Disturbing allegations and legal disputes: Inside 'Australia's #1 Life Coaching School'

Sharon Pearson, the founder and CEO of The Coaching Institute, appears in promotional images. Source: Facebook

Exclusive: Former students have spoken out about a cult-like culture of bullying, high-pressure sales tactics and sexual themes at a Melbourne institute that trains people to become life coaches. SBS investigates how a company subject to 40 official complaints in the past five years has kept its doors open, and continues to train thousands of students.

Sitting in a Melbourne cafe on a chilly autumn morning, Diana Blake* is recounting the "bizarre culture" she says she witnessed while working at a popular training institute billed as "Australia's #1 Life Coaching School".

"They prey on people who are feeling left out," she says. "I think that's part of the appeal, because they feel like they’re a part of something, and like they belong".

Ms Blake was a student at the school, named "The Coaching Institute" (TCI), when she was hired to work there full-time in 2012.

She claims staff were encouraged to up-sell extra courses to current students, and expected to stop what they were doing and perform a dance routine every time a new sale was made. Ms Blake says the school's CEO, Sharon Pearson, had an evangelical following of students who hung off her every word.

But that devotion began to fracture as far back as 2011 when complaints against the school started to emerge. The allegations raised by students in the years that followed include sexualised course content, high-pressure sales tactics and a pattern of charging students money after they had withdrawn from courses, claims the school denies.

Between 2011 and September 2015, the primary regulator of training providers, the Australian Skills Quality Authority, received a total of 40 complaints about TCI. A spokesman told SBS the school “has been on ASQA's radar for some time”.

In the same period, 11 cases against the school were taken to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, the most recent ending in March this year.

The claims raise questions about regulation in the vocational education sector, which has come under scrutiny in recent years amid increasing reports of shonky operators and bad financial practices.

Despite repeated attempts to contact Ms Pearson – who also goes by the name Teresa – requests for an on-the-record interview were declined. Later, a spokeswoman responded via email. She denied the students’ allegations and claimed an investigation conducted by the regulator proved they were baseless.

But SBS’s own investigation suggests serious questions remain unanswered.

One of those to bring a case against TCI is former student Clare Roe*. She claims staff would convince students they were responsible for their own problems when they raised issues or concerns.

"You would ring up to get some help and they would say, 'If you were really stepping up, you would know that’, or 'Go out and search for it yourself'."

She claims staff also used "persuasive conversation" and words to "trigger fear".

But John Sader, a current TCI student who has been there since 2013, tells a different story.

"The culture there is very supportive," he says. "They encourage us to lean into the learning, to lean into the unknown. Because it’s in leaning into the uncertainty that we discover the very things that were within us, which previously we weren’t aware of."

Like many in the life coaching industry, Mr Sader speaks in an unusual way that is at times hard for outsiders to follow. This includes using the word "map" to describe a person's individual belief systems and describing himself as an "ambassador of life".

"[Coaching] is an avenue unlike anything else that I’ve ever experienced," he says. "It comes from the presupposition that we are all whole and complete and that the map is not the territory, so that the experiences and beliefs aren't necessarily reality."

Sexually explicit content

Life coach training can take unconventional forms and force students to delve deeply into their personal lives, fears and deepest inhibitions. But some claim this went too far at TCI.

A number of former students say they were unhappy about sexual themes in classes, including provocative dress-ups and touching. One woman, a sexual abuse survivor, allegedly complained to the school because the teaching triggered painful memories.

The school says allegations of sexually inappropriate course content have been "investigated by ASQA and found to be without merit". When SBS asked ASQA about this, it refused to provide details, saying it did not publicly discuss allegations against businesses.

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Students are now required to sign a waiver that states: "I understand that there may be sexually explicit content and strong language may be used throughout the training. I understand that some discussions may be confronting and that I will participate only to the extent I feel comfortable."

When asked about the waiver, TCI says it was introduced "as a result of a student complaint", but that the purpose was to "protect our trainers from any participant mistakenly interpreting comments" during training courses that deal with sexual material.

The school says certain courses were "designed to remove inhibitions and misunderstandings so that people can enjoy a normal, healthy, sexual relationship”.

“The Coaching Institute has zero tolerance for sexual misconduct,” the spokeswoman says.

In May this year, SBS visited TCI’s Melbourne headquarters to get a sense of the culture. The school offers regular free classes in the evenings, so a reporter went along and signed up. There are classes on a number of topics and while this particular session had a sexual theme, not all of them do.

Inside, the crowd of around 50 people, mostly middle-aged women, have arrived for the one-off session entitled “Let’s talk about sex, baby!” One woman, Jenny, has travelled down from her rural property in NSW near the Murray River for the class. It’s the third she’s attended.

Before it begins, one of the organisers singles out a young man in the front row and congratulates him for signing up to a “Pro Coaching” course. “You’ve made a huge investment in yourself,” she says. Other former students later tell us this word, “investment”, is a common theme in the school’s recruitment.

The guest speaker is Martina Hughes, a specialist in tantric sex and “sexual energies”. She explains she was an unsatisfied chartered accountant in her early career, before she discovered her new field on a tantric retreat.

