Life coaching emerged as a profession about ten years ago, and the field has grown rapidly since then. In 1999, the International Coach Federation (ICF) had roughly 2,100 North American members; today, that figure is more than 8,000. The organization’s local chapter, the Chicago Coach Federation, has grown from 239 members in 2004 to 325 members currently. But questions about the practice still exist—namely, what does a life coach actually do, and how is it different from therapy? Here, a primer in five easy pieces:

Take Stock

The biggest hurdle can be figuring out whether dissatisfaction with one’s life is a problem that needs help from the outside. Amy Fenton, an Oak Park stay-at-home mom, was stuck. “I had this vague idea that I didn’t want to be doing this forever,” Fenton recalls. “But I had this question: What do I do with the rest of my life?” Feeling utterly worn down by the demands of parenting her young daughter, Fenton, who has degrees in art and theatre but had been working in an unrewarding office job when she became a mother, decided to hire a life coach.

Before the first session, the coach asked Fenton to assess various areas of her life—career, physical environment, fun and recreation, and so forth—and how she felt about them. Fenton made some surprising discoveries. “I was very frustrated with [lack of] personal growth, because I was home with Ariel all the time,” she says. “[But] in the process of talking with my coach I realized I was doing a lot of personal growth—but I

didn’t like it. Also, I was very career focused when I started talking to her, but she really helped me identify how I was going to make my whole life work better.”


Understand the Difference Between a Life Coach and a Therapist

Coaches—and clients—are adamant that while the line between coaching and therapy can seem a bit blurry, they are not the same thing. “Therapy is all about your feelings and your past,” Fenton says, adding that the time she previously spent in therapy would have been better spent with a coach. “I wasn’t frustrated because of my family history; I was frustrated because I felt stuck. A coach is not going to get into your psyche—they’re going to help you take action.”

Jim Korenich, a social worker and director of clinical services for Chicago-based Employee Resource Systems, which works with employers to provide counseling services to their employees, has been trained, but doesn’t practice, as a life coach. He agrees with Fenton’s assessment, adding that coaching is most appropriate for people who are emotionally healthy already. “If someone’s been married six times, they pro­bably need a therapist, not a coach,” Korenich points out. “There’s not a problem finding people to marry; they need to find out why they’ve been married so much.”


Illustration: Hanna Melin/


Shop Wisely

Don’t assume you can’t afford it. Go to the Web site of the Coaches Training Institute (, a large and well-respected program, and click on Hire-a-Coach, where you can search for one charging as little as $150 a month.

Literally anyone can throw up a Web site and call herself a life coach. “Remember back in the mid-1980s to ’90s when financial advisers and personal trainers were coming into vogue?” asks Ann Babiarz, a Barrington-based coach. “Many were hanging a shingle [with] no credentials. It is now that way in coaching.” Expect to pay between $50 and $250 per session. And because coaches are not qualified to assign a diagnostic code, as licensed therapists are, coaching is not covered by insurance.

So how do you find a good coach? First, look for an ICF creden­tial. ICF is the leading professional organization for life coaches, and it offers three levels of credentialing, all certifying that a coach has completed an ICF-accredited program, demonstrated a certain level of proficiency in coaching, and agreed to uphold the ethics and standards of the ICF. You can search the ICF data­base of credentialed coaches on its Web site ( Then, vet your candidates by interviewing them. Many coaches offer an initial complimentary session so client and coach can get a feel for one another and see if they’re a good fit. “It’s just like dating,” Fenton says. “Find one you click with.”


Tailor the Experience

Many coaches are generalists and handle a range of issues. Chicago-based life coach Ioanna Chaney, for instance, says her clients’ goals run the gamut from learning to be more assertive at work to creating a more nurturing physical space in their home; her clients’ two most common issues are improving work-life balance and meeting their ideal mate. Other coaches have particular niches. Curt Preissner, a mechanical engineer at Argonne National Laboratory, sought out Alison Miller, a Chicagoan, because she also specialized in helping doctoral students finish their degrees, a task that had been dogging him for seven years. Other coaching specialties include coping with attention deficit disorder, parenting, setting retirement goals, managing personal finances, and improving health and fitness.

Also, decide whether you want to work over the phone or in person. According to an ICF survey, 56 percent of life coaches in North America work with their clients over the phone, while only 40 percent meet face-to-face. Chaney pre­fers to work in person but is willing to do phone sessions. “The bene­fit is efficiency, with no commute time,” she says. “I can talk to people in California, the suburbs. I’ve had clients I’ve never met even though they might live three miles away.”


Really Commit

Life coaches generally meet with a client on a weekly basis, typically requiring a three-month commitment; the average client-coach relationship lasts 6 to 11 months. Most coaches begin the process with an assessment to help the client figure out what he or she wants to work on. Ron Osterlein, a Chicago-based coach and past president of the Chicago Coach Federation, gives clients an eight-page inventory that includes questions such as “What activities make you lose all sense of time?”; “What are the top five things you have been tolerating or procrastinating on?”; and “What is the scariest thing you have ever done?”

Coaches assign homework, usually a goal to be completed before the next session. Be wary, however, of the coach who tries to set the agenda for you. “Coaching isn’t about giving advice,” Miller says. “It’s about helping clients learn about themselves.” A good coach should be asking questions that lead you to set goals, not setting them for you. “When you hang up the phone,” Amy Fenton says, “you should feel in your gut that this is the right thing, and that even if it’s a little scary, it’s still exciting.”

During each week’s session, Fenton would set two or three goals for herself. One goal that had a big impact was asking a favorite relative to baby-sit her daughter one day a week. “It really helped me carve out time for exercise, for making art—taking small steps to getting back out into the world,” Fenton says. Other goals included getting her resumé together and making professional connections. Eventually Fenton became a faculty member at Triton College, where she teaches theatre and directs plays; she credits coaching with laying the groundwork. Says Fenton, “It gave me tools instead of just feeling despair.”


Illustration: Hanna Melin/