Life coaching is a beautiful, emerging field based on the philosophy that the client is the expert in their own life, and the coach is there to partner with them as an equal to draw out the wisdom they already have within them. I am currently training to become a life coach, and loving every minute of it.
On my coaching journey, it became clear to me very quickly that coaching is very much like meditation. Both practices require non-judgment, friendly curiosity, empathy, presence, space-holding, and trusting one’s intuition. Both favor learning and being over doing. It’s exciting that the tools I’ve been sharpening in my meditation practice will help me become the best coach I can be to my future clients.
Let’s start with the coaching notion that the client is the expert in their own life. The magic of coaching isn’t that you’re hiring someone to give you all the answers. You’re hiring someone to hold beautiful space for you, ask powerful questions, and hold you accountable as you journey to get from where you are to where you want to be. As a coach, it can be hard to not be seen as the expert and to not try to give advice to “fix” the client’s problem. Instead, this is radical presence that a coach brings to a client! As one of my fellow students said, “How often do you get to have someone show up with complete presence and hold the space for you to process and unpack what you are learning about yourself and your situation?” Almost never.
This is because “level 1 listening” as we call it in coaching, is so prevalent in most relationships we have with friends, family, co-workers, etc. Level 1 listening is the kind of listening where you’re sort of listening to what the person is saying, but you’re also practicing and preparing in your head what you’re going to say next. You’re inserting yourself into every story and idea the person you’re listening to is sharing. This doesn’t make you a bad person — we all do it. It is completely natural and human. But, when we choose, we can instead use level 2 listening, which is much more effective for the person doing the speaking.
Level 2 listening is what we try to use in coaching most of the time. When you practice level 2 listening, you go on a journey with the client — savoring every word, change in tone of voice, even the body language that they use to tell their story. You try to imagine what it’s like to be them, and then get super curious about every aspect of their experience. In this way, you can be sure to hold the most present space for your client and are way more adept at asking the powerful questions they truly need. Instead of just focusing on the questions you’re going to ask next, you are able to pick up on powerful shifts in awareness, and instead riff with the client to where they really need to go.
Level 3 listening is even more rare, and happens when the coach is able to hold awareness for both the client and their own experience. It’s getting curious about what it feels like to be the coach listening to the client, without inserting your own ego reflection or agenda.
This transition from level 1 to level 2 listening can be challenging at first. It reminds me of my early meditation practice — and the subtle shifts in my relationship with my thoughts. Just as we are with others most of the time, I didn’t realize my unawareness of my own thoughts. Instead, I thought I was my thoughts, of course I didn’t even realize that I thought this. Vipassana (or insight) meditation really helped me slowly come to this realization and awareness of my own suffering caused by my thought-identification. Slowly but surely, I began to bring loving, non-judgmental awareness to my thoughts. I started getting really curious about my own experience, instead of just taking it for granted as I always had. From my bodily sensations to subtle nervous system shifts to thought patterns, I grew in an awareness of my inner life that I not only carry with me wherever I go, but that literally creates my reality.
That non-judgment part is key, both to coaching and meditating. The moment we assign “goodness” or “badness” to a thought, we attach ourselves to it, are dragged off course by it, and led inevitably to… you guessed it… suffering. It’s the same in a coach/client relationship. Whether expressed verbally or not, if a coach allows themselves a judgment of a client, the coach will be pulled off course from their goal of offering the most effective presence and partnership toward the client’s healing.
Friendly curiosity, as my girl Tara Brach describes it, is also an essential quality for meditation and life coaching. Plain friendliness doesn’t necessarily lend itself to investigative questions. And curiosity lacking kindness can come off as pushy, intrusive and judgmental. But the dynamic duo of friendliness + curiosity magically brings awareness, to the meditator, and to the coach and client. Friendliness or kindness really shows up when the coach is able to be empathetic and fully place themselves in the client’s experience. How often do you really practice empathy? When was the last time you felt someone embody empathy for you? Just as other aspects of the coaching relationship, empathy is radical and can be a game-changer for the client’s desired shift. If meditation is a practice in pure awareness, then coaching is harnessing the power of awareness to transform one’s inner and outter lives, with the accountability and space-holding power of a coach. This is where open-ended questions come in.
Coaches ask their clients powerful, open-ended questions in order to draw forth clients’ inner resources. This isn’t from the point-of-view of a fixer, as in, “Have you tried this or this, or maybe that?” Instead, it comes from pure curiosity — “How did that feel? What would your life look like if…? Who would you need to become in order to embody XYZ..?” See the difference? One is like a nosy neighbor, and probably adds nothing new to what the client is considering, whereas the other potentially unlocks the client’s awareness and inner resources.
