Coaching or Therapy? A Map for Coaches
by Kathy Benham and Susan Fox (Copyright 2002)
mantra “Coaching is not therapy” is frequently stated in coach training
programs. Yet the distinction between the two professions can be
difficult to articulate for many coaches—especially those who are new
to the field or who have been previously trained as a psychotherapist
specializing in short term therapy. In the course of coaching, clients
may present with life patterns that exceed the parameters of coaching.
When this occurs, the ethics and appropriateness of referral must be
Coaching theory identifies two core differences between coaching and therapy:
The primary function of coaching
is to create a context in which life and performance enhancement may
take place. Coaching assumes that the client is already high
functioning and is capable of taking consistent action steps towards
their life vision. However, clients with a psychiatric diagnosis can
also benefit from coaching if they demonstrate the ability to make
ongoing progress toward their coaching goals and they are actively
managing any symptoms.
the core differences of primary function and time frame, a coach can
listen for cues or red flags that might suggest a referral to a
psychotherapist—either in addition to coaching or in place of
coaching—is indicated. We are not suggesting that a coach should
attempt to diagnose or focus on symptoms. However, a coach should be
Understand how the intensity and longevity of blocks, ruts, and fears
differ in high functioning coaching clients from blocks, ruts, and
fears, in clients who need psychotherapy to move beyond their stuck
a hypothetical coaching client, Molly, we will explore red flags which
might indicate a need for a coach to refer a client to a therapist. As
you consider Molly's goals and presentation of self, ask yourself these
standard coaching questions:
1) What strengths and resources are present?
2) What are her coaching goals?
3) What blocks or ruts are present?
4) What is the intensity and longevity of the blocks?
5) What are the issues for coaching?
6) Is Molly seeking coaching or therapy under the guise of coaching?
Molly is a 40-year-old junior college graduate currently working for a
landscaping company, work she found through a temporary employment
service. She comes to coaching with the goal of finding a career that
“fits.” On her intake form ,Molly reports a history of sychotherapy to
deal with family of origin issues. She also notes that she has
successfully dealt with these issues yet acknowledges having no contact
with members of her birth family since college. This, she writes, is
“no big deal.”
months, Molly has kept five of seven scheduled appointments. While
Molly seems serious about wanting to find meaningful work, and she
readily accepts homework requests you make, she has canceled her last
two appointments due to fatigue, frustration, and lack of progress to
Molly keeps her next
appointment and immediately launches a bitter account of an upsetting
recent meeting with her pastor. Unclear as to how this episode relates
to Molly’s coaching goals, you probe for clarification.
Coach 1: It’s clear that Rev. Jones didn’t respond the way you expected him to.
Molly 1 (M1):
He told me I needed to go back to my shrink—that my problems were out
of his league. I don’t need a shrink! All I need him to do is listen to
me. He just doesn’t want to deal with me. He asked me if I had other
people to talk to, and I told him about my new best friend—someone I
met on the landscaping crew.
Coach 2: Molly,
let’s figure out how to best use our time together. Is this experience
with Rev. Jones where you want to focus today or should we look at your
goals for the week and how that process is moving along?
Molly 2 (M2): (With
an irritated edge to her voice.) I don’t know what’s best to talk
about; I can’t seem to focus on any one thing. It’s too overwhelming.
Coach 3: What is overwhelming, Molly?
Molly 3(M3): I’m
uneducated, broke, and alone. I can’t afford to pay for my Prozac since
I lost my insurance, so I’ve quit cold turkey. My minister is a joke.
With my luck, you’ll be telling me that I’m wasting your time, too.
What thoughts and feelings came to you as Molly's coaching session evolved?
Clearly, a number of potential red flags are raised in Molly’s coaching sessions, among them:
Molly’s identified support network—chiefly her minister, about whom she
speaks bitterly. As her coach, several questions seem appropriate to
consider: What did the pastor see that made him recommend therapy (M1)?
And as the pastor is presented as a major source of support for Molly
(M1), how does Molly create and maintain friendships and a support
network. Her reference to a “new best friend” (M1) adds fuel to that
question. Finally, the bitter references to her pastor might prompt the
coach to ask whether Molly has a pattern of placing someone on a
pedestal and then, when disappointed by them, making them an enemy.
Does she have a pattern of black and white thinking that prevents her
from maintaining connections to other people?
Molly’s assessment of the status of her therapeutic issues--including
her family of origin issues, past and present, which she reports having
“dealt with” and characterizes as “no big deal” (Intake). She also
reacts strongly to her pastor’s suggestion that she return to therapy
(M1). As her coach, you might wonder if Molly is minimizing issues in
order to be seen as a suitable candidate for coaching.
Molly’s expressed and observed state of mind—she’s cancelled
appointments due to fatigue, frustration, and lack of progress, and she
reports feeling “overwhelmed” and unable to focus (M2). Negative
self-talk and pessimism appear (M3). She’s quit taking her
anti-depressant without consulting her doctor. Does Molly have the
ability to practice basic self-care? Could there be a physical cause
for the fatigue? Does she have enough indicators of a biochemical
depression to require a medical assessment and follow through by Molly?
you were coaching Molly, what would you do? Were you able to recognize
the indicators of a biochemical depression and the presence of
unresolved family of origin issues that appear to impact her current
life? Recognizing these red flags does not amount to “diagnosis.”
Rather, it reflects responsible assessment of a client’s suitability
for coaching--road signs to possible issues. If you discerned that
Molly needs a therapy referral, you had on your coach listening ears!
The recognition that a referral to a therapist is in order raises other questions for the coach to consider:
a referral to therapy is indicated, a coach needs to present the
referral in an affirming and positive manner. Some clients, because of
unresolved life themes of abandonment, might feel rejected by you or
judged if you refer them to a therapist. They might discontinue
coaching clients, though, if you emphasize that therapy can greatly
enhance the coaching process, they will recognize the suggestion as an
integrated plan designed to move them toward their goals.
is great in theory. However, it is in the complex, sometimes subtle
interactions between client and coach that the ethics of appropriate
referral must be explored. We encourage you to seek peer support and
supervision as you actively explore the complexity of the line between
coaching and psychotherapy.
flags are merely helpful indicators if you notice a coaching client
staying too stuck for too long a time. Leave the diagnosing to the
therapists and stay in the primary function and time frame of coaching.
Coaching offers an extraordinary opportunity for clients to transcend
the critical gap between where they are and their envisioned future.
you listen for all the strengths and resources of your coaching
clients, focus on them. Work in the critical gap. Keep the coaching
fun. When coaching stops being fun, it is time for a consult!
Benham is a full time Life Enhancement and Business Performance Coach
and Consultant. Kathy specializes in coaching underachieving gifted
individuals, professionals with ADD, and small business owners and
entrepreneurs (many of these overlap!).
Fox is a Career and Life Coach “home-based” at Union Theological
Seminary in Richmond, Virginia where she coaches seminarians around
vocational issues and teaches practical theology. Susan also has a
small private practice providing coaching for individuals and groups on
call discernment, clergy and congregational issues, and life
transitions. She may be reached at www.lifelinescoaching.com.