Coaching and Psychotherapy: Commonality and Difference

by Mike O’Halloran and Evelyn Gilmore.

The purpose of this article is to explore areas of similarity and difference in Coaching and Psychotherapy. Towards the end of the article we will outline how a therapy practitioner may find the coaching approach to working with individuals can lead to greater receptivity to the practitioner’s skills among a wider client group. We will argue that the psychotherapy profession would be unwise to ignore the rise of coaching, lest they repeat the mistake psychiatry made when therapy emerged as a viable alternative to the medical model.

Key areas of similarity which we will highlight include the Presence of the Coach, his or her ability to give Attention to the client, ability to Empathise, concern with Client Fulfilment, Personal Responsibility, and Holistic view of the client. Areas of difference we wish to survey include the coaching focus on the Future and avoidance of the Past, greater focus in coaching on Goal Setting and Action rather than Understanding, and different Client perception of needs between those considering getting some coaching and those considering therapy.

Areas Of Commonality:

1 Presence, Attention and Empathy

Underlying the entire work successful therapists and coaches do is their ability to be present. Presence involves the ability to create a space where clients can talk about themselves in a deeper way than they might normally. In psychotherapy this might involve delving into a client’s past, or confronting aspects of the Shadow. In a coaching practice the client might need to talk about who she wants to become and what she needs to do to become that person. The ability of the psychotherapist or coach to be present to the client will be a critical factor in whether the client can make the kind of meaningful relationship with the professional which will allow the work to succeed.

Self-Awareness is therefore a key quality for coaches and psychotherapists, as it is the stuff out of which the practitioner’s sense of presence is constructed. With presence comes the ability to give attention. By attention, we mean more than attending skills. We mean the ability of the practitioner to be with the client in a neutral way. For to be present to the client, means the practitioner has to give a quality attention involving all of himself/herself at that moment, and to some extent be able to bracket his or her own judgements and beliefs about what the client is or ought to be doing.

To see the world through the eyes of the client, to empathise, is another cornerstone of successful coaching or psychotherapy. Because if we cannot, then no matter which label we attach to our professional selves, we won’t make a working relationship. In a coaching practice there can appear to be less empathy than in psychotherapy, however this has more to do with the different client demands that propel people to either coaching or psychotherapy initially. A therapy client has to experience empathy or he won’t stay. A coaching client, especially one in a senior position may want less empathy and greater challenge. Nonetheless, the coach needs the ability to see things from the client’s viewpoint, and the skilfulness to convey that awareness if the process is to unfold. Coaches therefore need to possess the same set of listening skills which psychotherapists need if they are to help clients engage.

2 Fulfilment and Self-Actualisation

Both psychotherapists and coaches aim to help clients live more fulfilling lives. And both view fulfilment as occurring when the client’s life is in keeping with her values and beliefs, as opposed to introjected values and beliefs which originate from external sources. Coaches don’t help their clients to be ‘happy,’ rather they ask clients to stretch themselves, and go to what is called ‘The next level of your life.’ A skilled coach helping a client with career issues, will ask the client what it would take for her to be fulfilled in work. Such a question will take the client into a deeper process than a more surface exploration of career options. When this process is tied in with an exploration of the client’s values and beliefs, the resulting client behavioural change is often as significant as that which occurs in psychotherapy.

3  Client-Centered

Like psychotherapy, much coaching is client- centered. Most coaches believe the client’s goals are the client’s, not the coaches. That for the client to connect emotionally with his goals, they need to originate from him, and furthermore that if the coach over-invests in the client achieving the goals, then nothing will happen. The rule, ‘Never Work Harder Than Your Client,’ sums this up. Despite the tabloid image of coaches being like nagging parents asking why your bedroom is untidy, coaches know that clients must take responsibility for outcomes.

