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The principles and approach that I follow

Justin Shelley Leadership & Life Coach.

When I recall my very first coaching session, I had no idea how life coaching worked, except that I had to bring a topic with me each week and that we would be working together on goals.

To my surprise, this was unlike any conversation I had undertaken before. I was taken aback by the depth of enquiry by my coach. I also have to confess that in the very early stages, I came away from those first few coaching sessions feeling slightly confused and unprepared.

Fortunately for me, I was keen to learn and stuck with it and learnt how it all worked with my coach as we progressed through the sessions. If I had not been so keen to change, I fear I would have given up after just a couple of sessions.

In an attempt to shed some light on the topic, here is my take on what life coaching is, how it works and what to expect from the conversations involved.

So, what is a life coach?

The textbook definition of a life coach is someone professionally trained to help a client maximise their full potential and reach desired results, but what does that mean?

A life coach should, of course, be someone who is professionally trained but they should also have enough depth of knowledge and experience to be able to hold space for their clients; space to feel safe and relaxed enough to talk openly about any topic they choose to.

“Holding space” means being physically, mentally, and emotionally present for someone. It means putting your focus 100% on someone to support them in the way they think and feel without judgement.

Life coaches are trained to converse with clients to be able to listen to a conversation with complete objectivity. This means they can be in a conversation, whilst observing both the conversation and the clients at the same time, without bringing in their own emotions, views, perspectives or opinions.

The best way I can describe it from a coaching perspective is that it is similar to watching a movie whilst you are also part of it, like the coach is completely tuned in. This takes skill and experience for the coach to achieve.

You could describe the coach as a supportive but very objective collaborator (and confidant) who has been trained to help the client identify a range of goals and who works with the client to map out the necessary steps to reaching those goals.

There is, however, a huge ‘in-between’ piece, the powerful coaching conversation itself, which is the key component to the transformative outcome for the client (I will expand upon this later).

A life coach will focus on the whole person (mind, heart, body and spirit) and pay particular attention to where one conversation may touch on other aspects of the client's life. Remember, a client is a whole person, not just someone who is at work, at play, or in a relationship. Often barriers to success or moving forward can sit in other aspects of a client's personal or professional life.

How does coaching work?

For coaching to work, there must be a clear commitment on the part of the client to put in the work. The client must be willing to invest time and energy into it and be willing to explore, learn, take risks and persevere (even when the process is challenging).

For this coaching process to work, clients must be willing to go beyond their comfort zones and step into the unknown in the interest of making life changes.

Coaches in turn will be equally committed to their clients to dig deeply and courageously, to listen to words spoken and unspoken. Coaches bring their skill and energy into the relationship. Their job is to challenge, incite, motivate, encourage and hold the client accountable to their actions.

Coaching activates the imagination and provokes curiosity. There is neuroscience research that reinforces the fact that where attention goes energy flows. Coaching creates new neural pathways in the brain which creates new attitudes, behaviours, beliefs and expectations. Over time it creates sustainable changes because they are built on these new neural pathways.

Designing the coaching relationship

When entering into a coaching relationship the coach will agree with the client upfront as to what degree they may challenge the client and in so doing give permission to take the conversation to a much deeper level. It is important for both parties to deliberately design their working relationship and discuss their expectations. This is something both coach and client should do throughout the coaching relationship.

Gaining clarity

Before any coaching begins, the coach will work with the client to get clarity on exactly what their vision and goals are and, crucially, why their visions and goals are important to them. Adequate time must be spent upfront with the client discussing this, as all of these elements provide focus, drive, intention and energy to the coaching discussions that follow.

The coaching environment

The coaching environment is made up of several factors; the physical (or virtual) space, as well as the environment relationship (rules, expectations and mutual agreements) that support the coaching process.

Whilst most conversations take place in noisy environments, for effective coaching conversations to happen, they must take place in a clear and quiet space as much as possible, away from the distractions of everyday life, other people and most importantly the pinging distraction of that every persistent mobile phone!

The coaching agreement

When entering into any coaching conversation, the first thing to be clear about is the objective of the coaching conversation on that day. A good coach will always give the client a few minutes to vent the frustrations of their day before you both get down to business. It always feels good to get all of that ‘stuff’ out first.

The coach will help the client to solidify what needs to be achieved today, define a measure of success for the session, and find out why it is important for the client to achieve it. We call this part of the conversation ‘The Coaching Agreement’.

The coaching agreement is a vital first step in the conversation as it provides the coach with a framework to work within and provides a sharp focus for the client. It is the job of the coach to keep the client on track within the confines of the coaching agreement and to ensure the outcome of the conversation is achieved within the agreed timeframe.

