Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Tune in, turn on, hire a coach.*

Yesterday morning I taped a show for NPR on life coaching. I'd been battling a really bad cold for five days, but despite my gravelly voice and my general disinclination to talk to anyone, let alone a reporter asking about life coaches, it turned out to be a good discussion. My interviewer, Chris Berdik, had a number of delving questions that clearly sought to plumb the social dynamic responsible for today's coaching craze. And craze is very much the word. This post will be Part 1 of a two-part series of reflections sparked by yesterday's NPR taping.

If you've read SHAM, you know that I have three basic objections to life coaching, as it's currently practiced in the U.S. of A. I'll cover that terrain briefly here, but this is one case where, if you're interested in the topic and you haven't read my book (shame on you!), you should do so—focusing on Chapter 6.

First and foremost, life coaching is among SHAMland's growing roster of self-ordained sub-specialties. ("Hey, honey, guess what! I had an epiphany this morning... I'm...a life coach!") Coaches often lack the credentials that you'd expect to find in people doing the type of high-level consulting coaches do (for easily $400 an hour or more). No enforceable uniform standards exist for becoming a life coach; it can be a simple matter of printing business cards and getting a web site up and running; then you start making phone calls. The organizations that really should take a strong stand on such matters, the International Coach Federation (ICF) and the International Association of Coaches (IAC), generally wimp out when it counts most. They're voluntary fraternal bodies that offer their own certification programs but have no true enforcement arm. The worst they can do is kick you out of the club. And in practice, they tend to take a "live and let live" approach to other members of the breed, going out of their way not to give the trade a black eye. (Provision 3 in the ICF Standards of Ethical Conduct says, in part, that coaches will "respect different approaches to coaching.") The bottom line is that the coach you get could be a Harvard MBA with a dozen years of experience in Fortune 500 America...or some dude who was presiding over a ballpark hot dog concession six months ago (though you won't see that on his resume). One of the most telling and darkly comical facts I unearthed while researching SHAM was that, as I would write on page 114, "many of the top Web sites that offer life coaching also give the visitor the option of becoming a coach." (Fairness compels me to note that I do think we're gradually/grudgingly going in the right direction, towards more uniformity and professionalism. That still doesn't validate the coaching phenomenon itself, in my view.)

Second, the certification problems may stem from the fact that there’s no consistent body of knowledge that coaches draw upon in devising their coaching systems and rendering their coachly diagnoses and judgments. We still don't really know: What does good coaching consist of? What should it consist of? Here too, the major organizations fudge, stressing the importance of being "respectful" of all methods and ideas.

Third, some coaches come perilously close to practicing medicine without a license. In the interest of impressing a client with their "professionalism" and "seriousness," they may administer the very same diagnostics you'd expect to get from a licensed psychotherapist: MMPI, Myers-Briggs, thematic apperception, etc. Then they'll offer some all-knowing pronouncement on what may be "holding you back in life." Worst of all, confronted with a client who may have genuine personality maladjustments, they wing it—what else can they do?—applying their armchair, half-assed methods to real behavioral problems that call for earnest, formal intervention. (Though provisions 19 and 20 in that same ICF charter require coaches to refer clients to other professionals when advisable, is the hot dog vendor-cum-life coach even capable of recognizing an authentic psychological issue when he sees one?)

But the more I think about it, the more it occurs to me that there's really a much bigger problem with coaching that's seldom mentioned, even in that now-and-then piece by some business magazine that promises its readers a "no-holds-barred look" at the phenomenon. It has to do with this whole Empowerment zeitgeist that makes runaway best-sellers out of laughable books like The Secret:

Coaches will not bite the hand that feeds them. Almost universally, they let the client set the agenda. Coaches start from the premise that their job is to help you get to wherever you say you want to be—perhaps, to help you "follow your dreams."

