What Makes a Good Life Coach?
Ultimately, a life coach is a 21st century iteration of the priest, rabbi, druid or shaman. Our job is to cultivate the emotional, psychological and physical health of our clients. Unlike those Bronze Age disciplines, life coaches are born from the roots of the Enlightenment, so life coaching draws mostly on modern frameworks and insights to achieve these goals.
Life coaching is a new discipline, so it is still evolving and finding its identity. Mostly unbound by the metaphysical frameworks of the past, this presents an opportunity to take the best insights from all cultures and perspectives. The guiding principle is cultivating the human experience for the better.
In this article I wish to share what makes a good life coach – drawing directly from my own experience as a life coach. I also wish to share a few insights into how I have cultivated these principles in myself so far.
A Summary of What Makes a Good Life Coach
In Summary, here are the things which make a good life coach:
- Study a lot
- Learn to listen well
- Cultivate positive energy
- Speak deep, authentic truth
- Make people feel comfortable opening up
- Love helping people
- Understand marketing
- Understanding business generally
- Become comfortable with sales and hearing ‘no’
- Cultivate an understanding of spirituality
- Many life coaches are ‘wounded healers’
- Your energy flows to helping people and personal development
- Take notes for yourself after each session
- Cultivate a solid work ethic
- Practice what you preach – become a paragon of personal development
To be a good life coach, you have to study relentlessly. There are so many disciplines which offer effective insights into living the good life that it is impossible to study them all. However, the more you study, the more you are able to draw from the most excellent curators of the human experience. Since the effectiveness of a coaching session could mean the difference between a life well lived and a life in ruins, we life coaches have a responsibility to continually research more effective ways to help our clients.
I have found that studying both broadly and in depth has helped my life coaching practice. If I am at my most organised, I try to study for two hours a day. Half of that time is listening to podcasts or audio books, which can be done in travel time or when you are cleaning or cooking. The other half is spent in more in-depth study over a cup of coffee in a beautiful coffee shop. It’s good to keep track of your study time in a spreadsheet or journal – you would be surprised at how easily the critical but non-urgent task of studying becomes relegated in favour of coaching sessions, marketing work or the ever-present temptation of procrastination and useless hedonism.
The great thing about being a life coach is that you can (mostly) explore the disciplines which are most meaningful to you. Switching between different perspectives is one of the best advantages a life coach has other other therapists who often must remain bound to the boundaries of their chosen framework. For this reason, a geeky predisposition to learning is most helpful. Although each life coach should find his own path, here are the broad disciplines which have helped me most in my own life coaching journey.
A foundation in western psychology is essential for any good life coach. I feel a coach must have an understanding of the scientific method, the peer-review journal process, and a general understanding of the scientific consensus on a range of psychological issues. Specifically, a coach will need this to evaluate new arguments. A grounding in the heritage of Western psychology provides a solid foundation to explore other philosophies useful to the life coach.
I have found the work of Carl Jung and his followers provides the most accurate map of the psyche available to us. I once herd Jungian psychology described as ‘the pure maths of the mind’, and I think this is true. I have found the insights of Jungian psychology immensely helpful to all of my coaching clients. It gives me a better radar for seeing my clients underlying motivations and how to align them to a more meaningful life.
On a personal level, studying Jungian psychology has been so fun (and occasionally terrifying), and given me so many insights for the growth of my own psyche. James Hollis has been my go to resource for Jungian study this past year.
Many coaching clients ask to improve their diet, and a life coach should know how to help them. Getting a person’s nutrition together is one of the best ways to build positive momentum in life. Personal development through proper nutrition has the advantage of being far more straightforward than growing through other more nuanced lenses. It also provides your clients with a robust foundation of healthy energy which will help them push through to achieve their goals.
I have found Rhonda Patrick to be an outstanding resource for understanding human biology, especially her YouTube videos.
Another popular request clients make is to improve their fitness, and life coaches should be experts in this field. This topic comes up so often, so not only should the coach understand the technical elements of fitness well, but also set a solid example for fitness himself. Again, fitness is a powerful way to build positive momentum in your coaching client’s lives.
I have found the study of a variety of different philosophies useful to my life coaching practice. In particular, the work of the Stoics developed my coaching style profoundly. It seems to me that life coaching and moral philosophers are trying to answer the same question – how to live the good life. I have no doubt that I will continue to discover additional philosophies with profound application for personal growth.
Personal Development Literature
Life coaching grew out of the personal development movement, and a solid grounding in its principles is critical for any coach.
Learn to Listen Well
Life coaching is largely about listening well. Unfortunately, few in our culture really understand the art of good listening. I was historically poor at listening, and had to consciously cultivate this skill to be a more effective life coach. The way I learned this was through coaching sessions themselves, consciously trying to get a smaller percentage of my own talk time and a larger for my client. I learned to leave long pauses after the client finished speaking, and I continue to learn the art of asking good follow-up questions. It seems to me that coach talk time is like a spice or salt in cooking – you want to use it sparingly to give the food a terrific punch.
