Life coaches: connoisseurs or cons?

There were 25 people who had signed up.

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All of them were convinced they had great ideas but needed help seeing them through, and this was their shot.

Among them was Lauren Clemett, who had left her family behind on the Gold Coast to come to the retreat, which was being held at a resort on the Sunshine Coast. Lauren works as a brand consultant and wanted help boosting her customer base and marketing herself.

Running the event was an American life coach and business superstar, who said that in three days he would help them to become the people they wanted to be and achieve their dreams. He would also provide them with coaching “support” for a year after. It was never stated in writing how much support that would be, or how often. The only contract the participants signed was one designed to protect the coach, not them.

The coaching retreat is a big earner for the organisers, bringing in $20,000 a head. But Lauren says that luxury flowed the students’ way too. “Everything was paid for,” she says, adding that they were given food, books, a headset and “a really good quality clicker for clicking on your presentations.” Accommodation at the retreat wasn’t covered however, and Ms Clemett stayed at a friend’s place nearby to reduce costs.

Ms Clemett won’t reveal the name of the life coach – “he’s a global speaker so people will know him” – but says the lessons they learned from him were invaluable. “It took us all to a different level,” she says.

She signed up to train as a life coach in 2013 but quickly became disillusioned by what she says is a profit-driven and at times manipulative industry.

She claims the institute, which trains large numbers of life coaches each year, attracts students with wild promises but doesn’t equip them with the skills needed to help people.

“There were testimonials on [the institute’s] website from people from all different backgrounds and there was one in particular that stood out to me because he had been working as a life coach for a minimal amount of time and he was making incomes of about $100,000 a year,” she says. 

Shockingly, she claims the institute didn’t have any criteria for who it would take on as students, meaning anyone could become a life coach. “There was no screening,” she says. “So someone who had a mental illness could go in there and sign a contract, and I’ve seen that happen.” She claims that after three days of training, she and other students were instructed to go out and secure a paying client.

“There was no screening. So someone who had a mental illness could go in there and sign a contract, and I’ve seen that happen.”

She says the organisation didn’t give students what it promised and used manipulative tactics to bully them into handing over more money. Any objection was allegedly branded by staff as a sign of student’s “limitations”.

Ms Souzar pursued a formal complaint against the institute and SBS has since found there had been at least seven Victorian Civil and Administrative tribunal (VCAT) claims taken against it since 2011.

No regulation

Life coaching started in the United States about 20 years ago and has since taken off around the world, with stories of success mingled with those of false advertising, money grubbing and mind meddling. Coaches offer help with jobs, dating, money and finding happiness. 

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Like the growing “wellness” movement, the coaching industry is fuelled by the internet and social media, with many practitioners using Twitter, blogs and “webinars” to get their messages out. It has also found its way into the business world, with many companies setting aside portions of their training budget to engage life coaches for their staff. 

Life coaching is unregulated in Australia, meaning anyone can be a coach and there is no monitoring body to ensure they follow any rules or protocols. Because of that, coaches are not required to research the medical history or mental state of their clients.

“Like the growing ‘wellness’ movement, the coaching industry is fuelled by the internet and social media, with many practitioners using Twitter, blogs and “webinars” to get their messages out.”

Coaching can’t be studied at university but there are a number of organisations in Australia that offer training courses including Beautiful You Coaching Academy and the Life Coaching Institute of Australia.

Twenty-seven-year-old Chris Duncan owns his own coaching business, The Expert Coach. His pathway to the industry begun when he saw a coach himself. “I got inspired and thought, ‘Wow I want to be one of those’,” he says. He launched the business in 2010. He won’t say how much he earns, but says he lives comfortably.

Aside from coaching people, Mr Duncan also trains coaches in how to build their businesses. On his company website, Mr Duncan offers to teach people how to “make $9k in 19 days.” The course costs $3000. Mr Duncan won’t say how he can guarantee people will make the $9,000 but says “as long as everyone follows the system they’re going to get it done.” It’s not clear what the system is.

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A spokeswoman for the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) says health professionals in Australia must be registered under the National Registration and Accreditation Scheme but it is up to the government to decide which professions are included in the scheme. At the moment, life coaches are not recognised as health professionals as part of the Scheme.

