'A bit of negativity rocks the boat of positivity,' says Jen* into her headset, crossing the carpeted floor of the conference room of a central London Premier Inn. 'People may try to make you doubt what you’ve learned today, but you can come back this week and be around positive people.'
It’s 9.45am on day one of an intensive course, aiming to make life coaches of the 60-strong captive audience here today. Among them is a Lululemon-clad former shipping executive, whose artfully filled face makes an accurate guess at her age impossible; a man in his mid-thirties looking for a lucrative get-out of his current shift-based sports broadcasting gig; and me, a journalist who has dissected wellness trends from IV vitamin infusions to transformational breathwork for this magazine in my quest to understand the human pursuit of living optimally.
I’ve explored personal development both in and out of the office and I’ve sought help from four different therapists in three years. Suffice to say, I’m not one to pour scorn on the idea of self-development. But if there’s a trend that causes my right eyebrow to shoot skywards, it’s life coaching.
Google searches for the term 'life coach' have been rising pretty steadily for the past decade, and while the lure of change is evergreen, it’s now - at the beginning of the year - where it reaches its apex. Trying to figure out the true scale of an industry built on the assumption that you can do anything is - ironically - impossible. The 2020 Global Coaching Study, commissioned by the International Coach Federation (ICF), put the number of practising coaches globally at 71,000 – an increase of 33% on the 2015 number. But this data only covers the period until December 2019. Keen to get a read on the impact of Covid on coaching, the ICF commissioned a snapshot survey in May 2021; among the findings was an increase in the number of coaches who reported that the pandemic had had a positive impact on their practices. But beyond the banner ads and Insta bios, what is life coaching, really?
Crash and earn
You can trace this trend back decades, says Carl Cederström, professor of organisational studies at Stockholm University and author of The Happiness Fantasy. Within it, he charts the modern personal development industry: from the 60s hippies seeking ‘self-actualisation’ to shake off 50s conformity, to the 80s when its tenets were subsumed into individualistic capitalism. Fast forward to the 2008 financial crash and the ensuing job insecurity delivered a rise in both the demand for, and supply of, life coaches.
‘As secure, long-term forms of work have given way to a more uncertain and varied labour market, we’ve seen a rise in self-employment and contract work that people don't have a social script for,’ explains Molly George, an associate professor of criminology at California Lutheran University who has extensively researched the industry. ‘But economic uncertainty can also facilitate a turn inwards, where people may pursue self-improvement.’
The result is a rise in people paying for coaching as well as offering it to peers. Consider, too, that many life coaching clients go on to become coaches themselves and the whole thing becomes a self-perpetuating cycle within which it’s hard to tease out who needs what and why.
Job insecurity and confusion over her prospects led 26-year-old Alexandra Poole* to her first life-coaching session in 2016. ‘I was working as a PA and I loved my colleagues,’ she recalls. ‘But acting was my passion, and I knew that staying in a job purely to cover rent was holding me back.’
It was her sister, a lawyer, who suggested she book in a session with her colleague who'd recently trained as a life coach. 'In the first session (a free phone consultation), she was like, “Do it! Get out of that job!”’ Alexandra remembers. (If you think a stranger advising you to quit your job over the phone sounds a bit...off, more on that later.) But it was the push she needed to hand in her notice, and she did.
Two years later, Alexandra returned to coaching, this time feeling frustrated by her perceived loss of identity in a relationship. After a free consultation with a different coach, she signed up to pay £150 per hour-long biweekly coaching call. ‘This coach helped me identify my values: stability, courage, acceptance, connections and curiosity. They’re the reasons why you do certain things, and why you feel certain ways, no matter the situation,' she explains. 'She says that looking at my values and working out which one relates to the situation I’m dealing with will help ground me back to where I need to be.’
She recounts the recent incident of a suspect message popping up on her boyfriend’s iPad. ‘In the past, I’d have spent weeks catastrophising. Instead, I just asked him who the woman was and he explained that she was someone he’d dated over a year ago and that I had nothing to worry about,’ she explains. ‘My life coaching sessions helped me accept his response and not let it affect our relationship.’
Of course, £1,200 isn’t exactly small change for a freelancer juggling unsteady incomes as an actor and an advertising creative. ‘It did involve dipping into my savings,’ she acknowledges. ‘But I needed to do this for my wellbeing. It’s the same as paying a dermatologist to treat your bad skin.’
Stuck in the middle
But is it? A consultant dermatologist is a qualified medical professional with 12 years of training under their belt, who is held accountable – in the UK at least – by the General Medical Council. As for life coaching? ‘While we’ve seen a dramatic rise in voluntary certification, someone can charge for services as a coach without any accreditation,’ explains Dr George.
While there are bodies like the ICF, which accredits individual practitioners and coaching courses (including the one I’m taking part in) and offers a code of ethics, there’s no overarching state regulator to keep things in check. ‘While some boards offer certifications for upwards of two hours of online training, others require exams and hours of supervised practice,’ adds Dr George.
