On coaching and counselling..

March 14, 2007

Over at Wishful Thinking Mark is pointing out the differences as he sees them between Coaching and Counselling. He’s making the traditional distinctions but I would take issue about the assumptions on which they are based and have posted here about this difference before (I’ll repeat some of it in this post). Mark says:

Counselling and therapy deal with personal problems – Coaching addresses workplace performance.

The idea that our personal and professional lives are separate and distinctive is not something I agree with. Organisations don’t exist – they are networks of human relationships and as such are emotional and emotion generating environments. We don’t come to work and leave our personal selves at the door and I don’t know about you – but I have rarely heard someone come home from work talking about “the bottom line” – if they do they are expressing their feelings about the bottom line. Workplace performance is interconnected with personal issues and problems and vice versa. When I am coaching I am always observing why someone brings this problem (personal and professional) to me at this time. The permission I seek to inquire, and the level at which I work is what differentiates coaching from counselling and psychotherapy.

Counselling begins with a problem – Coaching can begin with a goal or aspiration
Counselling is sought by people having difficulties – Coaching is used by high achievers as much as beginners or people who are stuck.

People can often come to counselling or therapy with a goal that is framed as a problem. Nobody I have ever worked with has come to therapy to purely talk about problems – they are there to understand and resolve that problem. I have also worked with people who come to counselling and therapy to gain a better understanding of themselves – not just when a problem manifests. And I have also worked with coaching clients who have come and been referred because there is a problem with their workplace performance, so this distinction doesn’t stack up for me.

Many (but not all) forms of Counselling focus on the past and the origins of problems – Coaching focuses on the future and developing a workable solution.

Many forms of counselling and therapy seek to understand the past as it impacts on the present. It’s essential (in my view) to understand transference – living the past in the present – if you are going to change the future. You can’t come up with a 10 point plan and expect it to be implemented overnight if you don’t understand what is driving the behaviour in the first place. If this were doable then we’d all be rational only entities with no bad habits.
Mark’s differences are the standard ones I have seen when coaches want to differentiate themselves from therapists and it speaks to me of the anxiety many coaches have about the training therapists undergo to understand the unconscious and how that impacts on the present behaviour both in and out of the workplace.
The similarities between both are important to note:
• All individuals who work with a coach or a therapist are interested in a “better” future
• Therapy and Coaching offer skills and possibilities for that future – the methodologies employed are different
• The quality of the relationship is the essential mechanism by which change is effected
• Self awareness on the part of the coach and therapist is essential for successful work with clients
• Unconditional positive regard, empathy and a person-centred approach are key to both approaches
While I apply psychodynamic thinking to my coaching relationships the key difference is about the permission sought to inquire into a client’s personal story and how that information is worked with in the coaching relationship. There are times when it is helpful to know more about family of origin – it may help to understand a dynamic being played out in organisational contexts. But unless a coach is trained to work with this material they run the risk of opening up emotional responses that may be difficult to contain. It’s also essential to know when to refer a coaching client to a therapist. Very often this is when a repeating pattern of unhelpful behaviour, rooted in unresolved personal relationships in the past, is unhelpful in the present.
As a therapist and a coach I bring distinctive skills to the client relationship that are based on my psychodynamic training and which allow me to:
• Meet a client in an authentic person-to-person encounter.
• Process my own feelings in the coaching relationship and to use them as constructive interventions.
• Spot a client who may need a therapeutic relationship and to refer on appropriately.
• Translate psychodynamic insights into powerful work related interventions that impact on work performance and behaviour.

