Health & Wellness Coaching Certificate Stresses Growth, Empathy, Self-Awareness

A female health coach counsels a young woman

Imagine you’re a health and wellness coach, advising clients in a company’s wellness program or through your own private practice. What kind of things should you be telling them?

For starters: get at least eight hours of sleep a night and plenty of exercise. Eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, and try to limit your use of alcohol and caffeine. On the mental health side, maintain strong relationships with those closest to you—your family and friends—but also reach out to others. And don’t forget about the power of meditation.

Why was that not helpful? It’s not that these suggestions aren’t valid—they are. But most of us pretty much know this already. What we might lack is not health information, said Christine Wahl, a Master Certified Coach (MCC) and instructor in Georgetown University’s Certificate in Health & Wellness Coaching program. It’s the capacity to take that information and use it for our own mental, physical, and even spiritual well-being.

“What we’re trying to do at Georgetown is create educated coaches who understand the trajectory of adult development and see how health and wellness fits into that,” Wahl said. “How do you, as a coach, meet someone where they are, and not where you think they should be? How do you learn to deeply understand how your client is perceiving their issue, and not jump into a ‘fix it’ mode, but engage in learning that shifts mindsets and helps them move forward?”

Letting Go of “the Right Way”

Twenty-one years ago, Wahl founded Georgetown’s Executive Certificate in Leadership Coaching program, which, like the Health & Wellness certificate, is part of the University’s Institute for Transformational Leadership. Rather than focusing on what leaders need to know, the coaches’ program encourages would-be coaches to think critically about what they may have believed were the “right ways” to address an issue. Instead, Wahl said, the coaches learn to let go of their “right ways” and examine their own values, perspectives, and decision-making processes.

Interrupting one’s automatic reactions in ways like this is one key to self-knowledge. This means that coaching is not about “fixing” a problem: It’s about helping clients achieve a measure of awareness of their own that can help them address the issue themselves.

The Leadership Coaching and Health & Wellness Coaching programs both believe that the theory of Vertical Development is essential for anyone in the helping professions to understand. The theory posits that adults move “vertically” through several stages of development, moving from being dependent, to independent, to interdependent.

Not that everyone gets to the later stages. Moving through stages is a journey of identity, with self-knowledge increasing as you go. The coach’s job is to draw on the self-knowledge they acquired through the program to help discern where a client is on this spectrum and adjust their coaching accordingly.

“So, when you’re coaching somebody who is at one of the earlier stages, you need to know that hitting them with complex theories and complicated ways to manage their lives will never work,” Wahl said. “They need concrete suggestions and actions, and they need you to be the expert. Whereas somebody at a later stage might know exactly what they need to do and might need you to be more of a sounding board or thought partner, someone who could say, ‘You know, here’s the place you might be missing, based on what you just said.’”

Drawing on Georgetown’s Values

The Health & Wellness Coaching program is the first to bring adult development tenets into its curriculum, which integrates with the primary focus of understanding chronic disease and how coaches can best guide their clients toward optimal health. During the program, students conduct multiple one-on-one and group health coaching sessions and receive feedback from faculty coaching advisors through a supervised practicum.

The program also draws from Georgetown’s core value of cura personalis, or “care for the whole person,” which calls on health practitioners to address the mind, body, and spirit of their clients. That directive has become even more relevant in the past few months as the COVID-19 virus has swept across the country. The program seeks to develop coaches who have the self-awareness, empathy, and resilience to navigate such a world—and help their clients navigate it as well.

“We want coaches to meet clients ‘where they are,’” Wahl said, “which is one of the most compassionate approaches a coach can manifest.”

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