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The Square-Jawed Elephant in the Room

Photo of circus elephant balancing on a ball

Please Stop Calling Tony Robbins a Life Coach

Tony Robbins has been in the news lately, due to his denouncement of the #MeToo movement and treatment of a sexual assault survivor at one of his events in March. The entire exchange is here, if you want to see it for yourself.

I'm not here to take him to task for what he said about #MeToo. I think others have done a much better job with that than I ever could. (Shout out to the incomparable Tarana Burke, Heidi Stevens at Chicago Tribune, Megan Garber at The Atlantic, and Ryan Bort at Esquire. My initial thoughts were more along the line of what Katie Anthony wrote in an epic KatyKatiKate Facebook post, personally, but I digress...)

The issue I want to address here is that in multiple headlines, Tony Robbins has been labeled a life coach. So now and forever, when people hear the term life coach, they'll picture him. And they'll probably picture him interrupting, criticizing and physically intimidating Nanine McCool.

(As a side note, I'm not sure Mr. Robbins even calls himself a coach - his website bio page uses the label "Life and Business Strategist." So maybe this is just a problem with writers and editors going with the easiest label they can apply - but it's detrimental to the profession of coaching, so here I am, writing about it.)

Tony Robbins advises the most successful and powerful people in our world. He's built an empire on his approach toward performance and empowerment. His method is apparently effective for a certain population. But he doesn't resemble any life coach I have ever met, and certainly not in that video.

Over the last year of training and business building, I've spent hundreds of hours with other professional coaches - business coaches, leadership coaches, life coaches, executive coaches, you name it - and NONE of them is a Tony Robbins.

So what's the difference?

Professional coaches LISTEN instead of interrupting.

Professional coaches ASK instead of telling.

Professional coaches BUILD TRUST with their clients instead of dismissing their opinions and feelings.

And professional coaches RESPECT the INDIVIDUALITY of each and every client instead of prescribing a blanket "solution" that will solve their problems.

Mr. Robbins showed none of these skills in that video.

Not one.

Not even close.

Didn't. Even. Try.

Coaching is a relatively new profession, and as such, it's not regulated. Anyone can call himself a professional coach, with little to no training. This causes confusion in the media and with potential clients. While you won't see me arguing for regulation just yet, I would like to explain to people the difference between coaches who have chosen the profession with the intent of mastery - and therefore have completed training, logged coaching hours, hired mentor coaches, and devoted themselves to foundational standards of client service - and the Tony Robbinses of the world.

The International Coach Federation (ICF) is considered by many as the primary professional coaching credentialing and accreditation body. Founded in 1995, it is the world's largest professional coaching organization. ICF requires all of its member and credentialed coaches abide by a strong Code of Ethics, and all levels of its coach certification require dedicated hours of coach-specific training, documented coaching experience, and exhibited understanding and use of the ICF Core Competencies.

These competencies are what I would consider the standard of professional coaching, whether that coaching occurs in a business, life, relationship, or spiritual context. If you truly master these, you're a kick-ass coach. And if you're a kick-ass coach, you know you'll never master everything and will always have room to improve. You'll lead with curiosity and humility instead of "solutions" and "answers."

I'm highlighting here just a few of the competencies. Decide for yourself if you saw any of this exhibited in the video above.

Competency 3. Establishing Trust and Intimacy with the Client

  • Demonstrates respect for client’s perceptions, learning style, personal being.

  • Asks permission to coach client in sensitive, new areas.

How much trust do you think was established with Nadine McCool in that encounter?

Competency 5. Active Listening

  • Attends to the client and the client’s agenda and not to the coach’s agenda for the client.

  • Hears the client’s concerns, goals, values and beliefs about what is and is not possible.

The exchange in the video is the perfect example of the opposite of this competency -- it was all about Mr. Robbins' agenda, and Ms. McCool's concerns and beliefs were secondary.

Competency 6. Powerful Questioning

  • Asks questions that reflect active listening and an understanding of the client’s perspective.

  • Asks questions that move the client toward what they desire, not questions that ask for the client to justify or look backward.

The only questions I heard in that video were call-and-response questions to the audience, when Mr. Robbins asked them to raise their hands. More preaching than coaching.

So please - for goodness' sake, stop calling Tony Robbins a life coach. And if you're ever curious about what a professional coach really does, check out the ICF website or drop me a line! I love to talk about what coaching has done for me and how the coaches I've met along the way are the most encouraging, generous people I've ever come across, even if they don't all have square jaws and book deals.

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