Webster Defines Life Coaching and Gets It Wrong

This week the Merriam-Webster Dictionary proffered their definition of a Life Coach. While it’s gratifying to have our profession officially recognized, the critical noun used to define it is woefully inaccurate.

 The Webster Dictionary now defines a Life Coach as: (noun) an advisor who helps people make decisions, set and reach goals, or deal with problems.

So what’s the concern? It’s that little word, “advisor”.

Professionally trained coaches rarely, if ever, play the role of advice-giver. It’s a valuable role, to be sure. It’s just not the role of a life coach.

Mentors give advice. Consultants give advice. Teachers and preachers and experts of all stripes give advice. But not life coaches.

Sports coaches, fitness coaches, nutrition coaches, even voice coaches give advice. But not life coaches. Why not?

These other forms of service are characterized by a knowledge differential. The knowledge of one person is desired by another, so the one who has it offers advice to the one who desires it.

Think mentor-to-apprentice. Teacher-to-student. Master-to-novice. Physician-to-patient. Consultant-to-business owner.

In each of these, the one desiring growth seeks advice from the one with expertise. Scripture strongly affirms the value of this: “Make plans by seeking advice…” (Prov 20:18a) “Listen to advice and accept instruction, and in the end you will be wise.” (Prov 19:20)  

But seeking advice is not the only means by which personal growth can occur.

Advisors work from the outside-in; an advisor has knowledge and seeks to impart it to the inner being of the advisee.

Life coaches do exactly the opposite; they work from the inside-out, because they don’t have the knowledge their clients are seeking.

Think about it. Life coaches cannot possibly be experts on their clients’ unique life paths, or giftings, or life callings. They can’t know those things until their clients discover them for themselves.

So a life coach’s primary role is to help clients do exactly that – to discover for themselves, through relationship with the coach, what God has placed within them.

“The purposes of a man’s heart are deep waters, but a man of understanding draws them out.” (Prov 20:5)

More succinctly than any other scripture, this proverb captures the inside-out nature of life coaching. A life coach “draws out” the purposes of a client’s heart – their gifts, their call, their passion, their path.

Drawing from the inside-out rather than advising from the outside-in sounds great, but how exactly do life coaches do this drawing-out?

They question. They question and listen, and then question some more.

If coaches are experts in anything at all, it is questioning; digging, probing, prodding, and then reflecting, clarifying, reframing, and challenging.

Think of detectives arriving on a crime scene. They have no more information to begin with than you or I. They don’t know whodunit, or why, or how. They can’t be advisors because they don’t have the desired knowledge.

The expertise of detectives lies not in having the answers but in knowing how to draw them out.

Detectives question witnesses. They search for clues. They form hypotheses and formulate more questions. And eventually, through an intentional process of inquiry and clarification, they discover whodunit and why and how.

They attain their answers from the inside-out. Just like a life coach.

God places specific gifts and callings in each of us, which are irrevocable (Rom 11:29). So life coaches approach clients like detectives, seeking to discover those gifts and callings and then helping clients discern how to fulfill them.

The differences between advisors and detectives couldn’t be more stark: outside-in versus inside-out.

Old Mr. Webster may not change his definition, but it’s a blow to the field of life coaching if he doesn’t.

His current definition leaves life coaches synonymous with mentors and consultants, creating a hot new buzzword for the same old services instead of distinguishing an entirely new profession.  

Christopher McCluskey, MSW, PCC, is President & CEO of Professional Christian Coaching Institute. Called by many the ‘Father of Christian Coaching’, Christopher has shaped this emerging field through his frequent teaching, writing, keynoting, and service on several Boards including the International Christian Coaching Association.

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