The work of Carl Rogers provided me with a fantastic theoretical background in the art of good listening.
Another insight which helped me with listening better was to realise the client usually knows best what will help their life. Rather than being the coach with all the ideas, it often works better to be a midwife to the client’s own thinking. Ask the right questions. Challenge weak ideas. Give space and time for your client to work it out.
Take Notes After Each Session on Your Own Performance
A veteran life coach shared this tip with me, and it works great. After each session, type up notes for your own performance in addition to your coaching client’s notes. This simple and brief act of reflection gives powerful insight that might otherwise slip you by.
When I type my own notes up, I ask myself what I did well and what I did poorly. When you criticise yourself, it’s important to suggest something concrete for how it can improve. Otherwise, the criticism runs the risk of being merely demoralising with no hint of how to grow. I also found it useful to review my own notes before each session. This way I can reflect on the lessons learned before I start, and hold in my awareness one or two ideas of how to coach more effectively.
When you try this technique, it’s surprising how often the same old mistakes keep surfacing.
Bring Positive Energy to the Coaching Session
One of the tasks of a life coach is to inspire his client with positive energy. The best way to achieve this is to be the living embodiment of the principles of personal development and living the good life. If you are healthy and happy and vibrant, you can ignite this state in your client too.
Inspiring your coaching client with positive energy feels like energising a dead car battery with jump leads. You feel the state of positivity in yourself deeply, then though your words and posture and tone and gestures your client feels it too.
I have spoken to therapists from other traditions such as counselling who say that sometimes listening to the darkness in their clients can be heavy work. I have found the opposite to be true in life coaching, since those with the heaviest burdens require the most positive force to uplift, and summoning that positive spirit feels awesome.
Speak the Truth
Jordan Peterson once said that speaking the truth is the way out of Chaos. Insofar as life coaching goes, he is correct. Sometimes coaching sessions bring up complex and emotionally challenging content. When I find myself in those situations, when the words fail me, I remember to speak the truth as deep and authentically as I possibly can. This means unattaching myself to an outcome, risking offence, risking losing the client, risking my own reputation or sounding stupid or hypocritical or evil. In the most challenging of conversations, I have learned to risk all of those things in the pursuit of speaking the most deep, authentic truth I can muster. It’s hard – very hard. …But it works.
Speaking the truth has an additional benefit. As a life coach, we should be vastly more positive than the average. Particularly in the UK where polite cynicism reigns supreme, this sort of unapologetic positivity can be met with a defensive scepticism. Also, if your coaching sessions bringing up challenging content, defence mechanisms which involve mistrusting the coach can very well show up. If you cultivate a reputation with your client for speaking the truth, as you should, the client can hopefully read your positivity with the intention it was given: that the best in me wishes the best in your to grow, and we are very serious about achieving this.
Be a Life Coach People can Open up to
Helping your clients feel comfortable opening up is one of the non-negotiable skills a life coach must have. As with all of these skills, the life coach will cultivate and deepen this skill as the years go by. “That which you most wish to find will be found where you least wish to look.” Warns the famous Jungian aphorism. As such, a life coach must coax his clients into staring into these dark abysses by cultivating an easy feeling of openness.
Helping your clients open up starts with creating a culture of non-judgement for challenging material in your coaching sessions. This can be tricky and nuanced, as a coach should categorically judge his client when they fall down on certain objectives (failure to reach a given goal for example). However, when it comes to exploring difficult terrain of the psyche, I suggest an extremely open and non-judgemental tone.
One of the most effective tactics I have found for helping others open up is to show vulnerability in one self. If clients are hesitant to open up, I find things which make me feel awkward, evil, hypocritical or weak and forthrightly bring them out. This will only work if you really feel difficulty to bring these aspects forward. However, if you manage it, the client will almost always follow suit.
Great Life Coaches Love to Help People
Life coaching, fundamentally, is about helping people. To be a great life coach you must love helping others. If the thought of inspiring, counselling, advising, consoling and caring for people with a sincere wish to better themselves makes you excited, then life coaching might well be for you.
The moving of emotions which comes from your excitement to help others fuels the coaching session itself. The right words come easily. The right gestures flow effortlessly. The pauses in conversation are deep and searching. The love and excitement you feel will fuel the coaching session in proportion to the degree you feel it.
Life coaching is a tough industry, especially in the beginning. Of the eight businesses I started, this was by far the most tricky to break into. From a business point of view ,It’s a terrible idea to trade time your for money, and the life coaching market is over-saturated with coaches scrapping over scarce clients. Coaching training is expensive and time consuming. Clients often flake out of appointments. The coaching sessions can often contain extremely dark material… What makes all these bad points worth it is that you eventually earn the privilege of helping people, and if you have a burning desire to help people, the herculean challenge of getting here is infinitely worth it. If you’re not excited by helping people, another career might be better fitting (and more profitable!)
