Reading: Your Newest Secret-to-Success Tool? A Professional Coach

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Your Newest Secret-to-Success Tool? A Professional Coach

A Covey guide to who, what, when, where, and how to find the right one for you

By Meg Jordan, PhD, RN, NBC-HWC

Professional coaching creates change: neon word
Photo by Ross Findon for unsplash

Sooner or later, you’ll hear that someone you know is working with a professional coach — be it for personal growth, health goals, weight loss, or career advancement; just about anything qualifies for coaching these days.

Perhaps you’ve been tempted to go after your 2019 goals with a professional coach and wondered where to start. I love sharing the why, what and how of coaching since I’ve seen it produce astounding breakthroughs in people frustrated by several previously dashed attempts at change.

A Professional Coach Will Help You Change Your Habits

The following is a guide to the different types of coaching, and what to look for in a professional coach. But first I want to declare that after spending decades as a behavioral health specialist-RN and trying to get people to change their habits for the better, I grew frustrated with our customary ways of educating, advising, directing and yes, sometimes admonishing our patients.

Changing health habits is tough work for everybody. Once I learned the art and science of coaching, I had much more success in helping people improve their lifestyle choices and habits. Now I teach coaching psychology at a graduate program in San Francisco, have authored a leading textbook in the field, How to Be a Health Coach, and serve on the board of the International Consortium for Health and Wellness Coaching, which just launched the first national board certification for health and wellness coaching (see www.ichwc.org).   

Coaching is under my skin and I’ll never try to preach behavior or mindset change without it. And I predict, that once you get to experience the respectful, nonjudgmental and powerful coaching dialog, you may wonder what took you so long to work with a coach.

The Origins of Professional Coaching

When most people think of a coach, they imagine a typical sports coach, which is a far cry from what a professional business, executive or life coach looks like. But it was indeed a sports coach and tennis pro, W. Tim Gallwey (“The Inner Game of Tennis“), who is often credited with rethinking how coaches should talk to athletes. Gallwey insisted that results would improve if coaches dropped the drill sergeant stance and instead, nurtured and coaxed forward the inner drive and instincts already present in athletes. This “coach approach” gained traction in the business world, and together with some groundbreaking concepts from the father of humanistic psychology, Carl Rogers, (i.e., building empathy, trust, and rapport through a supportive alliance), the field of professional coaching underwent explosive growth from the 1980s onward.

Life Coaching

Life coaching is a catch-all term that refers to any type of coaching focused on goal attainment. Life coaches are individuals from many walks of life. Some have attended professional coach training programs, but most are simply individuals with a desire to help others obtain their dreams. There is nothing to stop anyone from calling herself a “life coach” and indeed, many enthusiasts who believe they’ve mastered the game of life are happy to set themselves up as experts. Life coaches who truly follow a coaching process should partner with their clients, co-creating action plans and a means for being accountable and tracking progress.

If you’re going to work with a life coach, ask if they’ve been through an actual coach training program.

Psychotherapists who want to diversify their practices beyond addiction and trauma recovery talk about adding a coach approach so they can work with people who don’t need therapy, who they view as whole, resourceful and not in need of  “fixing.” The positive psychology work of Seligman and research on optimism and positive emotions by Fredrickson strengthened the field of life coaching with evidence-based studies and theoretical frameworks. Psychotherapist/coaches and life coaching really began to proliferate in the 2000s, as human potential seminars and the number of “how-to” books on happiness skyrocketed.

Executive or Business Coaching

Corporations brought business or executive coaches into work settings primarily for their leaders. These business coaches used a coach approach of evoking, not educating, facilitating not directing, and most of all avoided a top-down authoritative tone with the C-Suite personnel. Once again, empowering dialog that evoked the interests and preferences of the executives was the preferred style. Many were also business consultants who had special expertise in managing teams, accountability, financial oversight, or strategic planning.

However, true coaching should always be distinguished from consulting, according to the chief organization that wrote the “rule book” on professional coaching — the International Coach Federation. ICF has supported tens of thousands of coaches globally and established three levels of professional coach credentials: Associate, Professional, and Master Certified Coach.   

Look for certified coaches at the ICF website, or peruse hundreds of coach training programs around the world that teach the ICF core competencies, adhere to ICF professional standards, and emphasize the proper scope of practice and ethical code of conduct. So many ethical and professional questions arise in the context of coaching that you really should only work with a coach who has met at least a minimum standard of education and training and then has earned a recognized, valid credential. That means they have passed a certification exam in which their knowledge of proper coaching process, structure, and professional conduct was thoroughly tested.

For example, how soon after a coaching relationship may a coach have an intimate relationship with a client, if ever? Or is it a breach of ethics for a coach to insist that the client buy commercial products that the coach has a financial interest in? Is the information shared in a coaching relationship confidential? What if the boss hires a coach for members of her team, and then expects the coach to disclose what was discussed privately with each member? Who is the coach accountable to?

Health and Wellness Coaching

For a while there, anyone who looked good in yoga pants and excelled at making green juices was calling herself a health coach. Over 100 health coach training programs produced a couple of generations of enthusiasts, most without formal training in health and wellness. The lack of a universal definition of health and wellness coaching or standards for professional practice then inspired the formation of the International Consortium for Health and Wellness Coaching, now called National Board for Health and Wellness Coaching. This nonprofit organization was a collaborative effort among 75 stakeholder groups from medicine, health promotion, nursing, wellness, exercise physiology, fitness, psychology, nutrition, and human services sectors.

With the publication of peer-reviewed journal articles on educational and training standards, ICHWC spread the results of a job task analysis that outlined the chief competencies expected of a health and wellness coach, including a fundamental knowledge of healthy lifestyle information, as you’d find from credible sources such as the CDC or National Institutes of Health. The ICHWC board joined forces with the National Board of Medical Examiners to produce the first national certification, launched in 2017.

Over 2000 coaches have now earned the credential National Board Certified Health and Wellness Coach (NBC-HWC), demonstrating their applied theoretical knowledge, after having graduated from an ICHWC approved training or educational program. A directory of board-certified coaches is available at the www.ichwc.org.  It’s a good place to start if you’re wondering about qualified health coaches.

These top-rated national credentials remain an optional choice among coaches. There is no licensure or mandatory regulation of education or demonstration of proficiency, so the buyer-beware market persists. Some folks will call themselves “coaches” with no clue about how to apply the proven methodologies of successful coaching.  But a growing professionalization is in effect, and over 200 well-designed studies now demonstrate the effectiveness of evidence-based coaching methods for changing behavior, achieving healthier outcomes, and building self-efficacy and confidence. These are available in a Compendium produced by the American College of Lifestyle Medicine.

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