4 Personal Responsibility, Self-Sabotage and Existentialism

A key concept for both professions is that of Self-Sabotage. This is the voice inside the head which says ‘You’re not ready yet,’ ‘You can’t……etc. At the core of this concept is the belief that individual’s block themselves from reaching their aspirations rather than external sources. Clients who present for either psychotherapy or coaching say things such as ‘I can’t because I’ve got a mortgage………He/She would go mad if I did……….They won’t let me.’ Such messages kick in either at the start of the process (when the client moans about others being in the way), or a bit further along, when energy for change has been mobilised and the client readies for action. Psychotherapists will look deep and uncover the origins of the voice and help the client to dislodge it. coaches, who may lack the skills required to do this, will instead forewarn the client about the voice, and ask him to generate a strategy for dealing with it. In both cases the underlying view of the person is existentialist. Existentialism holds that we create our destiny, are responsible for our choices, and have to stop blaming others for our situation. We are more free than we admit. This optimistic view of people, is common to coaches and psychotherapists of a humanistic persuasion.

5  Holistic Approach

Many coaches will be open to working on all current aspects of a client’s life. So the coach may facilitate action on areas such as Relationships, the client’s Physical Environment (whether home or office), Creativity, Financial Situation and so on. Coaches believe that individuals are unified systems and that change in one area can lead to change elsewhere. E.G, a client who gets on top of a messy office environment may find that her career progresses and her creativity heightens. A client who learns to say ‘no’, finds his work/life balance improves as a result of not being overburdened at work, that he becomes more effective, less stressed, and enjoys better interpersonal relationships. If all this sounds familiar to a psychotherapy audience, then let us consider some key differences between the two modalities.

Areas Of Difference:

1  No Contract To Go Into The Past

The key difference between coaching and psychotherapy is that the former has no contract to approach major unfinished business in a person’s past. The focus in coaching is on the present leading to the future. A coach will ask a client ‘Where do you want to go in your life?’ The process starts with a leaning into the future and the changes the client needs to make now in order to attain that future. Once a client has an understanding of where he wants to go, and sets goals that are in keeping with his values, the coaches task is to help keep the client focused on the goals through a mixture of support, challenge, and an awareness of self-sabotage. If unfinished business from the past is blocking the client from going forward, then the coach needs to refer for psychotherapy. Readers may ask how can a person possibly move on in life without looking at aspects of their past. This is a valid question. Yet the daily experience of many coaches is that clients make significant life changes without going through a process, which is even partially past focused.

Our hypothesis in this regard is that coaching and psychotherapy set up their own dynamic in terms of client’s expectations about the respective processes, prior to the client engaging with a coach or therapist. The potential coaching client has an expectation that coaching is about making changes, taking action and being goal orientated. The client arrives in the coaches office with the energy and motivation to do so. A therapy client on the other hand is more likely to want to explore issues of a personal nature that are causing distress and may not see the need to make any changes, at least at the outset of the process. The fact is of course that any successful psychotherapy process will lead to behavioural changes, but beginning clients often don’t perceive this. For example, a person has friends who have been to both coaches and psychotherapists. This person has a picture in his head of both processes, and his picture is that if he goes to the coach he’ll end up doing a lot of things, and if he goes to the therapist he’ll end up talking lots. Sounds unfair, but the core of truth will set up expectations which then lead to people creating a greater difference between the two modalities than exists in practice.

2  Emphasis on Action rather than Understanding

The emphasis in a coaching relationship is on action, whereas the emphasis in therapy tends to be more on exploration and understanding. A coach wants a client to take action from the outset. This could be getting the client to note all the times they were unassertive during the week, or agreeing to book a holiday. The point is that the coach expects her client will take some action, even at the beginning. Coaches get new clients to agree actions, which are initially not over-challenging, and when the client has had some ‘soft-victories,’ the coach then raises the ante, by encouraging the client to stretch herself further. This concept of the ‘easy victory,’ is in keeping with Bandura’s theory of Self-Efficacy which holds that nothing succeeds like success, and provided a client ascribes the success to himself, there is the possibility that successes in one area of life will foster a greater sense of overall mastery.

3  Measurable Goals

At the heart of a coaching process will be the client’s goals. The coach will help the client to set clear goals which she wants to achieve, and the process will be deemed successful to the extent that the client succeeds. Generally, clients arrive with a mixture of clear and woolly goals, or at least the awareness that they need to be setting some goals for themselves in order to move on in life. A coach will help the client state each goal in a specific and measurable way.

For example the goal may be, ‘I want to be more efficient in work.’

When this gets broken down, the client may identity the following measures by which she will know she has succeeded:

  I will be delegating much more
  I will have more time to think strategically about my role
  I won’t feel so pressurised
  I’ll be able to get home at least three evenings a week before 7pm.

