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Personal Characteristics of an Effective Life Coach

It has been found that effective life coaches embody particular qualities and characteristics that create a significant impact on the relationship they share with their clients. Furthermore, these qualities and characteristics have a determining effect on the successful outcomes of the coaching interventions. Since being in the field for a few years now I feel I am embodying the following characteristics.

Effective life coaches have an identity.

I have been working as a life coach for four years and have had a passion for personal development, psychology, and the potentials of the mind. For many years I have had a deep interest in how the mind works and human behaviour. Therefore, being fortunate enough to do my bachelor’s degree in psychology and counselling has been a major achievement as not only am I interested in these subjects, but I can also directly apply the learnings into my sessions with my clients.

Effective life coaches are open to change.

Being self-employed for the past thirteen years has forced me out of my comfort zone many times and continues to do so. Working for a company provides a sense of certainty, comfort, benefits, structure, and support. Working for oneself takes all of that away, especially at the beginning of a new venture. Furthermore, during the peak of lockdown, I chose to study for my higher certificate in counselling and communication skills with SACAP (South African College of Applied Psychology), all while feeling insecure about how we would be able to afford the fees.

Effective life coaches have a sense of humour.

As I have tried tirelessly to get my career going, I have had to have a sense of humour when things have not gone my way. I feel that being able to have a good laugh about these things has really helped my self-esteem and well-being.

Effective life coaches make mistakes and are willing to admit them.

I am always open to admit my mistakes, especially if it has affected others. Additionally, I do not harbour on such things and allow myself to move on from such things.

Effective life coaches have a sincere interest in the welfare of others.

It is a privilege and an honour to be able to sit with someone while they share and reflect on their life’s issues. I have learnt valuable lessons about the importance of holding space and not always trying to help solve a client’s problem for them. I understand how important it is for people to know that they can sit in a stranger’s office and feel safe enough to share personal and often confidential information with them.

Effective life coaches possess effective interpersonal skills.

Over time I have come to see the client/therapist dyad and a metaphorical dance. By using verbal and non-verbal language, one can move with and sometimes steer the conversation in a way that feels right for the client. I feel that this will always be a work in progress as sometimes I still “step on their toes”.

Effective life coaches become deeply involved in their work and derive meaning from it.

Trying to understand a client’s core fear/insecurity or motive behind their behaviours is fascinating and complex. Sometimes people can be predictable, based on others who have had similar experiences, but sometimes it is completely different, and one must become agile in their thinking to perceive the issue from other angles. This often extends to worldly issues where it becomes easier to grapple with the fact that people have personal histories, aspirations, traumas, and pressing issues that add to the reasons why they may commit the most insane and/or atrocious acts.

Effective life coaches are passionate.

I am passionate about psychology. I am always reading about psychology and how the mind works. I have also spent years trying to find out how I could study the subject since I did not do well in matric. I eventually found out that I could re-write my matric English, but when it came time to write my exams the Covid pandemic started. Fortunately, SACAP informed me that I could do the higher certificate which would act as a bridge course. Since achieving my higher certificate and six distinctions, I am now fulfilling a major dream by being able to study for my bachelor’s degree, majoring in counselling and psychology with SACAP.

Effective life coaches are able to maintain healthy boundaries.

I have established a clear boundary between my personal life and my work life. While I often debrief about my workday with my wife, I don’t allow work stress to interfere with my home life. Furthermore, when I am at work, I allow my personal life to disappear as well.

However, a life coach does not have to have all these characteristics. Therefore, which characteristics do you think you will need to develop to become an effective life coach?

Effective therapists respect and appreciate themselves.

For a large part, I do respect and appreciate myself. However, I can sometimes lose focus on these values, especially when I am stressed or feeling emotionally low. On the positive side, I am able to bounce back from these lows relatively quick, so they don’t tend to linger for too long.

Effective life coaches make choices that are life-oriented.

While I am much better at this, I have spent many years trying to get over beating myself up for my past mistakes. I have often felt like the victim of my past decisions and behaviours, but I am continually working towards being kind to myself.