It means that while you might happen to have a good coaching experience, it can be difficult to know what a good coach looks like, let alone how to go about finding one. Indeed, this is a concern that has been expressed within the industry too; 23% of coaches who responded to the ICF’s 2021 Covid survey reported concerns about untrained individuals calling themselves coaches. So if you’re not dropping that £150 an hour for someone with iron-clad qualifications, then what are you paying for?
Finding an answer to that question is my motivation for showing up this morning. By the time we break for coffee and biscuits at just over an hour later, I have a better idea. Unlike counsellors, who tend to use talking therapy to help a client overcome a specific issue over a pre-agreed number of sessions and psychotherapists, professionals whose questioning will delve deeper into your past to tackle some of your core beliefs, life coaches don’t deal with mental health issues.
It's more that they're helping 'stuck' people find direction or make life choices. But, unlike a mentor, coaches aren't supposed to give concrete advice or opinions. So no, Alexandra’s coach shouldn't have told her to jack in her job, but instead work to investigate other options and help Alexandra land on a decision herself.
So what can a life coach offer? Some of the services do overlap with fully trained therapists, including ‘active listening’, which essentially means focusing fully on a person when they're speaking and actually hearing what they're saying, which you show with body language and asking open-ended questions, often repeating the speaker's own words back to them. Some are guided by frameworks such as the GROW (Goal; current Reality; Obstacles and options; Way forward) model. The objective? To help clients to articulate what, in many cases, they already know.
As the course progresses, each answer triggers five new questions. Some of the exercises aim to give me an insight into a coaching session as a client. I chart the important sectors of my life in a wheel; I rate my current satisfaction level; I write down what my ideal life will look like in five years’ time, all to the soundtrack of Lifted by the Lighthouse Family.
Other elements of the course aim to deepen my understanding of the concept of coaching. In a video depicting an example session, 20 minutes of banal questioning proceeds a mother deciding to go to the gym after the school run. The references to coaching being easy money rankle. So too does the ethos that you don’t need any knowledge or understanding of the type of scenario you may have to guide a client through.
You are what you preach
By the logic of the course leaders here today, if I continue on to the next level, a few months and several thousand pounds from now, I’ll be fit to charge someone for my services as a life coach. To help them navigate the process of quitting their management consulting job, perhaps, or to divorce their husband. That’s despite me having no experience of the corporate world or marriage.
New coaches can expect to earn up to £75 per session; do four of those a week – doable around a day job – and that’s £300, £1,200 per month and over £13,000 per year. Confidence coaches tend to earn less, while corporate coaches can command hundreds per session. But, as Martin puts it: ‘The value of coaching depends on how good you think you are.’
While the course leaders acknowledged that there are an indeterminable number of coaches working without training, they were firm that an accredited course would increase your credibility as a coach, and therefore your earning power. But this correlation doesn’t always stand.
Dr Amina Aitsi-Selmi was a practising doctor in the NHS and later an advisor to the Department of Health and NICE before becoming a life coach in 2016. She didn’t do any formal training to become a life coach – ‘after 20-plus years of education, I didn’t feel the need, it felt like going backwards’ – and it’s not been bad for business. Among the clients who provide her glowing testimonials are senior staff at the European Space Agency and BBC broadcasters, all of whom pay between £2,000 and £10,000 for one of her coaching packages.
‘It was like a calling,’ she tells me of her decision to move into what she terms ‘transformational’ coaching. ‘Ever since I was a teenager, I wanted to alleviate suffering and that’s how I ended up in medicine. But I did psychology and social anthropology at medical school, and I’ve always had a strong spiritual connection and interest in the bigger picture of life. That’s not something we’d touch on in the sciences.’
As someone who hasn’t had any formal training as a life coach – and is excelling – how does she think you can discern the legitimate life-changers from the cowboys? ‘That’s a really good question,’ she responds. ‘I don’t think I can give you a straight answer.’
With so little clarity around function and credentials, it begs the question of why people are seeking out life coaches in their millions. I understand why someone on a six-figure salary would choose coaching to achieve a specific business goal. But why did Alexandra employ a coach when she could have seen a relationship therapist for half the price - or talk it through with a friend for free?
‘I think it’s because I’ve always told myself that I'm strong and mentally well,’ she tells me. ‘I don’t feel like I had a tumultuous childhood, or any trauma in my life. I was just losing my way a bit. So seeing a counsellor or a therapist would have felt like I was going a bit far.’ It seems this middle-ground malaise is fertile ground for coaching. You don’t know what you want, but you know you’re not happy with your current reality.
‘People don’t hire me because they need me,’ says Dr Aitsi-Selmi, plainly. ‘They hire me because they’re going through a process of change. We’re not really meant to go through these changes alone. We’re meant to be in communities where we had elders to draw wisdom from. A coach is sort of filling that human function in modern society.’
At a cost, of course. Alexandra’s coach branded their calls as a unique opportunity for rest. ‘She said, “I think that coaching for you is an hour in a week when you allow yourself to stop - when else do you have an hour to stop and talk about your week?” And I don’t. I don’t think anyone really does.’
