The Emerging Field of Personal Coaching
by Ben Benjamin, PhD

"A year ago I was really down, working at a job I didn't like and feeling unfulfilled. Then I started talking regularly to _____. It was amazing. I became aware there was a whole part of my self-my musical talent-that I was keeping in a box. Over the months I brought that self out and made slow but steady changes. Now, I'm out of that boring job, making lots more money with my music, and feeling so much happier."

Is this client talking about the results of his psychotherapy? No; he's talking about what he achieved with the help of his personal coach. He isnıt an athlete or a CEO, either. He-and also, she-is taking advantage of a newly emerging service field thatıs helping bring real change into people's personal and professional lives.

The new field of personal coaching has evolved over the past ten years, with the goal of helping individuals and small businesses achieve greater success where they most need and want it. By working with a personal coach, many people are learning how to create the life and vocation they want rather than stumble into whatever they happen to have.

A Brief History of the Field of Personal Coaching
For a long time athletes have employed coaches. No top-notch professional athlete would ever dream of being without a coach. Successful corporate leaders and business owners have had coaches for decades in the form of business advisors and organizational development professionals. Almost every successful business person I have ever known gets help when s/he needs it in order to make the business part of their lives succeed. An interesting development occurred when successful business people, who often donıt have a life outside of their businesses, began using their business advisors to coach them in their personal lives.

The fact is, organizing and leading a successful personal and social life‹one that includes free time and space, a fulfilling love relationship, satisfying personal friendships, and a work life that is enjoyable and fun‹can be an even more difficult task than running a successful business. Fortunately, itıs been shown again and again that the techniques used by the best business coaches also work in the personal arenas of their clientsı lives.

One factor contributing to the emergence of the field of personal coaching is our cultureıs increasing use and appreciation of psychotherapy. Therapy is no longer viewed as an indulgence, or only for the mentally ill and is often used as an emotional educational tool. Those of us who want more out of life often seek therapy to make our lives richer, happier and more satisfying.

But delving into our pasts, understanding our dreams, learning how to express our emotions and working through our neuroses does not always translate into a successful and meaningful life. Transforming the raw data of therapy into an action plan that improves our life takes a special kind of work. Personal coaches are a set of professionals who help us create those action plans and follow through on them. Following through on our plans is where most people get isolated and stuck.

Coaching is not psychotherapy. Learning various life skills through a coaching process will, however, often help bridge the gap between therapy and creating a different life. Personal coaching is essentially for healthy individuals who have some insight into their goals, strengths and weaknesses. When such an individual has difficulty translating or integrating what has been learned in a psychotherapy context into her or his everyday life, the coaching experience often provides a needed bridge between the two.

How Does Personal Coaching Work?
To a large extent, being happy and succeeding in life means discovering what you want, planning how to get it and following through on that plan. You take a first step towards changing the things that are not working in your life by identifying what they are. A coach gives you gentle constructive feedback so that you have an opportunity to change your behavior and your environment to get a different, more positive result.

A personal coach creates a safe environment for you to explore and articulate your hopes and dreams. Having a coach is like having someone permanently in your corner, someone who always supports you, encourages you, and tells you the truth in a kind way, even when you donıt like what you are hearing. A coach listens to you without judgment or a personal agenda.

A personal coach helps you identify exactly what you want out of your life at this moment in time and how you would like your work-life to fit into that picture. This may take just a few sessions or many months of work depending on how clear you are about your goals. Then together over the next weeks or months, the two of you craft a plan with a detailed set of goals. Next you agree on regular tasks to move you in the direction of the life and work you want.

As the coaching process gets under way, you inevitably meet your resistances to change. You and your coach approach and engage with the often hidden and habitual factors (resistances) that have previously kept you from moving forward successfully. Working together you discover the keys to those doors which have been closed to you. This step of working with resistance is usually an essential element of coaching and is an indispensable tool in implementing change in our lives.

Being coached isnıt always an easy process, but it is a rewarding one. There are inevitable bumps along the way, but navigating the territory without a guide at your side is a much more difficult task. A coach encourages you and helps you through the rough spots.

Where the Real Work Happens: Three Spheres of Knowledge
Your personal coach will explore three spheres of knowledge with you: what you know, what you suspect, and what you are oblivious to. You must have courage to work with a coach because the coachıs job is to lead you into the unknown. The process is often exciting, sometimes a bit scary, and almost always a little out of your comfort zone.

The first sphere covers what you know about yourself. In this sphere you examine where you are skilled, sensitive and effective and where you are weak and in need of help. In this area you ask for and receive help with relative ease because you know where you are lacking and are open to exploration, ideas and advice. For instance, if you know you need to delegate certain tasks but have difficulty doing so, your coach can help you learn the skills of delegation without too much difficulty. Or, if you have trouble giving constructive negative criticism to an employee but know you must do it, then learning this skill may challenge you but be easily accomplished with some practice.

The second sphere of knowledge contains the parts of yourself where you suspect there are holes, missing pieces of information, problems, and unrealistic ideas and expectations. These areas of weakness and uncertainty are what initially bring people to seek a coach, advisor, or therapist. Even though we seek and need help in these darkened areas, we resist looking too deeply at them and try to avoid them whenever possible.

