There are an estimated 53,300 life coaches across the globe, and nearly 17,500 of those can be found in North America [PDF]. These experts help clients set goals in every realm of life—from health to romance to career—and create a strategy to meet those goals, all the while maintaining a cheery, motivational disposition. While there’s some debate about how legit a practice life coaching is (one recent lawsuit accuses a life coaching business in Colorado of running a lucrative Ponzi scheme), there’s no doubt business is booming. One study found that total annual industry revenue was $2 billion and climbing. We talked to a few professional coaches about their jobs and what they’ve learned about human nature during their tenure.
1. There’s no certification.
Interested in becoming a life coach? You’re in luck: There is no regulated certification process to complete before you can put “life coach” on your business cards.
“It’s not regulated by any governing body,” says coach Jay Cataldo. “There’s plenty of people with credentials that have no business coaching anyone and there are people with no credentials that are great coaches. I’m certified by the fact that I am an IACT certified Master Hypnosis Trainer. I tell my clients I have 10 certificates on the wall but they mean nothing. All that matters is can I help you?”
But there are hundreds of training programs that promise to teach the essentials, and at least one accrediting body, the International Coach Federation, maintains a list of what it considers more legitimate training programs. The federation also offers its own credential paths, with a minimum of 60 hours of training and 100 hours of coaching to become an Associate Certified Coach.
Some coaches get certified to add a layer of credibility to their resume, but many consider the school of hard knocks to be the best education.
“I just feel like I’ve had a lot of life, you know?” says life coach Stefanie Ziev, who studied spiritual psychology before discovering the accredited coaching program she completed. “In an effort to decipher the meaning of my life, I’ve done a lot of work.”
2. “Powerful questions” are key.
According to Ziev, one solid coaching method is “listening and asking powerful questions.” By that she means open-ended questions that can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” “For instance, ‘What would be a stretch goal for you? What would bring you out of your comfort zone that might push you to the next level as it relates to what you want to achieve in your life?’”
3. Don’t call them therapists.
Ziev is quick to establish that coaching and therapy are very different services. “Coaching looks forward and therapy looks back,” she says. “Coaching is not as worried about your mommy or daddy issues as it is about what’s happening now and what do you want next?”
If a client is depressed or wallowing in the past, Ziev says she’ll refer them to a therapist. “I’m like look, I can’t help you.”
The way Cataldo puts it, coaching requires a lot more hands-on work on behalf of the client than therapy. “You have to want this more than I want it for you,” he says. “You gotta push yourself, put yourself in uncomfortable situations. I’m not gonna waste my time with someone who isn’t gonna put the work in.”
4. They can afford to turn people down.
Life coaches can be picky about who they choose to take on as a client. Usually the process begins with a questionnaire or an introductory session in which the coach asks a series of questions that tell them something about a prospective client’s personality and chances for success.
“Listen, a victim, someone who lives comfortably in their victim consciousness, is not a coaching client,” says Ziev. “I don’t deal with people who wallow in their problems.”
Annie Lin, a life coach in New York, estimates that she turns down roughly 15 percent of people who approach her, usually because they have a pessimistic attitude. “I prefer to work with clients who really believe in themselves and outside help would add support, accountability, and guidance to that,” she says. “That’s a much better match.”
5. Coaches have their own coaches.
“Any good coach should have a coach,” says Ziev. “I’m a client for sure.”
Cataldo says he’s had four or five different hypnosis mentors and a health coach. “You can’t really be a good coach unless you’ve gone through the coaching process yourself,” he says.
6. Their clients are in it for the long haul.
Most coaches don’t let clients just drop in for a session here and there. Instead, their services come in big packages, so clients have to make a time commitment. “I won’t work with anyone for less than three months,” says Cataldo. “Once a week for at least three months. Some people, I can literally change their life in three or four months. Other people need more time. I’ve had clients for almost six years.”
7. They don’t have to be in the same room as you.
In fact, e-coaching is huge, and it means coaches aren’t limited by geography. At any given time, Ziev is managing roughly 20 clients, and all the coaching takes place over the phone or Skype.
“A lot of coaches have built a practice around Skype sessions,” says Cataldo. “The technology is so fantastic these days it’s like you’re literally in the room with the person.”
8. Going to a bar can be homework.
Cataldo and other coaches often give their clients assignments to do between sessions. This “homework” is meant to help clients reach their goals. “Usually homework is all predicated on what’s the smallest thing you can do to move towards your goal while also learning what you’re not supposed to do,” says Cataldo. “The best way to do that is to make lots of mistakes. So let’s say I’m working with a guy with social anxiety issues. Homework might just be go to a bar after work and just stand there. Do that for five days in a row. The week after that might be just randomly approaching three people and say[ing], ‘Cheers, how’s your night going?’ Then walk away.”
9. They see the same issues over and over.
While each client is unique, coaches say there are a handful of weaknesses we all have in common. “Most of us do not know how to experience the negative feelings,” says Lin. “We either avoid them, resist them, or over-react to them. It’s only when we have learned to experience and process the negative flows, [that] we’ll be ready to think differently and take different kind[s] of action to generate different results.”
According to Cataldo, we’re also incredibly insecure. “People truly believe deep down they don’t measure up and are not as good as everyone else,” he says. “They don’t believe they’re worthy of love. Also, people believe their negative thoughts are true and not just a bunch of random gibberish. Every single person I’ve come across suffers from this.”
10. But sometimes men and women have different coaching needs.
“I would say that in general, men have a higher need of feeling significant/independent while women need to feel love and connection,” says Lin, though she stresses this is an oversimplification. “When it comes to relationships, many of my male clients need help to better tap into their masculinity (feeling more confident and comfortable with their desires) while my high-achieving female clients need to allow their femininity to come forth (thus becoming more laid-back and trusting, instead of controlling). But differences are mostly of individual nature and not necessarily gender-driven.”
11. Facebook has been good for business.
Social media’s suffocating effects on our mental health and self-esteem have been well-documented, and may drive some people into the arms of a life coach.
“Facebook and Instagram aren’t real,” says Cataldo. “Everyone seems so much cooler and funnier and wittier, but it’s all an illusion.” He and other coaches sometimes recommend clients leave social media entirely. “I do occasionally advise clients to take the Facebook app off their phone,” says Lin. “It’s a constant barrage of information you don’t need and it appears to be useful but really it makes us feel more alienated.”
A version of this story ran in 2016.