16 People reacted on this

  1. Thanks for your response Annette, I’m flattered I provoked such a lengthy riposte!
    Perhaps before addressing your points, I should point out that I have been practising psychotherapy for over 11 years, and am registered with the UK Council for Psychotherapy. In addition to my private practice, I’ve worked in the NHS, as a therapy trainer, and as a clinical supervisor for many junior therapists. So I would venture to suggest that my own viewpoint is not the result of “the anxiety many coaches have about the training therapists undergo to understand the unconscious and how that impacts on the present behaviour both in and out of the workplace”. 🙂
    I think you make some valid points, but I’m very surprised at the way you have represented my own views, to the point where I don’t recognise them in much of your account. I may be partly to blame for this – blog posts tend to be fairly short and snappy – but I don’t think my position is nearly as black-and-white as you suggest.
    To take your points in order:
    1. You quote my line “Counselling and therapy deal with personal problems – Coaching addresses workplace performance”. Maybe I could have made this clearer by saying that I’m talking about relative focus of attention, and of course the personal influences the professional and vice versa. But it’s a massive jump from what I wrote to your next sentence: “The idea that our personal and professional lives are separate and distinctive is not something I agree with.” I’m glad to hear this – I don’t agree with it either, which is why I didn’t say it!
    2. In response to my statement that “Counselling begins with a problem” you say “Nobody I have ever worked with has come to therapy to purely talk about problems”. Again, I didn’t say they did! I said that counselling begins with a problem – which in the overwhelming majority of cases I have encountered (in my own practice and that of my therapy supervisees), is true.
    As a counterexample, you say “I have also worked with people who come to counselling and therapy to gain a better understanding of themselves – not just when a problem manifests.” I have also worked with clients like this as a therapist – but in my experience (which may differ from yours) they tend to be in the minority, relative to those who have come to seek relief from distress. I would also suggest that the popular perception of therapy is that it is chiefly concerned with the relief of personal problems – and my post was aimed at distinguishing business coaching from this popular perception.
    Re your point about clients being referred for therapy by companies because there is a problem with their work performance – I also receive therapy referrals of this kind from companies, but this is distinct from my work as a business coach, and I don’t see how it invalidates my point that business coaching and counselling have a different focus.
    3. Re your point about the importance and purpose of focusing on the past – I wasn’t trying to invalidate focusing on the past, merely to highlight a difference between business coaching and (the popular perception of) therapy.
    You comment that “You can’t come up with a 10 point plan and expect it to be implemented overnight” – well I agree with that, and again, I didn’t say that this was either possible or desirable.
    4. Re the list of similarities you list between coaching and therapy – I agree with most of these, although I didn’t see the need to include similarities in a short post aimed at emphasizing the differences between the two approaches.
    5. I agree with you that if coaches have limited training they may find themselves out of their depth if clients bring significant emotional issues to coaching sessions. And I agree that “It’s also essential to know when to refer a coaching client to a therapist.”. I considered making this point in my original post, but – as a coach and therapist myself – I thought it might sound a bit too much like tooting my own horn. I didn’t want to look as though I were disparaging the many excellent coaches out there who do not have a therapeutic background, and who very capable and professional in deciding when to refer a client to a therapist.
    Finally, I’m slightly bemused by the defensive tone of your post – it reads as though I were criticising and belittling therapy, when all I was trying to do was distinguish it from business coaching. As a therapist myself I am pretty biased in favour of therapy, and I’m the first to acknowledge that my therapeutic experience has a profound influence on my coaching – but I think it does both coaching and therapy a disservice to confuse the two.

  2. Mark – you are absolutely right – I was being defensive and should have thought more carefully about why your post caused such a reaction in me. I’ve attended a couple of meetings of coaching networks in the past 6 months and have also worked with a couple of coaches as a client. I’m disillusioned about much of the coaching profession as I have experienced it in person because a lot of the marketing pitches are reactions to therapy and counselling as distinct from the articulation of a distinct and unique proposition for coaching. Your post appeared on the face of it to “another” variation on that theme..You have my apologies for the reactionary nature of the post.
    Neither coaching nor psychotherapy are state regulated in Ireland (although the latter is moving in that direction and is currently self regulated to a high degree through the Irish Council for Psycotherapy) and I have real concerns about some of what is being “sold” in terms of coaching practice. As you well know, working with the resistance is a critical issue with any kind of relationship based process and I’m not sure that coaching has quite caught up with that one yet (and I speak from personal experiece as a client on that front). I also believe that the statement that coaching is not therapy or counselling may be trying to capitalise on an assumption that the latter is “emotional” and “deep”; “hard work” and ultimately distressing.
    There is huge overlap in both professions and a good training and regular supervision maintains the boundary between both..I think the attempt to declare that boundary at the outset through marketing material can sometimes be a way of avoiding it in the relationship as it unfolds …

  3. Annette – no worries, storm in a teacup. Context accounts for a lot – I’m writing from the experience of meeting people in business who associate coaching with counselling, so I need to make that distinction clear.

  4. “I’m writing from the experience of meeting people in business who associate coaching with counselling, so I need to make that distinction clear”
    Why is that distinction necessary in your opinion? My own thoughts are that it may be about assuring business people that it won’t “get emotional” and this reinforces the stereotype that to be personal is to be emotional (not a good thing) to be rational is to be professional (a good thing) – the counselling/coaching split does seem to feed into that at some level in my opinion (and certainly from my experience of being coached and having met coaches who are not competent in working with emotion in the workplace). I’m interested in what we may be colluding with I guess… Maybe we should take Johnnie’s advice and call it Mildred!

  5. Hi Annette and Mark: I think this is a great discussion and I know from past experience that it can be quite charged… perhaps because the act of asking for help in any form on personal/business issues is quite… exposing for clients

  6. There’s nothing sinister about the distinction – in this context, I’m talking about a service that is primarily aimed at helping people improve their performance at work, not to help them deal with personal problems, so I don’t see the problem with clarifying the difference.
    I’m at a loss to understand where you’re getting all this stuff about fears of’getting emotional’ and personal/emotional vs professional/rational. Is it from these other coaches you allude to?
    My experience of business is that it’s at least as emotional as the rest of life. I’d be amazed if anyone read my blog and thought I was in favour of macho rationalism! One of the reasons I called it Wishful Thinking is because I wanted to suggest a balance between the heart (wish) and the head (thinking).

