Three Problems With Life Coaching

Do you you remember Stuart Smalley, the character played by Al Franken on Saturday Night Live? He looked in a mirror and recited an affirmation:  I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and — doggone it — people like me.

I hear a little of Stuart’s voice in life coaches who advocate affirmations, tout the law of attraction, or lead you in a guided visualization (ignoring recent research about this practice). Even goal-setting — a major focus in life coaching — has its own issues.

Going deeper, I find three reasons to question life coaching as a path to behavior change.

Lack of certification

If you want to call yourself a life coach, you can do that today. There’s no formal certification process and no widely accepted definition of life coaching.

Lack of specialization

There’s a common assumption that you can work with a life coach to meet any goal or acquire any skill — even if the coach has never met that particular goal or developed that particular skill. I’d prefer to get coaching from someone with demonstrated competence in achieving a specific outcome.

Lack of training in mental health diagnosis

Many life coaches make a clear distinction between coaching and psychotherapy. In practice, however, this distinction is hard to maintain.

Conditions such as depression and anxiety can be subtle and difficult to diagnose. How can a life coach without training in mental health diagnosis know when to refer you to a psychotherapist?

What to ask a life coach

I worked with a life coach briefly. At first, it was exhilarating. The conversation centered unconditionally on me. I launched into a passionate and unfocused soliloquy that went on for weeks.

In the end, nothing much about my behavior actually changed.

OK, so I take responsibility for that. But in retrospect, I wish I’d started life coaching by asking a few questions:

  • How did you become a life coach?
  • What kinds of outcomes can I expect from life coaching — and what outcomes can I not expect?
  • What kind of process will we use, and how do you know that process works?

If I ever work with a life coach again, these items will lead the agenda.

To learn more: What Can Coaches Do For You? from the Harvard Business Review.