What Does a Life Coach Do Exactly?

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By Becky Mollenkamp, PCC

What is a coach? What does a life coach do exactly? These are the types of questions I often hear from people who are rightfully confused about whether they need to hire a coach (or if they might be better served by a strategist, mentor, or therapist).

As a certified coach, I think it’s important to educate people about the work I do and how it differs from other services.


What is coaching?

Coaching has long been associated with sports. Athletes’ coaches help them reach their peak performance—not by doing the work for them, but by guiding and encouraging them.

Today, coaches play a similar role for all types of people in all aspects of life. There are executive coaches, dating coaches, health coaches, life coaches, and more.

Coaching is an unregulated industry, meaning anyone can call themselves a coach (even without training). That also means there is no official or uniform agreement about a definition of coaching.

I’m certified through the International Coaching Federation (ICF), considered the leading global organization for coaches. They define coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.”

For many people, it’s easier to say what coaching isn’t than what it is. Coaching is not:

  • Giving advice or telling people what to do.
  • Sharing knowledge, best practices, or teaching a topic.
  • Healing trauma or ruminating on the past.
  • Doing work for the client.
  • Being friends and telling the client what they want to hear.
  • Passing judgment on a client’s thoughts, feelings or actions.

Coaching is a client-led relationship. By asking powerful questions, the coach serves as a mirror to help the client see outside themselves. The goal is to help clients come to their own decisions about what they want and how to make it happen.


What is a life coach?

What is the difference between a “coach” and a “life coach”? In truth, there isn’t one. Done correctly, coaching of any type is basically the same, and any coach should be able to coach any person around any issue.

Just because a coach can help anyone, doesn’t mean they do. Coaches often like to specialize based on the type of person or issue they find most interesting (and many coach training programs offer various concentrations).

Some of the most popular coaching specializations include fitness, leadership, and business/entrepreneurship.

But perhaps the most common type of coach is the life coach, which is a broad term for a coach who focuses on personal development. The coach helps the client unpack and devise a plan for a life goal or a personal situation.

Life coaching may touch on a client’s professional life, health, relationships, etc., but the overall focus is always about the client’s general life satisfaction.


What does a life coach do exactly?

Coaching helps clients identify how they want to feel in the future, and then supports their journey toward that goal. It looks at where a person is headed, where they are now, and helps them figure out how to bridge that gap.

Life coaching should always be forward-looking, focused on practical solutions, and empowering to the client.

When you hire a life coach, you’ll generally meet one-on-one to work through your particular issues.

The relationship starts with reviewing the “coaching agreement,” which covers housekeeping issues (payment, cancellations, privacy policy). It also involves the coach asking you to clarify your goals and expectations, and how you’ll measure success.

During your sessions, the coach will ask questions meant to help you come to your own conclusions about your situation, including devising your own strategies for taking action. The coach will also check in on your progress to help keep you accountable to your goals.

Although the coach guides the relationship and individual sessions, you are always in the driver’s seat. You set the goals, you determine your action steps, you decide whether the coaching is working.

A coach isn’t meant to give advice. Their role is to facilitate the client’s own process of uncovering their inner wisdom so they can make their own empowered choices.

Hiring a coach is like paying for an unbiased brainstorming partner. You do the heavy lifting of crafting your goals, outlining your action steps toward them, and actually doing the work to achieve them.


Do I need a life coach or therapist?

Coaching isn’t a substitute for therapy. Coaches should not make promises about “treating,” “curing” or even addressing your mental health. They also should not address or dive deep into past trauma.

Although coaching sessions can feel good and even cathartic, they are quite different from therapy. Counseling is about examining the past in the hopes of better managing its lingering effects in the present. Coaching looks at the present to understand what lies in the way of the future you desire. Therapy is about insights, and coaching is about action.

Unlike coaching, counseling and therapy is a regulated industry that requires specific education, licensure, and ongoing training. Practitioners may have the ability to diagnose and treat trauma, disorders, and behaviors.

While certified coaches certainly have training, and seasoned practitioners have experience, they cannot do “healing” work for mental health issues.

For many people, the answer isn’t to hire a coach or a therapist but to hire both. Almost all of my clients have been in therapy before hiring me, and often continue therapy while working with me. Therapy for digging into the past, and coaching for planning for the future.

A good coach—one who is certified and adheres to a code of ethics—understands the differences between coaching and therapy. She recognizes those boundaries, will stop coaching when it goes into therapeutic areas, and will refer a client to a therapist for issues related to trauma, depression, or other clinical needs.


What’s a life coach vs. executive coach?

A coach is a coach—the word describes the way they help. A coach is a partner who guides someone to find their own answers.

A life coach helps people make choices about overall life satisfaction. Executive coaches help people make their own choices about their careers. Business coaches help entrepreneurs make their own choices about their company. Leadership coaches help people make their own choices about how to lead. And so on.

Another common point of confusion is about a life coach vs. mentor. A coach could serve as a mentor, but mentors aren’t always coaches. A mentor is a seasoned professional who uses their first-hand experience to develop the skills of a novice in their field.

