What to consider when choosing a coach
Coaching can be thought of as a professional helping relationship that helps you make progress on an area of self-development or self-chosen goals that you have. One of the top reasons people come to coaching is in order to experience better wellbeing.
In the UK, coaching can be either privately funded or paid for by the government’s Access to Work programme, following an assessment where you agree with Access to Work that you would benefit from a coach.
Coaching is not currently a regulated profession. Anyone can call themselves a coach. Coaching is professionalising as an industry in the UK (with codes of conduct and practice guidelines) but this journey is not yet complete. As such, it can be useful to have pointers that can help you decide what to look out for when searching for your coach so that you find someone that is right for you.
I am someone who also receives coaching regularly as well as being a coach. This means I am well-positioned to share insider insights from both research and personal experience regarding the pointers, and this is what I do in this post.
The factors to consider are:
- Lived experience
- Training & expertise in neurodivergent coaching approaches (with some caveats in favour of neurodivergent coaches)
- Neuro-affirmative and compassionate approaches
- Connection & rapport with coach
- Willing to offer accommodations
- Healthy boundaries
- Free consult with focus on you (not money)
- Clear about what coaching is/isn’t
- Reflective practice and regular CPD
I will now go through these points in more detail
As both a coach and coachee, I have found that coaching is most enjoyable and effective when there is a degree of shared life experience. Moreover, my own practice observations have taught me that working with a coach with a similar profile or neurotype can be beneficial. For example, I am quite an optimistic person and I have high strengths in learning and curiosity. As both a coach and coachee, I seem to work better with people like me, and people who I have natural empathy with because we have shared some common experiences e.g. school reports with negative messages or career difficulties due to organisational factors linked to the way neurodivergence is treated in academic settings.
Therefore, while it is possible to find a competent and helpful coach with a different neurotype or different life experiences, the outcomes of coaching are often better and the process flows more naturally when the coach has genuine lived experience that is at least somewhat similar to yours.
Training & expertise in neurodivergent coaching approaches
As I say above, this section is heavily caveated, and in favour of neurodivergent people who want to work as coaches.
In an ideal world, it is my belief that all practicing coaches should have some formal coach training and certification, and preferably some credentials linked to how to coach neurodivergent people. This is because my current research project is showing that there are specific stages of coaching and coaching techniques that require adjustment to be safe, accessible and effective for some neurotypes.
However, there are some barriers that prevent some neurodivergent people from accessing formal training and credentials.
- Formal training costs money, and neurodivergent people are more likely to face financial and learning access barriers which may make it harder to study coaching, or to do so as quickly as others with greater resources and privilege.
- There are very limited formal education options for training as a coach that specialises in working with a range of neurotypes. In recent years, there are several good training programmes that specialise in training coaches for ADHD, but there is little to nothing for coaching autistic adults, and doing so in a way that is not training or ABA by another name. As such, even if people can access formal training, sufficient training does not exist, in my view.
Therefore, if you find a coach and you are happy as regards the other items on this list, it may be that a formal certification is not required by you, as long as the prospective coach can tell you what independent study, practice and/or voluntary service they have undertaken to develop their skills as best as they can.
Be sure to ask about how the coach has developed their skills, and what approaches and techniques they use, and how they adjust these to support your specific needs and neurotype.
Neuro-affirmative & compassionate
Taking a neuro-affirmative approach means not viewing neurodivergent conditions as wrong, broken or shameful in some way. It means creating a safe and welcoming coaching environment where you feel comfortable to be autonomous, authentic and accepting of yourself in your coaching conversations.
Being compassionate refers to showing kindness, empathy and acceptance of who you are, your situation and your needs – both in life and in coaching.
Neurodivergent or not, there are coaches who are less empathetic, and there are coaches who are extremely high on empathy. You have to consider what type of coach you want. However, I have found in both my experience as a coach and coachee that taking a kind, empathetic and accepting approach to coaching reaps rewards for everyone – in particular, this way of working helps you to feel confident and empowered that you can have a say in how your life unfolds now.
Therefore, ask about how the coach treats their clients. Ask about what their ethos is and how they support their clients to feel confident and empowered. The answers will reveal if the coach is the right one for you, but only you can decide.
Connection and rapport with coach
The vast majority of research papers into why coaching is successful report that the relationship between the coach and coachee is the main factor in whether or not coaching works for you.
Read that again – it is the relationship (and the quality of it) that makes the difference.
I often joke with prospective clients that, in a sense, I could be riding a unicycle, dressed as a clown, and juggling flaming batons while I am coaching but, as long as we develop a good connection, you will benefit from the coaching.
What that does is show my sense of humour. My top signature strength is humour. Clients also high in humour can find that a marker that we will get along, and that it is safe to draw on their natural sense of humour in coaching. As such, we begin to build a connection, and there is an indication that our coaching might feel good AND be effective.
