A Change in Direction
'Life coaches' help people explore a different path

"To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Staff Writer

Two and a half years ago, Terri Maney of Falmouth felt "stuck."

Illustration by JAMES WARREN/CCTimes

Her business needed a boost and she wanted out of debt and a bad relationship. She needed more order in her life and in her house.

All of the above objectives seemed unattainable until she started working with a personal life coach. With the coach's guidance and support, the self-employed real estate agent quadrupled her income, became more organized, and paid off her debt. She ended that unhealthy relationship and began traveling, a longtime dream. She's now working on her next goal: gaining financial freedom.

"I knew there were many more things I wanted to do with my life," says Maney, 38 and single. "But I didn't know how to get them. My coach helped me see the possibilities and realize my dreams."

Many Cape Codders are finding they can enhance the quality of their life and achieve greater success with a personal life coach in their corner - a new kind of professional who is a combination cheerleader, mentor, advisor, and guide.

Coaches help people set goals and reach them, help them tap their natural strengths, and support them in making life-changing decisions, according to the International Coach Federation, a professional group based in Washington, D.C. that accredits coaches. Life coaches work with clients in all areas, including career, finances, health and fitness, and relationships. There are even specialized "parent coaches" who help clients with specific problems - like blending families or school choice - or general parenting issues.

Coaching first came on the scene about a dozen years ago in the corporate world. The idea was that if sports professionals have coaches or trainers to motivate them to reach their optimum performance, why not use coaches to prod people to shape up their professional and/or personal lives?



Hiring a coach

The International Coach Federation offers these tips for finding the right life coach:

Educate yourself about coaching by reading articles or checking Web sites on the Internet such as: www.coachfederation.org and www.lifecoaching.com.

Know your objectives for working with a coach.

Interview three coaches before deciding on one. Ask them about their experience, qualifications, training, skills and for at least two references.

Relationship is an important ingredient in coaching. Make sure there is a connection between you and the coach that feels "right."


Life coaching has become a growing trend around the country in recent years. Some reports estimate that up to 10,000 people from almost every professional background now work as "personal life coaches" - twice the number there were in the early '90s. There are likely more than a dozen on Cape Cod, based on recent advertising and those connected to the www.cherylrichardson.com Web site created by Cheryl Richardson, a life coach, life-makeover expert for "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and best-selling author (" Take Time for Your Life," "Life Makeovers"). Trained to listen

As with many developing professions, there is no licensing requirement or law to protect consumers from untrained or incompetent coaches. But most coaches become certified by a coaching school after they've completed courses, logged a certain number of paid coaching hours and passed a test.

"Unfortunately, at this time anyone can hang out a shingle" and claim they're a coach, says Mie Elmhirst, a life coach based in Falmouth.

Over 140 schools around the country, though, including some universities and colleges, offer life coaching training. The courses can take from 18 months to two years and are given in person, over the phone, or on the Internet.

"Some of the best coaches I know haven't had formal training," notes Marie Sultana Robinson, a life coach based in West Barnstable who is a professional astrologer and published writer. She has worked as a stockbroker and insurance agent and was trained by Coach U. "Some of what makes a coach is intuition. Some of it is skill. It's a mix of things."

In searching for a coach, Robinson advises people to be aware of their training but also look at their skills and how their style works for you. Some coaches are more aggressive, while others are "warm, fuzzy, feel-good coaches," she adds.

Professional coaches say they are trained to listen and observe and ask probing questions. Unlike a therapist, a coach doesn't work on psychological issues or focus on understanding human behavior. Instead of delving into the past, they concentrate on the present and the future. Coaching isn't meant to take the place of therapy to relieve psychological pain or emotional disorders, according to the International Coach Federation.

"We aren't interested in why something happened, but what people can do now" to get what they want out of life, says Morgaine Mary Beck, a spiritual coach who, like Elmhirst, was trained by Coaches Training Institute.

Coaching is solution-oriented; coaches help a client create a plan of action. Typically, they assign homework between sessions and follow-up with phone calls or e-mails.

