We’re at the start of a new year. A time when many are thinking about projects, habits, and changes they want to focus on next.
Whenever we seek advice on making a change, we’re never far from a coach willing to help. But coaching has become a confusing and mysterious mixed bag. So I thought it might help to share some potential red flags to look out for if you’re considering it this year.
Growing Awareness of Bad Coaching Practices
Have you noticed that everyone seems to be a “life coach” these days?
Investigative documentaries, articles, and podcasts have started highlighting certain bad practices to look out for in the industry.
Conspirituality released an episode examining emotional exploitation and parallels with multilevel marketing schemes of certain programs that train coaches to become coaches who coach coaches to be coaches. Season 3 of The Dream dives into similar topics in more depth. Online streaming platforms have an ever-growing library of shows exposing abuses in the name of coaching, such as “Escaping Twin Flames“.
The Closest Thing To Regulation in The Coaching Industry
While still not perfect, reputable coaching bodies take great care to develop standards and core competencies that keep coaches and coachees as safe as possible amid the lack of official regulation. For coaches and coach training programs that are accountable to and assessed by associations like the International Coaching Federation (ICF), there is a level of professionalism and knowledge demanded of those who pursue accredited certifications.
There are well-defined, concrete explanations about what you can expect from working with a coach. While every coach has a different personal and professional approach, and will develop the most effective ways of working with particular people, the basic scaffold of coaching is necessarily solid.
But loose definitions and ambiguous understandings of coaching can confuse those exploring the field as a means of support. This can lead to misconceptions and a lack of awareness about what to look for and avoid when searching for a coach.
What IS Coaching?
Building on the ICF’s definition, coaching is a thoughtful and creative partnership between coach and coachee that inspires them to explore the possibilities. It helps unlock sources of imagination and resourcefulness to overcome external challenges and inner obstacles to desired outcomes. It is focused on creating a practical pathway for a future-oriented objective.
Coaching is not about fixing, advising, or training. Coaching is a specialist skill in and of itself. It’s not about telling someone what to do or imparting knowledge. It’s built on structured conversations that require trust and collaboration to serve an intentionally articulated purpose.
The documentaries and exposés often highlight practices that insidiously and explicitly contradict these core coaching principles.
Red Flags to Look Out For When Choosing a Coach
If you’re looking to make a change in your life and could use professional support to help you find focus, motivation, and the right path forward, working with a trained coach is a great option. However, not all coaches are equal, and I’ve compiled a list of red flags based on my observations and conversations with others who have horror stories from the so-called coaches they’ve encountered.
Funnels, Systems, and Promises
Be suspicious of any coach guaranteeing a specific result. “Get Rich Quick” is always tempting, especially when delivered in an attractive location with charisma and confidence. If it sounds too easy to be true, it almost certainly is. If their bio says “I’ll Help You Grow a 7-figure Business”, proceed with caution.
The question to ask ourselves is, who wants me to believe this is easy? And what’s in it for them if I buy the belief?
Selling You a New Problem
If you woke up today without the problem you are suddenly considering hiring a coach for or buying their course to solve it, stop. You don’t need it, and it’s not a problem. Just go back in time and forget you ever came across them.
One of the biggest misconceptions of coaching is that a coach will tell you what to do. It is a red flag if someone sees coaching as sharing “the secret” to success and advising you how to do the same as them. This might be helpful in certain teaching, training, or mentoring contexts, but it is not coaching.
An expert coach has first and foremost become skilled in the art of person-centred coaching. A good coach will be able to coach you around anything, even if your goal/project/challenge is outside of their field of knowledge. In fact, too much knowledge can sometimes be a hindrance because the temptation to give advice and cast judgement might derail the conversation.
Obsession With External Measures
While it might feel like we want to shift “up and to the right”, this is meaningless if we are disconnected from meaningful projects and pursuits. In other words, intrinsic motivations. A good coach will help you explore creatively energising ways to stay motivated on the path towards personally compelling outcomes.
A Vertical Relationship Structure
The idea that a coach should be better, more successful, knowledgable, or advanced than the coachee is misleading. You are forming a partnership, which exists in service of the coaching agreement (the goal they are supporting you to move towards through focused and constructive coaching conversations that lead you to take purposeful action between sessions).
