Life Coaching and ‘therapy’ are not mutually exclusive
By Dan Newman – Wales, UK
In learning Life Coaching, one of the first things the student is taught is that the discipline is quite different from ‘therapy’. Indeed, to some degree, these two fields tend to be presented as diametrically opposed and quite incompatible. However, I believe that scaring students with the therapist bogeyman might work to hold back the field of Life Coaching. In this paper, I begin by outlining a little of the opposition before presenting a case study of my first client as a new Life Coach. I conclude by suggesting that this suggests the line between Life Coaching and ‘therapy’ need not be seen as quite so definitive.
Life Coaching can be understood as one of the ‘helping professions’ – charged with nurturing the growth of an individual, providing them support in overcoming particular issues they are facing. As such, it seems useful to turn to Skibbins (2007: 38), who both sets and answers a rather fundamental question:
“What is coaching? In a nutshell, coaching is a profession that assists mentally healthy people to achieve their personal and career goals.”
The operative word here, which sets Life Coaching apart from other ‘helping professions’ appears to be the notion that the clientele is “mentally healthy”.
Life Coaching is a practical tool for personal exploration and development. A Life Coach can unlock and release the potential within their clients, to bring about major positive improvements in their lives. Crucially, though, Coaches are only able to do this for those clients looking to move forward from a relatively stable base. As such, Coaching is not deigned appropriate for those with mental health issue, a history of abuse or alcohol/drug problems. As such, Life Coaching can be distinguished from ‘therapy’, which covers a range of other ‘helping professions’ that seek to support individuals suffering from such problems. However, mentally healthy clients can still gain great benefit from the services of such ‘therapists’ and, as such, the difference between the two should not simply be constituted by the cognitive circumstances of the clients. It is rather more complicated than that and, it is for these reasons that Rogers (2006: 13), problematises the distinction by highlighting that the “borderline with psychotherapy is probably the one that worries coaches most.”
It is under this consideration that Skibbins (2007: 30) feels compelled to insist that:
“As coaches, we must delineate the differences between what we do when we coach and what we do when we act as therapists.”
In the course of his work, Skibbins (2007: 21) goes on to describe this difference, attributing it to three key factors. Firstly, Life Coaching is about knowing where the individual is headed, while ‘therapy’ is about what is holding them back. Secondly, the client of the Life Coach wants to achieve a particular goal, while the therapist’s client needs help with a specific problem. Thirdly, and finally, the Life Coach relies less on their own expertise and trusts the abilities of their clients, while the therapist is focused upon their own skills and uses their knowledge to implement a treatment plan.
There is clearly an intrinsic ambiguity between what constitutes an “issue” as opposed to a “problem” and there are various schools of ‘therapy’ which utilise differing takes on authority. As such, I would suggest that, the most central of these differences appears to be the difference of foci – between a discipline which looks at the present and future and one which looks to the past. The clearest indication of this opposition is offered by the founder of Life Coaching, Thomas Leonard (1998), who urges clients to use ‘therapy’ to let go of the past and, only then, to undertake Life Coaching to deal with the present and, thereon, the future. This ethos can be seen in numerous guides aimed at the new, and developing, practitioner. A broad swath of such publications, all forwarding the same line, can be found in the works offered by Rogers (2006), Martin (2001), Skibbins (2007), Nelson-Jones (2007), Williams and Thomas (2005) and Ellis (2006). Similar views can also be seen on myriad practitioner websites, such as The Coaching and Mentoring Network (which can be found at: www.coachingnetwork.org.uk) and Find a Life Coach (which can be found at: www.findalifecoach.co.uk). In the round, these accounts work to emphasize the manner in which Life Coaching prides itself on offering a speedy and tightly focused means to address an individual’s issues as swiftly and efficiently as possible. It is for this reason, that so many of the previous individuals appear to juxtapose it with a ‘therapy’ that they suppose prefers to dwell on what has been and can take place over long, perhaps unlimited, numbers of sessions.
Prospective Life Coaches, then, are duly taught the dangers of offering therapeutic services to the client; such a combination is said to hold the threat of confusing clients. The supposedly different foci, from past to present and future, can have a detrimental effect. As a result, the benefits that can be gained from each approach cancel each other out and the client loses out. The client may become so disheartened as to desist from seeking help to confront their issues at all. This was the message that had been instilled in me as I set about beginning a career as a Life Coach; ne’er the twain shall meet.
The Case Study of Brian
However, the discrepancy between where Life Coaching began and those aspects that the practitioner should supposedly consign to the realm of ‘therapy’ were challenged by the very first client I took on. This client was “mentally healthy”, but I was left confused by the manner in which he could have been just as readily helped by a ‘therapist’ and also the way that I could have utilised therapeutic techniques in aiding him as a Life Coach. As such, I offer Brian by means of a brief yet illustrative case study.
