COMMON THREAD COACHING
An Introduction to Life Coaching by Nancy G. Shapiro
Part I: Seeking Your Personal Best
Though life coaching has been around for over a decade, people still identify it with
sports. “Would you make me to do push-ups, like my coach did in high school?” a friend
asked. When I smiled and said no, he became serious and asked two very familiar
questions: “What is life coaching? Why would I need it?”
In life coaching, no one is “made” to do anything. You come to coaching because
an inner voice is urging you to move forward with something; it could be a relationship,
your career, a health issue, or a goal or dream that’s been put on the back burner. Maybe
you feel confused, and no matter how much energy and thought you put towards that
‘something,’ it continues to elude you.
The main thing a life coach does is listen—up to 80% of the time—and in that
listening, words, ideas, and insights are mirrored back until a new path becomes visible.
You pinpoint what works in your life, and address what doesn’t. A coach asks discerning
questions, offers support, resources, and structure, along with inspiring challenges.
This safe and nourishing atmosphere empowers you to make personal and
professional transitions by altering the course you’ve been on, and pursuing creative
options. Confusion turns into clarity. Your best self has come out of hiding.
Lynn, newly retired, can’t decide what to do with her sudden abundance of free
time. John’s vision of traveling while running his consultant business seems impossible to
realize. In an average of twelve sessions, both Lynn and John become aware of nonproductive
thought and behavior patterns. Enthusiasm and energy show up as new
perspectives and possibilities make old roadblocks disappear. Over time, the long,
weighty list of reasons—why Lynn or John couldn’t do or be or get what they most
desire—is replaced by a list of accessible, empowering actions shouting, “Why not?”
Studies have shown that one-on-one coaching significantly increases the
likelihood that new ideas and behaviors will become part of a person’s everyday life—up
to four times higher than non-coached individuals. Most importantly, these changes are
life-long and sustainable—for the powerful reason that they emerge from the authority of
your own experiences, wisdom, and insights. Solutions don’t come from someone else.
You have the answers.
That’s the genius of coaching. Life becomes much, much more than just being
told to do push-ups. It becomes a vibrant, on-going creation where clarity and your
personal best rules.
Part II: This Thing Called Mindfulness
In life coaching, cultivating mindfulness is one of the most powerful tools for making
empowering transitions and realizing your personal best. Mindfulness is often associated
with meditative practices, and many of the Eastern traditions. Yet being mindful can be
as every-day as walking out the door with your wallet, or knowing when that tense
feeling in your stomach is a signal to stop and be quiet, to become more centered.
Mindfulness, in combination with one’s common sense, intelligence, intuition, and
creativity, brings powerful clarity to every day life.
Another word that walks alongside mindfulness is awareness. Tibetan Buddhists
call the state of being that is born from awareness and mindfulness sem, or that which
knows. During coaching, you become aware of habitual thoughts and behaviors that are
no longer productive. They may have been useful at one time, but because life is
constantly changing, these habits must also change. It is not so much about ridding one’s
self of these habits, but consciously transforming them—keeping what is useful and
creating new possibilities—being mindful of what now moves you toward goals, dreams,
You can’t truly know what it’s like to feel strong and agile unless you’ve known
the weakness that comes from not exercising. Comparing moments of mindfulness with
those times of being mindless is a powerful exercise—do you take control of situations,
or let them control you?
Mindfulness experts, ranging from Harvard professor Ellen Langer to Jon Kabat-
Zinn to Buddha, describe mindlessness in these sobering terms: the appearance of
thinking when not; our normal state of mind that is extremely suboptimal; unguarded
thoughts that are your worst enemy. Consistently misplacing your keys and forgetting
your wallet, or becoming so stressed until you fall ill are just two examples of mindless
Going about your daily life in a mindless manner keeps mindsets and old
meanings in place. You are stuck in old struggles. There is little room for the vital work
of creating and accessing ways to achieve—and enjoy—your personal best.
Living mindfully, choices appear. Choices increase motivation. Being mindful of
the process of making choices increases the ability to redefine, re-create, and transform
circumstances that once felt as heavy and immovable as concrete.
Coaching gives you the support, structure and encouragement to mindfully alter
what your inner voice is asking to be changed. Integrating mindfulness as an every-day
practice is a fulfilling, creative process that leads to expanded awareness, greater
adaptability, and an increased openness to possibilities. You become sem, that which
knows. What more could one ask for?
Part III: The Radical Power of Words
You’re five years old, swinging in your backyard swing set, and you see a bird fly
overhead. You joyfully link your senses into the thought—I’m flying like a bird. When a
teacher or classmate ridicules your purple tree and yellow mountains, the young artist in
you thinks, “I’m no good.”
These are simplistic examples of one way we learn to speak and think in
childhood in order to understand and order our experience. We compare things around us.
We mimic and soak up the tone and words from our environment, and file it away as
Because this happens during our early years, concepts, words, and the emotions
behind them ideally grow and mature as we do. Yet those early patterns can become
deeply embedded. One of the greatest, and most rewarding, challenges in coaching lies in
re-creating years of habitual communication patterns. This intentional re-learning takes
practice, like learning a foreign language—yet it’s your native language, re-arranged and
A large part of this re-arranging and re-imagining is recognizing when we react.
