When I was 10, I had a private tutor to help me better understand maths. When I was 14, I had a swimming trainer to help me compete. Now that I'm approaching 40, I have a life coach to help me sort through far scarier and more chaotic challenges than long division and speedy lengths in the pool.
A life coach works with you to help you determine and achieve your goals by addressing every aspect of your world, including your relationships, career, health, home, lifestyle, friends, family, fun, recreation, finances, personal growth, purpose and (sometimes) your position within the wider world. It is not part of the coach's role to offer their own experience or try to provide solutions. Rather, they are trained to listen to you and ask questions in a way that helps you "own" your situation, uncover your truths and work out how to move forward.
I have found it extremely liberating to have somebody listen who is unbiased, non-judgemental, intelligent and, above all, honest. I first experienced this three years ago on a life-coaching holiday in Spain called The Big Stretch, run by the life coach and psychologist Rosie Walford. "There is no other relationship in life where someone is totally focused on you, what you want and what will help you achieve it," says Walford.
My reasons for attending were subtle. I loved my career but wondered why it continued to be dominated by journalism and travel writing rather than the novel I had been planning in my head for years. I had chatted to friends and family about this on and off for quite some time, but no one could offer any tangible help. They would usually be more kind to me than honest and I was beginning to bore even myself. In an intensive week with a supportive group, Walford and her team helped me work out my values, wake up my consciousness and devise a plan of action to help me shift my focus on to my novel.
The process is measured and ongoing. I had follow-up sessions, and it's only now that I have organised my life to be able to dedicate the time I need to write creatively while also earning a living. The shift in focus happened slowly, and when I found myself overloaded with journalistic work recently I booked refresher sessions with another coach, Janice Barnett of Pathfinders, who has a base in Dubai.
It was with Barnett that I realised the clarifying effect of talking out loud in a non-judgemental environment. "Where you think you might have got the answers kicking around in your head already, things sound very different when spoken out loud and looked at objectively," Barnett says. I don't have to take notes - we just talk over the phone, and later Janice e-mails me a useful and inspiring summary of key points. With each session I gain more clarity and focus. Three sessions on, I have reminded myself of my values, prepared a new weekly timetable and feel myself re-engaging creatively.
The reasons people visit life coaches are diverse. You may be setting up a business, dealing with a big change such as divorce, relocation or a new job, or just have a niggling feeling that your lifestyle, relationship or career isn't quite right. Mark Garrod of the Dubai-based Mudfish Coaching says that many people want to work on particular aspects of themselves, such as confidence, time management, anger management or fear of public speaking.
Living in the UAE has its particular challenges, Barnett says. "The transient nature of the expat community, accompanying spouses and facing several years outside the employment market, finding yourself stripped of supportive friends and family and making new friends who then move on at an alarmingly regular rate - all present a set of issues. "Changing and challenging circumstances provide the perfect opportunity to re-evaluate what you want from life and to focus on who you are. Many of my clients have used their time in the UAE to reconnect with activities that used to give them great joy, to develop a new skill, revisit a business idea or explore a new leisure interest," she says.
For Jane Samson of Be True to You coaching, mothers in the UAE share specific challenges. "The range of part-time, flexible working and job-sharing positions that would be available elsewhere in the world to working mums are simply not available here," she says. "When women who want to work can't, they have this void to fill, as most women demand more from their lives than the gym, coffee mornings, school runs and shopping." Reconnecting to what is important through coaching helps women find the "unique fabulous factor" that defines them outside of being a mother, a housewife or an employee, says Samson.
"I often encounter people who are re-evaluating their goals and their life," says Rawan Albina of the Dubai-based Leap! Life Coaching. "Many of my clients have come to the UAE with high expectations of themselves, and are often disappointed if these expectations are not met. Clients often bring work-related issues that they prefer to explore with someone outside their company." Life coaches can help draw out the positives in most scenarios. "When faced with a situation where it appears they have no choice, people start realising what is truly important to them," says Joanne Simpson, an executive coach who works in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. "The fact is they always had a choice, but it often takes a push to take them out of their comfort zone and make the changes they need."
Simpson describes a situation where a client recently lost his job in the financial industry. "After the initial shock, he felt relief, as he realised this was not who he truly was at his core." He had always wanted to work in a role that helped people, she says, but felt compelled to stay in his job because of his high income. He had a lifestyle that actually had him "working very long hours and not doing anything that gave him pleasure".
Sometimes even a small change is enough to start a new way of living. Another of Simpson's clients, a senior bank executive, started by ensuring he left the office at 4.30pm one day a week to have a family night. "Having one night that brought him joy had a huge impact on how he felt the rest of the week," she says. Have no illusions. Life coaching is not therapy or counselling, and is not a route to sorting out emotional problems. "Coaching is designed to help people who are already well become healthier. Unlike counselling it will only study the past if it helps a client develop ideas and solutions for the future," says Simpson. You also need to be willing and open to the process for it to truly be effective. "You hire a coach if you're ready for a fully lived future, if you want to live and act positively from here on," says Walford.
Life coaching won't suit everyone. To get a taste before you commit, most coaches offer a free introductory session, which is also a good time to find out about the process and see if you connect with your coach. "Listen first and foremost for good chemistry between you when you speak," says Walford. "Are you comfortable with their language? Do they get the nuances of what you're saying?" The life-coaching profession is currently unregulated, so it's wise to research the training your coach has undertaken. It's generally a good sign if they've got "live" coaching experience (a trainee who has learnt via correspondence won't have much of this). Life coaches wouldn't get very far if they didn't have integrity, but if you're cautious, ask them if there is a code of conduct they comply with. Most reputable coaches are accredited by the International Coach Federation (www.coachfederation.org), the world's governing body, which is a good place to start your search.