Or let's let the ICF itself tell it: Under "philosophy of coaching," the organization says it

"adheres to a form of coaching that honors the client as the expert in his/her life and work and believes that every client is creative, resourceful, and whole. Standing on this foundation, the coach's responsibility is to:

* Discover, clarify, and align with what the client wants to achieve
* Encourage client self-discovery
* Elicit client-generated solutions and strategies
* Hold the client responsible and accountable."
In other words: It's your ledge, pal. You wanna dive off it, we'll help you work on your jackknife.

Maybe it's just me, but it would seem that if you tell a coach, "You know, I’ve been in middle-management for 10 years and I've got a nice house and this great, stable marriage...but what I really want to do is tour with a garage band!", that coach probably should do what a good friend would do: ask what you've been smokin'. Too many coaches won't ask. They won't tell you, "Hey, schmuck...if you have to, buy a guitar and soundproof your basement so you don't drive the wife crazy. But keep your day job." Because their job is to take the client's goals as a "given." And, while my management/garage band example is intended to be extreme and absurd, that really underscores the problem, because most forks in the road are far more subtle. They involve "minor" changes of course that may have huge consequences—not just for the individual, but for those who count on the individual (and whose interests figure only peripherally in the minds and MOs of the average coach).

Oprah and Wayne Dyer notwithstanding, Empowerment isn't necessarily a good thing. It depends on what you're feeling empowered to do. As long as we're talking about jumping off ledges here, I'm going to use a silly, but apt, analogy. Back in my days at Brooklyn College, LSD was all the rage. Though I didn't use (honest), and I didn't even know more than one football buddy who tried it, I did know plenty of other students who dropped a tab now and then. They'd tell me that—up until the moment when they became totally paranoid and crashed—they usually felt omnipotent. There was nothing they felt they couldn't do! This was especially true if they dropped the acid as part of a mind-altering cocktail in combination with speed or some other form of upper. (Yes, college in the era of Viet Nam was an interesting time.) The stories you hear about students jumping out of windows because they "thought they could fly" are not entirely urban legend.

See, they felt empowered.**

More to come....

* For the benefit of those born after 1975 or so, this is based in an expression attributed to the hippie psychologist Timothy Leary: "Tune in, turn on, drop out." It was an exhortation to throw off the shackles of orthodoxy and "expand your mind."
** Again, to be fair: Sometimes the fatal acts took place during the come-down, in response to wild delusions of being chased by raging minotaurs or some such. But the point holds: Any break from "realistic reality," whether it's fostered by omnipotence or paranoia, can be disastrous.


P.S. TUESDAY, 1:25 p.m. Someone has contacted me off-blog to ask why I drew my examples from one coaching body (the ICF) and not the other (the IAC). It's a fair question, but it was not an intentional oversight. Anyway, it prompts me to ask readers to check out the IAC's own "Ethical Principles"...and tell me if you've ever read more gobbledygook concentrated in one Web page. Is it well-meaning gobbledygook? I have no doubt. I trust that these people are quite sincere in what they say. But what are they saying? And would you really expect them to say anything different? "Coaches will maintain high standards of competence in their work." Now there's a shocker. "Coaches will uphold standards of ethical conduct that reflect well on the individual coach as well as the profession at large." I have another suggestion. How 'bout, "When possible, coaches will avoid having bowel movements on the client's carpet or pulling the wings off small birds in full view of clients' children, should such children happen to be in the room." If you ask me, both stipulations are critical to ensuring those high standards.


Chris, Cincinnati, Ohio said...

