All this talk about career coaching is making me anxious. Is my career going down the toilet because I lack my very own coach? Is it too late to turn my life around?

Arguably, most anyone can benefit from a career coach — someone who will help you define your goals and devise ways to achieve them. Who doesn’t need someone who will push and nag you to do better, and tell you when you’re being stupid or lazy? Frankly, we all need a kick in the butt every so often.

But before you start dishing out dough for a career coach, remember this: Career coaches are not for everyone.

"It can be a terrible experience for someone who’s not coachable," said Washington-based coach Ellen Ostrow. "Some people are not suitable for coaching because they are depressed." Part of her job, she said, is to screen out those who are so clearly despondent that it’s difficult for them to take action. Baltimore-based career coach Mark Hunter put it even more bluntly: "I tell them I’m not here to fix you. You have to be whole, not broken."

In other words, career coaches are not therapists. They don’t want to know about your terrible childhood. "Whereas therapy involves looking back, coaching is all about looking forward," said career coach Nancy Manzo, who works primarily with lawyers.

Assuming you are just neurotic and not a total basket case, what should you look for in a career coach? Here are some tips:

• Check out professional credentials. Ideally, the coach should be accredited through the International Coach Federation to ensure that s/he has met minimum standards for coaching education and experience.

• Ask for references. Nose around — talk to people at work and individuals in the management ranks at corporations to get some well-vetted names.

• Drill down. "Ask questions about their style/philosophy of coaching, the logistics of ­working with them and the types of results they have helped their clients create, as well as their expectations of you as client," said Whittney Fruin, career coach at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe.

• Make sure the coach listens to you — really listens. Virtually every coach I spoke with mentioned listening as a key factor. "If I were trying to choose a coach, I’d want to feel that the coach really heard me, understood what I was trying to accomplish, and the obstacles I was facing," Ostrow said.

• Do a test drive. Most coaches offer a free initial session, so you should do your due ­diligence and try out more than one.

One of the quirks of career coaching is that it’s often a phone relationship. "I meet my clients once in a while," Hunter said. "But they are very busy, and they find it more convenient to talk over the phone." Besides, he added, people "are more focused and less distracted on the phone." Whatever works.

Vivia Chen is chief blogger for The Careerist. Updates appear daily at thecareerist.typepad.com. She can be contacted at vchen@alm.com.