“50,000 Life Coaches Can’t Be Wrong: Inside the industry that’s making therapy obsolete” is the cover story in the May 2014 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Author Genevieve Smith actually participated in a group going through several months of coach training in her research for the article. She also interviewed a number of coaches and prospective coaches. She gets some things right and others wrong.
Let me begin with the things with which I take exception. First, Smith participated in a program with Coach Training Institute, the organization that has trademarked the “co-active coaching” model which emphasizes the collaboration between the coach and the person being coached. This is a very reputable program whose training is recognized by the International Coach Federation, but its methodology is only one approach to coaching. Taken to the extreme, the coaching model of CTI can seem humanistic and rather “new age.” There are other approaches in keeping with the ICF Code of Ethics and Core Competencies with a different philosophical basis including those with a faith-based orientation.
Second, she quotes Robert Kegan of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education as saying “men in particular have been attracted to therapy in the guise of coaching.” ICF and all reputable coaches make a clear distinction between therapy (counseling) and coaching. Therapy looks backward to deal with significant emotional and psychological issues. Coaching is present and future oriented and designed for reasonably healthy individuals. A professional coach never suggests that he or she is a therapist and will make a referral to a competent professional to deal with counseling issues. Life coaches are not attempting to take the place of therapists.
Third, Smith puts a significant emphasis on “monetizing the operation” of being “a thoughtful listener, good friend, and confidante.” The last three terms do not really describe the work of a professional life coach. A coach is not just a listener but a questioner. He or she is friendly but not a friend. A friendship describes a give and take relationship; in a coaching conversation, it is all about the person being coached. The coach is not seeking a relationship that will benefit himself or herself personally. Finally, the coach is more than a confidante. He or she is helping the person being coached to do something with the information being disclosed.
Smith does a good job of providing the background and history of coaching as well as the high standards of the International Coach Federation. Although she makes some effort to place the coaching phenomenon within the larger context of changes in the nature of work and the shifting nature of the workforce, a longer perspective will be needed to validate her observations which are (at best) rather superficial.
(Thanks to my friend Tom Brown for sharing a copy of this article with me.)