Understand General Business Principles
A good life coach will understand the fundamentals of business well. From returning taxes, to hiring to networking and so on… Because the life coaching industry is so competitive, life coaches must gain advantages in all areas, and the general structuring and running of the business is no exception.
Many of your coaching clients will be entrepreneurs themselves, or people wishing to move into running their own business. Business theory, therefore, comes up often in coaching sessions, so a good life coach should hold these discussions with ease and authority. At the very least, having empathy for your entrepreneurial clients is crucial. If you can become passionate about the geeky nuances of business, so much the better, for your coaching sessions will be all the more energised.
The life coaching industry is a tough one to break into – at least I found that to be true. Therefore, much of a life coach’s time must be spent learning and practising marketing. If you can be an excellent life coach who holds powerful coaching sessions, as well as being an expert marketer, then your coaching business will be a giant success. If you come into life coaching with solid experience in marketing and sales, you will have a solid advantage over your competition and grow you practice quickly.
The way to understand marketing, just like anything else, is to learn to love it. Spend time every day researching it and trying new techniques. With digital marketing, the landscape moves quickly, and getting one’s business seen online is very different today than it was 10 years ago. This moving landscape provides opportunity for those who are hard working and ambitious to advance.
Life Coaches Must Be Great at Sales
Sales is a massive part of life coaching. However you generate leads, a large chunk of your time will be spent in sales calls or meetings with prospective clients. You will hear ‘no’, and wilted ‘maybes’ virtually every day. A life coach must be confident reaching out to new people and absorbing rejection. Occasionally, you will deal with rude and acerbic people in your sales calls. This requires a robust mindset which can handle rejection and insult without giving into bitterness, resentfulness and a deflated attitude.
Formal training in sales, as well as studying sales, will be an asset to your life coaching business. If you are afraid of sales, and wish never to learn it, then life coaching might be a bad business for you.
An Understanding of Spirituality
Having an understanding and passion for spirituality has helped me as a life coach. A large percentage of clients wish to explore their personal development through a spiritual lens, so competence in this area is an asset. Since we live in a predominately materialist culture, it is often not expected for life coaches to have a grounding in spirituality. Because of this, it’s often wise to introduce a spiritual element to your coaching sessions extremely tentatively – we all know well that uneasy feeling when a religious ideologue pushes his dogma on you. That said, I have found that a spiritual grounding is a welcome bonus for a large proportion of my clients.
Spirituality begins where psychology ends, and there is tremendous overlap between these two disciplines. For example, the precept to sink into a feeling of anxiety with a spirit of acceptance fits just as well into psychotherapy as it does Buddhism. Since personal development is almost exclusively a matter of consciousness, and spirituality is an enquiry into consciousness, I have found study and practice of spirituality an asset to my life coaching practice.
Are You a Wounded Healer?
It is both a cliché and an empirical fact that most therapists are ‘wounded healers’. Life coaching is no exception. The term wounded healer was coined by Carl Jung who suggested than an analyst is compelled to treat patients because he himself is psychologically or emotionally wounded.
A person who has had more than their fair share of trauma must learn the delicate nuances of how to cope with it, or perish. As such, those individuals make excellent healers, since they have intimate experience and knowledge in cultivating psychological health. If you have had a dark past which you have successfully dealt with, this gives you remarkable asset as a life coach – as well as a probable compulsion to help others with similar issues.
Good Life Coaches Have Passion for Personal Development
Life coaching was from the philosophical roots of the personal development industry. In my opinion, the strategies and tactics outlined in the personal development literature give an individual the best tools for developing their life (though personal development literature is by no means the only body of work one will find these insights in). As such, it is critical that the life coach be excellent at personal development, both in theory and practice. The best way to learn how to push your client’s lives forward is to successfully do it for yourself first. The best way to understand which personal development tools work is to try them on yourself. Breaking into the life coaching industry was a challenge for me, and it was the rigorous personal development tools which got me through this challenge.
A good life coach must have a passion for personal development. It is critical. If you are excited by personal development, then life coaching sessions become fun – very fun.
Life Coaches Need a Solid Work Ethic
To be successful as a life coach, or indeed any pursuit, you must work hard. The more hours you put into a skill, the faster that skill will develop. In this article, I have listed a great many attributes that make a good life coach, and cultivating these disciplines takes time and hard work. I have heard it remarked that life coaching is an easy way to make quick money – it really isn’t. However, if you have passion for the various aspects of the craft and the discipline to work extremely hard, it will be an immensely rewarding vocation. It was for me.