Effective therapists generally live in the present.

For the most part, I can be in the present, but if I become anxious and have intrusive thoughts, I can lose touch with reality and get lost in the negativity. Fortunately, I can realise what is happening and then eventually pull myself out and come back into the here and now.

Effective life coaches appreciate the influence of culture.

During my previous course, I became exposed to differences in culture, religious beliefs, and sexual orientation. While I am open-minded I did not realise how important such matters of to some people. Fortunately, I am learning about and appreciating people’s values and how they affect and influence their lives.

Have you experienced life coaching as a client? if yes, how was your experience?

I have seen a life coach on several occasions and found the experience to be very rewarding. I think it is important for life coaches to be exposed to the process of life coaching sessions as a client. A life coach once told me to “see through the eyes of your client”. This means experiencing all aspects of the coaching experience, from making the booking, to waiting in the waiting room, to each session with the therapist. Additionally, one must understand the process of working with emotions, limiting thoughts and beliefs, and working towards breakthroughs.

Name three important values to you and explain how they may influence your interventions with clients?

1. Safety. I understand that my clients are coming to strangers’ offices and must try to tell the stranger about their personal life. I understand that there is a good chance they tried to solve their issue on their own but got so stuck that I am now their last hope for a breakthrough. Knowing this, I realise how important it is for me to establish the feeling of safety and confidentiality when they step into my office.

2. Rapport. Rapport is a part of the process for the client to feel safe but is also an ongoing process. When clients feel they can share issues with me that previously they may not have felt safe enough to do so is a great step forward in the developing relationship. As rapport develops the conversation, and especially difficult conversations have more ease of flow and feel better for both the client and the therapist.

3. Compassion/empathy. Most people know what they need to do to make the appropriate changes in their lives. However, while they are in therapy, they need to feel like they are not being judged or criticised for not being able to take such steps. On the surface, people often come to therapy to get help solving an issue, but most times they really need someone who will listen to them with compassion, empathy, and understanding as they try to process their issue.

Why it is crucial to develop multicultural competencies as a life coach?

It is important to develop multicultural competencies as a life coach because of the tendency to adhere to biases, assumptions, and/or generalisations that are not in accordance with the clients personal and subjective experience. Furthermore, the development of multicultural competencies will enhance one’s knowledge of diversity that can create specific and tailored intervention strategies that are conducive to the client’s higher needs.

How An Empathetic Life Coach Helped Me

There was a time early in my life coaching career that I found I was losing direction, not fully understanding the counselling environment, and lacking the skills to communicate effectively with my clients. I thought it necessary to consult with a good life coach in my area to assist me with my concerns.

I find that when I am in a new environment, I tend to become more closed-off in my behaviour as I approach new situations with hesitation and often-times, scepticism. I will often guard and hide my feelings around people I do not know to appear that I am un-phased by what is happening and may even appear indifferent. However, meeting my therapist was refreshing as his friendly and welcoming attitude made me feel comfortable to get the process started. Even though I may have appeared stand off-ish, I really wanted someone who would accept me, listen to what I have to say, and understand my feelings towards my situation. My Life Coach’s attitude ticked those boxes straight away, and he skilfully brought in a deep empathetic approach throughout the Life Coaching process. This created, what Pedersen called “an inclusive cultural empathy” the flowed smoothly during our interactions.

Upon deeper reflection I was looking for a role model, someone to boost my self-esteem, and someone I could aspire to be one day. I desired to feel respected as someone with potential to create positive changes in people’s lives.

My Life Coach made excellent use of the common counselling techniques such as making use of good questions; being able to correctly paraphrase and even summarise what I was saying; helping me to work on some core issues; accurately reflect on key emotions and affective states; and express empathy in a way that really made me feel supported. He confidently and effortlessly embodied what Carl Rogers defines as the three attributes of a skilled life coach. These are: (1) congruence, (2) unconditional positive regard, and (3) accurate empathic understanding, as mentioned by Midwinter and Dickson.

