Life coaching is defined as “a dynamic interaction that facilitates the learning, development, and performance of the person being coached” (Lennard, 2010, Introduction, p. 1). It is a way to promote balance and harmony (Martin, 2001) by supporting clients in living to their fullest potential.
While there is enormous variability in terms of counseling approaches, one crucial distinction between coaches and counselors is that the former is not problem or diagnosis focused.
Instead, coaching is aimed at enhancing existing capabilities (Griffiths & Campbell, 2008). It is a solution-focused approach in which clients are guided toward achieving outcomes.
In other words, a good coach understands that “The will to win, the desire to succeed, the urge to reach your full potential… these are the keys that will unlock the door to personal excellence” (Confucius).
While many coaches may adhere to a common objective, the way they get there is unique to the coach’s particular background, style, and philosophical model.
As a match between coaching style and client needs is essential for client success, this article will highlight some of the major types of coaching approaches. In doing so, individuals and organizations seeking a life or leadership coach will be better able to find the right person for the job.
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What are the Different Coaching Styles?
Like counselors, coaches are made up of a range of backgrounds, such as psychology, management, education, sports, and health (Martin, 2001). And of course, how coaches work with clients is related to this background, as well as to the coach’s personality, experiences, and history.
Coaching-related research is similar to classic parenting style literature. Namely, in her oft-cited studies, Baumrind (1991) identified several specific parenting styles, which include authoritarian, authoritative, and permissive.
The manner in which life coaches interact with clients is similar to the distinctions noted by Baumrind. For example, coaches may vary in terms of the degree to which they control the sessions versus allowing the client to have input in terms of the coaching process (e.g., authoritarian/autocratic versus more democratic/ authoritative coaching).
Coaches also may differ in terms of whether they take a more specific focus or consider multiple connected facets of the client’s experiences (e.g., holistic coaching). Additional approaches include laissez-faire, developmental, mindfulness, and intuitive coaching—among others.
There are multiple ways to coach, so let’s take a closer look at ten popular styles.
Democratic Coaching Style
A democratic (i.e., participative) coaching style follows the same general principles of democracy itself, as it takes into account the interests, concerns, and choices of the people involved.
With democratic coaching, the client takes an active role in determining coaching goals and the methods used to achieve them. While client input is an essential element of democratic coaching, coaches have the last word when it comes to decision-making (Amanchukwu, Stanley, & Nwachukwu, 2015).
This coaching style encourages the following client skills and qualities:
- collaborative competency
- commitment to objectives
Autocratic Coaching Style
An autocratic (i.e., authoritarian) coaching style is much more different than a democratic approach, as autocratic coaches take a firmer or even dictatorial leadership role that is lacking in client input.
In this case, there is a definite division between the client and coach, with the autocratic coach taking it upon him/herself to make decisions. Sometimes described as a more extreme version of a transactional leadership style (see description below; Amanchukwu et al., 2015), an autocratic coach will often dictate all coaching methods and processes.
Although this coaching style may be negatively construed, there are situations (e.g., those involving high stress or urgency) in which a more collaborative approach is not optimal. Autocratic coaching also may become necessary when only the coach has sufficient expertise to make key decisions (Amanchukwu et al., 2015).
This coaching style encourages the following outcomes and client qualities:
- trust in the coach
- stress reduction
- realistic goal attainment
- reduced ambiguity
Laissez-Faire Coaching Style
This mostly hands-off approach is grounded in the idea that clients possess the self-efficacy to achieve their own goals and priorities with minimal leadership (Harper, 2012).
Using the example of a coach hired as an external consultant, a laissez-faire coach holds the client responsible as the ‘primary process owner’ (Harper, 2012).
This coaching style is so hands-off that it is often regarded as an ineffective ‘zero leadership’ approach (Yang, 2015). However, research also has suggested that a laissez-faire approach is only as negative as the particular context in which it occurs.
Laissez-faire coaching during all situations may be regarded as a general lack of taking responsibility, as coaching does require some level of guidance and leadership. Instead, a flexible, openminded coaching approach can understand the fluidity of behavior as related to context, and to adapt the coaching style as needed (Yang, 2015).
Additionally, positive laissez-faire coaching outcomes also are far more likely when the coach provides regular performance monitoring and feedback (Amanchukwu et al., 2015). This coaching style encourages the following client skills and qualities:
- decision-making ability
Holistic Coaching Style
A holistic coaching style takes into account the whole person.
Recognizing the connectedness of multiple domains of life, this approach is concerned with all aspects of a client’s life.
Holistic coaching has been used in a variety of contexts, such as for the promotion of positive development among South African youth (Whitley, Gould, & Wright et al., 2017).
In this qualitative study, coaches described the importance of taking a holistic perspective with students. Or, in the words of one coach, “You can never be a coach if you don’t develop a player holistically. You can’t just do it on the field. You need to be a father to him, be a mother to him; you need to be an educator to him, be a teacher to him—all those things” (Whitley et al., 2017, P. 9).