This second sphere is what usually makes up the meat of the coaching experience. As the client, you suspect there are weaknesses you need to work on. You consciously want to discover the habitual patterns of behavior that keep you making the same mistakes over and over again. Nevertheless, you may resist the knowledge that working in this sphere can bring.

Working with you in this arena, a coach has to probe gently but be very tough. None of us likes someone to point out what we are avoiding, where we are deficient or how our expectations are off the wall and unrealistic. For example, it is not easy to tell a client that, because he lacks certain necessary skills, it will take two years to accomplish what he thought would take three months. But not telling him would set him up for failure and loss of self-esteem. This is the kind of difficult work that engages a coach and client during the second sphere.

The third sphere of knowledge is the most important and the most difficult to approach in the coaching process. These are the things we donıt know that we donıt know. If we donıt know about these traits or behaviors, it is difficult, if not impossible, to change them. And because we donıt know they exist, we might be shocked to hear about them and be resistant to exploring them‹far more resistant than we were to the difficult knowings of the second sphere.

For instance, I was hired to coach a man who thought he was a very good teacher. In our work together I observed him teach and interviewed his students, only to discover that he was actually a very poor teacher who talked down to students, was unclear and tended to ramble. In another case I was asked to coach a small business person to help her learn how to delegate successfully. In preparing to coach my client I conducted information gathering interviews of her employees. I discovered that her employees frequently quit because my client was unconsciously nasty or sarcastic, didnıt listen, and had poor personal boundaries. In both of these cases, the third sphere‹what my clients didnıt know that they didnıt know about themselves‹greatly magnified my task and made our work vastly different from the clientsı expectations.

How a Personal Coach Guides the Process
When working with a new client, a coach will capitalize on the first sphere of knowledge in the beginning of the process, build toward the second sphere over a short time and arrive at the third sphere if the client is willing and agrees to enter this darker area once information is uncovered.

In order to begin this process, an effective coach has to make a coaching assessment or diagnosis. Is what the client is asking for realistic and in tune with his or her external realities? Is what the client is asking for actually what the client needs to effect a change? Or, are there many hidden factors in the unconscious third sphere that the coach would have to bring to light to create a successful change process? If so, is the coach skilled enough to do so with this person?

Another question in the assessment is, are the clientıs problems and issues just habits and patterns that coaching and education will help to change? Or, are they based on deep-seated internal emotional issues that would be better dealt with by a psychotherapist before coaching is begun?

The Work of Coaching in Action
Most personal coaching is done by phone. In some cases the client and the coach live in close proximity and coaching sessions may occur in person. At first, the coach may set the agenda for each session until the client becomes familiar with the working process. An early goal of the process is to have the client set the agenda for each session. In this way, the client gets to work on what s/he feels is essential at that moment of in his/her life. The coach will intervene to alter or add to the agenda only when the clientıs agenda covertly avoids the clientıs stated goals.

I recently worked with a client who was quite successful in business but was continually unhappy and unsatisfied at what he was doing. The main task was to identify what he really wanted. After that was accomplished it became clear that he could not get what he wanted in his present career, so my work shifted to encourage him to explore how he could get what he wanted doing something he loved. After engaging in a few job experiments he discovered the stress of life as an entrepreneur was not suitable for him. He found a job he loved and began enjoying his work-life. He was now able to leave his job and not have his entrepreneurial worries consume him.

Sometimes the work of coaching is about educating or training the client in specific skills necessary for successful living. For example, learning the communication skills of giving and accepting honest feedback can go a long way toward creating long term work relationships as well as personal ones. Or, learning how to plan our day and our week, and then following through with those plans to achieve our goal without procrastinating, is a skill worth striving for.

At other times, the work of coaching is less about the clientıs skills and more about the clientıs awareness. For example, it can be a delicate process helping a client become aware of why s/he doesnıt have good friends or a relationship that lasts. The reason may not be, as the client suspects, that the "right" people have not appeared in his/her life. Perhaps the fact that the client doesnıt feel s/he is deserving, or tries to take care of others instead of taking care of self, is the place to begin working.

When the work of coaching requires discovering the unknown, one good way to uncover this unknowable information is to have the client slowly interview trusted friends, colleagues and advisors. I had one client meet one by one with members of his community whom he liked but who avoided him. We had prepared a set of open-ended but specific questions to find out what he was unaware of in himself that kept people away from him. He found out that he was not a very good listener, frequently gave advice that was unwanted and not asked for and irritated people by frequent name-dropping of his famous clients from the past. These were things that only his good friends and colleagues could make him aware of in the least painful way. This gave us the material we needed to work with to create a change in his work and professional life.

Clients with Courage: Apply Here
The job of a personal coach is not to tell you what to do and force you to move forward in your professional or personal life. A professional coach helps you discover what you actually want and helps you uncover and explore the various roads that can lead you there. The coachıs job is to help you become aware that you can make conscious choices by pointing out your options, your blind spots, your talents, your goals and your fears.

To succeed, clients must be willing to make a coaching commitment for an extended period of time. Real life changes that have a lasting and successful impact, do not occur quickly, but take place over time.

In order for coaching to succeed the coaching client must make a serious commitment to the coaching process, must be able to tolerate some ambiguity as the process progresses, must be willing to accept honest feedback, must be able to admit mistakes, and must have a sense of humor. With these qualities and the courage that lies beneath them, an individual will get the most out of whatever work s/he undertakes and achieves with a personal coach.


© 2000 WorkLife Coaching