The world’s leading coaching body, the International Coach Federation (ICF), is based in the US but has offices and members all over the world, including 1187 members in Australia. ICF spokeswoman Abby Trip Heverin says these members are all “professionally trained coaches representing a variety of disciplines, including life coaching, executive coaching and career coaching.” As of May 2015, ICF had approximately 27,181 members globally, up 4.6 per cent from the year before.

Ms Trip Heverin says the coaching industry is “self regulated” around the world, but the ICF has systems in place to ensure customers are safe.

“Regulation is meant to protect consumers and make sure they are getting what they paid for based on an established set of standards, and that’s exactly what the International Coach Federation seeks to do — set the standard for coaching,” she says.

“The ICF created the Core Competencies and built a Code of Ethics, setting the standard in the coaching field. Our Ethical Conduct Review Process and Independent Review Board (IRB) allows consumers to file complaints if they are unsatisfied or if a coach behaves in an ethically questionable manner.”

The ICF hears complaints about its own coaches but not about ones from other organisations. Australians who wish to lay a complaint about their life coach must contact the organisation their coach comes from directly. 

“When I think about the word ‘coach,’ I do think you should have an accreditation but when I think of the word ‘mentor’ – and they’re used interchangeably – it makes more sense not to have an accreditation,” she says.

“Regulation is meant to protect consumers and make sure they are getting what they paid for based on an established set of standards, and that’s exactly what the International Coach Federation seeks to do — set the standard for coaching.”

Ms Knox-Gray thinks coaches can definitely help people who have goals such as losing weight, finding a partner and getting a job, but don’t know how to achieve them. 

“There are probably people [in the industry] who are not ideal and who are in it to be opportunistic…but I can tell you all the coaches I’ve known are in it to help people with their lives.”

And she says coaches typically set realistic expectations with their clients.

“Say you came to me completely single and wanted to be married in three months, that’s not something we can exactly make happen – it’s not an achievable goal within that time – but it might be within six to 12 months [of] working.”

But Professor Nick Haslam, of Melbourne University’s School of Psychological Sciences, says it is worrying that people with no medical qualifications can advise potentially vulnerable people and delve into their histories.

“If you open up people’s defenses or trigger them to think about things they have tried to keep out of mind, then problems are likely to arise,” he says.

“Whenever you’re dealing with people’s lives you should have that duty of care. We expect that of doctors and teachers, why wouldn’t we expect that of coaches?”

Professor Haslam says medical professionals have solid referral systems because they all work together but because life coaches exist in an unregulated world, they are less likely have the connections to refer clients on to psychologists or doctors. 

And he rejects the idea that life coaches need to be more integrated into the conventional medical community.

“Integration is good but it implies that life coaches are offering something other professionals aren’t, and I’m not sure they are,” he says.

However he warns that all coaches should not be considered the same.

“Just as there are hundreds of schools of psychotherapy there may be hundreds of approaches to coaching.”

Starting again

After the retreat in 2013, Lauren Clemett kept in contact with her American coach for a year but says she eventually “outgrew him” and has since seen another coach. She is now on the look out for someone new. In a world where everything moves quickly, the industry is as much about finding clients as it is about keeping them.

She says the coaching industry has some murky areas – “I know quite a few coaches who have started relationships or even married people they’re coaching” – but is convinced the benefits outweigh the negatives.

“If you open up people’s defenses or trigger them to think about things they have tried to keep out of mind, then problems are likely to arise.”

She even claims the American coach regularly reports other coaches who travel to Australia and charge large fees then leave the country without paying tax. SBS was unable to independently verify this activity, with a spokeswoman for the Australian Tax Office saying only that “the ATO takes all matters of alleged tax evasion or avoidance seriously.”

But Lane Souzar* says people should keep in mind that among the coaches doing good work there were many who are inexperienced and driven by money.

She sought assistance from *Jan Daniel in making her complaint against the institute last year. A hearing date has just been announced.

Ms Daniel has dealt with about 80 to 100 similar complaints. She says the industry offers lifelines to people who need guidance in life and similarly to people who want to find purpose by being a coach. Many of them are vulnerable and make for easy targets.

“[The industry says], ‘If you are looking for a place to belong, we’ll provide that.'”

*Names have been changed

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