"A lot of people ask that question," says Maria Tansey, a UAE-based coach. "They ask, 'What makes you the expert of my life?' But it isn't like that. Life coaches aren't experts on your life. Only you can be an expert of your life. Life coaches give you the skills and tools you require to make changes, and we do that by asking questions, providing encouragement and pointing you in the right direction."
Only a few decades ago, the profession was non-existent. Today, not only is it on the rise, the International Coach Federation (ICF) estimates that there are 53,300 coaches worldwide, as of 2011.
So, what gives life coaches the skills to help people? Today, there are a number of programmes and training sessions people can take to get certifications, the most popular being the ICF credential itself. And these programmes are important as this relatively-new profession remains largely unregulated; there are a number of people masquerading as coaches with no official qualification, their only advice coming from personal experiences.
"All coaches - be it life or executive coaches - should be accredited by international coaching bodies, such as the International Coach Federation or the European Mentor and Coaching Council (EMCC)," says Nehad Tadros, president of the UAE chapter of the ICF. "This guarantees that the coach abides by the code of ethics, for example, ensuring there's a confidentiality agreement signed by both parties.
"The danger of a person attending a short programme and calling themselves a coach is that these sessions do not give them enough expertise and training to support the client and they may create more damage and impact the client negatively," she adds.
(Nehad Tadros, president of the UAE chapter of the ICF)
In order to become a member of the ICF, one must hold an ICF credential and have completed at least 60 hours of coach-specific training.
"When looking for a life coach, check if they are accredited or not and what accreditation level they are at," advises Nehad. "Review the number of years and the clients they have worked with. You can also review their social media platforms to see if their values align with your own."
Linda Bonnar worked as a secondary school history teacher for 14 years before a friend put her on to the world of life coaching. "Growing up, I had some issues myself," she says in a candid chat in the Khaleej Times office. "When I was younger, I was diagnosed with depression, anxiety and an eating disorder. I visited psychologists, psychiatrists and nutritionists and while they were all useful in their own time, I always felt like I needed something different. I was done with delving into the past and wanted the tools I needed to move head. So, when a friend who was doing a neuro-linguistic programming course told me to look into life coaching, I did - and was blown away."
Linda came home that night, sure of what she wanted to do in the future. After being accredited, she quit teaching and took up coaching full time. "Life coaching is like taking your clients on a journey - it's your job to get them from point A to point B. It is about recognising the past but is also very action-oriented and solution-focused. You basically need to give them to tools to get where they want to go."
But do most people have a clear idea of where they need to go? Linda laughs and admits that, sometimes, what people say they want and what they actually want can be different things. "The first step is creating awareness for your client through powerful questioning. Sometimes, people can come in for professional reasons but there's something personal underlying it."
Linda's job also includes giving them activities or tasks that they can perform between sessions to help them achieve their goals. Giving them 'homework' - something as simple as having a conversation with their boss or slotting in more 'me-time' - is a way of making them accountable and responsible for their own progress.
It's easy to assume that, because they advise clients on taking charge of their lives, life coaches themselves have everything all figured out. Linda is the first to admit this isn't always true.
"When we see someone who is successful - not just life coaches - we sometimes just presume that this is the way they have always been," she says. "But that's not true at all. As I mentioned, I had a lot of issues, but I did not get here by sitting back and not taking action. It took me time to realise that making time for me and changing was no one's job but my own."
Like Linda, Hamdan Al Ghaferi had issues earlier in his life, both emotionally and financially. It took years for him to become honest with himself and learn more about life coaching before things 'started to make sense'. As he started to gain better control over his emotions, other aspects of his life - including his hobbies (he enjoys driving racecars) started to improve. Coupled with his passion and interest in psychology, Hamdan decided to sign up to become a life coach himself. So, two years ago, the Emirati got certified internationally in order to 'help other people'.
(Hamdan Al Ghaferi, a certified life coach)
"From experience, the main issues that people come to life coaches for are relationships, time and money," he says. "When it comes to relationships, a lot of people feel really lost. They expect something different from what they have because of unrealistic expectations - what they see in movies or on social media platforms. When we analyse this, they are a lot more aware of their feelings and emotions."
"When it comes to time and money, a lot of people want to achieve their professional goals. They want to do well financially and feel a little stuck," he adds.
Maria Tansey has had a similar experience. "when we're younger, people tell us we can become anything we want to become. But as you grow older, people put limits on those dreams, and sometimes project their own fears and uncertainties. So, people end up with unfulfilled potential or an unrealised dream. Some even carry these around for 30-40 years."
Hamdan - who practises coaching as a hobby while also having a full-time job - says that many clients expect the life coach to give them solutions to the problems. Or, to simply listen, understand and sympathise with them. "Many times, they are running away from a problem but they do not know where to go. I ask them questions that make them more aware of their emotions, resources and situation, and then they see a way out. It gives them hope."
While seeing a psychiatrist in many parts of the world is frowned upon, seeing a life coach is often seen as a positive thing. Can this be one of the reasons for the increasing interest in the field? Linda assures us that, no matter the public perception, life coaching is not the same as offering therapy. "The ICF has very strict body and guidelines and ethics. If I'm having a session with a new client, and I get any sense that this person can benefit from something that is not coaching, I have a duty to say that to my client. Life coaches do not work with people with psychiatric issues. In these cases, I'm happy to recommend medical professionals. It's not fair to pretend like we can heal problems like depression because we can't."
(Maria Tansey, a UAE-based coach)
Like Linda, Maria, who has been coaching in the UAE for three years, agrees that life coaching is not for those with medical problems. It is for those who want more from life. "A lot of clients come in thinking something is wrong with them and that's not true. They are simply people who are not ready to settle for the average. They want a better life for themselves and their families, and are brave enough to be vulnerable and ask for help."
"In fact," she continues, "if people are content with the life they are living, they should not see a life coach - even if someone tells them they should. They need to want change or it will not work"
Before becoming a life coach, Maria worked in the field of hospitality. However, she always had an interest in psychology - her mother was a therapist - and so she decided to visit a life coach herself. A personal breakthrough at that session helped her 'let go of her limiting beliefs' and so, three years ago, she decided to take the plunge and set up her own business.
"Life coaches are not perfect - when there is something affecting me, I meet other coaches," she says. "It's all about continuing one's personal development. Today, I believe we can all benefit from constantly learning and by taking on new trainings. We are all constantly changing and evolving."
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