Psychoteraphy, coaching, changework

How To Choose The Right Coach: 15 Simple Principles To Follow

Imagine your friend just came back from the dentist. He unfortunately visited a less-than-great specialist, so despite a long and expensive procedure his tooth isn’t any better and still causes him pain. This situation frustrates him so much that he starts ridiculing the whole dentistry field and says that dentists are totally useless.

This is a pretty absurd conclusion, isn’t it?

Now imagine that your friend just came back from coaching. He unfortunately visited a less-than-great specialist, so despite long and expensive sessions, he is still in the exact place where he started. This situation frustrates him so much that he starts lambasting the whole industry and says that coaches are totally useless.

Does it still sound absurd?

I assume that, for the majority of readers, it is much easier to believe a negative opinion about the coaching industry than about dentistry. Almost everyone has had some experience with dentists, while not many people have had experience with coaching. Because of this, it is much harder to assess whether your friend is right or wrong in his opinion about coaching.

In other words, in the case of coaching, one negative experience may form a strong opinion about the effectiveness of the field as a whole. This is something worth remembering when faced with opinions about this industry—it is possible that someone just had some bad luck and went to the wrong person, 

which can happen when you don’t know what to pay attention to when choosing a specialist.

Why should you invest time in choosing the right person?

When you plan a vacation, you typically analyze many offers in detail. You look for a trusted travel agency, and consider various destinations and hotels. In the end, you spend both time and money on the decision.

Similar analysis should be done before choosing a coach that you are going to work with. Although this doesn’t require as much time as a vacation, it can be quite expensive. Not to mention that these sessions may touch on important areas of your life.

The coaching industry is very unequal. There are some amazing specialists, many good or medium-level specialists, and a whole lot of extremely unprofessional people. This is probably because the field’s ethical and professional standards are still underdeveloped and the coaching courses are far too short.

Whether you invest in coaching for your company or yourself, it is worthwhile to follow certain basic rules, for several reasons. First, wasting money and discouraging your employees from participating in coaching may, in the long run, result in the loss of a truly effective method for solving problems and rewarding your employees. (Yes, providing coaching for employees is a form of reward for them.) Second, you may also lose time, lose trust in the effectiveness of changework, and perhaps even lose hope for solving your problem. In the absolute worst scenario, poor-quality coaching can even deepen the problem.

Choosing a coach without proper preparation is like gambling. Maybe you will happen to pick the right person, but the odds are stacked against you.

Choosing a coach without proper preparation is like gambling. Maybe you will happen to pick the right person, but the odds are stacked against you.

Choosing a coach without proper preparation is like gambling. Maybe you will happen to pick the right person, but the odds are stacked against you.

Why shouldn’t you make this decision based on your intuition?

Because intuition—in fields outside of your own expertise—is treacherous. This explains the popularity of many gurus, who “seem to know what they are talking about.” Will Stephen, in a phenomenal six-minute-long presentation, demonstrates how this effect works by giving a seemingly impressive speech about … nothing. 

This is why you should listen to your intuition after you have verified the competence of the coach, not before. The fact that you have a good rapport with someone just means that you can have good chats. You can do this with your friends as well, but it doesn’t mean that they will help you in a professional way.

Even though I can’t guarantee that following the rules below will result in choosing the right person, they will most certainly increase your chances of choosing a competent person.

Should your coach meet all of the criteria? There are some points (see numbers 2, 4, and 14) that are extremely important. However, not meeting all of the criteria should not automatically be a signal to avoid working with the coach. For example, there are some great specialists who do not have official accreditation from any coaching institute.

Here are the 15 principles for choosing a good coach

1. Remember that you are the client

Most people have no problems asking all sorts of technical questions before buying a TV or a car. But in the case of buying services—well, it’s not that easy. Some service providers (web developers, hairdressers, lawyers, mechanics, etc.) can take those questions personally and perceive them as your way of questioning their competence.

But remember that you do have the right to have doubts. And you do have the right to ask questions, even if the service provider—in this case, a coach—doesn’t like it.

In business coaching, a common practice is to organize a pre-session meeting, in which the manager gets to know several coaches from the company and chooses the one who fits his needs the best. Life coaching doesn’t work that way, not because of the coaches’ ill will, but because there is not enough time to meet with every person who is potentially interested in being coached. In this case it’s good to set up a Skype call, or just discuss your concerns via email.

