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Is a doula a coach?

Updated: Jun 30, 2023

A pregnant woman who is drinking tea and looking at her phone.

I’m not talking about a football coach, standing on the side-line shouting instructions and I can’t think of anything more ‘un-doula-like’ but when I say coach I mean more in the sense of a life coach. ​

Coaching is a blend of psychology, philosophy, transformation, and spirituality and it helps people get more of what they want. A coach is someone who helps someone accomplish things but she is not a substitute for personal responsibility and personal change or choice. So, if I am a coach, what can I call myself? I can’t use the word ‘maternity coach’ as there are already a number of these around and they specialise in getting women who go on maternity leave back to their companies when their maternity leave has finished. Maternity coaches are employed by the company to educate women in their transition back to the workplace, so it seems that name is already taken. To be honest, I can’t really think of a name as most of the ones I come up with are too long and too much of a mouthful so I think I might have to stick with the term ‘doula’. However, there are a five specific skill sets that are needed to be an effective coach and as I use all of these as a doulas, I do consider myself to be a type of coach. Questioning skills I believe as a doula, it is important to be good at asking questions. The questions are there to invite others to consider possibilities they might not have been able to explore yet. The key is to ask relevant and intelligent questions so our clients can explore their actions and decisions and come to a conclusion as to whether it is the best thing for them. By asking elegant questions, you can cause people to think and come up with their own solutions. There are two basic groups of questions, open and closed. An open question is asked when you want to engage someone in a conversation. It is called an open question because, hopefully, it will open up a dialogue as these require more than a word or two to answer. Open questions usually begin with ‘What’, ‘How’, ‘Who’, ‘When’ ‘Where’ and ‘Why’. It’s worth bearing in mind that if you are asking too many ‘Why’ questions, you might come across as confrontational so be careful. Open questions can be divided into subgroups such as subjective questions e.g. ‘What do you think about….?’, ‘How do you feel about….?’ There are also objective questions e.g. ‘What research is there to support this claim?’, ‘How have you been dealing with this information?’ What factors are necessary to enable this to happen?’ And lastly, there are problem solving questions, such as ‘What would you like to do next?’, ‘How can you make what we just discussed happen?’ On the other hand, closed questions prevent any long discussions as they can usually be answered in a few words. Closed questions usually begin with ‘Are’, ‘Can’, ‘Did’, ‘Do’ etc. Closed questions also come in different types, like identifying questions e.g. ‘What kind of dog is this?’, ‘Who is responsible for ….?’. There are also selection questions, e.g. ‘Do you want to stay or go?’ and ‘Do you want to take it or leave it?’. Finally, there are also Yes/No questions such as, ‘Do you want to have a shower?’, ‘Did the hospital write to you?’ Bearing this in mind, if you’re after a short and sweet answer, ask closed questions and if you would like to start a discussion, ask open questions. Asking the right type and style of questions will encourage the people around you to give good and appropriate answers which will help you get to know them better and also identify what specific support they need at different points in your work with them. As your confidence grows, you might even want to ask some more probing questions such as ‘What exactly is it about an epidural that you like?’ or ‘Why exactly do you feel scared?’ Adding the word exactly drills down a little bit deeper but be aware at all times how you are making your client feel. It is also important to pick the right moment to probe deeper into anything you feel needs investigating and this might not be the first time you meet. Harmony skills This is the ability to use verbal and nonverbal behaviours to establish a rapport and to get on the same wavelength as your clients and everyone else you come in contact with. Harmony skills include consciously using your own body language and reading others to create a space of safety and calm. It’s also the ability to be aware of and to avoid jargon as this can easily confuse or alienate the people around you. As much as we shouldn’t be talking about us and our experiences, being open about your feelings just enough to make you a ‘real’ person is important. It is also imperative that the behaviours of others are observed with an open mind as to avoid just reacting to it rather than learning from it. Understanding skills This is the ability to listen to and understand your client and everyone else around you with an open and non-judgemental mind. Understanding skills include the ability to truly listen without interrupting and the ability to use paraphrasing to feed back to your client what it that you have heard and your understanding of it. Putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and using this to find a way of communicating with them in a way that will make them feel safe and heard. If you’re looking for the best in people, you’ll see it. Conflict-handling skills This is the ability to handle disagreements and resistance in a positive way. Conflict-handling skills include finding out more information with regards to any concerns or disagreements and summarise these for your client so that your client can disagree in a constructive way. Avoid ‘reacting’ and adopt a view to clarify and understand why everyone is feeling like they are and find a way to work towards a solution or even a compromise. Agreement skills This is the ability to behave in a way to find common ground and to get the other person to ’buy-in’. Agreement skills include using good open questions in a conscious way to find out the needs and wants of the other person, be it your client or a health professional. It’s always helpful here to show the benefits to them and keeping it simple by using one reason at a time. Sometimes this could mean providing more information to your clients so that they can see the bigger picture and to trust the health professionals when there needs to be a change in the birth to facilitate the safety of the baby and mother.

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