Your complete guide to understanding what life coaching is and what it isn’t.

Bill Gates and Eric Schmidt former CEO of Google have both said, “Everyone needs a coach.”

If you’re even a little interested in training to become a professional coach before you invest time and money, make sure that you understand what life coaching really is—this is the first step in your journey.

You know what a sports coach is right? For sure—almost everyone knows what sports coaches are. But what about a life coach? And a business coach and all the other forms of professional coaching?

What are they really about? It’s less clear, isn’t it? And what makes it worse, is that many people call themselves coaches without actually understanding what professional coaching is really about.

I don’t want you to make that mistake.

There is so much confusion and misunderstanding about what real professional life coaching is.

This 1 page guide with links and resources is here to help you to avoid confusion. You’ll find everything you need to know about professional coaching so that you can walk away with a clear foundation of understanding.

I’m going to declutter coaching for you, to make it as easy as possible to understand quickly.

what is life coaching

Here are 3 quick and easy to understand answers.

You’re most welcome to use these explanations if it helps you when trying to explain coaching to others.


The origin of the word coach – as a means of transport

Picture an old carriage or wagon. In the days before the invention of cars. If you wanted to travel, you’d have to hire somebody with a horse and carriage to take you wherever you wanted to go to.

So the original word, coach was literally a means of transport.

A coach or carriage gets you to where you want to be.

innerlifeskills coaching wagon 1

The word coach comes from the Mid-16th century, from French ”coche”, and from Hungarian “kocsi” (wagon) from Kocs.
It was in the 18th century, that the word coach started being used as a verb.

I suppose similarly to the way the word Google is now also being used as a verb, we Google things.

So if you want to explain coaching to anyone, tell them about the origin of the word. It’s all about transporting people, taking them from where they are now to where they want to be.

That’s why we focus on goals. The goals are our destinations. And coaching is a way to get us to the destination that we desire.

Learning to coach is learning professional skills and cutting-edge methods, to get people from where they are now, to where they want to be.

coach here to there

But this is only the first level of understanding, if you are truly interested in coaching then read on to build on this simple definition.

Today we use the word coach for someone who helps us to get from where we are now, to where we want to be in life.

This definition lacks depth but it’s a good start.

Create inspiring goal statements

A professional coach always starts a meeting or session with establishing clear long term goals and then helps people to reach their goals.

If you want to empower, inspire and influence others to change their lives, you need to learn the skills and techniques that can help them to move forward from where they are now to where they want to be.

But is every journey easy? If it was easy to reach our goals, surely we would have accomplished all of our dreams alreadyit’s not easy.

In the days of carriages and wagons, the horses could get injured, we could be held up by highwaymen, there was the struggle of facing storms, snow and wild animals.

There were many obstacles on the journey to our desired destination. Isn’t that the same with our life goals?

We face inner and outer obstacles on the path to success. Whether we want to build a business, become more confident, improve our relationships, lose weight, write that book, deepen our spirituality…

Whatever our dream or goal, we also face obstacles.

coach here to there life

What about external obstacles to our goals?

Our external obstacles might not be the weather, but surely time and money are the greatest of external obstacles. “I don’t have the time.” and “I don’t have the money.” are the two most common external obstacles that professional coaches see their clients face.

The carriage driver would have to be equipped to handle external obstacles. A professional coach, when properly trained, also has many tools in their toolbox to help others to find solutions and overcome their external obstacles.

And what about the inner obstacles?

Inner obstacles like fear, procrastination, self-doubt, indecisiveness etc. In some ways inner obstacles are more problematic than external ones. Sometimes we use external obstacles as an excuse to avoid the real obstacles, which are inner obstacles.

life coach tools and skills

The professional coach should also have a skill set for helping others to overcome their inner obstacles. Unfortunately, in my experience, I saw years ago that even ICF credentialed coaches, who were very well trained, still struggled to confidently help their clients to face and easily transform their inner obstacles.