If the coach is avoiding answering your questions (without providing materials where you can find them, e.g., on his website) while also insisting on starting the sessions, this is a very clear signal that something may be wrong.

Here are the basic questions that I recommend you ask:

  • Which coaching approach/school does he work with?
  • How is a typical session structured?
  • What kind of problems does he work with most often?
  • How many sessions does his coaching typically consist of?
  • How long does each session take?
  • How much does it cost?

  • What kind of problems would he NOT work with?

After receiving answers to these questions, you will have an idea of how this particular coach works, and you will know if he fits your needs.

The last question lets you see if the coach is aware that in some cases (for example, personality disorders), without specialized knowledge, he may do more harm than good. If the coach is not aware of this and claims that he can help everyone, a red flag should immediately go up.

If you purchase coaching services for a company, you have the right to demand that coaching objectives are identical to, or at least similar with, the company’s goals.

2. Check where was she taught

Ask about this directly or find this information on her website. Coaching courses vary tremendously, from 16 hours long (one weekend) to 200 hours long (12 weekends), and may be conducted by individuals with neither knowledge nor experience or by professionals with 15 years of experience. The sole fact that someone calls herself a “certified coach” doesn’t mean a thing. It’s much more important to know whom she is certified by. And sometimes even that is not a reliable indicator.

Why not? Imagine you are looking over a coach’s profile and you see that she graduated from an “Executive Coaching” course at Cambridge University. Well, that’s impressive, isn’t it?

 In reality, this is a five-week-long online course, which you pass by taking part in online discussions with other participants and writing a few texts. 

This kind of course might be appropriate for someone who already has a lot of experience and treats it as an opportunity to get know-how about working with managers. But in no case should it be treated as fundamental coaching training.

What would be a good course, then? 

In my opinion, good courses start with at least 120 hours (which is at least 15 training days). Even in the case of the ICF (International Coach Federation), which is the most recognized organization of coaches in the world, you have to be careful. To become a coach, you need just 60 hours of training,* out of which 12 can be done via teleconferences or online seminars. To be accredited by the ICF, an additional 100 hours of practice (which is a very reasonable requirement) are needed; nonetheless, people often call themselves “coaches” after completing only the training.

* There is also a path with 125 required training hours, which I definitely recommend.

The problem is that when working with people one-on-one (among many other soft skills) a person needs to develop the skill of observing exactly what is happening with the client (and with the coach himself). I don’t believe you can learn that in six days, even if you add 10 hours of supervised practice. 

The other problem is that most coaches have worked as managers. As a result, they have a lot of habits that are great for managing people, but are harmful in coaching practice. To become aware of these and then change them—well, it takes time.

3. What is his real coaching experience?

The word “real” is key here. Many coaches overstate their experience. That’s why it’s worth asking how many hours he spent conducting coaching sessions and how many clients he had. In addition to the numbers you are given as a response, be aware that HOW he worked is also important. Why? Let’s go to number four.

4. How does she monitor her work?

When you have a “regular” job, you get an assignment and then your performance is assesed by your boss or manager. He can show you your mistakes, give you advice on what to do better next time, or just confirm that everything is fine. In coaching practice, you don’t have a boss.

If a coach doesn’t monitor her own work or, even worse, when she doesn’t have strong fundamental knowledge, she can make the same mistakes over and over again because there is no one to give her feedback. There are six common ways for coaches to monitor their own work:

  1. Supervision, which is a meeting with an experienced coach. The less-experienced coach talks about a case she is working on (while protecting the client’s privacy) and the supervisor shares his own reflection and advice.
  2. Mentoring, which again involves a meeting with a more-experienced coach. This time however, he shares general (not case-specific) observations and advice about coaching practice.
  3. Intervision, which is a meeting with other coaches. This works similarly to supervision, but there is no one person who leads the meeting; the whole group shares their thoughts about a particular case.
  4. Accreditation, which is the confirmation of competence from a training institution. Normally, to be accredited a coach needs to go through interviews, supervision, and so on.
  5. Reports, which are notes made by the coach herself after the session. In my opinion, this is a very underrated method that lets the coach look more objectively at what happened.
  6. Follow-up, which means asking the client about his progress, several months after the coaching. If the client agrees, the coach can send him a message to verify the effects of the work they did together. By doing this, the coach can see whether coaching had a real effect on the client’s life.