"Multiple claims of harassment, high-pressure sales tactics and sexual misconduct were documented by the ABNLP from students and former students of TCI."

Someone hugged her on the retreat, and the hug triggered an "orgasmic fire" that she continued experiencing for “days” after she got back to her Sydney apartment. Now, she says, she can orgasm any time, without being touched or touching herself.

About 30 minutes into the class, Martina gives a demonstration. She sits on a stool at the front of the room, breathing slowly and deliberately. Gradually she starts to moan and shudder, as if she is experiencing an orgasm. The people in the room are silent. They seem enraptured.

About 10 minutes later, Ms Hughes asked everyone in the room to stand up and close their eyes. They are told to put one hand on their hearts, the other on their groins. They are to breathe in through the nose, out through the mouth, and imagine they are making love with their breath as it comes in and out of the body.

The coaching boom

There has been an explosion in life coaching courses in the past few decades since the industry was born in the US in the 1970s. Some courses cost as little as $100 a week, while others take years and costs tens of thousands of dollars.

But as the industry has grown, so has concern from medical professionals. As far back as the early 2000s, alarm bells were ringing in the psychology profession about the sudden rise of coach training institutes offering quick pathways to becoming a qualified coaching success.

Psychology Professor Nicholas Haslam, from the University of Melbourne, says one of the biggest concerns is that people who are mentally ill may end up seeing a life coach rather than a trained medical professional.

"If I am operating as a coaching psychologist and a person believes there is an issue then I can legally be sued. Whereas if you are seeing a coach, they have ethical guidelines but there’s no legal framework or recourse."

"If you've gone through a relatively brief, unregulated training program, who knows whether you’ll be prepared for the sort of material that could come up,” he says.

“I think it’s quite a worrying thought that someone could be setting up a shingle as an 'expert life coach' without really having anyone evaluate their skills, their competencies, their grounds – beyond just their claim that they’re good at this activity.”

But TCI student John Sader, who acknowledges some people seek coaching after abuse or trauma, says he screens prospective clients by asking them to fill out detailed personal histories.

"The last thing that anyone who works in any sort of profession where we’re seeking to help another individual wants to do is to hinder their progress," he says.

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Clinical psychologist and coaching expert Dr Suzy Green says a lack of regulation also causes confusion for students.

"If I am operating as a coaching psychologist and a person believes there is an issue then I can legally be sued. Whereas if you are seeing a coach, they have ethical guidelines but there’s no legal framework or recourse."

But life-coach trainer Julie Parker, from the Beautiful You Coaching Academy, says the focus on regulation is overstated.

"There are people that have concern about regulation in the life-coaching industry, but don't really know that there are many other industries in Australia and throughout the world that are not core regulated, including counselling," she says.

The problem with 'accreditation'

In the world of non-traditional education, being seen to have some kind of "accreditation" means everything for a business trying to attract students.

Impressive-looking logos and gold badges for different organisations line the websites of schools like TCI, sending the message to students that they are getting quality.

Among the most highly prized accreditation in the life coaching industry is anything relating to neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). Although the practice has been largely discredited by the scientific community, it remains a major draw for potential students of life coaching.

Up until 2013, TCI marketed itself as a member of the Australian Board of Neuro Linguistic Programming (ABNLP), the leading industry body in Australia. But the relationship between the ABNLP and TCI came to a sudden end in June that year. Both parties agree on this point, but offer conflicting explanations about why the relationship ended.

When TCI tried to apply for two of its staff to be accredited as "recognised trainers", the board alleged the certificates they submitted to prove they had completed the required training were fraudulent. One of the staff was Sharon Pearson herself.

The certificates, obtained by SBS, were signed by Ceo of TCI, James Darling, and dated April 2011. However the ABNLP's chairperson, Heidi Heron, says she was then told Mr Darling had not been working at the school on the date the certificates were signed, and came to believe they had been doctored and backdated. When asked to confirm whether Mr Darling was employed at that time, a spokeswoman for the school declined, saying they don’t disclose information regarding specific employees.

They also denied any fraud, blaming the situation on a "clerical mistake" by a former staffer.

"The former employee took full responsibility for her mistaken actions, apologised, and testified that the founder of TCI, Sharon Pearson, had no knowledge of her mistake."

After this, Ms Heron says the board’s phones began to ring with "disgruntled, disillusioned and frightened students".

"Multiple claims of harassment, high-pressure sales tactics and sexual misconduct were documented by the ABNLP from students and former students of TCI," she says. "Over 60 separate complaints were handled".

Due to the "alarming number of calls, the nature of the allegations and the multiple breaches of the ABNLP Code of Ethics”, Ms Heron says the board "unanimously voted to not recognise any NLP training conducted by or for TCI by an employee or contract trainer employed by TCI, regardless of that trainer’s own qualifications".

In an unprecedented move, Ms Heron sent a message out to members: "It is with regret that any [TCI] training conducted after June 2013 is no longer recognised by the Australian Board of NLP," she wrote.

