A scene from The King's Speech

I was working as the editor of an upscale glossy lifestyle magazine in San Francisco about 10 years ago when a freelancer suggested she write a story on life coaching. I had never heard of it. She said that while very different from therapy, many regarded it as the new “therapy alternative” - and it was changing lives. For her story, she would speak to coaches, to clients who had benefited from coaching, and she would try some coaching herself.

When her story came in, I read about people attributing significant life changes to working with a coach. A business owner, for example, said she had started taking holidays and doubled the size of her income within six months of hiring a coach. A man said he had developed self-confidence, lost weight and found love since he started working with a coach.

The stories varied, but there was a common theme that had to do with making better choices and living more fulfilled, successful and satisfying lives.

I learned, too, that coaching was a new and growing profession and that while it wasn’t yet regulated, there were bodies attempting to set standards and accredited schools where you could train and certify. It turns out that although born in the US, coaching has followed a similar path in South Africa.

Back then, I had a post-grad psychology degree (from UKZN). Working with two fabulous therapists had convinced me of the value of therapy. And I’d been a Zen student long enough to understand the wisdom of the bumper sticker that reads: “Don’t believe all that you think”. What grabbed me about coaching was that it sounded so pragmatic. Everything I read suggested it was less about introspection; more about living effectively in the world. For starters, as the writer explained, coaching for the most part was done by phone (these days Skype), which made it easy to fit into busy lives.

By the time I finished editing the freelancer’s story and doing a bit of additional research, I was committed to both hiring a coach - and training and certifying as a coach myself.

Coaching or therapy?

Judging from a column in the March 13 issue of my magazine, by Daryl Ilbury, there are people who think they know what coaching is - but don’t have a clue.

Many, it seems, are under the impression that people go to coaches for advice on how to run their lives. Or equate coaching with therapy, which it is not; although in the US many therapists are training as coaches to give themselves additional skills.

In brief, a coach is neither adviser nor consultant. Any challenge issued, request made or accountability structure set up, comes from the client’s agenda. If you saw The King’s Speech, you will have seen a coach in action. In that case, a coach without qualifications but with great life experience - plus chemistry that worked, albeit after some rocky starts grounded in the client’s resistance. Not surprising, it’s easier to stay stuck in an uncomfortable comfort zone than to square up and make changes.

When it comes to therapy versus coaching, the distinction most often made is that therapy is about fixing people. Therapy is usually covered by medical aid. Coaching is not, because it’s - well - not therapy. You only accept a client for coaching if you are convinced he or she is, to use the terminology of my coaching school, “creative, resourceful and whole”.

Whereas therapy might have you spend days, weeks and months submerged in your past and analysing why you’re engaging in specific behaviours, a coach is more likely to ask you to project ahead to where you want to be, help you figure this out if you’re not sure - and then work with you to map the journey and get there. I’ve had clients referred to me by therapists. I’ve had clients work with me and a therapist. They are complimentary, but different.

And the training?

In South Africa, as in the US, there are coaching schools - and coaching schools - and “… it’s a case of ‘buyer beware’,” says Belinda Davies, national president of Coaches and Mentors of South Africa (Comensa) set up to professionalise coaching in this country through a code of ethics, standards of competency. Future plans, says Davies, include the regulation of coaching through the credentialling of both schools, and coaches.

Comensa at this point has about 1 100 coaches registered. “We think there are probably about 2 000 dabbling outside of that,” says Davies, who adds that if you want to hire a coach, expect to pay between R300 and R2 000 (executive coach level) an hour (there is no benchmark) and you shoud do your homework first. “Did they do a three-day course or did they train for a year? And what is their experience in the area you want to focus on in coaching?”

I chose to train with the Coaches Training Institute (CTI) in California, a school accredited by the International Coaches Federation (ICF) - a body set up in the US to standardise and professionalise the coaching profession. Davies trained at the ICF-accredited Centre for Coaching in Cape Town and the similarly-named Coaching Centre in Cape Town. One programme took six months; the other, a year. She did these on the back of 18 years working in training and development.

My initial training comprised several long-weekend workshops done over a year. In between I practised on any guinea pig I could corner. My coaching certification comprised an intensive six months involving many conference calls, supervised recorded coaching sessions, loads of homework, working with a coach recognised by the school, the accumulation of a required 100 hours of paid coaching, and an all-day exam that included a written test and two coaching sessions before a panel, videotaped for critique. And workshops, classes and training continue.

I mention these details simply to point out that both in South Africa and internationally, a lot of coaches do more than the eight days of training that some view as the norm.

Coaching is for everyone, even for those who consider themselves a success. Take the case of the 33-year-old Durban entrepreneur who is virtually a household name in the city and who was “at a point in my life where I was unsure as to what direction I wanted to take. I’d had a difficult time coping with the breakup of a relationship, I’d sold a business and was trying to redefine my life. I’d say I was hoping to get clarity, direction and possibly a better sense of myself and yes, in about a year of coaching, I would say I got all of these.”

Among other things, a coach can help you liberate yourself from where you’re stuck in old agendas, limiting beliefs and other people’s expectations. It can also help you reach career goals that resonate with your strengths and interests; help you see, and move beyond, limiting beliefs that keep you trapped, help your transition in response to passages such as empty nest, marriage, divorce or retirement. You hear people say “When I have a new job, life will be good” or “When I find the right man, life will be good.” A coach might say: “What about making it good right now?”

In my opinion coaching is for the brave. It’s far easier to complain than to do something positive. For anyone with job blues, life blues, feeling overwhelmed or stuck in a rut, I’d say get a coach. That way, you’ll get a life.

l Go to www.comensa.org.za to find a coach in your area who coaches in your sphere of interest. - Sunday Tribune