Life coaching makes me laugh hysterically whenever I hear someone say it to me or I read someone's quote about it. More to a point: you mention Wayne Dyer. He's a bit out there, but he does have good ideas (Ayn Rand, smaller government, dying while I'm still alive, etc). On the local PBS station (must be "pledge" week), Dyer was featured and presenting his latest ideas. I saw it for only a little bit, but he was speaking of setting little goals so you could reach bigger goals. I think he was coining the term, "Think small to get big results." Not a bad line of thinking, in my book. Back to the empowerment point: he did speak of this idea. The bad news is that he mentions that one should pursue one's dream no matter how far fetched the dream is as somebody, somewhere has done what you want to do. Big deal: I'm 50 years old with a bad knee, premature rigor mortis, and getting grumpier every day. Empowerment should be tempered with a heavy dose of reality.
And, to bring this issue full circle, I just got off the phone with a business acquaintance who told me his son is achieving remarkable results with Bowen Therapy. I guess it is empowering and they (mother and son) feel great after the treatments. Bear in mind that the kid has been having issues for about 2 years now (I think it's just adolescent growth issues, but I'm no doctor) and none have been solved adequately by M.D.'s. I asked directly how the Bowen Therapy method specifically works. No real answer except, "He felt a lot better than after seeing medical doctors." Anecdotal evidence always gives somebody empowerment, despite evidence to the contrary. Plus, I guess it's easier to feel empowered than it is to think about how something really works and why didn't I do that when I was 25 years younger?

Cosmic Connie said...

Good post, Steve. I *have* read SHAM, and the chapter on coaching is one of the best ones in the book.

Mary Anne said...

Steve, you picked ANOTHER topic close to me. I know so many people who are trying to make a buck being "coaches." I sent you a few links to your e-mail of one such person. This person actually tells his "students" do to something illegal to "get out of the box." I was FLOORED when I read that in his book and head it in a seminar. This scary stuff to me.

Steve Salerno said...

Mary Anne, I'm so glad you brought that up, because it's not the first time I've heard it, and it deserves to be mentioned. Continuing the swimming/diving metaphor, I know for a fact that some coaches who try to get clients to "shake off their inhibitions and dive into the pool" will actually encourage them to perpetrate minor acts of civil disobedience as part of the "re-training" process. I had actually planned to include an anecdote in my book about a woman whose coach told her she was "too stifled by rules" and actually encouraged her to try a dine-and-ditch! Can you imagine?? In fairness, I didn't wind up using the anecdote because I didn't entirely trust the source. But if indeed that kind of stuff goes on, it bold-faces how scary and stupid some of this "advice" can be.

Mary Anne said...

I was in a seminar where the "coach" advised us to "jump over the fence into a gated community and see what happens." What if I got shot or arrested? What if it was his gated community, which he happens to live in? Why do I need to infringe on another's rights to "get out of the box?" I made the suggestion in the seminar that the whole audience should do this "excercise" in HIS gated community. I was shown the door, but I did give out his address first.:)

Steve Salerno said...

MA, if I were your life coach, I think the first thing I'd tell you is, STOP GOING TO SEMINARS.

Mary Anne said...

Steve, this semiars give out the best food though. Where else can I get a free buffet and gourmet cookies? I am a starving student now.

Steve Salerno said...

Then you're the one who needs to do the dine-and-ditch.

Anonymous said...

Bowel movements and baby birds, where do you come up with this stuff? I think it makes a good point though, about both their own standards which are awfully vague and really don't mean much, and also probably reflects the quality of their advice. Which is probably just as vague and meaningless. So life coaches are really more like cheerleaders than anything else, is that basically true?

The Crack Emcee said...

O.K., here's mine:

I was contacted recently by a guy with an offer to get involved with a cult-marketing scheme. I kindly declined. He asked why, and I told him (unethical, bad experiences with cult-related stuff, etc.) leading him to say he'd never thought of it that way, and asking if I'd meet him for dinner. Sure.

I go to the restaurant, where he tells me to meet him, and he says I could work there - but it's owned, operated, and staffed, by Landmark Forum graduates - I decline.

Still, we hit it off. He takes a personal interest in my plight. He suggests various websites I should visit to improve things, including the 4 Hour Work Week and Hebrew Free Loans. (He's jewish.) He tells me, though I'm not jewish, he can "coach" me to get a loan from HFL. Again I decline, explaining that I'm just trying to find a regular job that pays enough to live on. (This guy claims to be rich, btw.)