  7. “I’m at a loss to understand where you’re getting all this stuff about fears of ‘getting emotional’ and personal/emotional vs professional/rational. Is it from these other coaches you allude to?”
    Mark – I’ve done fairly extensive research into the meaning of emotion in organisational contexts for my MSc and am now doing a systems psychodynamic PhD in this arena – and there’s no doubt in my mind that there is an organisational discourse that supports the split. It’s also fair to say that I’ve seen this espoused by many “coaches” I’ve met and worked with. Emotional Intelligence is one way in which the emotional has been repackaged as a rational approach to the emotional in business settings.

  8. Annette – OK I think we’re converging on agreement… I completely agree that “there is an organisational discourse that supports the split” [between reason and emotion, or the professional and personal] – as long as you don’t associate me with that discourse!
    I think it’s perfectly possible to have work as the main focus of coaching and to include the whole person and their emotions in the process – in fact I would say it’s essential if you’re going to achieve anything worthwhile together. That’s one reason I like working with creative professionals – they are so passionate about their work they can be a joy to work with.

  9. Mark – my “issue” with your original post was that it could be read (and I’m not saying you intentionally intended this) that the personal and the emotional belongs to the arena of counselling and psychotherapy and the rational and professional to the world of coaching – I do think that this split is peddled within the world of coaching (I exclude you from this) as a way of feeding into that discourse I refer to above..Are we agreeing now? aren’t we just getting started 🙂

  10. Annette – I think I understand where you’re coming from, in the context of having seen that split peddled by other people, and I’m glad I’m no longer associated with them!

  11. I’ve just tuned into to this discussion and skimmed down to see how far it’s got. First impression: a lot of friction here – good, something to get my teeth into. But it’ll take a bit of sorting out to get over such a tricky start. But, where did I last see two therapist-coaches in the same ring together? Shades of Freud and Jung perhaps… I think there’s something in this for me. Gives me a pair of lighthouses though which to steer my own faltering thoughts. I must say thank you, even though I haven’t half absorbed their light.
    To continue or not to continue. Therapist usually call time after 50 minutes. Coaches go on forever… A cheap one that, couldn’t resist it, obviously.
    Bloggers, on the other hand, have little staying power, in my experience. (Except for 7 noble exceptions.) Always on the brink of breaking off.
    I doubt we are just (sic) getting started. But there is a point in hoping that there might be an exception being born here.
    Given the intellectual powerhouses that you both are, and the emotional heavyweights you are used to being, there is no reason you couldn’t develop legs for your arguments out of the well spring of inspiring forebears and empiricalised clients.
    When I get my head round your views – rather than round the inspiration you set off in me, I’ll be back. Meanwhile, I’ve got my money’s worth. The future is bonus.

  12. Annete,
    Tis good to come back to your last comment. I’m following the thread but beginning to think that I got the wrong impression about blogging from the start.
    I was drawn to it because of the apparent combination of expression and dialogue. I seem to have formed that view that blogging is a medium for having interesting conversations with strangers, as well as an outlet for writing.
    I didn’t study any blogs before forming that view and, despite much evidence to the contrary, I continued to hold on to that view. I continued to hope that blogging could be a good way of meeting minds.
    Now I’m beginning to see it differently: the writing part is still there alive and well; the dialogue part is a mirage, I think. The most I’ve found has been a flurry of posts over a short period, followed by abrupt haltings.
    If I was in face to face conversation with someone and they, without warning, broke off communication, I would wonder what was going on? If I found it a regular experience, I’d worry about my own effect on others.
    Now I’m adjusting my expectations… downward, or should I say, away from the phantasy of connectedness. It’s more of a pastime isn’t it? Nothing is meant to be taken too seriously. Blogging is for publication, broadcasting in other words. It’s not for serious conversation.
    So I think this is now my default position. And I’ll keep looking for the noble exceptions.
    I’m probably taking this much too seriously, amn’t I?

  13. Omani – I think blogs are a good way of meeting people and like and not like minded folk..My experience is that blogs also contribute to attention deficit disorder! in that there are so many of them and it’s hard to keep track of where you commented and on what subject.
    Offline I think people regularly disconnect by changing the subject or by wandering off..perhaps the conversation has run its course? perhaps it’s no longer interesting.
    I have met fantastic people on and offline from blogging .. I think the trick is, not to aim for an ideal which inevitably leads to disappointment?

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