5 questions to ask a prospective coach
It’s an unenviable task: you’re possibly in a vulnerable place, looking for a coach because you’re experiencing a life change, or you have decided something needs to change. It may be about a career or relationship transition, or possibly about anxiety, lack of confidence or a similar psychological issue. Whatever draws you to coaching, an immediate obstacle presents itself; how to select a coach?
The coaching industry has seen an explosion of growth in the number of coaches in recent years. Attracted by the autonomous lifestyle, low barriers to entry, and the feel-good factor of helping others, many coaches have transitioned away from their original professions. These days, there’s a coach for pretty much any topic, from coaching for the transition into retirement, coaching mothers through pregnancy, through to coaching hedge fund managers to make better investment decisions.
Yet the paradox of this choice is that it can be a nightmare for a client to choose whom to work with. A cursory glance through the Life Coach Directory will find coaches who charge similar prices, claiming to specialise in similar products and offering similar outcomes. What’s more, their qualifications are enormously varied, with no independent explanation as to how they may differ in quality.
Some clients have tried to create their own selection criteria by asking me particular questions, such as; what are your favourite books? Or what lessons have you learned in life? However well-intentioned these questions, they, unfortunately, do little to help differentiate the quality of coaches, and only serve to give false confidence in a client as to a coach’s suitability. The problem is, clients don’t know what questions to ask.
So that brings me to the point of this article. Here is a brief guide to the five questions I would suggest you ask any prospective coach.
They are intended to help shine some light on how coaches make judgments during their sessions and the framework that they use to guide their practice. Any coach worth their salt should have a guiding philosophy that underpins their practise, and these questions will help you uncover what that philosophy is, if it exists at all.
1. What beliefs underpin your coaching?
The work of any coach will be informed by certain core beliefs, whether they are aware of them or not. From a very young age, we all form beliefs about the world, and how it works. For example, we learn to believe people can/can’t be trusted, or that when times are tough we should fix things ourselves or seek support from others. These beliefs are rarely explicitly taught to us. Rather, they act like stealth, shaping our worldview outside of our awareness.
The beliefs coaches hold will impact the coaching relationship, your experience of the process, and the success or otherwise of the coaching. At its core, coaching is about change. You will either be looking to change your behaviour or your perspective in some way. Consequently, it’s important to know what a coach believes makes change happen in a coaching relationship. This will shape everything that happens.
I believe that the key catalysts for change are self-belief and the ability to tolerate unpleasant feelings. If a coach is going to help make change happen in your life, they need to articulate how they believe change happens. Otherwise, it’s all down to luck, and why would you want to pay someone for luck?
2. What is the experience of being coached by you like?
It’s really important to get a sense of what the coaching experience will feel like. Will the coach do more talking or listening? What type of questions might they ask, and what’s the point of them? What type of relationship is the coach trying to create with a client?
My own practice focuses on working collaboratively with clients to help them understand the prism through which they see the world, and how this may constrain them in life. To that end, the relationship is rooted in trust but is not necessarily characterised by warmth. My role is to help clients achieve their goals, not to become their friends. Having insight into how the coaching sessions will feel will allow you to form a judgment as to whether it is appropriate for you.
3. What therapeutic approach do you use?
Coaches should use a framework that guides their practice. They shouldn’t be ‘making it up’ as they go along. Just as with therapists, coaches draw on different schools of belief when it comes to human behaviour. One school, known as Cognitive Behavioural, is grounded in the belief that humans are prone to dysfunctional thinking which manifests in unhelpful behaviours.
Coaches using this approach would help clients recognise their thinking patterns (e.g. blowing things out of proportion, catastrophising), and work on integrating more helpful ways of interpreting their experiences. In contrast, a psychodynamic approach would focus on helping clients understand the source of their suffering. Different approaches are more/less appropriate for different coaching topics. It is important to know which approach a coach draws upon.
4. How do you know if you are doing a good job?
Many coaches rely on client testimonials as a barometer of whether they are doing a good job. But this is deeply flawed. All coaches should have an independent means of critiquing their own practice, and the extent to which they can explain this to you will help you understand what they consider to be ‘good coaching.’ This is much more than ‘the client achieves their goals’, and should focus on what they would be doing during a coaching session that would lead them to conclude they were doing a good job.
It is also useful to ask them to describe a time where a coaching assignment did not work out well (it happens a lot). How do they make sense of this? Do they see it as an issue with the client, or themselves, or the connection and rapport between client/coach? (nb – it is always about the connection). The aim of this question is to get a sense of how much the coach is reflective and understand the role that they play in the outcome of a coaching relationship.
5. What is your professional background?
It’s perfectly legitimate to enquire about a coach’s professional experience. You probably wouldn’t want to be the first patient a surgeon operates on. Likewise, it is worth exploring the nature of any coach’s experience; how many coaching hours experience? What type of clients? What type of topics? Why did they choose the route they took for qualifications?
More experience is not necessarily more desirable, but if a coach has mainly coached Chief Executives helping them make strategic decisions, and you are looking for help managing a transition back to work after maternity leave, they may not be the most appropriate coach for you.
The important point to note about these five questions is that you don’t need to know the correct answers. Indeed, there are no correct answers. But the replies will indicate the degree to which a prospective coach has given consideration to these topics. You want to have a sense that there is congruence between the answers. If you get a sense they are trying to pull the wool over your eyes, making it up as they go along, or trying to confuse you by sounding clever, then I suggest you trust your gut. You’re probably right.
There is no shortage of coaches out there, and coaching can be a transformational experience when done well. Make sure you choose the right one for you because it will be worth it.
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