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Does Life Coaching Work? Here’s What The Evidence Says.

Life Coaching

Have you been thinking about getting a life coach but not sure if it would work for you?

Reviews and testimonials from satisfied clients are great, but presented by themselves don’t provide sufficient evidence for the effectiveness of a coaching programme. You could have great testimonials from 10 clients, but another 50 who weren’t happy with their coaching. So how do you know if life coaching works?

What is life coaching?

Life coaching has become increasingly popular over the past 30 years. According to a 2020 International Coaching Federation study, the broader coaching industry has a total global annual revenue of US$2.8 billion, with growth of over 5% per year. The industry as a whole is still unregulated, although 95% of surveyed coaches had completed over 60 hours of training, and 74% held a credential or certification from a professional coaching organisation.

There’s no universally accepted definition of what life coaching actually is, and the types of life coaches can vary greatly.

Wikipedia defines it as “the process of helping people identify and achieve personal goals through developing skills and attitudes that lead to self-empowerment. Life coaching generally deals with issues such as work-life balance and career changes, and often occurs outside the workplace setting”. Although this is a pretty good summary of what life coaching involves, there can be many other aspects to it, and different coaches have different specialties and approaches – sometimes wildly different. For example, there are so-called “psychics” who call themselves life coaches, and on the other end of the scale, some life coaches are high-level management experts and clinical psychologists.

What methods do life coaches use?

Another issue to consider is the models used by coaches, and how valid or effective they are.

Given the broad scope of what life coaching is, who calls themselves a life coach, the methods they use, and the desired outcomes of the person being coached (the coachee), the question “Does life coaching work?” becomes too broad. To answer this question as best we can, we need to define some parameters, and look at what the evidence we have to date tells us about the efficacy of coaching.

Some life coaches use a non-scientific approach called Neuro-Linguistic Programming, or NLP, that claims to help clients through re-programming of behavioural patterns. Although it’s still quite popular, there’s currently no good evidence for its efficacy.

The evidence for the use of hypnotherapy as being effective for a variety of issues is patchy at best, and we’ll disregard the myriad “new age” concepts such as crystal healing, astrology, ayurveda etc.

The use of positive psychology principles

Coaching usually doesn’t involve therapy or counselling as such, but most coaches do employ some positive psychology concepts as part of their practice. A significant aspect of many life coaching programmes involves looking at the client’s mindset, and finding ways to build healthy thinking patterns and beliefs that help the individual move forward, be the best version of themselves, and reach their goals.

Cognitive Behavioural Coaching (CBC) and similar approaches stemming from the positive psychology field have been shown to be effective in improving individuals’ overall wellbeing, as well as helping them to reach their goals. CBC uses the same psychological principles as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). However, CBC sessions are not therapy and not about getting over past trauma, but about nurturing beliefs and thought habits that get the coachee thinking more rationally and constructively, empowering them to move forward in a positive and practical way.

Practising mindfulness has also been shown to have mental health benefits for individuals.

The use of management principles

In addition to addressing negative emotional states such as stress, anger and anxiety, and building confidence and resilience through the use of positive psychology and mindfulness models, life coaching usually involves building useful skills derived from management theory. Discussion around a variety of practical strategies taken from the corporate world can be applied to the coachee’s specific needs. For example, coaching clients are often looking to improve in areas such as:

  • Communication
  • Leadership
  • Procrastination
  • Motivation
  • Clarity and direction
  • Goal-setting
  • Habit-building
  • Planning
  • Time management
  • Career progression

These areas and others such as health & fitness and lifestyle may form part of the client’s desired outcomes from a life coaching programme.

What the evidence tells us

Getting back to the question of “Does life coaching work?”, for our purposes, let’s look at the available evidence for the efficacy of cognitive behavioural coaching, and personal coaching generally.

Management expert and author Mike Clayton wrote about cognitive behavioural coaching in 2018, saying the stoics of the 3rd century BC “pretty much nailed it”, and all we’ve been doing is adding layers ever since. He says CBC is one of those layers that is truly helpful.

How do we know this?

Research supports the effectiveness of coaching

It’s difficult to find good studies on life coaching interventions outside of the workplace setting, no doubt due to the challenges of carrying out thorough independent analyses of an inherently personal circumstance where confidentiality is paramount. There would also be a challenge in obtaining large data sets to work from. It’s much easier to conduct studies from within organisations, where coaching interventions tend to be more structured, and there is more data to work with. Let’s look at the research most closely aligned with the methods used and desired outcomes of life coaching.

A meta-analysis conducted by Jones, Woods and Guillaume in 2016 and published in the Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology, looked into the effects of CBC for individuals within an organisational context. They found that workplace coaching has measurably positive effects on emotional outcomes, skill-based outcomes and individual-level outcomes.

The International Association of Cognitive Behavioural Coaching concluded in 2018 that “the effects of cognitive behavioural coaching are strongly validated by research and such interventions provide benefits for both organisations and individuals”.

Another meta-analysis of 18 studies by University of Amsterdam psychologists Theebooma, Beersma and Annelies in 2014, published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, investigated the relationship between various coaching interventions and individual outcomes. What they found was that coaching has significant positive impacts on all the outcomes they measured: performance and skills, wellbeing, coping, work attitudes and goal-directed self-regulation.

A more specific 2016 study by Losch, Traut-Mattausch, Muhlberger and Jonas published in Frontiers of Psychology, compared the effectiveness of individual coaching, self-coaching and group training on reducing procrastination and achieving goals. In a randomised controlled study, they found that “individual coaching created a high degree of satisfaction and was superior in helping participants attain their goals”. In addition, they concluded “the results for the self-coaching condition show that independently performing exercises without being supported by a coach is not sufficient for high goal attainment”.

Finally and more broadly, an International Coach Federation (ICF) Global Coaching Client Study conducted independently by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that “80% of people who receive coaching report increased self-confidence, and over 70% benefit from improved work performance, relationships, and more effective communication skills.”

Should you get a life coach?

Although more studies specifically around life coaching would be desirable, we can see that there’s very good evidence of both cognitive behavioural coaching and one-on-one coaching in general having overall positive benefits for the individual in many different areas of work and life.

So if you’re thinking about working with a life coach to help you overcome obstacles, gain confidence and achieve your goals, chances are it’s going to work for you. A good professional coach should be able to provide at least some evidence of their own programme’s success. Do your research, ask questions, go with someone you trust, and put the work in. It could be the best decision you ever make.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.

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  1. Rachel McInnes says

    Thanks for this Kris, something I had been meaning to do myself. You have saved me a lot of time. Now I can just share the link 🙂

  2. Reese Evans says

    I read your content. Very nice. Your content is very informative.
    Does life coaching work? What is the proof here? The content you are writing on this topic is very important.

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