This is one of the biggest reasons, that whilst building InnerLifeSkills Coaching, I worked hard to find some of the best techniques and methods to work with and overcome the inner obstacles.

InnerLifeSkills Coaching specializes in equipping you to help others to overcome their inner obstacles and free their inner wealth—that’s why I called this brand InnerLifeSkills.

If you want to learn to coach at professional levels, rather than be an amateur, you will also need to know how to help people to overcome the obstacles that lie in the path.

The difference between an amateur coach and professional skilful coach is their ability to support others in moving forward and overcoming the obstacles on the path.

Make sure that when you are learning, you are taught many different methods to help others to overcome both their inner and outer obstacles.

But isn’t this sounding like counselling not coaching?

Helping others to overcome these inner obstacles is one of the most rewarding aspects of what we do. And we manage to do this without a therapeutic or counselling approach.

We use internationally benchmarked coaching competencies to help others to get to where they want to in their lives.

So what’s the difference then between life coaching, business coaching, executive coaching and all the other forms of coaching that you see out there in the world?

A life coach helps people to achieve their life goals. The business coach helps people to achieve their business goals. An executive coach helps people to reach their professional goals.

Do you get the idea?

But what all of these forms of professional coaching have in common is that they help to take people to the destination that they desire.

Read more about the difference between life coaching and other forms of coaching.

Whats the difference coaching and mentoring 1


A solution focused conversation

Coaching could be described as a solution focused conversation.
The coach uses rapport building skills, listening techniques and thinking exercises to help others to find their own best solutions.

Why not enroll for our free online life coaching course here, which covers some of the actual coaching skills and methods that we teach in our life coach certification online training programs. 

Imagine conversations that are completely focused on finding insights, inspiration, new understanding and solutions? (Rather than focusing endlessly on the problems).


  •  Imagine conversations that are focused on the present and the future potential, rather than endlessly digging up the past that we cannot change? That’s not to say that there is no therapeutic value in looking at the past, especially when working to heal deep trauma.

    This is why counselling and psychology have such a valuable role in the world. This is also why coaching complements counselling and psychology so well. Coaching is best used when people are ready to move forward.

  • Imagine conversations that are focused on finding where we do have power, the power to change things, the power to influence, the power to make a positive difference. Instead of endlessly focusing on things that we do not have the power to change or influence.
a solution focused conversation

The inspiring story of the late Jerry Sternin tells of how he was sent in 1990 by the organization “Save the children” to find severe malnutrition in rural Vietnam. He was met in Vietnam with scepticism and resistance, and was given six months to make a difference.

Can you imagine if it was your job to alleviate starvation in a region of a Third World country within six months?

What would your approach be? How would you solve this problem?

Would you want to understand all the underlying issues and problems that contributed to starvation? Would you try your best to analyze all the data, so that you could offer advice to the rural people? This is the typical traditional approach. And it fails 9/10 times. This is not a coaching approach.

Jerry was a natural coach I believe. Because he did something radically different.

The first brilliant thing that Jerry did to serve this desperate need.

When Jerry was given all of the facts and data about the problems in the region which included poverty, poor sanitation, lack of education etc. he called this information T.B.U — true but useless.

He recognized what all natural coaches recognize, that focusing endlessly on the problem does not move us forward with speed.

The second brilliant thing that Jerry did.

Most people would think that in order to help the villages, they would have to bring them solutions. But what does it feel like when someone tries to give us advice, when they really don’t understand what we’ve been through and what we’ve already tried?

Can you imagine if he had approached the villages with his suggestions? Instead, he coached them. Even without knowing that’s what he was doing.

He built rapport. He listened. And he found their own solutions.

That’s what a coach does. They have solution focused conversations. We help others to find their own best solutions. We don’t give them our solutions.

When Jerry spoke to the families he found the families that were not starving. They trusted him enough to talk to him, and they revealed the solutions that were working for them.

Isn’t it sad, that next door to one family that were not starving, were other families that were starving. Ignorance is not bliss, ignorance can be deadly.