A clue to reactive language is becoming mindful of when we continually say the same
words or feel the same emotions in response to stressful circumstances. This often means
we’re accessing language from years before, without full awareness of the current
moment and the differing situation. It can be surprisingly easy to confuse the past with
something that is happening in the present. That five-year old thought of “I’m no good”
can show up at the slightest hint of criticism fifty years later.
Coaching helps identify the deep wells of insight underneath every day
conversation, both with our selves, and others. Mindfully recognizing the radical power
of words takes constant vigilance. Changing the thought “I’m no good” into the question
“How does my way of seeing things benefit this situation?” begins to literally re-shape
your experience of life. Feeling the radical effect of words within your own body creates
a more compassionate use of language with others.
Words are symbols of lived experience. Therefore, your choice of language can
become either a reactive habit that leads to misunderstanding and separation, or an
empowering mode of communication that encourages understanding and connection
while increasing your ability to respond. The good news is that with focus and practice,
unproductive language habits can be changed over time. Chores transform into
opportunities. Overwhelming events become adventures. Every day becomes fueled by
powerful, compassionate words.
Part IV: Fierce Self-Care
During coaching, people often balk at the thought of making time for themselves. Yet
practicing fierce self-care is an antidote to stress. Stress-related conditions are the major
cause of visits to the doctor’s office. In light of your health, what is more important? Be
fierce about taking care of yourself. Whatever you’re busy with—appointments, travel
arrangements, a new project—try something different. Instead of always doing, planning,
making lists, and otherwise creating stress, just stop.
That’s right. Stop. Push the ‘pause’ button on your life, and sit. Spring is here in all
its glory. Notice the beauty of the world renewing itself one more time, and renew
yourself. Spend the afternoon in the lounge chair and read a book. Use that coupon and
get a massage. If you’re tired, take a nap. As some wise person once promised with the
words “this too shall pass,” things will get done—though now in a rested and calm
Like the warm sunlight between clouds, make your day airy and bright by
making it more spacious. How would your day feel if you moved that appointment to
tomorrow, or next week, and did “nothing” for that hour? Give your brain and body a
break and go for a walk. You might be surprised at the clarity that comes from being
silent for a while.
Silence is an intimate force: intimate because the silence found during a walk
allows for a deeper connection to one’s thoughts and feelings. It’s a force because an
affirmative change is created; an insight, a peacefulness or excitement bubbles up that’s
not accessible until the silence occurs. It is a positive quieting. Not suppression, not
censorship—but an opening up where once there was a great cacophony of thoughts,
what my friend Shelly describes as “the sound of twelve pairs of tennis shoes in a dryer.”
The traditions that quiet this noise are many, and timeless—meditation, reading,
writing, gardening, hiking, painting, woodworking, or playing with your dog are just a
few examples. Cultivating self-care during coaching is finding, in the context of one’s
life, the one practice that brings about this quiet. With it comes focused clarity. It is
connecting and serenely forceful. Best of all, it can become a practice for a lifetime.
What practice is already in your life that allows you to slow down a bit, breath,
and pay attention to what you need this moment? What takes you to the restful place?
Part V: The Wisdom of Wholeness
When a person comes to coaching they often expect the past must be forgotten in order to
accomplish a goal or realize a dream. Yet a lifetime of experiences becomes invaluable
treasure in the coaching process.
Songwriter Leonard Cohen gave us these lines in the song Anthem: ”There is a
crack, a crack in everything…that’s how the light comes in.”
Leonardo da Vinci wrote: “Look into cracks in walls until you see whole worlds
pouring out of them.”
Author Julia Cameron emphasizes the necessary fuel and flow of creativity in this
statement: “Write in the cracks and crevices of your life.”
Wabi Sabi is the Japanese aesthetic and philosophy that states there is immense
beauty in imperfection, impermanence and simplicity.
Here then, in the desire for wholeness, lies paradox. The brain and the heart
collaborate with grace. Beauty equals imperfection. Creativity may require not regular
hours but whatever one can glean from a busy life full of other demanding loves. The
light that guides you and heals you appears from the midst of a wildly varied and
A full life, an expansive life, is very often found in the smallest details and hidden
places. Coaching encourages you to be curious, to stare and wait for the gifts that will, in
Embracing all aspects of self (and others) is a wisdom of wholeness. It is here that
coaching begins. No piece of your self can go missing without it being felt as a
dissonance, an emptiness, a pull of the heart or mind. Reeling in the strengths and gifts
from your past, and the lessons learned, provides a sturdy foundation that can be used in
the future. Once your coaching sessions are over, you can now coach yourself from these
re-created, remembered strengths.
And like all things that make life worthwhile, it takes practice. I played the cello
from the age of eleven until sixteen. I intend to play again, to hear imperfect, beautiful
music float up around me. This will most likely happen at some undetermined and
surprising age, after incredible amounts of practice.
After many decades I still remember the curves of the cello in my hands, the
countless wrong notes, and the dreaded try-outs. Then there were those moments when
the cello sang for me. Nothing is lost, or gone to waste when embracing your wholeness,
with all its ups and downs. Out of that embrace comes a powerful vitality that inspires
and motivates not only you, but also those around you. It’s like beautiful music. Everyone
that hears it is moved.
(Parts I, II, III, and V ran in the San Miguel Atención between April 19 & May 23, 2010)
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