Mentors share best practices and lessons learned, and use their wisdom to teach another person. They will help you work through present problems, including giving their opinion on what you should do.

Finally, let me clarify the difference between a life coach vs. a consultant or strategist. In coaching, the client makes all choices and takes all actions. A consultant or strategist, on the other hand, provides the client with solutions for a particular problem—and may also implement those solutions for them.

In short, if you are looking for someone to non-judgmentally help you find your own inner knowing to come to your own confident conclusions, then you want to work with a coach. Any life coach can help, or you can seek out a specialist for your specific area of concern.

If you’re looking for hands-on guidance from someone you admire in your field, find a mentor. And if you’re looking for someone to solve your problems and maybe do the work for you, then you need a strategist or consultant.


How do I find a life coach?

Coaching has seen a major surge in popularity in recent years. With hundreds of thousands of options, how to choose a coach can feel overwhelming.

Again, as an unregulated industry, literally any person can hang out a shingle and call themselves a coach. It is up to the consumer to do their due diligence and vet the many options.

Here are a few things to consider:

1. Have they completed a coaching program? 
There are excellent self-taught coaches, and horrible professionally trained coaches. Completion of a formal program shouldn’t be your only consideration, but it can be one signal of a quality coach.

There are thousands of coach training programs, including self-study options that cost only a few hundred dollars. Was the program they completed ICF-approved? Did they take the additional step of receiving ICF certification?

2. How much experience do they have?
It may also be helpful to ask how many clients they’ve helped and how many hours they’ve coached. LIkewise, what do they do for continuing education? If they are ICF certified, they are required to keep their skills sharp by taking 40 hours of approved education every three years.

3. What is their coaching model?
Ask potential coaches about their approach. Do they have a framework or methodology? Do they have a structured program that all clients experience in the same way? Or do they take a more intuitive approach and customize the experience to the individual? Is it open ended or does it end after a set length of time?

Will they do more talking or listening? What type of questions might they ask, and what’s the point of them? If they give advice or teach, do they understand and communicate the difference between coaching and consulting?

4. Do they have a code of ethics?
The coach should have a contract that clearly outlines the rights and responsibilities of each party. It should address confidentiality, conflicts of interest, and the boundaries between coaching and therapy.

You can also ask a coach about how they “set a container,” or create a safe space, for coaching sessions. This involves creating agreements about logistics, expectations, and trust.

5. Why are their core beliefs?
A coach’s beliefs will necessarily impact the coaching relationship. So it’s important that you understand and feel comfortable with their values.

As an example, I am an intersectional feminist which means I believe patriarchy is real and problematic. This affects my work in several ways:

  • I ask questions that help my clients unpack their own patriarchal conditioning so they can redefine success on their own terms.
  • I honor the lived experience of those pushed to the margins in patriarchy. That means I won’t dismiss or diminish reality by chalking everything up to “mindset.”
  • I value consent, so I focus on safety first. I always check on how my clients feel about my approach and about their choices. I also won’t use a person’s problems to manipulate them into spending money.

Know what matters to you, and make sure any coach you are considering holds the same values.

6. How do they know if they are doing a good job?
What is the coach’s barometer of success for individual sessions and the overall coaching relationship? The answer should be more than client testimonials or “the client reaches their goal.”

How do they critique their own practice? They should be able to explain to you how they measure “good coaching.” You may also ask about a time when they weren’t successful and why. The answer is almost always about the connection and communication (or lack thereof) between coach and client.

7. Do you like them?
To be effective, coaching requires you to be vulnerable. You must be honest, and not hold back about your thoughts and feelings. To do that, you’ll need to feel comfortable with your coach.

Spend some time with them to evaluate whether you like them as a person and feel like you can be yourself with them. A coach isn’t a friend, but it is an intimate relationship that requires trust.

8. Will they share testimonials?
Check a coach’s references. Are her past clients satisfied? If possible, ask those people specific questions about how they felt during their sessions, what they achieved during and since coaching, how often they refer people to the coach, and what words they’d use to describe the coach and the experience.

9. What is the investment?
It’s important to understand the complete price of the coaching experience and exactly what is (and isn’t) included. Get the details and then be honest with yourself—can you afford it?

There are coaches who will encourage you to use credit to pay for their services. Some coaches will use high-pressure sales tactics, even questioning your commitment to change if you aren’t willing to immediately purchase.

Do not sign up for coaching until you are ready. First, it’s unethical and rude to pressure anyone into a purchase. And second, coaching only works when you are committed because, after all, you are the one who must do the work.

10. What does your intuition tell you?
We’ve been conditioned to discount our instincts in favor of what looks good on paper. But it’s a great sign if your heart, soul, intuition are singing when you think about working with this person. Trust your gut. If someone feels like the right coach for you, it doesn’t really matter why. If someone doesn’t feel right for you, move on (and you don’t owe anyone an explanation).


If you’re not yet ready to invest in coaching, that doesn’t mean that you can’t benefit from it. It’s possible (albeit more difficult) to act as your own life coach using self-coaching techniques. Do the research and give yourself as much coaching as you can until you are ready for help from a professional.