Off the couch, on to the coach

A meeting ends with the coachee going home and making a list of their short and long-term goals and core values.

therapy 88 (photo credit: )
therapy 88
(photo credit: )
In her pleasantly furnished office on a quiet side street in Ra'anana, Lisa Grossman asks me to close my eyes and listen to the chirping of the birds outside her office window as she guides me through a short visualization, during which I imagine myself meeting my future self in order to gain some understanding of how I want to live my life 20 years from now. “Look around you,” says Grossman, a slim, pretty, well-dressed American who made aliya in 1979, “and notice if there are any details around you that hint at your future self's achievements.” This is a taste of what a first session with a life coach, or a personal coach, might look like. Typically, such a meeting ends with the coachee going home and making a list of their short-term and long-term goals and core values. The ensuing series of coaching sessions, which generally last no more than three months, would take the form of regular appointments in person or on the phone. In the language of coaching, these appointments would then allow the coach and the coachee to work toward synchronizing these goals, trying to resolve the conflicts between them and the client's behavior in the world, and developing a plan of action intended to allow the coachee to actualize their potential and open up new possibilities. “What stops us from actually achieving these goals is our fear,” explains Grossman, before pausing briefly to call one of her coachees, in order to follow up and see if he had performed a particular task they had agreed upon during their previous coaching session. “The first step to taming your fear, or your gremlin, is noticing it,” Grossman adds as we resume our conversation, brandishing a stuffed goblin she had grabbed from her cache of coaching accessories. Grossman, who earned her master's degree in educational psychology from Boston University has spent years working for health care centers in the US and in Israel, now specializes in coaching clients suffering from attention deficit disorder. Coaching strategies, as Grossman has explained in a recent article on the subject, are derived, in part, from behavioral therapy and from neuro-linguistic programming, as well as from a good dose of positive reinforcement which she smilingly defines as the “you go girl!” strategy. Coaching, a practice that has received a growing amount of attention in Israel in the past two years, originated in the US almost two decades ago, and has built on a combination of models borrowed from sports coaching, clinical psychology, and a variety of consulting practices. Unlike psychotherapy, coaching focuses on functional issues, such as performing tasks. It is designed to help in creating desired change in the life of individuals or professional organizations interested in fulfilling particular goals, improving performance, and enhancing personal or professional satisfaction. Although there is now a large number of coaches working in highly specialized fields, basic coaching courses usually train coaches to work as “executive coaches,” who train business executives in a professional work environment, and “life” or “personal” coaches, who work with individuals on meeting both personal and professional goals. As its serious practitioners are quick to point out, coaching is not a magic pill for achieving instant happiness. But in a country oversaturated with alternative means for achieving physical and emotional well-being, many Israelis who have recently become coaches or coachees are convinced that coaching can help them custom-tailor the life they truly want to live. Rinat Netanel is an example of coaching's power. A 31-year-old native of Holon, she has spent the last decade working as a news photographer for Israeli TV. Since she enrolled in a coaching course at one of the approximately two dozen schools that now offer such courses in Israel, though, Netanel has managed to refinance her mortgage and discovered that the money she saved by doing so would allow her to fulfill her dream of moving out of Tel Aviv to a house on a quiet moshav. She quit her job as a news photographer and, in addition to her new coaching practice, now runs a private business with her boyfriend. “Until four months ago,” she told me on a warm morning in mid-September, “my life was pretty confused. I wasn't happy at work, and I felt I was wasting my life. I constantly felt there was another direction I could be going in, and that the only thing stopping me was my inhibitions.” Sitting on the outdoor terrace of a newly opened cafe in a well-to-do Tel Aviv neighborhood, Netanel takes one last sip of her iced coffee before presenting me with the neatly bound folder she has prepared for future clients in her own new coaching practice. I leaf through the folder until I reach a paragraph in which she defines the relationship between herself and her coachees, as they are known in coaching terminology. “I am a resource for you as a coach,” the paragraph begins. “A coach has expereince and background in time management, definition of values, clarifying goals and achieving them through advanced coaching