Another essential ingredient and by-product of both coaching and meditation is presence and space holding. What does it mean to hold space for another person? It looks like radical presence. Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now taught me just how delusional it is to be anything but present. He describes how most of us live in the past or future, but not even in the actual versions of the past or future. Rather, we spend most of our lives replaying a movie of the past that is colored by our emotions and can change on a whim. Or we foresee the future either as a bad, scary nightmare to be feared and prepared for or a romanticized idea we cling to. Embodying presence, on the other hand, is the only truth available to us. All we have is this precious moment, we might as well get to know it. A state of meditative awareness is a wonderful way to get curious about the present moment, our experience of it, and all we might be missing by “doing” rather than “being.”
Can’t you feel a visceral change when you shift from “doing” energy to “being” energy? For me, it’s like a settling — a beautiful grounding, like my vibrations start to match the earth’s. When I’m with another person practicing presence, they can feel it to. I notice their eyes brightening, recognizing, “Someone is really paying attention to me.” It feels a lot like love. It feels a lot like what we’re all really looking for, beneath all that past/future grasping. It feels real, like something holy. That’s presence. That’s space holding.
Someone once told me, “Everyone just needs a good listen.” And, the more I practice life coaching, the more I realize it’s so true! To have someone hold space for you is like having a container to place your thoughts in. The coach’s powerful questions help the client move past their initial identification with their thoughts toward the deeper meaning behind them and what they can learn from them. It can be hard, if not impossible, for us to do this work on our own. It helps to have a witness.
Intuition is also exercised during both meditation and life coaching. I’ve noticed my intuition sharpening since I began meditating. Because I am more familiar with my thought patterns, how my brain works, and all my social conditioning — I can more easily sort through the bullshit and recognize the true. The “true” thoughts are my intuition — what my higher self unencumbered by the ego knows to be true and whispers to me when I get quiet. It’s much the same with coaching. A good coach will help her client sort through their beliefs and desires to uncover the power they already have within them. That’s what I love most about coaching! It requires the coach to die to their own ego in order to draw forth the client’s higher self. It’s like the work of meditation outside of the quiet, individual experience.
Meditation can sometimes be experienced as an inner battle between the ego (i.e. resistance, thought-identification, suffering, separateness) and the higher consciousness (i.e. one with everything, loving awareness, non-judgment). Coaching, then, may seem to be a relationship between the coach and client, but in reality, I think it is what happens when the coach’s inner experience meets the client’s inner experience and creates a new reality. The coach may appear silent and listening, when inside them there could be a battle raging between their ego (e.g. their desire to “fix” the client, appear as an expert, insert themselves in the client’s story) and their higher consciousness. The client, too, is experiencing more than what comes to the surface during the session. But if the client is able to be open and honest, in a state of trust with the coach, they get to have the experience of putting their thoughts out into conversation and see them for what they are. That experience helps the client tap into their intuition to solve whatever “problem” they wanted to focus on in the session.
Both meditation and coaching focus more on learning and being rather than doing. I put the “problem” in the last paragraph in quotes, because the coaching session pretty much always ends up being about more than the surface agenda the client comes in with. Through tapping into the client’s intuition, there is often a deeper agenda revealed. In fact, this is something we are trained to do as coaches — to ask questions focused on the client’s being 90% of the time, and ask questions about their “doing” only 10% of the time. We are coaching the client, not their problem. If a coach helps their client learn something new about themselves, how much more will that serve them than just giving them instructions to meet their goal? For example, if a client thinks all they need is time in their schedule to work out, but never addresses the underlying issue that they don’t think they are worthy of a healthy body, how does coaching serve them? On the other hand, coaching the client on their own worthiness could impact the client’s life in many areas — not just their work out schedule.
Recognizing that coaching is like meditation helps me drop into that state of pure presence and awareness with my clients. And it helps me be aware of my ego nature during a coaching session. The key is to be aware of it without judging it, and to recognize that both meditation and coaching are a practice. They aren’t something to be mastered, something to pass or fail at. The more time we dedicate to sharpening these tools, ultimately the more effective we can all be at creating a better world. I want to live in a world where people practice pure presence with each other, deeply listen, and learn to trust their own intuitive power. I want to live in a world where empathy, intuition, and presence are practiced fearlessly. May we all embody them and bring an end to suffering everywhere.