Life coaches: Helping transition to more fulfilling lives

Take these three steps to happiness:

• Find out what your passion is.

• Map where you want to go in life.

• Choose whom you want to bring with you.

These are steps recommended by personal coach Mary Moody. She says they’re simple, but we humans understandably mix ourselves up. We leap out at step 3, skipping 1 and 2. We tumble along through career-building, debt-accumulating years. And long about midlife, sometimes sooner, we realize we never set foot on those basic steps.

Off we go to the self-help section of the bookstore. Or we scan the ads in the back of a magazine such as Catalyst. There we see psychics, psychologists, hypnotherapists, astrologers, energy balancers, teachers of many disciplines. And we now see personal “coaches,” promising to help us shape up to play well in the game of life.

In Utah, personal career coaches need no certification or license. So, they must earn the trust of their clients and earn their hourly fees, which can be on a level with those of psychotherapists — $50, $100, higher.

“Is it time to re-center your work life around your personal values?” asks a brief brochure for Mary Moody, a coach based in Salt Lake City. “Partnering with an experienced career coach will take the guesswork out of the transition process.” With 15-plus years of work in human resources management and teaching, Moody guides clients through what she calls the “hidden job market” or helps them tweak their status quo bit by bit until life is vastly more livable.

Leslie, a marketing executive, sought Moody’s help when her boss’s behavior became intolerable. She had to find a way to deal with the supervisor and stop working late into every night. And Moody gave her specific suggestions that worked. Leslie’s office environment changed for the better. Still, Leslie’s husband was appalled.

“He couldn’t believe she was paying me $85 a session,” Moody said. “So I asked her: What would make it worth it for your husband?” Answer: Having Leslie home from work earlier in the evening would justify, to her spouse, that expense.

Moody then suggested Leslie leave work 15 minutes earlier each week until she was coming home in time for a relaxed dinner with her husband. Leslie found that shortening her work day back to a normal eight hours didn’t hurt her job performance. “But,” Moody said, “it made a huge difference in her life with her husband.”

Leslie could probably have figured out the 15-minute fix on her own. But in her case as in many, she needed someone to talk to, someone who would listen and ask pointed questions about how the client envisions a better situation. That’s what coaches do, and it’s quite different from psychoanalysis, said Daniel Silberberg of True North Coaching in Salt Lake City.

“Coaching is very action-oriented,” said Silberberg, himself a former therapist. “It’s not analytical.”

He typically recommends that clients commit to one month of coaching, or if one has a more abstract goal, perhaps as long as six months. A concrete goal is “I hate the work I’m doing, so I want to do something different.” An abstract goal is more like “I’ve been dissatisfied for 15 years. I’ve got to change my whole life.”

Silberberg was a psychotherapist for 25 years in New York and moved to Salt Lake City to teach at the Kanzeon Zen Center. “I think people like the idea that I’m not an ivory-tower intellectual,” he said. “And I have a good relationship with my wife, so people feel comfortable talking about relationships with me.”

Silberberg acknowledges that most people are capable of improving their lives on their own, just as someone can learn to play the clarinet on his own. But if one takes lessons with a music teacher, progress moves faster, especially if the teacher has worked with a lot of students. Silberberg and Moody have coached hundreds of people over many years, and “after you see boatloads of people, you recognize things,” Moody said.

“That’s part of the joy of getting older,” she added with a smile.

Coach and client “wind up being like teammates. Their successes are yours. If a client builds a good relationship, stops smoking, goes back to school, you feel like you did something good,” Silberberg said.

Like Moody and Silberberg, Donna Mariechild went through her own career transition when she became a life coach for women. She spent 20 years in management at Federal Express, and she has owned a skin-care business. “I’ve had many deep conversations with women,” she added. “I discovered I enjoyed helping women solve problems” below the surface. She began a 12-month course of study toward certification as a life strategy coach and decided her specialty would be women in midlife.

“Life coaching needs to be experience-based. I’m coaching what I know. I know about a woman’s life,” Mariechild said. “Coaching is about looking at who you want to be and what you need to do to get there. So, I do a pretty thorough assessment and evaluation of what she perceives as her life problems. Then we do strategic planning and goal setting.”

Clients want “somebody to bounce ideas off of,” she added. “They can’t do that alone.” In her nearly two years as a coach, she’s had clients who worked with her for six weeks and others who completed an intensive six-month life makeover.

“Coaching is about real life. It’s not esoteric. It’s not about invisible energy work. It’s about finances, health, work, plus the internal yearnings that people have. Watching them figure things out and make the changes in their lives: That’s my reward,” Mariechild said.

There comes a point when she has to sit back and let her client make her own decision. She worked with one young woman who decided to pursue a professional snowboarding career instead of continuing veterinary school. “From my middle-aged conservative viewpoint, I would probably have done (the latter),” she said. But Mariechild knew that for this client, pro athletics was truer to her self. Even if veterinary medicine might have been a safer road, pursuing it without passion would have been a mistake.

“My favorite clients,” Moody said, “are the ones who are willing to take risks” and try things that sound a bit scary.

But you don’t need to abandon your job or your relationship to improve your life. To one young man who’s less than thrilled with his retail job and is attracted to athletic coaching, she suggested doing some volunteer work along that line. To an older man who wanted to change careers but couldn’t really talk with his wife about it, she served as a nonjudgmental listener. That client wound up landing a new job that matched his value set.

“When I am at my optimum, I’m providing a service to people to help them recognize who they are,” Moody said.

She’s heard some outlandish ideas from clients. But instead of recoiling with an “Oh, no, let’s come back down to earth,” she nudges the client down an exploratory path. “That’s so interesting,” she might say. “What made you think of that?” Another query for a person about to make a life transition: “What will be the positive and negative consequences of that particular action?”

It’s this compassionate questioning, Moody said, that can free people to turn wildest dreams into identified goals. Family members, friends and even therapists may try to fix a person’s problems by giving advice. But people may benefit more from simply being listened to.

“We’re all on this path,” Moody said, “and we just want acknowledgement for giving it our best.”

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