The coaching conversation begins (The dance in the moment)

As the coaching conversation begins, the coach will typically begin by asking the client empowering questions, or perhaps suggest an appropriate exercise to initiate the conversation.

Ultimately, it is the coach's role to encourage the client to do most of the talking and then help them to make sense of what comes out of their mouth.

As the coaching conversation unfolds, the dance in the moment begins. You can almost describe the energy between coach and client as a spell where both parties are exactly in the moment, there is no script being followed, and where coach and client respond to the stimulus within the conversation. Both parties are in complete collaboration and the powerful coaching conversation bounces between both parties.

As the client speaks, the coach will be listening intently to the client on many levels. The coach will listen to the content of the client's story; the words, the space between the words, the tonality and the pace. In a sense, the coach is tuning into the client, listening with all of his or her senses.

The coach is of course listening to what the client is saying, but also listening for the meaning behind the story, its themes and behaviour patterns. The coach is also listening out for resistance, fear, backtracking and the voice of the saboteur (the inner critic).

For the experienced coach, this is a highly charged, connected environment where he or she can use their finely tuned skills and empathy to pick up on emotion from the client. This is a conversation that utilises a high degree of emotional intelligence.

The coach will use their questioning skills to curiously push, prod and question, looking for clues in the answers that the client provides. The coach will also acknowledge and validate the responses from the client. This process provides clarity to the relationship, acknowledges that the client has been heard, and validates any associated emotions.

Acknowledging is one of the most powerful forms of communication that a coach can offer a client as it lets them know they have truly been listened to. It also acts as a deep form of mirroring back or paraphrasing that provides clarity. Validation is used by the coach to confirm the feelings of a client without judgement. It is a way for the coach to let the client know that their feelings are valid and normal.

Acknowledgement and validation are two of the most powerful coaching tools and deepens the connection between the coach and client. In doing so this can also invoke healing in the client. Whilst coaching is not prescribed as a healing modality in itself, one could argue that there is an element of healing in any powerful, honest and connected conversation, particularly when it encourages a client to move through fear of an internal block.

The coaching sandpit

The coaching environment can be compared to a child’s sandpit, as this is a place where the client can play, be creative, braver, take risks and get honest with themselves.

From the client's perspective, the coaching environment is an opportunity to experiment and grow. It is a place where the client should be able to be completely honest with their coach and indeed visa versa when the coach reflects back the truth. Clients are often so close to their situations or so wrapped up in their past and habitual patterns that they are unable to see their truth naturally.

One of the biggest surprises any new coaching client may find is that this is not a normal, two-way chit chat conversation where the client can ask for their coach's opinion or validation of their opinion and expect to get a coach to agree with them, or not.

A common misconception is that a coach will give the client the sought-after answers and tell them how to live their lives. This is not the case. If it were, most clients would probably leave the conversation irritated (and rightly so).

People are, by their nature, instinctively creative, resourceful and more than capable of finding answers, making decisions and taking action. To add to that, people have unique drivers, values, beliefs and motivations, so any direction of travel the client makes has to come from within and align with who they are.

During such conversations, the coach will skillfully tap into the client’s natural resources, seeking out strengths and wisdom from previous experiences that could be applied to the challenge at hand. It can be quite an eye-opening experience for the client when they begin to realise that they have existing resources to tap into.

As the conversation progresses, the coach will ask relevant and empowering questions, encouraging the client to provide clarity about the way they think, their beliefs and assumptions. This is where the client invites ‘and pays’ the coach to challenge them directly. The further the client is willing to go, the more answers, themes and clues to the end goal will be unearthed.

When there is a connection between today’s goals and a client's values and potential, it can be a transformative ‘Aha’ experience that creates renewed energy, excitement and buy-in from the client, thus propelling them further forward into action.

Taking action

As the coaching session progresses, the client will be inspired to experiment by taking new approaches to tasks and to think differently. The client will also be encouraged and supported by the coach to be braver and step away from the normal way they might approach things.

In these moments the client may fantasise, visualise, try things on, experiment with relationships, rehearse potential conversations and explore concepts they may never have dared to before.

From these explorations come new activities to experiment with, in the real world. This is where the client really gets to try on a new part of themselves to see if they like it. As they do so, small steps towards larger goals can be achieved and over time the client can gradually begin to transform in front of his or her own eyes.

As the coaching continues, the growth and learning perpetuate. For the client it is not just about achieving the end goal that is the prize, it is the everlasting impact on the rest of the client's life that is the true gift of life coaching.


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