You may choose a coach who has done what you want to do or who you consider more “successful”, but that shouldn’t be instilled or perpetuated by the coach. They should help you find a compelling path and connect with your approach to accomplishing your desired outcome, which will ultimately look different from theirs.
Therapy Speak and Empty Phrases
What will the coach actually do with you? What will working together look like? Can they explain what coaching is (and isn’t)? Walk away if they use therapy speak and claim they will help with mental health conditions. It’s also a big red flag if someone uses their “lived experience” as evidence of their coaching abilities. See also, giving advice and the potential danger of believing you know what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes.
Pressure To Act Now
If you feel rushed into signing up with a coach, it’s a red flag. False scarcity marketing tactics work because they mobilise our sympathetic nervous system and force us to act quickly to mitigate the danger of missing out. Create filters you are unwilling to compromise on, such as a cooling off period before making a decision. If the coach doesn’t allow that or they attempt coercing you by putting up the price if you delay your decision, just walk away.
A Selection Process
Likewise, if a coach uses a selection process, it’s more than likely a marketing tactic. They ask you to apply and will let you know if your application is successful. If it IS successful (which it usually is), you might feel special, chosen, and like you shouldn’t squander the chance to spend tens of thousands of dollars on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Be aware of the feelings evoked through processes like this.
Again, take as much time as you need before making a decision. If they tell you “your place is about to be taken by someone else” you can decline the offer.
A Lack of Connection
You won’t click with every coach. That’s normal. But if they deliberately control rapport, employ a “cruel to be kind” approach, or actively create disconnection…it’s a red flag. A coach isn’t there to control or coerce you. They are not there to make you feel bad about yourself. Their job is to support you in an environment conducive to your nervous system feeling safe enough for you to think with openness and creativity.
Likewise, if they test your commitment by manipulating you (“I charge more than you are comfortable paying so that you take the process seriously and do the work”), it is a red flag. Unless they give you that money back at the end, it’s just an excuse for emotional extortion.
If the coaching is part of a group or community, does it feel like you must adopt specific values and beliefs to belong? Does the community support the temporary coaching scaffold (one you have a clear destination for), or do you sense your autonomy being lost to the tribal identity?
If you feel like you can’t exist without the group, it’s a red flag. A healthy community will expand your sense of possibility and potential beyond its walls rather than making you feel like you can’t function outside of it.
No Clear End Point
If you don’t have a clear idea of where you are going, you might find yourself in a web that becomes a life support machine. Coaching is a tool for a specific purpose. Whether that’s a particular goal or project, or it’s to untangle the chaos of a busy life, there should always be a north star towards which you are heading.
If a coach keeps presenting endless upsells and reasons for you to keep working together, it’s a red flag.
Questions To Ask Before Working With a Coach
Before choosing a coach, it’s a good idea to ask yourself some questions:
- What specific outcome are you looking to achieve with a coach?
- Where did this desire come from? (i.e. was it manufactured through marketing, or is it something you’ve been considering for a while?)
- What style coaching do you need? (when you think back to people who have helped you untangle thoughts, get motivated on essential things, and find a way to take action, what connected for you in their approach?
Questions to ask yourself when speaking with a potential coach:
- How do you feel when speaking with this person?
- What tells you that you can trust them?
- Do you feel pressured to make a quick decision? (e.g. are they using false scarcity tactics like limited-time offers or spaces)
- Do you feel safe to ask questions and learn more about their coaching philosophy, approach, and history?
Questions to ask the prospective coach before agreeing to work with them:
- What is your coaching experience?
- What is your coach-specific training?
- What is your coaching philosophy?
- What are some of your coaching success stories
(i.e., specific examples/case studies)?
- Are you insured and a member of a reputable coaching body? (you can verify whether or not a coach is an ICF member)
I am a big advocate of the coaching process. It is a beautiful way to explore our many human potentials. This is why I felt compelled to take the time to write this piece. Because I hate seeing people exploit others, and I would love to see people become more critically informed about what coaching is and isn’t. Otherwise, we may simply end up cynically disengaged from the whole thing.
Can you add any red flags to the list from your observations and experiences?