Brian was a criminal defence lawyer around the age of thirty years old. He had good qualifications behind him, having undertaken, first, an undergraduate degree in philosophy and, latterly, a postgraduate law conversion course at a red-brick University; completing both with high grades. Following these studies, he moved on to the final stage of legal training, his ‘articles’ which he undertook at a legally aided criminal defence firm, notable locally for the commitment of it’s practitioners. At this firm, Brian was well-regarded by his colleagues and the partners; it was assumed that he would eventually become a partner himself. However, having been practising for only five years, Brian already found himself questioning his place in this profession and doubting his commitment.
Brian approached me after a recommendation from a friend of a friend; a mutual acquaintance in the local legal community. Brian told me that he simply wanted “a neutral perspective; someone to listen and tell me if I’m being stupid or if I’ve actually got a point without having some vested interest”. He was worried that his friends, family or colleagues would be too quick to either go along with what he said, to please him, or oppose it, and think he was being hasty. As a result, Brian told me he was unsure whether his thoughts about a career change were “sensible or stupid”.
Over the course of a handful of sessions, I utilised several Life Coaching techniques to tackle Brian’s vocational issues. Initially, I deployed the GROW model. This is an analytical framework which can be used to explore the pertinent topics presented by a client. GROW stands for: goals, turning a problem into a positive desired outcome; reality, carrying out an objective audit of how things currently are; options, those possibilities that are actually available to pursue, and; will, that option which will be committed to. From this, Brian was able to decide that he wanted a career which excited and challenged him. The criminal law did not fulfil his need to engage his brain, it had become routinised and he felt as if he was going through the motions. He felt sure that he did want a career change and concluded that he may have to consider going back to university and discover what stimulated him anew the way he had once thought criminal law had.
Following the success of Brian’s engagement with the GROW model, I moved on to another exercise: goal mapping. I utilised this in order to facilitate Brian’s working through just what area he may wish to move onto and, thus, the subjects that would be most relevant on any return to academia. In goal mapping, clients are encouraged to ‘dream without fear’, to let go of self-limiting beliefs, contemplate life as they would want it to be and list what this entails. The client is then asked to prioritise and select their top five goals, before drawing them symbolically. From each picture, the client then draws lines which link to the how, when, who and why relevant to each goal. As a result, Brian found that he really wanted to write for a living and so posited the idea that some form of journalism might represent his ideal career.
Between sessions, I encouraged Brian to keep a reflexive diary, draw up an action plan and engage in some scheduling exercises. In very little time, then, Brian was able to reconcile his thoughts and told me that he would enrol in a part-time postgraduate degree to start the following year. He told me that he was happy and knew this was the right thing to do. In the meantime, he was able to enjoy his current work more because he knew he had other options. I was left heartened by Brian’s success in working through his problems and satisfied with the part I played in enabling him. I was also left to reflect, though, on whether the results he achieved had been any different to those he could have attained in ‘therapy’ but also the manner in which I could have utilised therapeutic insights to allow Brian to help himself quicker now and in the future.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Life Coaching
My initial thoughts of ‘therapy’ were alerted by the close parallels that could be drawn between the issues tackled in my first Life Coaching relationship and the early days of one particular form of ‘therapy’ – ‘brief intervention’ counselling. The roots of this approach can be traced back to World War II and its immediate aftermath (Blocher, 2000: 97-108). The US military required a system by which to organise career placements and professional training; there were both freshly created employment opportunities and a set of individuals ready to take up new careers. They required help to tally the two together. This ultimately led to the formation of Division 17 of the American Psychological Association and the birth of the phrase ‘counselling psychology’. Counselling, then, was originally developed for those with vocational or educational problems; its express purpose was to allow for exploration and development of a client’s life choices.
This did not seem so very alien to the issues that Brian and myself had worked through. To return to the marks of difference earlier offered by Skibbins (2007), then, there did not appear to be sharp dividing lines. As such, he could have gone to a therapist; one practicing brief interventions would not necessarily have taken any longer than I did and nor would they have inevitably imposed their expertise and made decisions for Brian. Most crucially, though, the therapist need not have inherently looked to the past, but one practising brief interventions could have offered help for the present and the future.
‘Brief interventions’ can be considered as a family of related but divergent approaches to ‘therapy’. ‘Brief therapy’ is an umbrella term for a range of psychotherapeutic techniques and beliefs. These methods should not be seen as a homogonous mass but, rather, appreciated to vary in length, structure, target and philosophy. However, they are all possessed of a common thread by which the counsellor is tasked with assisting their client to accept, manage or solve their problems as swiftly as is possible. They are ‘time-effective therapies’ (Budman and Gurman, 1988: 6). These approaches consider themselves to be more in tune with the origins of ‘therapy’, and are generally opposed to the routinisation of long-term counselling relationships. They are solution-based rather than problem-orientated, and less concerned with how problems arouse than what is currently preventing them from being overcome. This brief approach is epitomised by Hayley (1993: 24) in his evocation of an early innovator of such therapies, Milton Erickson, and his analogy of the man who wants to change the course of a river:
“If he opposes the river by trying to block it, the river will merely go over and around him. But if he accepts the force of the river and diverts it in a new direction, the force of the river will cut a new channel.”
