who says coaches and therapy don’t mix?
– posted by jacki nicholas – 30 March 2012
Any experienced coach knows to be careful of the line between coaching and therapeutic interventions such as counselling, therapy and anything relating to mental health. The coaching profession can be quite divided, however, on what exactly this means.
Some schools of thought believe that coaching should never venture into the past, always remaining solidly in the present and future. Others say we shouldn’t look at emotions – only actions and thinking. It’s quite a commonplace opinion that coaches should steer well clear of any psychological and, especially, psychotherapeutic spaces.
As with all things in life, it’s all too easy to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater.’ Yes, as coaches our role, expertise and responsibility is to coach – not to provide counselling or therapy. Firstly, most of us are not qualified to do so, and secondly, even if you are, it’s usually not part of the coaching ‘contract’ – whether that contract be formal or informal.
Have coaches gone too far, however, in avoiding anything psychological? The industry’s positive intention of having coaches remain in their appropriate professional domain, sometimes turns this coaching / therapy boundary into a seemingly dangerous, six lane highway that one mustn’t even think of venturing near, let alone putting a toenail on. Could this be an over reaction and one that serves neither our clients nor the coaching profession? I believe it is.
Let me be clear – the coaching/therapy differentiation is an extremely important boundary that needs to be understood and respected. I view it, however, as much less absolute and foreboding than coaches are often led to believe. What if, instead of a concrete wall it was a more permeable boundary, allowing relevant concepts and influences to move between the two domains, yet with the practitioner remaining in their own appropriate side of the boundary?
As coaches, we are dealing with human beings. The person in front of us has a past, present and future. He or she has a head, heart, body and spirit. He or she has strengths, weaknesses, aspirations, foibles, hopes, dreams, shadows, fears, blindspots, hidden strengths, emotions, beliefs, values, purpose and everything in between. When we automatically put a ‘Do Not Venture’ sign at the entrance of any of these, we’re putting up a barrier that prevent us from seeing and working with the whole person.
I’m very mindful of this boundary as a coach despite, or perhaps because of, having a psychology qualification. One of my coaching strengths, however, is an intuitive antenna, and sometimes, coachees share emotions and aspects of their lives with me that they’ve never or rarely divulged or articulated before. An unexpected, almost ‘forgotten’ connection to a past event may resurface, even to the client’s surprise. And this is the funny thing, isn’t it – usually neither the coachee nor the coach know when something from the past is going to pop up in either of them! That’s the power of the unlimited subconscious where everything in our entire life is indelibly recorded.
A new coach I was supervising recently told me how, when he asked one of his clients a simple coaching question about one of her goals, a look of pain and horror instantly crossed her face. It was a good, innocuous, vanilla coaching question, and he was shocked when his client involuntarily doubled up as if punched in the stomach. There was nothing in the coaching question that would have predicted such an extreme and sudden reaction. Meanwhile, the coach also had an instant reaction. He explained to me… “And I knew that look too well. It was the same look my mother had when I told her that my father had died.” This simple story of an experience that took place in a matter of seconds, is rich with psychological phenomena and illustrates that, even when a coach or coachee has no intention to discuss the past, our clients and we ourselves are sometimes transported back there in an instant. In such situations, a professional coach needs to be able to recognise and understand what could be happening, and to hold the space safely for reflection, processing or whatever else is needed.
I believe that, as professional coaches, we need not be automatically concerned or wary when a client brings up the past or emotions. On the contrary, we need be active in wanting to understand, even just at a basic level, what forces could be at play in this area. In doing so, we can make a more informed assessment of the situation, and determine where and where not the coaching could go. I’m confident therefore, that professional coaches have a responsibility to become knowledgeable about psychological and therapy-related concepts – certainly not to diagnose or practise therapy, but to be sufficiently aware of what psychological factors or patterns that could be at play – with our coachees, within ourselves, in the coaching relationship and in the larger context or system within which they and we operate. To turn our back resolutely on these possible forces can be paramount to turning off the light, leaving us to fumble about in the dark.
When I first became a coaching supervisor, some of the greatest insights I had for my own coaching came from psychological and therapeutic concepts – projection, transference, counter-transference, parallel processing, transactional analysis amongst others. Some were totally new, while others were familiar from my psychology days, yet I had buried them away in a ‘do not touch’ compartment to shield my coaching from their influence. Supervision has given me the ‘permission’ I needed to reopen that door and take another look around.
It’s also important for a professional coach to know when a client is exhibiting signs that could be indicative of certain psychological patterns or disorders. Without this knowledge we can easily fall prey to being drawn into our clients’ conscious or subconscious games and, in doing so, fail to be of the best service to them. A little bit of knowledge also helps highlight where we may be out of our depth, where coaching may not be appropriate and when referral to other practitioners, such as a therapist might be needed. We never diagnose, but it pays to be informed and aware.
For coaches who are interested in exploring these concepts further, I recommend the following reading:
- Edna Murdoch (2012) ‘Recognising and Working with the Narcissistic Personality’ http://coachingsupervisionacademy.com/thought-leadership/recog-working-with-narcissi-p/. This excellent article on how to recognise and work with narcissistic personalities illustrates the value of coaches understanding psychological concepts. You are likely to recognise behavioural patterns that remind you of managers, coachees and other people in your life, and perhaps even your own behaviour in parallel processing! The energy of narcissistic personalities can be very contagious, and gets passed easily and quickly to others – particularly in highly charged, pressured environments.
- Manfred Kets de Vries (2006) ‘The Leader on the Couch – A Clinical Approach to Changing People and Organisations’. This book explores the psychodynamic approach to working with leaders and the importance of understanding the ‘inner theatre’. Part One focusses on various leadership pathologies including the narcissistic leader.
On a final note – whilst I encourage coaches to increase their awareness of psychological and therapeutic concepts, and to discuss unfamiliar coachee behaviours with their coaching supervisor – it is crucial that every coach has the contact details of at least one counsellor, psychologist and/or therapist to refer clients to, or discuss unusual coachee situations with. You might never use it, but you could need it suddenly and, if you do, you’ll be thankful for your foresight.
©2012 Air Institute Pte Ltd