Life coaching is an established professional activity, which unlike psychotherapy or career counseling is not taught at many universities as an independent subject. Nevertheless, there are several organizations devoted to life coaching, such as the International Coach Federation, which has nearly 10,000 members in 80 countries (International
Coach Federation, n.d., 1) and which is currently organizing its 11th annual conference.
Although many life coaches are proud of their practical orientation, there is the necessary stock of publications in this discipline, including a handbook (Martin, 2001) and a series of programs among which Ellis's (2002) Falling Awake is a well-known contribution. Dave Ellis's Life Coaching: A Manual for Helping Professionals, reviewed here, is presented as a manual on life coaching.
To make no mistakes about the value of life coaching, the author sets the standards early on: "If necessary, I'd give up my house, rent an apartment, or even live in a tent so that I could hire a life coach" (p. 1). And, indeed, on opening the book and reading any chapter of this text full of empowering optimism, a reassurance emerges that leaves the reader feeling well. Reading the book in the proper order, life coaching appears to have the maximum rating in statements such as these:
- "Life coaches provide a service for people who are already happy and successful" (p. 2).
- "Life coaches can offer unconditional love" (p.7).
- "I tell clients that one of the benefits of having me as a life coach is that I'll spend time every day thinking about them."
- "I will hold you in my consciousness more than anyone else does, except possibly your mother or your father" (pp. 7-8).
- "A relationship with a life coach is one of the most personal and intimate relationships that a person can have" (p.14).
"I know people who charge as little as $5 per hour to provide this amazing service [life coaching]" (p. 25).
These statements and many others like them might be found extreme by a therapist or a counseling practitioner providing a regular service in a private practice or within an institution.
The author, as is common in life coaching, attempts to provide a clear distinction between coaching and therapy. Although the criterion of not treating problems that could be classified by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th ed.; American Psychiatric Association, 1994), or perhaps by the International Classification of Diseases (10th rev.; World Health Organization, 2006) in the case of Europe, seems to be plausible, many psychotherapists would agree that they also address issues that are not the core of a given diagnosis. Dealing with these issues often helps in changing some of the core dimensions of the diagnosis as they present the specific contexts in which the diagnosed disorder is influential.
Nevertheless, it is less important to discuss what psychotherapists could also do (for that, see Williams & Davis, 2002) than to acknowledge what life coaching took over by means of a flexible conceptualization rooted in everyday-life interpersonal understanding. The consequent orientation of empowering, goal systems, planning, generating joint goals, and developing a goal hierarchy on the one hand and specifying it in plans and actions on the other gives life coaching a potential many psychotherapies lack. It could be argued that life coaching is rooted in an action-theoretical conceptualization. This is strongly stated in this manual dealing with the person image on which life coaching is based. The clients are seen as goal-directed agents capable of taking responsibility. The action-theoretical conceptualization can also be found in the care the author promotes taking in regard to establishing a relationship with the client. The practical assumption that goal-directed systems could be defined as short-term actions, mid-term projects, and also as a form identified with life goals indicates action-theoretical conceptualization equally well. Furthermore, the distinction between goal setting, control, and regulation processes suggests the underlying systemic conception of action, allowing the life coach to address and initiate construction processes at goal level, turn the client's attention to control processes, and help practicing those action parts that need repeated performance for habitualization, as often described in action theories (Valach, Young, & Lynam, 2002). Distinguishing between process and content not only helps life coaching in those areas in which the professional is a novice but also clearly outlines the field that life coaching should be about"not solving problems for clients but helping clients improve their problem-solving technique.
Ellis stresses the role of language in this process, suggesting that our words create our lives"that is, our words create our actions, and our actions create our circumstances. This is a constructionist stance (Young & Collin, 2004), allowing the life coaching to engage with the client in the social construction of reality.
The clients whose life coaching this book addresses might have been emotionally well balanced, but I wish that the chapter dealing with emotions and feelings had been more extensive, indicating a conceptualization of emotion processes that goes beyond the notion of necessity to release emotion. Action theories, although primarily dependent on the assumption of goal for defining their units of analysis, recognize the multiple and multilevel roles of emotion in action processes. Goal-directed processes of actions and projects as well as lifelong processes are dependent on good emotional functioning or integration at every level of the action organization. We cannot set priorities without accessing and mobilizing our emotions, we cannot process the goals set if unreflected emotions are operational, and we make many mistakes when habitual conflicting emotions are at work at the regulatory level of action organization.
An action-theoretical stance is very helpful in appreciating this book, which was conceived of as a manual for life coaching. Once past the sometimes too-enthusiastic introductory part, the reader finds a clear, precise, competent, very informative, and sober outline of the practical procedure of life coaching. The author provides five chapters and 51 well-identified subchapters. For instance, chapter 2, "Mechanics of Life Coaching," contains the following subchapters: "Choosing Times and Ways to Meet,"Creating and Using a Life Coaching Agreement,"Getting Started With a Client,"Preparing for Session,"Staying Focused During Sessions,"Taking Notes,"Completing Sessions," and "Ending the Life Coaching Relationship." Each subchapter contains further detailed headings; for example, the subchapter "Getting Started With a Client" includes the following list: "Summarize the mechanics of coaching,"Ask what your client wants from the first session,"Survey your client's life,"Ask about conflicts between values and behaviors,"Ask for complaints and celebrations," and "Listen a lot and go longer." Some of these subheadings are treated in a very brief manner. "Listen a lot and go longer" is just restated as "Listen, listen and then listen some more" and "Allow some extra time for that." Listening is obviously a very important part of any professional activity based on interpersonal relationship and cannot be overstated. Other sections following subheadings are longer, consisting of a page or two, in which the author often introduces individual points to make the reading and readers' orientation to the text even easier. Ellis also engaged several life coaches, which helps him in presenting several topics from the point of view of both a life coach and a recipient. This raises the credibility of the provided information enormously, which is necessary as empirical literature is minimally quoted. The book cannot be called evidence-based, although relevant empirical literature for many of the statements could certainly be found. The strength of this manual is not in putting the empirical research results together into a procedure but in outlining a procedure in a coherent order for which conceptualization is, unfortunately, not explicated.
This book offers easy and interesting reading for professionals and students of life coaching as well as of any other professional activity, which relies on interpersonal encounters. This revised paperback edition of the 1998 book would benefit not only helping professionals as indicated by the author and the publisher but also any shop assistant or businessperson dealing with customers.