Whether discussing sports or life coaching, the concept is the same: To impact a client’s life, the coach must recognize and address the whole client during the coaching process. This coaching style encourages the following client benefits and qualities:
- feeling understood
- trust in the coach-client relationship
- uncovering of deeply held feelings and drives
- identification of solutions
- enhanced wellbeing/functioning across the whole person (e.g., mind, body, feelings and spirit)
- enhanced wellbeing/functioning across multiple domains (e.g., family, work, home, health, etc.)
6 Other Coaching Styles
Various additional coaching styles are described in the research literature; here are six of the most common:
1. Mindfulness Coaching
Mindfulness Coaching draws from mindfulness philosophy by promoting a type of awareness in which a person pays attention to his/her feelings and thoughts in the moment, and without judgment. It is an openminded and accepting way of responding to thoughts (i.e., cognitions; Kabat-Zinn, 2005).
Coaches following this approach work towards creating a calmer way for clients to respond to stress and anxious cognitions. A mindfulness-focused coach may be especially useful for anxious clients, given the significant relationship between mindfulness activities and reduced anxiety (Blanck, Perleth, & Heidenreich et al., 2018).
This coaching style encourages the following client qualities:
- peace of mind
- reduced anxiety
2. Developmental Coaching
This coaching style involves a type of helping relationship in which a client’s learning opportunities are identified, and his/her growth is supported (Lennard, 2010). A developmental coach acts as a client’s thought partner as they work toward promoting capabilities and attaining goals.
This holistic approach addresses longstanding issues, varies based on developmental stage, and is useful for those who have reached a growth plateau (Bachkirova, 2011).
This coaching style encourages the following outcomes and client qualities:
- long-term development
- greater learning opportunities
- broad human capabilities
- enhanced growth
3. Intuitive Coaching
This approach takes a relatively spiritual tack by supporting clients in developing and trusting their inner perspectives.
Reimers-Hild (2012) describes the achievement of personal fulfillment as the process of “using intuition to truly clarify musts and make them essential. Musts need to become critical for survival, success, wellbeing, and sense of purpose” (p. 13).
Along these lines, intuitive coaches will help a client to identify the essential ingredients needed for fulfillment and success by listening to his/her inner voice (Reimers-Hild, 2012). This coaching style encourages the following client qualities:
- uncovering deeply held drives
- discovery of true passions
4. Transactional Coaching
With Transactional Coaching, the coach is interested in an exchange-focused relationship. This task-driven and time-limited style is aimed at promoting performance and avoiding stumbling blocks (Lennard, 2010).
Subcategories of transactional coaching include contingent reward coaching (i.e., the provision of rewards based on performance), active management by exception (i.e., attending to client challenges and mistakes), and passive management by exception (i.e., only intervening once problems become more advanced;) (Eagly, Johannesen-Schmidt, & van Engen, 2003).
Clearly, the difference between active versus passive transactional coaching lies in timing since the former approach involves constant performance monitoring and proactive intervention (Nawaz & Khan, 2016). Transactional coaching style encourages the following outcomes and client qualities:
- performance enhancement
- problem-solving skills
- short-term changes
- goal clarity
5. Transformational Coaching
This one-on-one approach involves building a trusting coach-client alliance in which coaching goals and processes are agreed upon by both parties.
Rather than establishing hierarchical control, the transformational coach acts collaboratively with the client while offering authentic support along with candid feedback (Eagly et al., 2003; Lennard, 2010).
Transformational coaching is made up of the following dimensions: Inspirational motivation, idealized influence, intellectual stimulation, and individual consideration (Furtner, Baldegger, & Rauthmann, 2013). This coaching style encourages the following client skills and qualities:
- cognitive development
- collaborative skills
- intrinsic motivation
- ability to problem-solve
6. Bureaucratic Coaching
This style of coaching is rigid, adhering to specific rules and following a clear model outlining decision-making hierarchies. As such, it is most applicable to highly regulated situations or environments where it is essential to follow safety and other procedural regulations (Amanchukwu et al., 2015).
Bureaucratic coaching is less applicable to individual coaching than to coaching within public sector organizations or military settings.
This coaching style encourages the following outcomes:
- reduced potential for favoritism
- lack of job or task ambiguity
- adherence to best practice standards
The above categories outline some of the most popular types of coaching. There are, of course, other methods, such as performance coaching, which is aimed at enhancing particular capabilities as a function of the development of skills (Bachkirova, 2011).
Some coaches also may take on more of a controlling style, which is often what is visualized when considering ‘old school’ athletic coaches. Controlling coaches apply pressure based on coercion or by eliciting the client’s sense of guilt as a way of modifying behavior and attitudes (Bartholomew, Ntoumanis, & Thøgersen-Ntoumani, 2010).