I won't go through everything he suggested, but it was all stuff that made me nervous - but was tempting none-the-less, considering my present state of anomie and poverty - finally culminating in him deciding that, since I'm street-smart, I should set up some big drug deals that he would finance, allowing me to profit as the middle man. Yowza!

Yes, yes, let me tell you, being violently introduced to all these wonderful new wage concepts has really "changed my life!"

C'mon y'all, say the word with me, once again now - with spirit:



Steve Salerno said...

Yes, except that unlike cheerleaders, coaches have a special aura of credibility. A lot of people put a lot of faith in what coaches tell them. A pat on the back from a life coach certifies that they're on the right path, and also gives them all sorts of new reasons and justifications--and mechanisms--for completing the journey. That's the troubling part.

Steve Salerno said...


What will now
Become of we.

The Crack Emcee said...

"I was in a seminar where the 'coach'
advised us to "jump over the fence into a gated community and see what happens."

Thank you, Mary anne, for the best laugh all day. And it's been a very trying day.

The Crack Emcee said...

Hey Steve,

I thought you'd like to know that - regarding ethical guidelines - homeopaths share the same type of non-aggression pact.

I'ma try to get a post up on it.

Steve Salerno said...

But you know--and I know that you especially agree with this, CMC--there's a very serious side of the "anomie" reference, which is that it can't be good--it can't possibly be good--to train a generation of people to think that the only world that exists is the one they see from their perspective, according to what their singular goals are. That's one of the things I tried to write about in the last chapter of my book, "A SHAM Society." I later addressed the same topic in a piece for National Review: How can you expect to have any true cohesion, or really any common values, in a culture composed of 300 million Individuals (cap-I) that have been trained to think first and foremost of what matters to each of them? I actually started to write a post, once, about the similarities between, on the one hand, so much of what Empowerment (in particular) preaches, and the DSM definitions of sociopathy, on the other hand. I ended up deleting the post because I didn't want to be accused of "overreaching" or "being theatrical." But the parallels can be chilling.

The Crack Emcee said...

Well, there's the thing, isn't it:

I'm being put through some terrible trials here, and yet, I don't think I'm crazy - I think those around me are. And, unfortunately, I've been put in a position where they have control over my well-being.

It's a pickle.

The Crack Emcee said...

BTW - it's like that whether I'm looking at my personal life, or extending my thoughts to larger issues, like the war.

Mary Anne said...

When I first heard the term "life couch" I thought it was a person who as helping the mentally disabled. I thought it was someone who taught the mentally disabled to do basic tasks like shopping, cooking, and handling money. When I found out it was usually some sorry SOB who was just as clueless about life as me, I was SHOCKED. These are not cheerleaders, because you can't hit them over the head with their pom poms. Usually, these people had some level of success in their chosen field at one time. I know right off the top of my head three former CEOs who are now "executive coaches." The fact of the matter is, these three are actually "black listed" in their chosen fields for being so incompetent. They must find ways to keep up their lavish lifestyles and look important to the cronies who blacklisted them in the first place. That's where the unsuspecting business owner or sad person comes in. They hire these FORMER executives to help them with their businesses or lives and get treated to this nonsense. I don't know about most people, but I only take advise from people LIVING or DOING what I am trying to learn or do. That means, if you say you run a fortune 500 company, you better still be running that fortune 500 company and it better be in the black. If you say you have a great life, than you better be living one. Here is the deal, people who run fortune 500 companies do not have time to "executive coach." People with great lives are LIVING them and not TALKING about them in seminars. As much as words are my life, ACTIONS are far more telling.

gregory said...

coaching... mentoring... advising... consulting... guiding... counseling... teaching... training...

certainly a lot of good comes to all of our lives via other people, sometimes the most valuable things we ever learn are from someone who knows more than we do

and it is considered a sign of mental health to want to grow, expand, improve, increase

what your focus seems to be is that you are against deceit, manipulation, incompetence, gullibility

no one in any of these professions can last more than a minute if they are not providing value to someone

why do they have customers, is an interesting question

and can a good student can learn from a bad teacher is another

and aren't the qualities than SHAM the book and blog are devoted to exposing identical to what we call human nature

so, what are you trying to change, and why, and where do you find these qualities within you that makes them be a focus of your life?

