I learned to use the first minutes of the coaching session more purposefully. After saying hello, I'd ask clients about their progress since the last session. Then, we'd discuss what ideas they had for the focus of the next hour, determine a plan for the session, and jump right in. "OK, Ruth," I might say, "I understand that you want to talk about whether to move to a new city. That's an important topic, but it's a big one to cover. Given our time today, what aspect of this topic makes most sense to discuss first?" Developing collaborative, clear goals for a session constituted the coaching agreement. If any one aspect of coaching could be called the most necessary, this would be it. Because each coaching session needed to deliver measurable results, I found that taking the time to set a good coaching agreement--being careful not to rush through this--greatly enhanced the likelihood of a successful hour. When I took the time to arrive at a solid, workable agreement, my coaching sessions usually went well, with the client very satisfied; however, when I forgot this step or the agreement was too vague, things tended to meander, and often the client left feeling unresolved about what we'd achieved.
As I grew more comfortable with coaching, I began to wonder about structuring my therapy sessions in a similar way, and tried to weave this and other coaching methods into my therapeutic work. A major feature separating the two approaches was the attitude that set the tone for sessions. Traditionally, psychotherapy has focused on pain and suffering--the dark side of the spectrum of life's emotions. But in coach training, optimism and a positive attitude rule supreme. At CoachU, we focused on expansive, even visionary, topics, which included peak performance, accomplishment, pleasure, and happiness. In fact, the coaching approach was so uncompromisingly hopeful that, initially, true to my psychodynamic training, I could barely keep from rolling my eyes at all this happiness-and-bliss talk.
I learned at CoachU, in no uncertain terms, that if I wanted to be a coach, I had to quash my cynicism and get on the happiness bandwagon. "You can't be a very good life coach without having a very good life," a senior coach said. Then, in a class called Buff--as in, getting to perfection--she asked everyone to complete the "Clean Sweep" checklist, a 100-item list of conditions in four categories of the perfect life--physical environment, relationships, money, and well-being--to which we should aspire. A few, which provide the tenor of the exercise, include:
- I have 6 months' living expenses in an easily accessible account.
- I do not suffer.
- I laugh out loud every day.
- There's no one whom I would dread or feel uncomfortable "bumping into" (in the street, at an airport, at a party.)
- I don't gossip or talk negatively about others.
- I surround myself with beautiful things.
- As I worked down the list, one statement stopped me cold:
- I live in the geographical location of my choice.
Now here was an item I didn't think I'd ever check off. In high school, when other students talked about their plans for college and beyond, I had only one goal: to get out of Silver Spring, Maryland. To me, at age 17, Silver Spring, a low-key, middle-class suburb of Washington, D.C., was the epitome of all things boring, and I wanted only to be gone. Determined to experience the '60s counterculture, I went to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, a genuine hotbed of revolutionary politics and protest--and best of all, it was so not Silver Spring. I got so caught up in the antiwar movement and my new freedoms that I didn't have time to go to classes. Dropping out after a year, I embarked on a nomadic, hippie lifestyle. Along with my husband at the time, I lived in a school bus that we drove around the country, making enough money to live on by organizing rock concerts.
But my adventure in a countercultural lifestyle ended as so many like it did in that era: after six years, my marriage fell apart and I came home, back to Silver Spring, to regroup, with a 4-year-old child in tow. I was exhausted, run-down, and seriously depressed. I thought I was just visiting long enough to get my energy back, but my parents sat me down and urged me to stay put, go back to college, find a job, grow up, and take care of my son. I saw their point and agreed. The one place I wanted to escape had now become home again.
Twenty years later, I was still in Silver Spring. With the help of my own therapy for more than a decade, I was no longer depressed, was married again--happily this time--enjoyed a circle of family and friends, lived in a comfortable house of my own, and had a private practice as a therapist. But I just couldn't make myself say that I "lived in the location of my choice." During the next coaching class, when I reported my inability to check off this item, the teacher asked if I appreciated the cost, to myself, of not loving where I lived. I had no answer for that. But, ever the diligent student, I wanted to get a passing score on the survey, so I decided to see what it would take to learn to love Silver Spring.