‘Brief interventions’ seek to help clients reach an awareness of what they must to do achieve the changes they desire as quickly as possible. Rather than the popular, stereotyped view, of ‘therapy’ as intrinsically involving a coach and a dependant patient being asked questions about his relationship to his mother, this offered an active process, specifically geared toward the present and the future. It showed a discipline that helped clients to make their own choices. This humanistic approach to ‘therapy’ was well captured in Rogers’ (1989) early ‘non-directive counselling’. As such, Rogers (1989: 86-87) presented a client-centred philosophy that places great value on:
“…the right of every individual to be psychologically independent and to maintain his [sic] psychological integrity.”
I am attracted by the way this approach is set up in contrast with, conventional, ‘directive’ approaches that seek to interpret events for the client and advise them on the best course to follow. Rather than reduce a client to their neuroses, and restrict the counselling relationship to addressing these, this approach seems to premise treating them of themselves, giving them room to space and respect for their own frame of reference, thus treating clients as rounded human beings.
It has been suggested that the solution-focused remit of ‘brief therapy’ makes them as, if not more, effective than more extensive counselling (Budman and Gurman, 1988). As such, Budman and Gurman (1988: 9) collate several meta-analyses of the effectiveness of psychotherapy and use these studies to suggest that the major positive impact of counselling tends to occur in the first six to eight sessions. After this, Budman and Gurman (1988: 8) suppose that the law of diminishing returns comes into operation with:
“…more and more effort required to achieve just noticeable difference in patient improvement.”
Though there may be less time spent in ‘brief therapy’, this time might be better planned and aimed at effectively solving the problem in the here and now, rather than becoming bogged down in supposition and conjecture about the past causes of the problem. These authors produce an eight-point schema to differentiate the two broad counselling approaches, which highlight that ‘brief therapy’ has its own value system different to longer approaches (Budman and Gurman, 1988: 9). However, Budman and Gurman’s (1988) final opposition seems the most pertinent to highlight this variance: the long-term therapist sees ‘therapy’ as part of the client’s life while brief therapies see the client being able to live in the world as more important than their being in ‘therapy’. Brief interventions seeks to aid clients to sort their own problems out and move on with living their lives and, this aim, means they can be every bit as successful as more extensive therapies in a shorter time period. As such, it should only be judged by the tenets it holds to be self evident and not those belonging to other ideologies – brief interventions can be understood in and of themselves. The length of time or number of sessions only has relevance in relation to the specific goals of a particular approach and less is more under those of ‘brief therapy’.
As a result, I took the opinion that I should be more open to the idea of ‘therapy’ as a useful adjunct to my Life Coaching practice. Considering the insights of ‘brief intervention therapy’, it seemed sensible to utilise some of the benefits they could bring toward clients. I adjudged that the chief amongst these appeared to be the toolbox offered by ‘cognitive behavioural therapy’ and the approach offered by, its innovators, Ellis (1996) and Beck (1976). This approach relies on the principle that all individual see the world through slightly differing perspectives, premised upon belief systems and, underlining these, learnt understandings.
In particular, Ellis (1996) developed the ABC model to show how individuals tend to upset themselves about unpleasant events in their lives. By this, A is the activating event, B are the beliefs and thoughts, while C represents the emotional or psychological consequences. Using this technique can help clients to avoid believing that they are what they think and becoming lost in whatever problems present themselves. The next step is to allow the individual to identify their core beliefs. In this way, clients can be encouraged to notice, and avoid, the pitfalls of ‘cognitive distortions’, negative and unproductive ways of seeing a problem. These include labelling, attributing a global and critical nomenclature to oneself, fortune-telling, believing that the future can be predicted in a consistently accurate, pessimistic, manner and catastrophizing, always fearing the worst. Finally, the individual is encouraged to challenge their thinking, turning what if… into then what… and so empowering themselves, offering the potential of freedom from negative thinking.
The work I undertook with Brian, then, was not dissimilar to ‘brief intervention therapy’ and could certainly have benefited further from the exercises and knowledge provided by ‘cognitive behavioural therapy’. Brian was locked in negative thought patterns, as he went about his work disheartened and, yet, perceived his desire for something more as somewhat problematic. If he was taught some of the tools of ‘cognitive behavioural therapy’, he could have worked through these and, perhaps, realised sooner that he could entertain change. In combination with the Life Coaching arsenal, I believe this would have offered an even more potent means to help Brian move forward with his life.
I do not see these techniques as the type of regressive naval-gazing by which Life Coaches are often encouraged to understand ‘therapy’. Rather, they present the means to overcome self-pity, blame or sadness and move on toward new goals. In this way, I see these approaches as neatly tallying with Life Coaching. As such, I would wish to further the approach offered by Neenan and Dryden (2002) who explicitly seek a synthesis of such therapeutic techniques with ‘cognitive behavioural therapy’. They offer a practice labelled ‘cognitive behavioural coaching’ as the best means by which to offer clients the prospect of achieving personal growth. This is certainly an avenue that I will seek to traverse in the future. Other Life Coaches should be encouraged to be equally open to insight from the therapeutic realm and encouraged that ‘therapy’ is not a dirty word. I may be a Life Coach but I am no longer blind to the benefits of ‘therapy’.
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