A coach might start working with the above client by getting her to agree to immediately start implementing at least some of the above. Questions such as ‘How can you start delegating tomorrow morning? Will you go home early at least one night this week?’ are designed to get the client to take some action. Very often the client will act, and sometimes he will agree to act but manage to sabotage himself. In the former case the coach will acknowledge the action, process it so that the client owns that they have made some change, and explore how the client can reinforce the change. In the latter case, the coach will explore the sabotage in a non-judgemental way. For example, a client may have agreed to delegate more and failed to do so. When this gets explored it may be the client believes ‘If I don’t do it myself, it’ll get done badly.’ Questions to the client which elicit that most other mangers do successfully delegate (and seem to have easier lives), and if appropriate, questions as to the origin of the limiting core belief, can result in the client quickly reframing the old belief and moving on to make the change. If the core belief involves pathological lack of trust in others, the coach will need to refer the client for this part of the work.

In practice, and especially with clients coming from the world of business and organisations, the motivation to make the change is usually strong and clients will readily experiment with facing their fear and trying out new behaviours. In our experience it is not uncommon for a client who realises his block is deep rooted (and coming from some significant childhood experience), to say something like ‘So what if this is what it’s all about. I have to get on with my life anyway and change this.’ Working at the level of self-limiting core beliefs is something which therapists already do. The authors feel this is a key area of overlap between the two modalities and that therapists are ideally placed to use their skills and psychological understanding to work in the Coaching field.

4  Different Client Group or Different Client Perception Of Needs?

A considerable section of the population still holds a perception of therapy as being for people with problems. The fact that many well functioning clients use psychotherapy for ongoing growth is not as widely known as the fact that people who have been abused or whose relationships are in difficulty use therapy to help them move on. This is despite the emergence of the Humanistic mode in the 70’s with it’s emphasis on liberation rather than social adjustment.

Contrast this with coaching. It presents itself as being for well functioning people who want more out of life, greater work-life balance, greater fulfilment, greater success in whatever field. It says ‘You’re an adult, you don’t need to go digging into your past to move on and be more effective.’ And crass or not, the message gets through and appeals to people who know they need some help, but find it easier to go to a coach. In Life Coaching there is no stigma attached to the process, as it can be sold to one’s colleagues, friends, boss etc. as ‘Helping me to become more effective in my life and work.’ Also, the perception of this client group is that, I could do with making a few changes quickly and I don’t want to end up talking about my parents of lying on a couch’.

In the author’s experience coaching clients tend to come from a business or managerial background, and almost always perceive themselves as needing some help to move on or be more effective, that help to be delivered faster and with more relevance to their lives than they perceive they can get in therapy.

Our view is that coaching has emerged as a new modality within the broad helping area, and that it is taking root, because coaches are using established Communication/Listening/Counselling skills, and repackaging them to appeal to a wider client group who have the need and money to pay for such help. There may also be issues in our culture which are aiding the emergence of coaching. Work and home life is more complex and stressful than before and there is an increasing emphasis on self-direction and autonomy in organisations. The end of the Cold War and the collapse of power blocks which guaranteed a sort of stability has led to the world becoming more dangerous. 9/11 has made people aware their lives are fragile. A person thinks…If my life is fragile I had better make a go of it and get moving, stop postponing living’.

Therapists need to communicate more that they also help people get more out of life, or risk becoming marginalized as the next wave of the population seeking personal fulfilment and balance turns instinctively towards coaching rather than psychotherapy. Psychotherapy associations could more actively promote psychotherapy as a form of personal growth and enrichment for everyone. Psychotherapy training programmes should involve some appreciation of what happens in a modern workplace, particularly in the private sector, of which many psychotherapy trainees will have only the vaguest knowledge, and much projection. Psychotherapists need to own that they have skills which can be applied to the benefit of much larger sections of the population than hitherto, provided they market those skills and services in a way which makes it more feasible for others to approach them for their help.

Mike O’Halloran, is a Psychotherapist, Business Coach, Gestalt Trainer, and Coach Trainer and is a Director of Galway Leadership Center.

Evelyn Gilmore is a Consultant Psychologist, Psychotherapist and Business Coach and is a Director of Galway Leadership Center.