“How Does That Make You Feel?” Aborted Adventures In Life Coaching

“You scare me,” she said.

I laughed.

She didn’t.

It was the morning break of my second day of life coach training and I was standing at the refreshments table beside one of the instructors. And she was apparently afraid of me, me who looks like one of those chicks who should be posting precociously twee ukulele vids to YouTube. She went on to explain that the intensity of my facial expression, the way I would scrunch up my face when deep in thought (it’s a lifelong habit and more than one former paramour has found it downright adorable, so take that, lady) was a little too intense and could intimidate future clients and that I might want to work on my “physical expression of empathy.”

It was turning into a very long weekend.

As the brains behind a modestly popular website that offers up prescriptivist career and relationship advice for twentysomethings, I had recently decided that the next logical step would be to monetize my pro bono agony aunt ways and jump on the personal coaching bandwagon. I was enjoying providing a regular stream of advice through the site and via email, why not get some credible training, hang out a shingle and turn pro? I did my homework–researched institutes and training providers, talked to working coaches, made copious notes and finally settled on a program that seemed to be the best fit for me. It was internationally certified, provided extensive training materials and in-person training seminars and, best of all, offered a generous refund policy. I’m a fan of covering my bases, after all.

That’s how I came to be spending the weekend in a hotel conference room with 25 other aspiring coaches, having my resting facial expression critiqued. Brand new notebook and pen in hand, I had shown up expecting a crash course in psychology, concrete strategies for helping clients set goals, a framework for providing guidance to codify the tough love approach that I already practiced. Instead I got…role playing, lots of role playing, with an emphasis on provoking emotional epiphanies. We practiced coaching each other and being coached in return. It was a well-intentioned exercise in the blind leading the blind. Jill wants to achieve better work-life balance. Mike wants to explore his spirituality more fully. And on and on for hours. I soon realized that I was running out of bland problems to offer up as coaching fodder (and I sure as hell wasn’t going to let total strangers in on my real ones) and that I was parroting “What does that feel like?” long after I’d lost interest in the generic replies. Where were the action steps? Where was my promised methodology?

Throughout these exercises, we were instructed that it was not our job to question the practicality or validity of our clients’ desires or to work on a concrete game plan for achieving these aims. Nope, we were supposed to encourage clients, via open-ended questions, supportive murmurs and non-threatening eye contact, to come up with their own conclusions and verbalize commitments to achieving them. But what if they were wrong? Or deluding themselves? Or committing to the impossible? Wasn’t it our responsibility to not let folks go off half-cocked, especially if they were paying for the privilege of our expertise? I raised my hand to raise this issue. Dead silence. The facilitator finally took pity on me and explained that it didn’t matter if Anne couldn’t actually afford to renovate her house. That fact was immaterial. What was important was exploring how renovating would allow her to better express her personality through her surroundings and how this would make her feel. BUT WHAT ABOUT THE DAMN COST OF PAINT?

I went back to furrowing.

It was downhill from there. I tried to fly under the radar for the rest of the seminar, but I had already been tagged as a problem child, a resister who needed extra attention and who just did not get the it that is life coaching. This did not go unnoticed in a room of budding counselors eager to score brownie points. One attempted to draw me out of my shell by referencing Meet Joe Black and all but insisting that I needed to “dance like a dervish” in the middle of the conference room in order to better connect with my emotional side. She wouldn’t take no for an answer until I finally, desperately told her it would feel “inauthentic.” As I’d hit upon a coaching keyword, she let the matter drop.

The low point of the weekend came during the final exercise. One by one, we were to call out qualities we noticed in each other and qualities we wanted to see more of. I remained silent and steeled myself for my turn. Guarded. Smart. Mysterious. More open. Less sure. Being pelted with words was the equivalent of emotional dodge ball. It’s not that I necessarily cared how 25 people I’d never see again perceived me, but the experience of having them sum up their perceptions of the content of my character while I sat there not permitted to respond or rebut (“Less sure”? WTF? Would you say that if I were a man, huh?) was the height of uncomfortable. I fixed a polite smile on my face, stared into the middle distance and waited for it to be over.

Eventually, the seminar ended, but not before I had to hide in the hotel bathroom to avoid performing an interpretative dance to simulate an orchid bursting forth from the earth as proof of my feeling self “taking root.” I kid you not. As I gathered up my papers and shoved them into my purse, I mentally composed the email I would send to request a refund for the last 72 hours of my life.

In hindsight, my logic in thinking that just because I was a verbose internet know-it-all (and a helluva lot prettier than Dr. Phil) that I was destined to take the life coaching industry by storm would provide analogous to someone who loves sex thinking that she’d make a great addition to the Moonlite Bunny Ranch team. Maybe the advice and perspective I dole out is more dictatorially directive than encouragingly open-ended and maybe my poker face really would stop a clock, but everything I know about my twentysomething peers tells me that tough love beatdowns still trump generic positive reinforcement without accountability. Especially if they’re free and the eye contact is optional. TC mark

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  • http://www.stephauteri.com Steph Auteri

    I loved this, JM, and as someone who has gone through a career coaching program herself, I couldn't help but laugh.

    I kept getting frustrated by the criticism that I was doing too much consulting and not enough coaching (yup! those leading questions…), and it drove me crazy that I wasn't allowed to tell people what I thought would be best, based upon my years of professional experience.

    But in the end, I also learned the lesson that every coach should make their practice inherently their own, and I took that to mean that I should use my strengths to enhance the coaching process.

    So yeah. I'm still heavy on the advice giving. ;)

    • GenerationMeh

      You and I have talked about this a little bit before and I agree that people are paying for the specific expertise and approach of a given professional and that's what they're expecting to receive. Trying to remove yourself from the equation or to put the emphasis on “shining a light” or “holding a space” while the client does this for him/herself doesn't deliver much value. Put another way, if someone wanted to solve their own problems using only their own insight, they could have done it for free already.

      • http://twitter.com/leighalexander leighalexander

        a lot of people are in desperate search of someone who will make them feel good about their weaknesses so they can avoid the difficult process of change

        a warm and tender individual who simply holds up a mirror is, for certain personality types, nothing more than an excuse to continue doing the wrong things

        the people who have been most instructive are those who tell me it's not okay to continue doing things my way

  • http://twitter.com/leighalexander leighalexander

    i think, like, these guys were just weirdos. i watched a lot of life coaching tv shows and the life coaches seemed practical like you and not like…

    dervishes

  • http://twitter.com/DanaLeavy DanaLeavy

    Haha, JM – this is great. I'm a career coach, went through a similar program, but maybe a little less… whatever adjective you would use to describe your experience above. And I totally agree with you about the consulting vs coaching thing. Asking my client 'how do you feel about your sh*tty resume?' isn't going to get them a job. A better resume will. Thanks! Dana – http://www.aspyresolutions.com

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