The solutions that some of the villages had found included feeding their families smaller portions of food, more often in the day, and grinding shrimp from the rice paddies into their meals. They also included the greens from their sweet potatoes instead of throwing them away. These 3 life-saving solutions were right there, available.

In Jerry’s book Jerry called this approach, “finding the bright spots” and it worked. He empowered the bright spot mother’s to share their solutions with others, within 6 months, 65% of the children in the region where Jerry worked were free of the threat of starvation.

Have solution focused coached conversations

Coaches also learn how to find the bright spots. We focus our attention on solutions rather than problems, on potentials of the present and future rather than the T.B.U’s of the past. We look for where our power is so that we can take our power back and positively impact lives.

When you are learning to coach, you will learn to listen deeply, to build trust and connections with people, to ask the right questions that empower people rather than disempower. You will build a vocabulary of empowering questions.

Don’t be surprised if like many of my students, you will be shocked to see how many times we all ask the wrong questions.

I always say, “Never underestimate the power of asking the right question, in the right way, at the right time. And never underestimate the power of asking the wrong question, in the wrong way, at the wrong time.”

To excavate solutions we need to learn to have skilful solution focused conversations.


The ICF definition of coaching

The International Coach Federation or the ICF for short is the leading international organization that is dedicated to advancing the profession of coaching. It sets very high standards and benchmarks, as well as provides independent credentialing and coaching certification.

  • The ICF also accredit coaching programs, by auditing their materials, processes, training staff and assessment methodologies.
  • The ICF makes sure that accredited programs, are teaching at the highest standards, and delivering their core competencies.
  • The ICF core competencies are the essential skills that a professional coach has to demonstrate in order to consider themselves a professional. The ICF certify coaches at 3 levels, ACC, PCC and MCC.

So I believe that there is no better organization to give us a definition of what professional coaching is. Here is the International Coach Federation definition.

coaching certification ICF credentials

“ICF defines coaching as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.”

Notice how the ICF uses the word “partnering” — this should be a relief to know that as coaches we need not solve people’s problems for them.
When done well, coaching is truly a partnership, where the client is accountable for their own process. We are truly helping people to help themselves.

With master skills, we are able to hold a safe space, where someone can look deeper than the surface.

We ask powerful questions that help people to excavate insights. We take people through thinking processes that open their minds; helping them to discover new ways of seeing and new ways of being.

I agree with the ICF when they say that: “Coaching is an integral part of a thriving society.” — Absolutely!

Coaches have the power to shine a light on wisdom and solutions.

I have seen InnerLifeSkills Coaches making real changes, influencing governments, rooting out corruption, transforming schools, healing families, helping entrepreneurs to become successful, upgrading communities. It’s possible.

If you are a visionary who wants to make a difference then make sure that whichever path you take, you learn ICF core competencies as part of your journey.

I get what coaching is now but,
“What if I can’t coach?”

This is what I hear many students say at the start of their journey. It’s completely natural, and it’s a good sign. Only charlatans and unethical people, don’t care about whether they have the real skills or not. They simply see that coaching is a lucrative trend, slap a title onto their business card, and present themselves to the world as professional coaches.

Yes, of course, this happens. Coaching is not a regulated profession. Not like medicine, or mental health care. That’s why there is so much freedom in the profession—which is a good thing. But it’s also why there’s so much confusion and fakery—not a good thing.

So if you are uncertain, thank you. Thank you for taking time, to check this out properly, and being interested in learning the real skills that are necessary to earn the privilege to change lives.

So the short answer to the question, “Can I learn to coach?” Is…

  • If you can have a conversation, you can learn to coach.
  • If you’re willing to learn new communication techniques, you can learn to coach.
  • If you’re willing to drop some communication habits, you can learn to coach.
  • If you’re interested in learning some amazing thinking processes to guide people through, you can learn to coach.

Still not sure whether you have what it takes, have a look at this article, “Do you have what it takes to coach?

What's Next?

I recommend the following posts for you…

How To Coach Goals

What is a Life coaching session?

Critical Coaching Skills.