Many people in the industry don’t use any of these methods, to the detriment of their clients.

5. Does he make promises and what are those promises?

Does he promise that a single session will totally change your life? Coaching works with individuals’ potential and limitations. There is no way to guarantee that after one meeting all internal blockades will disappear forever. To solve a problem permanently, time is needed.

It is true that coaching can quickly solve many problems. But whether it will take one, two, or four sessions depends on the individual case and the complexity of the problem. You can’t estimate this before the first meeting.

6. Does she have written ethical principles that she follows?

Does she follow the ethical guidelines of a particular institution? And if she doesn’t follow those of an organization, does she have her own concrete rules? The awareness of how important professional ethics are is still quite low, so it’s important to pay special attention to this issue when choosing a coach.

7. Do you get along with him?

Sometimes we come across people who we just don’t get along with. If you don’t get along with a coach and his skills aren’t incredible, there is no reason to bother with him. The market is big enough—just give yourself some time to look for a person who is not only competent, but with whom you also resonate well.

8. See the content she has produced

If she has written a blog, articles, or books, it’s worthwhile to at least scan them. Just remember that something she wrote five years ago may not represent what she thinks today. She could have changed her mind—for better or for worse. Moreover, some people are great specialists, but are not skilled in writing or public speaking, so don’t draw definite conclusions based on the content you find.

9. Does he continue to learn?

He doesn’t have to go to official seminars. Learning can also come in the form of membership in coaching clubs, associations, etc.

10. What opinion do her previous clients have of her?

Getting this information is usually a bit more difficult, especially since you can’t be certain that the references on her website are real (yes, some people fabricate these). But if you have the opportunity to verify references, do so. It’s good to ask more than one person who has worked with this coach, because a single person’s opinion may be influenced by non-meritorious reasons (for example, personal conflict). 

11. Are goals set during the first session?

There are coaches who do not set specific goals at the beginning and still achieve good results. In most cases, though, the topic of your objectives should come up. Coaching is not “how are you doing today?” chit-chat—it is directed work toward one concrete goal.

Sometimes setting a goal can take the whole session. This happens when a client is confused and starts to see what he really wants to achieve while in the coaching room. If this part is done right, the client will have greater motivation to work on himself despite the obstacles. That’s why it is a fundamental part of coaching.

12. Do you make a contract?

In coaching, a contract is a set of rules for your meetings, concerning cancelling sessions, your privacy, how your personal information is handled, and so on. If her contract is posted on her website, she should at least ask if you’ve read it. And you should read it.

13. Does he emphasize the role of openness?

In order to use coaching most effectively it’s important to have an open mind. This means that during sessions, you focus and do the exercises the best you can. You can assess their effectiveness afterwards, not before or while doing them.

The reasoning is the same as in the case of going to the gym: you assess the effectiveness of training after some time, not at the first meeting with your personal trainer.

Naturally, you may have concerns before doing a certain exercise or talking about a particular issue. The coach should create a space to talk openly. If you did the exercise and it didn’t work, tell your coach about it. If, instead of looking for a solution, he starts to criticize and blame you (and this does happen, unfortunately), this is a strong signal to stop working with this person.

14. How do you feel during the sessions?

Can you openly tell your coach that the coaching is not working? Or that you disagree with her? If not, then most likely the coach didn’t consider your comfort. It’s important to feel that you decide what you are working on. The role of the coach is to take care of the structure of the meeting, choosing exercises, and so on.

I know an example from real life where unprofessional coach was forcing her way of thinking on a client and reacted to client’s concerns with even more forcefulness. If it happens to you then you should realize that something is definitely wrong.

15. Do you have relations outside of coaching setting?

I knew a coach who was, at the same time, a neighbor, a friend, and an employee of various clients. You don’t have to be a human relations expert to see that this is a clear conflict of roles and interests.

This doesn’t mean that you can only work with a coach who you have never met before. You can know him, but he shouldn’t be someone close to you, because this makes the coaching work more difficult for both of you, not to mention that he won’t be able to provide you with an objective perspective, which is one of the most valuable parts of coaching.

It is true that going to someone you already know will require less time to build rapport and trust, but a good coach will be able to do this quite quickly. 


As you can see, there are quite a lot of rules. I’ve listed all those that came to my mind. If you have a suggestion for different rules, or you want discuss some of those listed above, leave a comment.

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18 Reasons To Go To Coach or Therapist

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