During my therapy sessions I noticed the questioning process he used seemed to be intentionally picked to stimulate certain reactions in me. Most questions were used as open questions, but each type of question would allow me to further explore my issues as if noticing them from many different angles. Sometimes the questions would confront certain limiting beliefs, while others were used to create momentum in my own thinking and problem-solving abilities. I always felt like we were on the same team as he was able to leave out his own agendas, while his use of questioning seemed to provoke a deeper understanding of me and my concerns, as opposed to pacifying his own curiosity.

His ability to pay attention and to remember critical information in the stories I was sharing was admirable. By paraphrasing short sentences and summarising much longer statements really made me notice how focused he was on me, without ever needing to interrupt me. He seemed to understand that I was responsible and capable enough to come up with my own solutions.

Becoming skilled as a life coach requires the use of empathy as a tool that helps deliver a certain outcome, and in this case is used to help counselling clients (1) gain a deeper understanding of themselves and their behaviour; (2) provide a sense of hope and motivation that they can achieve their goals; and (3) a space where they can feel safe to be open and vulnerable. It is important to remember that there are no hard and fast rules to abide by when using empathy, but more so that the therapist will have some useful guidelines that can be adjusted to their own style and most importantly customised to fit the needs of the client. Each component that makes up a well-rounded style of empathy needs to be learned with proficiency and then fine-tuned to make best use of it. Life Coaching should also understand the importance of knowing when not to make use of any components of empathy that are not best suited to the task at hand.

Making good use of high quality, intentional questions helps the clients to explore and really open  their imaginations when delving into their issue. While inappropriate use and overuse of questions can make a client feel intimidated, interrogated, judged, and victimised. Being aware of what one would like to achieve with a question is vital. Questions should be used to identify feelings, underlying motives, core meanings and/or limiting beliefs to name a few, and not to try confuse, trap, or mislead the individual.

The ability to paraphrase and accurately reflect a client’s affective state is a skill that requires active listening and memory recall. Clarkson noted that it can also be used to check the counsellor’s  understanding of what has been said and to spark further elaboration. Such skills must be used with caution due to the negative consequences that can occur if misused. If done too often can make the client feel like the therapist is just pretending to understand  and not really “getting” the what they are saying. Paraphrasing the incorrect information, and/or reflecting the wrong affective state back to the client can likewise make the client feel that the Life Coach is simply not listening, or perhaps hearing the wrong thing. However, done correctly and with tact, can help the client identify their feelings, to feel understood, and feel encouraged to explore their concern further. Correct use of paraphrasing and reflection can demonstrate that the counsellor’s  attention is solely focused on the client and their needs. Rogers and Farson found that when people are listened to sensitively, they tend to listen to themselves with more care and to make clear exactly what they are feeling and thinking.

Knowing how to summarise lengthy pieces of dialogue is a vital asset in therapy, as most often clients will come for counselling with numerous problems that need to be resolved; and an entanglement of different issues that relate to each other at certain intersections. Clients also often feel that the people in their lives either do not listen to them, or do not really understand what they are going through, so it can be difficult for them to freely discuss such issues with them. Over time this can create a build-up of unexpressed emotions and issues, which are then released as a barrage of incoming information when with a Life Coach. The counsellor must use great skill in (1) staying with the conversation; (2) remembering crucial bits of relevant information; and (3) knowing how, according to Angus and Greenberg, in their book Working with narrative in emotion-focused therapy, to integrate the mix of information into a coherent story that resonates with the client.

During my own counselling sessions I found that my inability to paraphrase and/or summarise the correct information back to the client, while at the same time trying to stay focused on the conversation has been a difficult task for me. In trying to “get it right”, I often lose focus on the topic and do not pay attention to using active listening processes such as verbal fillers, eye contact, open body postures and/or providing targeted questions. Being attentive and responsive to the client’s needs are essential elements of becoming a great life coach. In order for me to be my best going forward, I feel that staying focused on the topic of the conversation and on the feelings that it brings up, will help me to formulate the correct response so my client is always assured that I am truly engaging in the conversation. As mentioned by Egan, I must learn to be more perceptive so I can identify key emotions and points of interest in what is being expressed, so I can then respond accurately and with empathy for the greater needs of the client.

