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Take Five: Life coach Fran Lang offers tips to get your life in order

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 21, 2008 - For her whole life, Fran Lang has been finding and listening to voices that are rarely heard.

In graduate school at the University of Chicago, Lang started out studying the language and communications of bats. "My goal was to allow the voices of this unknown creature to be heard and understood," she says.

After receiving a Ph.D. in psychology from Wash U., Lang, now 60, spent 18 years studying pain responses in newborn infants. "Some were so premature they couldn't even cry," she adds.

After years of research, Lang switched gears; she worked as an associate dean at Washington University's College of Arts & Sciences and then became director of its Disability Resource Center. "In that job, I started a coaching program for students," she says. "I started asking open-ended questions like: 'What brought you here?' or even 'If you had the most delicious dream in the world, what would that look like?' and 'If that's the case, what are you going to do about it?'"

Then she would help the students create action plans to achieve their goals. "They really felt they were listened to," she says. "Not just listened to, they were heard, and they began to learn even more how to listen to their own voice."

It was a short step from that to her current profession and passion: being a life coach. "I would say that I have re-invented myself several times," Lang explains -- although that silver thread of listening and communicating is woven throughout.

"I am trained to listen to what is being said and what is not being said. We can hear tears in your voice before they reach the eyes."

The profession of life coach began in the business world to help employees become more productive but has expanded since then. Coaches help individuals to determine what they really want out of life and to set clear steps to achieve those goals.

The cost varies widely. Some coaches charge more than $1,000 a month for weekly business sessions, while others might charge as little as $250 a month for individuals. Some may use a sliding scale. Coach and client usually meet weekly for 30-45 minutes. The duration also varies: Some people go for as little as three months, while others consider a longer partnership. Most coaches also conduct sessions over the phone.

Lang offers some suggestions for people trying to deal with uncertainties -- whether economic or personal.

When and why should someone seek a life coach?

Lang: Everyone can benefit from a coach. People come to coaching because they are looking for a change or they have an important goal to reach. They may want in or out of a relationship, want out of a job, they may want to find ways of having more self-confidence, write a book, have a healthier body. Sometimes they actually don't know what they want, and then I get to help them to discover that.

Overall, they want a better quality of life, a sense of fulfillment, balance. Who couldn't use that?

How does a life coach help in ways that a friend, family member, mental help professional or job counselor doesn't?

Lang: Traditional consulting, counseling and therapy often offer answers, advice and solutions.

Coaching facilitates self-discovery by helping you find your own answers. Its perspective is that the client is naturally creative, resourceful and whole. It's empowering. It gives ownership to the person, not the profession.

Also, therapists often call the people who see them 'patients,' which implies something's wrong, something's broken that needs to be fixed. It may just be semantics, but we call them 'clients,' giving them a sense of ownership. The client is in charge. Healing can occur in coaching, but the focus is not on healing.

There is also less focus on where you've been (digging into your past) than where you are in the present and where you want to go. We also help you to identify what is holding you back.

We call them saboteurs, gremlins, these voices that are self-negating, that keep us stuck where we are. Once you begin to hear them and realize that that's only one voice, you get to choose what voice you want to listen to. Then you get liberated from that and you can move forward.

In life coaching, the person is the expert; I'm not the expert. I make suggestions, I don't advise.

In coaching, two things have to happen: (1) you have to help the client deepen their self-knowledge, and (2) you have to facilitate action. They have to go hand-in-hand.

What are you hearing from people about their fears and concerns during this economic downturn?

Lang: Fear of job loss, fear of changing careers at this uncertain time, money in general can be a source of conflict. (People tend to) put on the 'scarcity glasses,' thinking 'I'm not going to have enough.' It has an impact on everything, including relationships.

(Some people fear that) if they lose their job, they will be a bag lady. I could buy into their fear right away, but as a coach, I won't. I go back to that initial story: There may be some truth in that you may lose your job, but let's look at some other perspectives. What can you do to soften the blow or to get around that? What other opportunities can come out of this?

I've had clients who send out 25 resumes a week and feel like they are going into a black hole. I clarify not the job, but what it is they want. We get at the meat of it.

People may feel reluctant to start coaching or to continue coaching. I contend it's the best investment you can make because you're investing in yourself, and that's the only thing you've got for sure.

Is there anyone who cannot be helped by coaching?

Lang: Not everybody is ready for coaching. If I find that I am working too hard, this person may not be ready.

If I make a suggestion, like, 'how about setting a date for your Caribbean vacation on the calendar' and I keep hearing, 'I can't do that because...,' and you come up with all of these excuses as to why you can't do something, I'm not coaching the person, I'm coaching their gremlins. I can't coach gremlins.

You have to be willing to take risks and chances.

What can people can do to get themselves headed in the right direction?

Lang: What matters is what we want in life, not so much what we need. And it's important to be clear on what we want versus what we think we should want. The needs actually follow what we want and help us get what we want. It's looking inside, articulating it and teasing it apart.

Coaches help their clients take a hard look at who they are and who they want to become. What lights their fire? What are their dreams? What can they live with and what can't they live without? We look at their values.

We put things in place to help them achieve their goals: This may be soliciting the support of others, putting a date on a calendar that is a drop dead influence, talking with their significant other about something tearing them apart --- but none of these is done in a vacuum. I tell my clients, 'I am your coach 24/7, not just when we're in session.' The support is there.

Solange Deschatres is a freelance writer in St. Louis. 

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