2020 in review: How coaching topics reveal our lived experience

January 15, 2021 - 7 min read

The precision and power of coaching for human growth was never more clear than when we mapped month to month the most common words used by our coaches to describe the topics of these coaching sessions. What emerged was a fascinating pattern that tells a story of human growth through coaching support that is both beautiful and heartbreaking.

2020 year in review calendar

Think back: what were your intentions and aspirations for 2020? Were you gearing up for a promotion? Determined to improve your public speaking? Committed to losing weight or meeting new people? You probably had a plan, resources, and tools lined up to help get you there. You couldn’t have envisioned how much your needs would change in three months. 

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One of the many unique data types we have at BetterUp is anonymized and aggregated coach-provided data about what topics people talk about with their coach. It’s like a one way mirror into the issues people are facing, what’s on their mind, and where they need support. Mapping these trends to the calendar—across a year like 2020—illustrated the lived experience of workers in 2020. 

For context: When a person has a session with their coach, sometimes they work directly on a long term goal, sometimes they need just in time support on what’s immediately in front of them. One of the unique aspects of coaching is its ability to meet people where they are, respond with agility, and deliver precision support. Coaching is like an agile multitool: it can adapt to what’s most important in the moment. 

In a year like 2020, the agility of coaching —especially virtual coaching— was uniquely valuable to both individuals and organizations. At a minimum we all faced the challenges of the pandemic and high levels of uncertainty, but for so many there was and still is profound loss, trauma, grief, and struggle due to a variety of compounding events and challenges. This probably goes without saying. 

In a typical year, we see the following top three topics in coaching: communication, leadership skill building, and career development. In 2020, well-being entered the ring as the second most discussed topic from March 2020 onward with career issues exchanging with leadership for the third place mid-year. But still, only about 70% sessions fell into one of the top topic categories we track. For the 30% of sessions that were about “other” things, coaches provided anonymous open text descriptions. The precision and power of coaching for human growth was never more clear than when we mapped month to month the most common words used by our coaches to describe the topics of these coaching sessions. What emerged was a fascinating pattern that tells a story of human growth through coaching support that is both beautiful and heartbreaking. 

Coaching is like an agile multitool: it can adapt to what’s most important in the moment.

Although the year started out like any other, with a focus on the future year ahead -- strength, diet, travelling, priorities, and abundance -- by March, COVID-19 and the state of crisis people felt dominated. What emerged in April stunned me the most: people were commonly speaking to their coach about eulogies. The power, agility, and trust in these coaching relationships took people from sessions about leadership development and communication, perhaps new year priorities in January to support in eulogy writing in April. By June, injustice, George Floyd, and riots are only examples of the smattering of racial injustice related topics. Summer and early fall seemed to be a time for sensemaking and understanding a way forward. Meaningful collective patterns dissipated. But by November and December, coherent collective themes re-emerged and support was consistently rallied for navigating the abnormal holiday season, retrospection, and the future. The election also surfaced as a topic in November and we know from other data that people had a distinct dip in wellbeing during this time. As 2021 began, we hoped to see a return to traditional themes from past new year periods, but mid-January 2021 data indicate a rise in session topics defined by this language: 2021, failed, expect, defend, DC, unrest, alarm.

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In 2020, we saw the scope of coaching as a flexible, personal, and powerful tool for individuals and organizations in its ability to meet people where they are. These data highlight the way in which BetterUp is precision human development - personal growth in the areas a person needs it, at the exact time they need it, in the form they need it. While I see many better days ahead, none of us can predict with certainty what the future holds. As we navigate this historical time and inevitably the new challenges arise in the future, coaching will be there, pivoting and responding to provide time-sensitive support along the way.



Published January 15, 2021

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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