So sum up I would like to share a quote by Norcross that emphasises the importance of empathy in Life Coaching, and goes as follows: “Empathy is linked to outcomes because it serves a positive relationship function, facilitates a corrective emotional experience, promotes exploration and meaning creation, and supports the client’s self healing”.

References

Lynne E. Angus, L. E & Greenberg, L. S. (2011). Working With Narrative in Emotion-Focused Therapy: Changing Stories, Healing Lives. American Psychological Association.

DeVito, J. A. (2019). Foundations of interpersonal communication. The interpersonal communication book. (15th ed., pp. 15-42). Pearson education.

Egan. (2013). Empathic responding: Working at mutual understanding. The skilled helper: a problem-management and opportunity-development approach to helping (10th ed., pp. 104-131). Brooks/Cole Cengage Learning.

Midwinter, R. & Dickson, J. (2020). The skill of communicating. Embedding Counselling and Communication Skills: A Relational Skills Model (1st ed.). https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315730493

Pedersen, P. (2009). Inclusive cultural empathy: A relationship-centered alternative to individualism. South African Journal of Psychology, 39(2). https://doi.org/10.1177/008124630903900201

Rogers, C. R & Farson, R. E. (1987). Active listening. Communicating in Business Today.

Life Coaching Skills – Top 3 Skills of Highly Qualified Life Coaches [Skills Guide]

If I, as a life coach am to become an effective communicator, I think I must (1) understand my current limitations and (2) be open to learning how to improve and gain proficiency over such matters. Effective communication strategies are at the heart of life coaching and are crucial to professional success (Morreale et al, 2016). I have noticed my own improvements over time as I have gained more knowledge and awareness on this topic and have experienced the positive results when working with my clients. The ability to communicate and build quality relationships with my clients is of utmost importance and has even been noted among the competencies exemplified by top leaders (Goleman, 2013 as cited in Egan, 2012). During this reflective process I have chosen to focus on the roles of empathy, paralanguage, and active listening. I found these elements to be of a sub-standard quality when working with my clients, and further feel that if I am to be of most value to my clients then these components must be addressed and improved on. By paying attention to how I define each component, its role in communication and counselling, and knowing how to make best use of it to create the best possible outcomes for my clients is at the core of this continued educational process.

Empathy

While the exact definition of empathy varies, most will agree that empathy is the ability to accurately assess, interpret and understand the feelings of another, and as described by Krzesni (2015) “is a necessary prerequisite for altruism and compassion”. Empathy is seen as a desirable personal characteristic in counselling and is a crucial skill to hone if one is to create effective treatment strategies and interventions, so that client satisfaction is achieved (Clark, 2010 as cited in Egan, 2012; Bayne & Hays 2016). While Carl Rogers found that (1) congruence (genuineness or realness), (2) unconditional positive regard (acceptance), and (3) accurate empathic understanding (Midwinter, et al., 2020) are the three must-have attributes to cultivate, Egan (2012) emphasises the importance of empathic responding with regard to (1) knowing how to respond, and (2) understanding how to effectively deliver such a response during a therapy intervention. Combined, these skills assist the therapist to be present and responsive to the client’s needs.

The developing relationship between the Life Coach and client should, in my opinion, be grounded in the intelligent use of empathy and empathetic responding by the Life Coach to provide a non-judgemental space (Bayne & Hays, 2016) for the client to explore their presenting issues. Making use of empathy can lead to a deeper understanding of what the client is feeling about their issue and may help to identify more responsive and targeted treatments (Neumann et al., 2009 as cited in Egan, 2012). By embedding empathy into one’s responses so as to communicate understanding, allows the client to feel fully understood and accepted for who they are as a unique individual. This builds trust in the client/counselling relationship and which may hopefully lead to the required behavioural change over time.