Coaches say they believe a client can get better results and make quicker progress with their guidance and support than going it on their own.

"Change is hard," Beck says, "and people often sabotage themselves."

Maney is convinced she couldn't have revamped her life without Beck.

"It's important to have somebody on your team to encourage you," she says, "and who makes you accountable to yourself."


Answers are Inside

Skeptics, however, question what a life coach can do for a client that a trusted confidante or perceptive friend can't do just as well. Others think a client can fare as well with a licensed therapist knowledgeable about, for example, career issues.

The fact that coaches may work with clients who have psychological or emotional problems concerns some observers, too, including therapists.

"The danger is that some of these people don't have the training or experience" to handle what might come up, says Paul Laemmle, a Centerville psychologist. Laemmle thinks coaches can deal with work and career issues, "but when they get into more personal issues, they have to be careful they are not overstepping their bounds."

People generally hire a coach because they feel stuck and want more out of their lives, Robinson says. Coaching involves asking the right questions, she says, to help people identify what they want and then help them move forward.

"I'm a mirror," Robinson says. "I'm showing you what is happening in your life."

In coaching, the client is the expert, Elmhirst says. The basic philosophy of coaching is that clients aren't "broken, but people who are whole, naturally creative and resourceful, and have all the answers deep inside themselves," she adds. Her job is to help clients uncover those answers.

"People come to coaching because they want change. I hold them to their dreams," she says.

Like other professionals, life coaches have their area of expertise or specialties. One Cape coach specializes in working with gay clients; another does divorce coaching.

Elmhirst focuses on 40- to 60-year-old women who are in transition and men and women who have lost their life partners. Robinson's niche is working with entrepreneurs and people in creative fields including actors, artists and writers.


Linked by Phone

Beck calls herself a "personal trainer for the soul." People come to her to lose weight, attain balance in their life, have more quality time with their children, or organize a life that is out of control and chaotic. Many of her midlife clients feel bored, stressed out, or are in a job they no longer find stimulating or satisfying "and are ready for a change," she says.

Coaching particularly appeals to Baby Boomers who want more out of life, Beck says, and have more disposable income to attain it. Coaching works best for people who are extremely motivated to change and take action, Elmhirst notes.

Coaches typically don't meet with clients in person. Instead, they conduct 30- to 45-minute weekly sessions by phone. Phone coaching is more convenient and fits better into people's busy lives, Beck says. It also helps both parties stay more focused and increases a client's comfort level.

"People often open up more on the phone," she says. "There is a deeper ability to open up about hard things. We are trained to listen in between the lines, to what is in their voice."

There are often e-mail exchanges, if needed, between calls.

Coaching costs aren't covered by health insurance. Monthly fees range from $250 to $600. Some coaches offer special financial packages, and some offer free coach support groups in person or online.

Most coaches offer potential clients a complimentary "sample session" to see how the process works and whether they have the right chemistry to work together. They may ask general questions like "What three goals/dreams (professional and/or personal), have you wanted to pursue, but haven't acted on?" and "What are the obstacles that prevent you from pursuing these three goals?"

Coaches generally ask clients to make to a three- to six-month commitment, but may work with clients for up to two or three years.


Diverse Backgrounds

A year ago, Lee DeStefano of Dennisport was looking for direction. She credits coaching with turning her life around.

"I spent a lot of time doing something I didn't want to do," she says.

Coaching gave her the courage to quit her high-pressure, stressful job in sales and become a merchandising representative for a national company. The mother of six says she's also learning to take care of her own needs.

"I used to let the little things get to me. Now I let it go," she says. "I don't beat up on myself anymore."

Thanks to coaching, DeStefano finds her life is more meaningful. She has more self-esteem and a greater sense of well-being.

Most coaches have been coached themselves and continue to maintain a coach after they start working professionally.

"Some of us have all been doing this throughout our lives in different ways," says Beck, who formerly had her own communications business, taught parent workshops, and worked in sales and marketing.

"I was born to do this," says Elmhirst, a former physical therapist. "I get a complete thrill out of watching people grow and become fulfilled human beings."

(Published: October 5, 2003)



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