pointing out problems is the easy first step... solutions are another matter

i am curious where you are going with your efforts

you seem attracted to (to me) very pertinent ideas alive in the current time.... if we all know the emperor has no clothes, what then do we do?

perhaps you are functioning as a sort of consumer reports for the human potential movement, in which case the good ones have to be identified, as well as the bad...

because the desire to grow isnt going to go away, so how to serve that? is perhaps my question...

thanks for your time and efforts

Mary Anne said...

"so, what are you trying to change, and why, and where do you find these qualities within you that makes them be a focus of your life?"

I addressed this question about Steve in another blog. I compare what Steve does to what Eric Schlosser did in FAST FOOD NATION or even Upton Sinclair in THE JUNGLE. Steve exposing and writing about these issues allows others to take a good look at what they are spending their time and money on. I believe educated decisions are the best decisions. If a person buys snake oil, even knowing it is no cure, than that is that person's decision. Most people are struggling in some aspect in their lives when they go to a "life coach" or "executive coach." They put their trust in a person who may not deserve it. They end up worse than before they went to the "coach." In my view, telling someone to commit an illegal activity, which I have read, heard, and seen, is morally reprehensible. Let me tell you MY story, Gregory. I went to a seminar about love, sex, and life. I went there for the food and because I knew the person who was working at the hotel. This one poor girl stood up and asked the "con man" a question about his book and advice. Basically, he was put on the spot and could not answer the question. I still remember the look on that poor girl's face when the "con man" blanched. She had trusted this guy and believed in him to find out that he was just a "con man." That turned the tide for me about a lot of this stuff and when so many of my former corporate shark friends saw blood in the water, I took notice. To answer your question, from MY view, Steve is giving information that is needed. Now what YOU do with it is up to YOU.

The Crack Emcee said...

The first reaction to a con is foolishness: the person who's conned feels like a fool and recognizes the con man as one as well.

The comes anger: anger for being taken in, and then at the person who would dare to do such a thing.

Then comes the fight: to pull the wool from your eyes; to see things as they are, realize how close you came to ruin, and demand the BS stop - to get the bad guys.

After all I've been through, I still believe there's a good world out there, but we're not going to get there until we clean this stuff out of our systems. Until we stop desiring fantasies. Until the people who sell nonsense are silenced forever.

An American just discovered - by accident - how to make water burn. That's amazing. Much, much, bigger than anything a "guru" ever came up with. Bigger than Global warming. Bigger than Middle East demands. Bigger than anything we cared to imagine.

How we missed that is the crime of this new century.

Ruth Ann said...

I first heard of coaching when I was a reporter. Back in the 80's, a few visionary corporate executives of my acquaintance were being "coached."
Fast forward to this century, when a nonprofit on whose board I served hired a "Director of Coaching" and I took it as my fiduciary duty to find out about this thing called "coaching."
And I found just what Steve did.
There's no 'there' there.
Trade organizations like ICF and IAC (on whose board I later served) are doing their best, but defining standards in an ill-defined 'field' is like trying to grab water.
The thing called 'coaching' is the latest evolution and iteration of human helping, and the doctoral dissertation of Vikki Brock (soon to be published) traces the roots of coaching back to the ancient Greeks.
Steve's rants are right on.
But how should the situation be addressed?
A group of professional coaches has created The Foundation of Coaching, designed to share information, create global dialogues centered on topics such as Steve raises, and to commission and collect academically rigorous coaching-related research to replace nonsense with common sense.
In fact, I discovered this blog while editing The Chronicle of Coaching, a weekly snapshot of where coaching is showing up in the world's culture.
Next week's Chronicle will link to this blog.
We hope everyone who agrees with Steve will become a Friend of The Foundation of Coaching.
Let's see if the coaching world can create reasonable responses to the legitimate questions Steve and so many others have about coaching.