I feel my need to be a problem-solver during my earlier interventions has been one of my greatest stumbling blocks on my journey to becoming a better communicator across the cultural spectrum and therapist. I failed to realise that even though solutions to clients presenting problems are important, that what was more important was helping my clients to feel understood, valued and accepted. Clients need to feel listened to and that their stories are important. They need to be able to trust the therapist with their potentially deepest and most intimate memories, thoughts, and feelings.

Going forward it will be important put aside my own need to be seen as a problem-solver, but to focus on being fully present and attentive for my clients. I must express empathetic understanding in my behaviour and communication style so my clients can feel they can trust me. By taking these steps I feel that I will then be able to help them realise their own innate intelligence and problem-solving abilities to make the required changes in their lives.

Active Listening

Active listening is the ability to not only pay full attention to what is being said and how it is being said, but to be present the conversation in a way that respects the general worth of the speaker (Rogers & Farson, 1987). The need for concentration, commitment and mental engagement in this process is high as the listener must accurately assess the theme of the conversation and how the individual components fit together to make story meaningfully complete (Egan, 2012). For this to happen the listener must avoid getting distracted by their own thoughts and try not to interrupt the speaker. By applying active listening skills, the listener must utilise nonverbal communication and backchannelling (Rost & Wilson, 2013 as cited in DeVito, 2019) to demonstrate to the speaker that they are fully engaged in the conversation. Things such as appropriate eye contact, verbal fillers, silence, and open body posture keep the listener actively and visibly engaged. It is a useful tactic in life coaching as it allows the Life Coach to better understand what is being said, and then to use that information to respond appropriately to the client.

Active listening is important in not only counselling, but also useful in everyday conversations. When a speaker feels they are being listened to; that the focus is on them; that they feel acknowledged and understood; and that the feedback from the listener is relevant to the conversation, then they will feel more comfortable with the listener (Rogers, 1980 as cited in Egan 2012). Once the speaker feels comfortable to express themselves, then the active listener will be provided with opportunities to give informed responses effectively with questions to expand on what is being said, to stay on topic, and then assist the speaker to dig even deeper into their issue. By making a conscious effort, active listeners are better able to pick up on subtle emotions, which can lead to empathic understanding, and then further to empathic responding (Egan, 2012). This is especially helpful in therapy as it can direct the therapist to core issues and crucial bits on information that the client is experiencing.

I have found that conventional conversations often lack many important considerations for the speaker. As the listener, I have often resorted to a problem-solver, or a “me too” mentality, and have been susceptible to three conversational errors during conversations. (1) I have often been inclined to get lost in my own thoughts and lose important information from the conversation. (2) I have failed to listen-to-understand but would rather listen so I can compare to my own life, and then provide advice on what I would do if I were in their position. (3) I would interrupt the other person as soon as I thought I could give valuable information.

Active listening is a conscious choice one must choose to work with, and fine tune if one is to gain any mastery over. Therefore, as an aspiring Life Coach, I must choose to hold back the need to make the counselling conversation about me and my expertise, and rather focus on what the client needs by utilising the valuable skills that active listening provides. Active listening is a crucial skill to enhance so as to be directly engaged in the conversation with the client, so one can then provide high quality intervention strategies that are best suited to that client.

Paralanguage

Paralanguage, also known as vocalics, refers to the nonverbal vocal aspects of speech that provides information. Paralanguage has an impact on speech as it helps to express emotion, articulate meaning, and convey underlying messages (Meservy & Burgoon, 2008 & DeVito 2019). Paralinguistics, which is the study of paralanguage, investigates the way vocal expressions, and even the lack thereof which influences and modifies speech. Common examples include inflection, pitch, sarcasm, hesitation, verbal fillers, volume, intonation, prosody, and speed (Schandorf, 2020). In simple terms it pays attention to how something is said as opposed to what is being said. Its purpose is to create contextual information about what is being said by the speaker so the listener can better understand the implied message (DeVito, 2019). Listeners form physical, personality and evaluative impressions about the speaker by the way they use paralanguage (DeVito, 2019).