techniques. The nature of a coaching relationship can by no means be considered to be a form of psychological therapy, or any other form of therapy. I am neither a therapist nor a consultant. You are the one who decides which actions to take during the coaching process, and are therefore responsible for the results. Coaching leads to personal empowerment. I believe that people have answers of their own, and we will discover them together during the coaching process.” Proponents of coaching are careful to distinguish it from the wide variety of ever-changing self-empowerment fads available on the Israeli market. Thirty-three-year-old Amir Barkat, who formerly worked for Landmark, defines the difference in the following manner. “The Landmark Forum,” he said, “can be a very powerful program. You leave at the end of the weekend with this sense of having achieved something really important, but after that initial high there is the morning after effect that takes two or three days, and then you go back to your routine. During those two days, everything seems possible, but the confrontation with reality quickly changes this perception.” Ilan Gewurz, a 30-something Canadian who has a rich background in mediation and conflict resolution, spent the past three years in Israel as a consultant for the McKenzie investment firm. He has recently returned from Canada, where he spent four months taking a course in coaching and organizational change. A graduate of the London School of Economics, Gewurz became interested in coaching, he said, when he realized that “so much of what comes up when people make an effort to solve conflict and deal with difficult situations comes down to mindsets and patterns that aren't working for us.” Gewurz also distinguishes between what he describes as self-improvement fads that don't stick, and coaching, which he believes can serve as a tool for true self transformation. “There is a difference between change that is imposed from the outside and transformation which takes place from within,” he says. “It's the difference between a quick fix and change that may happen quickly, yet which is part of a longer process or life journey.” Unlike psychotherapy, coaching is typically described as a practice that focuses on the present in relationship to the future rather than the past, and which analyzes things in terms of actions rather than emotions. Gewurz emphasizes, however, that meaningful coaching does not attempt to turn people into emotionless robots. “You still have to ask yourself who is the I who is experiencing the now,” he says. Both proponents and opponents of coaching seem to agree that the term encompasses a wide spectrum of practitioners originating in different fields, who range from dilettantes to highly educated and highly trained professionals. Abi Shilon quit a career in high tech at the age of 50 to train as a coach in England and the US, and today runs the Hatmara coaching school in Israel. The big coaching boom in Israel began about two years ago, he says. Today, according to Shilon, there are hundreds of practitioners who call themselves coaches, yet Israel still has no regulatory body that defines terms of accreditation for them. “It sounds very sexy, so a lot of people are jumping on the wagon,” he says. Out of the 25 or so coaching schools operating today in Israel some of which call themselves “coaching colleges” though they have no academic accreditation, Shilon says that he considers only five schools to meet international professional standards. “Eventually,” Shilon says, “the profession will stabilize itself, but right now the public is still unclear about what to expect from coaching.” Dana Pereg, who holds a PhD in organizational psychology from Bar-Ilan University, has also recently enrolled in a carefully selected coaching course. “From a sociological point of view,” she says, “the field is still in the process of becoming. There are more and more people specializing in very specific kinds of coaching, for example, as career coaches.” Pereg also points out that just like psychotherapy, coaching appeals to a particular and essentially similar socioeconomic sector. Much has been made of the similarities and differences between coaching and psychotherapeutic treatment. Netanel, who is careful to distinguish between the two fields during initial contact with the coachees she now meets as part of her internship, says the comparison is a disservice to both professions. “They are two completely different ways of doing things,” she says. “My therapist helped me deal with the past and turn a new page in my life, but I never spoke to her about practical ways of fulfilling my goals.” Barkat, who specializes in coaching members of the entertainment industry, is more adamant about the ability of coaching to offer quicker, more effective solutions than psychotherapy. “Therapy can go on for years, and who needs all of that delving into subterranean emotional currents,” he says. “I want down-to-earth, immediate results, and put an exclamation point after results! Coaching isn't a magic potion, but who wants to begin a process that will end long after the relationship, or job, you came to therapy to cope with is long gone?” One senior clinical psychologist, whom I will call Rachel