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50,000 Life Coaches Can’t Be Wrong

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The twenty-seven future coaches met in a beige fifth-floor conference room at the Millennium Hotel in Times Square. In the first of five three-day modules, entitled Fundamentals (the others are, in order, Fulfillment, Balance, Process, and Synergy, each spaced about a month apart), students were introduced to the co-active model’s particular vocabulary: they “designed their alliance” and “danced in this moment.” Everyone agreed to talk about “real stuff” in these sessions, i.e., no fake problems. “We really want you to bring your authentic self,” Wendy, one of the instructors, explained. “Be yourselves. It’s really the easiest person to be.”

Most of the skills introduced in the first session were no different from those necessary for being a good friend, but a few seemed more coachlike, such as rejecting clients’ excuses and challenging them to meet goals beyond what they think they’re capable of. To my mind the most useful of the techniques was “holding the client’s agenda,” which essentially meant that a coach shouldn’t just say what she would do, or what she would like her client to do, and pretend it’s what the client wants for himself. Instead, the coach should find out what the client really wants and reflect it back to him. (I explained this concept to a friend, and he said he’d used the same trick while working in a clothing store. The customer would try on an item, and if his face registered disgust, my friend would mirror that expression. If the customer seemed pleased, he’d look pleased back.)

On the third day, Wendy and her co-instructor, Ron, led an exercise meant to expand the emotional range of the coaches-in-training — or, as she described it, to help them play the keys on the piano they don’t usually play. To do this, the students would first “acknowledge” one another, starting with Aaron, a reserved psychotherapist in his early forties, who sat silently with his arms crossed as the group spoke to the “qualities of his being.”

“Aaron,” someone ventured, “you are self-aware.” “Aaron, you are thoughtful,” said another. “Aaron, you have a good sense of humor.” Aaron absorbed each compliment with much stoicism and only the slightest hint of unease. After they’d exhausted their praise, the class was instructed to tell Aaron what they’d like to see more of in him — the other keys on the keyboard. “Aaron, I want to see your sense of humor.” “I want you to lose control.”

“And what would an archetype or metaphor be for what we’d like to see him embody?” asked Wendy. A wild man! they decided. An assistant handed Aaron a name tag and a marker. He dutifully wrote wild man on the tag and stuck it to his shirt.

The class moved on to the next student. In a short span, they deemed one person genuine and perceptive but in need of confidence (henceforth warrior), another student earnest and sweet yet lacking in explosions (superhero). The class’s only black man was found to be soulful and deep and was encouraged to share his inner wisdom. The group decided he should be a movement leader. The black women in the group all ended up being labeled divas of some sort.

After everyone had a turn, it was time to share these new identities — not just by saying them but by becoming them. Wendy demonstrated. “When I took this course, I was shy,” she said, “and they had me be an Egyptian queen.” She strutted into the center of the circle Bangles-style. A few people didn’t need the class’s encouragement to tap those other keys. One woman stood up on her chair, yelling, “I’m a table dancer!” A cowgirl came out guns blazing. A thin blonde in her fifties, a firestarter, ran around the circle yelling in people’s faces. There was a surfer dude and a teen rebel. “I am fireworks, I snap, crackle, pop!” exclaimed the fireworks. One person tried with some difficulty to embody a secretary of state. Mark, a goateed yoga instructor with an MBA, was a bear hug, which was enacted with a twenty-seven-person huddle. Finally Aaron stood up. “Okay, I’m going to do a cartwheel now,” he announced.

Ron looked displeased. “A real wild man would not announce it first,” he said, “but that’s okay.”

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Genevieve Smith is a senior editor at New York. Her article “In Recovery” appeared in the June 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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