Not surprisingly, this approach has negative implications for clients that increase the likelihood of burnout (Barcza-Renner K, Eklund RC, Morin A, et al., 2015). There are, however, far more effective coaching styles (as noted above) that are linked to many positive client outcomes.
Questionnaires for Assessing your Style
Fortunately, whether working with individual clients or in a management setting, there are several psychometrically validated assessment tools available to help coaches learn more about their own particular coaching styles.
Here are seven examples:
Empowering Leadership Questionnaire (ELQ; Arnold, Arad, Rhoades, & Drasgow, 2000).
This measure includes 38 items within the following five factors: Coaching, informing, leading by example, showing concern/interacting with the team, and participative decision-making (Arnold et al., 2000).
The ELQ is used for measuring leader empowering behavior (e.g., by showing concern for workgroup members’ success, by encouraging workgroup members to solve problems together, and by treating workgroup members as equals, etc.).
The Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS; adaptation of German version; Ruch, Proyer, &Harzer et al., 2010).
This questionnaire measures 24 character strengths (e.g., bravery, kindness, teamwork, modesty, appreciation, hope, humor, etc.) and six core virtues (i.e., wisdom and knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, transcendence; Ruch et al., 2010).
It applies to coaches hoping to assess and improve their strength of character when working with clients.
Leader Effectiveness and Adaptability Description (LEAD; Paul Hersey & Blanchard, 1988).
This 12-item multiple-choice questionnaire measures leadership style (e.g., traditional versus situational). Based on situational leadership theory, respondents must choose from four alternatives that most closely approximate how they would respond in a specific situation (Johansen, 1990).
Leader Empowering Behavior Questionnaire (LEBQ; Konczak, Stelly, & Trusty, 2000).
This 17-item questionnaire measures empowering leader behavior such as delegation of authority, accountability, and self-directed decision making.
It has been proposed as a useful way to provide feedback in terms of empowerment-focused leadership behaviors among coaching managers (Konczak et al., 2000).
Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire (MLQ; Avolio & Bass, 2004).
This comprehensive leadership instrument includes 9 items measuring leadership outcomes and 36 items measuring leadership styles. Leadership style items are focused on transactional leadership, transformational leadership, and passive avoidant leadership. Leadership outcomes are focused on effort, productivity, and satisfaction.
Penn State Leadership Competency Inventory (LCI; Joon, Hoon, & Donahue et al., 2010).
This 32-item scale assesses the following dimensions of leadership: Conceptual thinking, strategic orientation, information seeking, and service orientation. Using a multiple-choice format, respondents indicate their perceived degree of importance and development need for each of the 32 items.
The Revised Self-Leadership Questionnaire (RSLQ; Houghton & Neck, 2002).
This 35-item instrument measures self-leadership skills, cognitions and behaviors that are consistent with self-leadership theory (Houghton & Neck, 2002).
Scale dimensions include behavior focused strategies (with five sub-scales: self-reward, self-punishment, self-cueing, self-observation, and self-goal setting); natural reward strategies (with one sub-scale: focusing thoughts on natural rewards); and constructive thought pattern strategies (with three subscales: visualizing successful performance, self-talk, and evaluating beliefs and assumptions).
The RSLQ is also available in an abbreviated 9-item version (Houghton, Dawley, & DiLiello, 2012).
A Take-Home Message
Hiring a life coach may have numerous benefits, particularly for helping individuals to thrive in the fast-paced society that is so evident today. As noted, there are various types of coaching styles (e.g., democratic, holistic, intuitive, transformational, etc.). However, it is essential to note that “effective coaching is a mixture of pedagogy and principles of sciences” (Reeve, 2007, p. 1).
Therefore, good coaches do not strictly follow one style; but rather, can adjust their approaches based on changes in the client, context, and other key factors. Coaching is, therefore, an iterative process; it must always adapt to the constant ebb and flow of life.
Coaches are fortunate to have various assessment tools at their disposal. These instruments measure a variety of coaching and leadership qualities and are useful for ensuring that a coach is performing most effectively for his/her client.
Those interested in seeking out a coach are encouraged to research the differing coaching styles outlined here to find the best match for their unique needs. And, generally speaking, several qualities should be evident in all coaches; such as excellent listening skills, confidence, optimism, open-mindedness, etc. (see Williams & Davis, 2002 for a more extensive description of optimal coaching qualities).
Considering the many benefits of coaching as outlined here, there is a good reason for individuals to consider using a life coach when dealing with a challenge or hoping for a greater sense of meaning in life. Some applications of coaching even have been associated with significant health-related improvements (e.g., Wolever, Dreusicke, & Fikkan et al., 2010).
Overall, by employing the services of these specialized mentors, individuals may better navigate the challenges of life in a way that enhances happiness, life satisfaction, and a sense of purpose.
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