The announcement left many students in disarray, concerned that their qualification from TCI would be less valuable without the board’s endorsement. A group of disgruntled students set up a private Facebook group to discuss their options. A number took their complaints to the regulator.

But a spokeswoman for TCI downplays the incident. “The former employee took full responsibility for her mistaken actions, apologised, and testified that the founder of TCI, Sharon Pearson, had no knowledge of her mistake,” she says.

The two organisations have not been affiliated since.

TCI now offers "Meta Dynamics" training, which it developed itself and describes as "the most innovative breakthrough in human behaviour since NLP". The course is accredited by the Meta Dynamics Association – a body established by TCI in 2014 – with the only member being TCI itself.

The same year that it broke with the Australian NLP Board, the school also parted ways with leading international coaching body, the International Coaching Federation (ICF), which monitors standards of its members.

TCI then established the similarly named "International Coaching Guild," and began advertising it as its primary accreditor.

SBS contacted two other organisations the school had listed as additional accreditors on its website as of May 2016, but all three said they had nothing to do with the company. When SBS asked TCI about these logos, they disappeared from the website.

After a tumultuous period, things only got worse for the school in July 2013 when the Australian Skills Quality Authority decided to cancel the company’s registration. By that point it had received 21 complaints against TCI. A further 16 followed between August and December 2013.

By February 2014, ASQA agreed the school had made an effort to address its "outstanding non-compliances". The decision to cancel the registration was set aside.

A spokeswoman for TCI says the school "has never had its registration removed, temporarily or otherwise". However this wording doesn't acknowledge that ASQA found the school to be non-compliant but allowed it to keep its registration after making changes.

SBS submitted a freedom of information request in 2015 to find out more about the audit but in 2016 – when the documents were set to be made available – the school applied for a review of the decision, blocking their immediate release.

Inquiries made by SBS and ASQA have been met with anger from TCI's owner, Sharon Pearson. In a 2013 blog post, she lambasted the regulator for turning her business "into a government department" by saddling it with excessive red tape. She also criticised auditors for questioning her "personal integrity".

After Ms Pearson became aware of SBS’s investigation, she wrote a public Facebook post accusing SBS of revisiting old allegations from "a few students and a couple of competitors [who] really went to town on TCI" and of failing to seek enough positive examples of her business. "Australia, we are better than this," she wrote.

Ms Pearson has refused to speak with SBS herself, despite multiple interview requests.

The high price of success

The Facebook profile photo of Jordan Dallwitz shows a relaxed-looking man in his early 20s wearing a black jacket and white T-shirt.

It's the same picture that used to appear on TCI’s website under a section titled "Success Stories", next to a testimonial written by Dallwitz. He joined the school as a student in 2012 and then became a staff member.

"TCI is so much more than an organisation from which to gain qualifications," his testimonial states. "The support and camaraderie of the entire community is unbelievable."

But unknown to those around him, while he was working at the school, Dallwitz was secretly accessing the credit card details of students and using them to purchase thousands of dollars’ worth of items. Among the things he bought using the stolen credit card details were airline tickets, car insurance and almost $7000 worth of lottery tickets. He also hired a jumping castle.

By the time the police caught up with him, his credit fraud spree had netted more than $200,000 from his victims.

Dallwitz, who had a prior history of fraud, was arrested in February 2014 and later sentenced to six years in prison.

Read the judgment from the case here.

When SBS contacted one of the former students defrauded by Dallwitz, the man, who did not wish to be identified, claimed TCI staff never told him his credit card details were stolen.

He found out when he noticed an irregularity in his statement and contacted his bank.

Another former student told SBS he was compelled to alert people over Facebook that their credit cards may have been at risk, after he came to believe the school was not doing so itself.

TCI denies it failed to contact students about the breach and says it notified Victoria Police as soon as it became aware of what had happened. “We made attempts to contact every student who may have made contact with Mr Dallwitz,” a spokeswoman says.

Dallwitz’s testimonial was still on one of TCI’s websites until May this year, when SBS inquired about it and it was taken down.

Are students protected?

Diana Blake* left TCI before she finished her course and alleges the school continued to withdraw payments from her account after she cancelled her enrollment. She engaged a lawyer and says correspondence from the school eventually dried up.

A spokeswoman for TCI denies this claim and says its payment process has been audited twice by ASQA and “found to be completely compliant”. 

"When I first started I thought, 'This is wonderful, what a great community'."

As the unregulated industry continues to grow, there is a risk of more complaints like these. But life-coach trainer Julie Parker says the Australian industry is world class.

"The reason that I feel really confident to say that is that our course is attracting more and more trainees from overseas," she says.

A spokeswoman for TCI shares that view, saying the school "constantly scores in the high 90s for student satisfaction” and has "the highest course completion rate in our sector".

Ms Blake says TCI students are attracted to the school's empowering messages and promises of success, but many - including her - feel let down.

"When I first started I thought, 'This is wonderful, what a great community', but then I saw through it because it's just really shallow," she says.

"There are ways of creating a really great culture without overstepping that line of having to make people feel uncomfortable."

*Names have been changed 

Source SBS News

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