Paralanguage is important to be aware of in counselling as it allows the counsellor to notice potential implied messages, meanings, assumptions, and feelings that the client may be expressing beyond the actual words being spoken. What Pedersen (2009) terms “inclusive cultural empathy”, allows clients to feel like the Life Coach is fully engaged in the conversation as core messages can be picked up on by the aware Life Coaching. If for example the client exclaims in a loud tone, “… Then he said that it was all my fault that the project failed”, the therapist will notice the volume may be demonstrating anger and frustration, while the intonation on the word “my” seems to point to disbelief by what the client heard. At this point the life coach may paraphrase the following, “He (intonation) said it was your (intonation and increase in volume) fault. I see how this can make you angry (affirming the client’s feelings).” Being aware of a client’s unique use of paralanguage and knowing how to make best use of one’s own paralanguage can build the foundation of being an empathically accurate perceiver (Ickes, 1997 as cited in Egan, 2012).

Since counselling and communication skills are a core component of my work, it is crucial to understand paralanguage and its effective use, and the consequences of its misuse. Since, in my personal life I like to make use of humour, I found myself adopting that attitude with my clients and would often resort to using sarcasm. I assumed it could lighten the mood and point out my client’s blind spots or errors in thinking and behaving. While this strategy can work if used with tact, overusing, or misusing it can make a person feel judged and/or ridiculed.

I now value and understand how important something like paralanguage can be in a counselling environment. I am now learning to notice my assumed interpretation of the messages and feelings behind the words being said by my clients. This deeper form of engagement also allows me to immerse myself in their world as they relay it to me. To get more value out of paralanguage I feel it is important to notice it when my client speaks and then to clarify and/or paraphrase various core moments expressed via paralanguage that I feel stand out. Furthermore, I feel it’s necessary for me to learn how best to improve my own style of paralanguage with my clients, so they feel more understood.

Conclusion

The take-away message that I have gathered from this reflective writing process is to identify how best to make one’s clients feel valued, understood and respected for who they are and what they are coming to counselling for. By continued and refined practise of skills such as empathy, paralanguage, and active listening, I feel I can become a therapist for my clients. Furthermore, I feel that these cognitive skills are guidelines when dealing with real-life situations and not hard-and-fast rules and should always be used with wisdom and appropriate use if one is to become a great life coach.

References 

Bayne, H. B, & Hays, D. G. (2016). Examining conditions for empathy in counselling: An exploratory model. Journal of Humanistic Counseling, 56. DOI: 10.1002/johc.12043

DeVito, J. A. (2019). Foundations of interpersonal communication. The interpersonal communication book. (15th ed., pp. 15-42). Pearson education.

Egan. (2013). Empathic responding: Working at mutual understanding. The skilled helper: a problem-management and opportunity-development approach to helping (10th ed., pp. 104-131). Brooks/Cole Cengage Learning.

Krzesni, D. (2015). EMPATHY. Counterpoints, 503, 33-54. https://www.jstor.org/stable/45136520

Midwinter, R. & Dickson, J. (2020). The skill of communicating. Embedding Counselling and Communication Skills: A Relational Skills Model (1st ed.). https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315730493

Morreale, S. P., Valenzano, J. M., & Bauer, J. A. (2016).  Why communication education is important: a third study on the centrality of the discipline’s content and pedagogy. Taylor & Francis Online, 66(4), 402-422. https://doi.org/10.1080/03634523.2016.1265136

Meservy, T. O & Burgoon, J. K. (2008). Paralanguage. Wiley Online Library. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781405186407.wbiecp005

Pedersen, P. (2009). Inclusive cultural empathy: A relationship-centered alternative to individualism. South African Journal of Psychology, 39(2). https://doi.org/10.1177/008124630903900201

Rogers, C. R & Farson, R. E. (1987). Active listening. Communicating in Business Today.

Schandorf, M. (2020) Paralanguage (the cracked lookingglass of a servant, or the uses, virtues, and value of liminality). Filowicz. M & Tzankova. V (Eds.), Reimagining Communication: Meaning. Routledge.