In terms of the quality of the relationship, you need to decide if you and your prospective coach will match from a dispositional perspective and whether or not you have been made to feel safe to trust this person. If you have similar personality profiles and strengths to your coach, this can be a shortcut to fast progress in coaching.
Trust is essential because you will be sharing your problems, challenges, emotions and fears on occasion, and so you need to feel safe to do so.
If you want to ask a specific question to draw out what your prospective coach thinks here, ask them: What do you to to create psychological safety and trust when you are coaching?
Willing to offer accommodations
There are some ingredients of coaching that make coaching coaching and, therefore, have to be present for both parties to be seen to be doing coaching.
For example, you can broadly expect most coaches to:
- ask questions about your challenges, desires, feelings and problems
- be helping you to work towards a different (albeit self-chosen and autonomously desired) future
- use models and techniques that help you develop skills, meet goals or change your situation
For coaching to be happening, some communication (however that looks) is required, however. Coaching is a communication-based tool for helping someone with what they choose to work on. Therefore, without any communication at all, guided coaching can’t happen.
However, that communication does not have to be spoken and it does not have to happen synchronously (live, at the same time).
Some neurodivergent coaches are able to provide adjustments to the communication element of coaching to make it accessible, enjoyable and safe for you – and to make it something that gives you energy rather than takes it from you. That might look like coaching by email, coaching by instant messaging, coaching using AAC, coaching with reduced speaking and using other tools such as art, crafts or role-playing games, coaching with cameras off, coaching while walking in nature.
As the coach may also be neurodivergent, some of what they can offer to you depends on the extent to which they can match your communicative and access needs while meeting theirs to a degree that allows them to function as an effective and well-regulated coach.
However, the main point is that a potentially safe coach will be open and honest about what they can adjust for you, and will be keen to find ways they can help if it’s possible. They will be content to have a conversation or email exchange to craft how you can work together, and they will actively ask you what support needs you have for coaching.
In my own coaching research practice, I have determined that many clients benefit from a written record of our conversation that they can write on and I can read between sessions to boost memory and reflection skills – mine too! That is one way that I have created specific accommodations to support people to get the best out of coaching. Ask the prospective coach what adjustments they can put in place for you.
Finally, I also provide a range of written and video resources to help you coach yourself, if you would prefer to work alone and not have the social load of communicating with a coach 121. That’s an important part of my service as a coach.
As a neurodivergent person, I have had my own struggles with perfectionism, people-pleasing, and acting in ways that avoid the likelihood of conflict or rejection.
It is possible that other neurodivergent people working as coaches have had these experiences at some point.
However, good coaches try to be self-aware and reflective, and consider how their tendencies and life experiences help or hinder them in coaching, and they run their coaching practice in a way that attempts to reduce the likelihood of anything that is no longer serving them affecting the coaching or the psychological safety of the people they are working with.
At the beginning of my coaching journey, I was much more likely to say yes to appointments at any time, to accept cancellation after cancellation at short notice, to work in ways that were uncomfortable or draining for me, or to push myself too hard and not cancel sessions if I was poorly because I didn’t want to let clients down.
After reflecting on how I was showing up, I realised that I had never learned to set and hold boundaries around my work. I did a lot of work to learn how to set and hold professional boundaries.
Now, I am very clear about what I offer and won’t offer as a coach, and I am clear about what is acceptable conduct (for myself and the coachee) so that everyone knows what to expect, and both parties are more likely to keep themselves safe and well in the coaching.
Furthermore, as coaching is an energy-expending as energy-giving activity, coaches (like therapists and nurses) are at greater risk of occupational burnout on average than the general working population. This risk is greater for neurodivergent coaches such as myself, as speaking to people and holding space for them is genuinely taxing as well as incredibly energising and enjoyable.
Therefore, a good lookout is to consider how the coach models energy management in their working life. This is not to say they must be perfect at it, and they must never struggle or become burned out, but you are looking to see that they are reflective and self-aware about managing themselves in coaching.
An added bonus is that if the coach clearly knows how to have boundaries and how to manage their energy to an extent, they have useful life skills and life experience that they could share with you in the coaching!
Free consult with focus on you (not money)
I am going to share a recent unpleasant experience I had recently.
I was awarded some coaching through Access to Work and I reached out to a range of ADHD/autistic coaches to consult with them to find the best match for me.
At the start of the call, one particular coach said “hello” and pretty much dived into saying “so how much funding have you been awarded per session as I need to check that is enough for me”.
I am very aware of different ways of communicating and differing priorities in conversation based on neurotype and so – although this felt immediately unpleasant to me – I allowed the consult to continue to see the extent to which the coach would ask about me, my life, my desires for coaching, and my current wellbeing and current psychological suitability for coaching instead of, say, therapy.
Those questions never came.
It was a short, sharp, functional and transactional interaction.
There was nothing done to establish trust or show that the focus would be on me and my world in the coaching. I left the conversation feeling unsafe and unheld, and not believing that the coach would have a professionally acceptable level of care for me. I also felt that this coach did not have the proper mental health checks and balances in place to take any steps to ensure that coaching was right and safe at the time – something that I always do in my consultations, and which I feel is the mark of a good coach.