Rosen, travelled abroad several years ago to study executive coaching in England, at a highly regarded international training programs for coaches. Nevertheless, Rosen is careful to keep her coaching work with business executives separate from her psychoanalytically oriented practice, and remains skeptical about many aspects of coaching. The danger, she cautions, is that coaching will become a superficial substitute for forms of personal transformation attended to by the helping professions, and which require more time, depth and patience. “It's a fertile ground for quick solutions, which feed into a fantasy of instant change,” she says. Rosen is also concerned with the lack of research that examines how effective coaching is over time, once the cathartic and pleasurable effect of attempting to initiate change wears off. In addition, she points to the relationship between coaching and the world of sports coaching, which is considered to be one of the sources for the business and personal coaching model, as another troubling dimension. “A sports coach is an authority figure, and the relationship between him and the athlete he coaches does not end after three months. It is a relationship that lasts as long as the athlete is in training, and it creates a great degree of dependency on someone else,” Rosen says. Rosen is concerned about coaching being transformed into a “cookbook solution” for a consumer culture in which “there are lots of problems and lots of superficial solutions.” She points to the fact that coaching offers an easy sometimes too easy solution for men and women whose former professions have quickly become obsolete as has happened, for instance, with many former members of the high tech industry. “There are a lot of people out there needing to cope with fast-paced lives, and others who can cope through helping these people and suddenly there is a new profession out there that is vague and noninstitutionalized enough for people to project whatever they want unto it. There are a lot of people who feel lost, and this can be a great way for both coach and coachee to feel they are finding themselves.” Like a range of imported cultural phenomena, the sudden burgeoning of the coaching business in Israel may be viewed as nothing more than the latest global trend to wash up on local shores. In his recent book The Designed Self: Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Identities, the Tel Aviv-based psychoanalyst Carlo Strenger situates the constant desire for change, which he sees as characterizing the lives of his Generation X patients in Israel, in the context of a global, urban culture in which young, smart, talented individuals are faced with what seems like a world of limitless options. Such people, he argues, accordingly seek help and practical strategies for fulfilling their deepest desires. The Israeli coaching trend, however, also seems to have a culturally specific allure. Israelis today are faced with two competing, and contradictory, ways of life. Whereas the founding ethos of the state revolved around the elevation of collective needs above individual needs, Israelis are quickly abandoning their allegiance to a common fate in favor of a quest for personal fulfillment. The ideals of the country's founders, who believed in their power to shape exterior reality, have given way to the ideals of younger Israelis in pursuit of the means by which to shape their internal reality. Reflecting on the particular relevance of coaching for life in Israel, Netanel points out that “You often feel here as if there is no room for the individual, because supposedly there are always more important things going on. I used to live in a world of breaking news, bombings, political upheaval, which left me wondering where I was in all of that.” Edie Ilan, another American-born coach living in Ra'anana, specializes in cross-cultural coaching for Israeli and foreign business executives. She also coaches new immigrants faced with the daunting task of recreating their lives in a new setting. “Israeli culture is a very independent, self-reliant, I know what's best for me culture,” Ilan says. “Coaching fits in very well with this mentality, and its pragmatic emphasis on where you are now and where you want to go is also very appealing for Israelis.” Rosen also points to the culturally specific allure of coaching. “Israel,“ she says, “is a society in a constant state of crisis that is obviously interested in new helping professions it's a wonderful combination of people offering help and a society collectively in search of help.” “There is a lot of pressure in Israel to do everything quickly,” Rosen adds. “In a society with so many problems, people have difficulty finding the patience, time and belief in the future necessary to engage in long-term therapy, and they are always looking for quick solutions.” Not surprisingly, the metaphor that Rosen comes up with for describing the current state of coaching in Israel is one borrowed from the field of developmental psychology. “It's like a baby that is still attached to its mother to the various professions it grew out of. It still has to undergo a process of differentiation, and it remains unclear how its identity will develop, and what future shape it will take.”