thing that helped me achieve this goal was to communicate with other raw foodists, some of whom are professional raw food coaches. Through osmosis I gradually adopted enough of the raw food mindset to make the change.

When to hire a life coach

A good time to hire a life coach is when you have a fair idea of what you want to be doing, but you’re having an unusually hard time getting it done. Perhaps it seems like you’re getting bogged down in obstacles instead of making steady forward progress. Also, you can imagine that there exist other people who’ve already solved your problem or at least know how to solve it. Would it be worthwhile to pay someone a few hundred dollars to help you solve this problem once and for all? Consider the lifetime benefits before you decide.

Perhaps the most important factor in successful life coaching is the willingness to change. If you aren’t willing to change, a life coach can’t force you to grow. You need some motivation and drive to work with a coach, something you care about deeply enough. Think about how the coach of a professional sports team would respond to an unmotivated, underperforming player. The coach might try some pep talks and motivational techniques, but if those don’t work, the player will likely be cut from the team, replaced by someone else who’s more motivated and driven to succeed. You must provide the drive, and your coach can help you steer toward your goals.

I don’t think it’s necessary (or wise) to use the same life coach indefinitely, but something in the range of 3-6 months can certainly generate some positive results. With a good coach, I’d say you should be getting noticeable results within the first month. If you’ve gone a whole month and have nothing to show for it, cut your losses.

Since I know people are going to ask me, I’m not personally interested in offering life coaching services. I enjoy doing occasional sessions with people I know, but formal one-on-one coaching doesn’t appeal to me right now. I think I can have a more positive impact through other media. While blogging isn’t as deep and personal, I know the articles on this site are effective at helping people, and I can reach a lot more people via blogging than I could ever reach via coaching.

If you think life coaching could be helpful to you, give it a try and see how it goes. If it doesn’t work out, you can always quit and try someone else.


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The Journal - Record your life lessons in a secure private journal
Sedona Method (FREE audios) - Release your blocks in a few minutes
Life on Purpose - A step-by-step process to discover your life purpose

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