I started with my immediate neighborhood. I took long walks and found a hidden delight. Down a dead-end street, just minutes from my house, was a steep hillside that led to a secluded branch of the Anacostia River. The little path by the river was green, quiet, and private. Large, old oak trees blocked any sign of houses when I stood on a rock by the river. Waterfowl, deer, and fox called this area home. I felt as if I were in the country, instead of the suburbs. During another walk, I explored streets lined with flowering cherry and magnolia trees--a gift from the original city planners. I planted a small kitchen garden and dreamed about making my own salad. I met neighbors who stopped by to chat as I knelt outside digging in the dirt.
Reconsidering what the concept of home meant to me, I began to appreciate the gifts of being back where I grew up and getting the chance to "do over" old, sometimes painful childhood memories. Looking back on my 24-year-old self who agreed to stay in Silver Spring for the sake of her child, I could regard my personal history with more compassion. In just a few weeks, I began to shift from resigned acceptance to real affection for my immediate surroundings--a process that continued long after the coaching class was over.
With a lot of help from good therapists through the years, I'd looked at my family-of-origin and the issues that led to my desire to escape Silver Spring, much of it based on feelings of anxiety and depression, and had found ways to shift old beliefs that I was unlovable and unworthy. But the pursuit of unalloyed happiness had never been on the agenda of my own psychotherapy, and wasn't part of what I offered my clients. Before learning to be a coach, I functioned well. I showed no egregious symptoms of emotional distress, accepted myself, and had acquired a degree of self-awareness and self-acceptance. But coaching taught me to seek delight in life, rather than just feeling a sense of quotidian OK-ness. It offered strategies for a larger sense of fulfillment and happiness, and normalized them as realistic goals--a completely novel way for me to view and live my life. With more to choose from, including happiness and possibility, in the jargon of CoachU, I was finally "at choice."
I printed off the Clean Sweep checklist and began to offer it to my therapy clients as a resource for life improvement. One client, who suffered from depression, was in a difficult marriage, worked a low-level job, and was barely surviving financially, came in with it the next week and handed it back, angrily. "I have a score of 6 out of 100 on this list," she said snarling, "It's a stupid exercise." Other clients in later stages of therapy, not so depressed and more ready to think about their future potential, welcomed the list, and picked items to add as topics for therapeutic discussion. Some clients, who might have been on the verge of terminating because their early therapy goals felt complete, now asked to stay and work on more future-oriented goals and visions, spurred on by ideas from the checklist.
As I proceeded in my coach training, what began to stand out as the critical element--the difference between coaching and therapy and the one I was most unsure of carrying over to a therapy setting--was the idea of partnership. Coaches are, above all, partners with their clients, not quasi-medical experts or psychological wisdom dispensers. The difference in the coaching partnership relationship is often explained by imagining you're learning to ride a bicycle for the first time and being helped by a therapist, a consultant, and a coach. A therapist would be standing off to the side, closely observing your attempt to stay upright. She'd be empathic, compassionate when you fell, and might make insightful interpretations about why you're so unbalanced. She'd help you understand the origins of your lack of stability and again watch as you got back on the bike, this time, armed with all of your new (theoretical) insights.A consultant might be the ex-Olympian bike-riding expert accompanying you, riding speedy circles around you while you wobble along, struggling to keep the bike and yourself upright. He'd note your current lack of ability at riding, tell you exactly how and where you're doing it wrong, give you a detailed, step-by-step plan for doing it right, submit a report with all of the findings and suggestions, including specs for the state-of-the-art bike you'd need to buy, and then ride off, leaving you to do what he'd told you to do. A coach would climb on the seat right behind you and ask, "Where do you want to go today?"