Indeed, when I put a call out on Twitter for experiences of life-coaching – the good, the bad and the ugly – the responses are, in the main, effusive. Low-earners now on six-figure salaries; staid corporate jobs traded in for entrepreneurial futures; damaging relationships sacked off and successful single lives forged. What is it about coaching that inspires such belief in its supporters that they keep coming back to it?
The answer could lie in that word: belief. Dr Luana Colloca, associate professor of neuroscience at the University of Maryland in the US, has studied the placebo effect extensively – and she thinks it has a role to play in life-coaching. ‘Engaging in trustful interaction may work well as a stimulus for the brain to activate the release of neuropeptides and hormones like oxytocin and vasopressin,’ she explains. ‘These reduce pain and anxiety and eventually could produce a sense of satisfaction or a feeling that you might be able to overcome challenging obstacles.’
While no research has yet been done on the role of the placebo effect in life-coaching, Dr Colloca is confident that prior findings in clinical settings – such as the more expensive the intervention, the larger the placebo effect – can be projected on to coaching.
The neurochemistry also goes some way to explaining a client’s willingness to spend big on a service they find hard to define. The more one perceives a relationship to be trusting, collaborative and equal (as Dr Aitsi-Selmi defined the coach-coachee relationship, in opposition to the traditional therapist-client dynamic), the greater the release of these bonding chemicals.
If the cult of the coach teaches us anything, it’s that we’re willing to pay hundreds – thousands, even – to have someone to check in with. And perhaps that says more about the individuals paying for the service, and society as a whole, than it does about the industry. It’s called ‘responsibility aversion’, and it explains the collective desire to outsource decision-making.
But life is supposed to be confusing, argues Professor Cederström. ‘Life coaching is a popular and lucrative trade because of course you can’t work out exactly what you want – it’s one of the bases of being human,’ he explains. It’s not that the coaches are inept or the clients weak-willed, he posits, but that the philosophy of the pursuit is misguided.
‘I’m sure there are coaches doing a good job and I don’t doubt that people feel a real need for guidance,’ he adds. ‘But the rise of the industry says something about our culture and the way it puts so much pressure on the individual to find out who they are and how they're going to translate their human "potential" into something that can be sold.’
My brief glimpse into this world raised more questions than it answered. Clearly, life-coaching can be transformative for some people. But if you don’t know what you’re looking for, are you outsourcing something that you could bring back in house? Could you recruit, instead, your line manager, a family member or a pal in possession of a listening ear?
Chances are, taking a meaningful next step doesn’t require a four-figure spend. Or, to Professor Cederström's point, perhaps give yourself permission to just...not know right now. Uncertainty, though desperately unfashionable, is not the enemy. It's normal, and no amount of hours with a paid professional will be able to see it off. But, hey, maybe that’s my boat-rocking negativity talking.
‘I still believe in life coaching’
Sally Wadhwa, 37, web developer and business coach from London
I first encountered life coaching following the birth of my son in 2008. I was struggling with postnatal depression – which was compounded by the self-esteem blow of being made redundant. When I heard a coach talk about her services at a networking event, it sounded like exactly what I needed.
She advised me against paying the £90 per session, suggesting I complete a training programme for a little over £1,000 instead. Delighted by the prospect of being able to work on myself, forge a lucrative career and help others out of a rut, I signed up.
I progressed to the point where I could qualify to train aspiring coaches. But I was crushed when I failed because they perceived me not to be passionate enough. By the point, I'd spent £15,000. Realising that I'd made such a costly mistake took me to rock bottom.
Looking back, I wouldn't say I was exploited: it's true that I was vulnerable - and that organisation did use basic sales technique to pressure me into training with them - but it was ultimately my decision. I don't judge the wider industry by that experience.
Indeed, encouraged by productive sessions with a new coach, I'm now combining my work as a web developer with offering tech business coaching. This industry is varied - success depends on who you work with.
Looking for a life coach? Here's how to get the most out of every session
Know your goal
Before actioning a three-figure spend, do some of the work yourself. What do you most want? Why? What’s holding you back? And what’s within your power to change? ‘Research shows that the coachee’s motivation is a determinant of success,’ says Dr Aitsi-Selmi. ‘It helps if clients have a clear focus from the start.’
Try before you buy
‘Finding the right coach is like finding a plumber,’ says Dr Aitsi-Selmi. ‘You normally only get who you’re after by trial and error.’ She suggests approaching coaches who offer a free initial session to see if their approach chimes with you. ‘Check if your coach is accredited by the ICF or the Association for Coaching,’ she adds. ‘Both of which follow a code of ethics.’
Sound it out
‘Talk to someone before you make the decision,’ advises Wadhwa. ‘This way, you’ll get another viewpoint on what to do.’ This counts before shelling out for coaching sessions, but doubly so I you’re considering training to become a coach. You’re about to invest your time and money – don’t let anyone rush you into a decision. If someone is using crude sale tactics, that’s a red flag.
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity
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