Part of being a good, boundaried coach that helps rather than harms is sometimes about determining if something other than coaching (or a different, better-suited coach) is the right option for the client right now.
If you can learn anything from this, it is to be wary of people that seem to be only interested in the money.
If you want to understand people’s motivations for being a coach, then ask them why they are a coach and what they enjoy about it.
You can also ask them what their intake and assessment processes are for determining where you are now in terms of mental-health and coaching-readiness and see if they are able to answer.
Ultimately, if you feel in your gut that the coach isn’t safe for you or will not have the appropriate level of professional care, listen to your gut.
Finally, a good coach will usually offer a consult by phone, online methods or email/instant messaging. This might only be 20-30 minutes but they will be happy to do it, because they also want to determine if you would do well in working together. I would advise against paying privately upfront for coaching with someone who has not offered you a short consult beforehand.
Clear about what coaching is/isn’t
Every coach will explain what it is and isn’t in a slightly different way, and this depends on things like their form of training and their personal approaches and techniques in coaching.
However, a good coach will often tell you their view of what coaching is and what it is for, and they will explain what coaching is not, and what it cannot or should not be – and they may do this as a way of leading in to discussing your mental wellbeing and the appropriacy of coaching for you at this time.
Along with a focus on money, if a prospective coach is not able to tell you what coaching is and how and why it might work, then this would be something that would worry me if I were the client. At the very least, I would expect to hear something about coaching and its relationship and differences to therapy or clinical support – so look out for whether or not that is explained to you in the consult.
Reflective practice & regular CPD
As noted above, it’s not always possible for neurodivergent coaches to access as much coach training as coaches with greater resources and privilege.
That does not have to be a barrier to working with a coach as long as prospective coaches have a reflective approach to the coaching work that they do, and they undertake Continuous Professional Development (even if it’s independent study) to keep on top of their skills and the research on coaching neurodivergent people.
I have been coached by people with way more qualifications and experience than me, and much fewer qualifications and less experience than me, and both kinds of coach have brought me benefit.
What all had in common was a commitment to continuous learning and reflection. They tried to read research and lived experience accounts to understand specific challenges better, or find new models and coaching questions to help me with specific issues they didn’t know enough about yet.
All committed to time to regularly thinking about what they were doing well in coaching and why, and understand how they can do things differently or better next time if there was an opportunity to improve to support me better. I don’t expect any coach to be perfect, and nor should you. We are human too. But you are entitled to expect that your coach takes an attitude of growth and improvement when it comes to keeping their knowledge and skills up-to-date.
Look for examples of prospective coaches sharing their learning and reflections via social media, blogs and podcasts. You can also ask them about their most recent personal professional coaching skills development.
At this point, you have a detailed guide to what to consider and some things you can ask about to help you identify a coach that could be a good fit for you. If you would like to consider working with me, let me tell you what to expect in consultations with me.
What to expect in my consultations
In my coaching consultations, I would ask things like:
- What brought you to coaching/why you have approached me to talk to me?
- What wishes, hopes, goals, challenges you want to make progress on through the coaching (and if you cannot say, I can ask questions to help you work that out)
- How you feel in mind and body at the moment, and what your levels of mental and physical wellbeing are?
- Have you had coaching before and what do you think coaching is and what it isn’t?
- Why you feel coaching would be beneficial for you, and why this over another type of support currently (e.g. therapy)?
- Do you have any mental or physical health diagnoses that you feel you would like to share with me if you feel I need to know about them for the coaching? (To determine that coaching is appropriate and I have the lived and research expertise to be hopeful of safely supporting you well.)
- What adjustments and accommodations do you need to make the coaching accessible and enjoyable for you?
- What do you expect from me or what would you enjoy from me in terms of the nature of our working relationship and how I relate to you?
- When and how would you like any coaching to happen.
Along the way, I tell you about myself, my coaching approach, how people tell me I usually come across as a coach, and some of the areas of lived and professional expertise I specialise in (e.g. zest, self-regulation, habits, motivation, executive functions). You have the chance to ask as many questions as you want, in the session and after on email.
Finally, I always send my working practices, packages and rates out in advance of the consultation so you can decide that you *can* practically work with me IF you determine through the consult that we would be a good fit.
Setting up a consultation with me
It’s really easy to set up a consult with me.
You can email email@example.com to ask for one (check your spam folder if it appears I do not reply, as I always do within 2-3 days tops)
You can also visit my website and do it via the contact page. Again, check your spam folder as I do reply and usually quickly.
We can then arrange a Zoom/Google meet call (in a format you’re comfortable with) to see if and how we would work together and whether or not we get along.
Remember, you can also fund your coaching through Access to Work in the UK but be advised it can take 4-6 months to have the assessment and put the agreed support in place. If you want to work with me, I’ll be happy to provide practical support around applying. Just ask me to help.