The blurring boundaries between coaching and therapy

04 Apr 2013

Coaching has only been around since the mid-1990s but it has developed with such rapidity that executive coaching is now probably the fastest growing form of organisational consulting.  In the US alone the coaching industry is reportedly worth more than $1 billion per year.  The International Coach Federation, which is just one of many membership bodies for coaches, has over 16,000 members.  Having undergone such rapid growth, the industry is continuing to develop, change and seek to define itself. 

One significant change which has occurred is the move towards more psychologically underpinned coaching and a blurring of the lines between coaching and counselling or therapy.

When coaching first emerged in the 1990s it grew out of four different movements:

  • The “talking” therapies
  • Consulting and organisational development
  • Personal development trainings
  • Sports coaching

Coaching in its early days sought to differentiate itself from its origins and to define itself by what it was not, rather than by what it was.  Coaches proudly stated that coaching was “none of the above”, but something else which had taken the best bits from all of the above and which had created a new and powerful “helping by talking” methodology.

The coaching industry was particularly keen to distance itself from any association with in-depth psychological work or therapeutic approaches.

However, the question of how the boundaries are to be defined between coaching and counselling has continued to be the subject of heated debate in the industry, as the skill-sets have some undeniable similarities.

Early attempts to distinguish coaching from therapy tended to concentrate on the following simplistic distinctions:



Focus on past and feelings

Focus on future and actions

Clear goals not always set

Goals always set to achieve positive outcomes

For people who are experiencing loss of something

For people who are fully functioning and want more

Assumption that client needs healing

Assumption that client is whole

Commonly a long term process

Tightly limited time scale

Works to achieve self-understanding and emotional healing

Works to move people to a higher level of success/functioning

While focussing on stating what coaching is not, many coaches and coaching bodies have struggled to come up with a clear and easily understandable definition of what coaching actually is.

The definition of coaching adopted by The Association for Coaching reads as follows:

 A collaborative, solution-focused, results-oriented and systematic process in which the coach facilitates the enhancement of work performance, life experience, self-directed learning and personal growth of the coachee.

As the industry has matured and developed, so has the realisation that the personal and professional are inextricably linked and that it is not useful for either the coach or the client to try to separate them.

Executive coaches working in businesses regularly find themselves dealing with issues such as redundancy, divorce, bereavement, low self-esteem or confidence issues, lack of assertiveness, limiting beliefs which are impacting on clients’ lives, stress, anxiety disorders, substance abuse or other destructive behaviour patterns.

Research shows that people in business who have worked with a coach value not so much the coaching tools, techniques and methodologies but the opportunity to reflect, to experience unconditional positive regard, to work with a thinking partner, to talk honestly about things they would not talk about to others, to have a sounding board,  to have confidentiality in the relationship,  to develop self- awareness and emotional self-management.

Early coach training had little theoretical underpinning and relied heavily on goal setting frameworks, such as the GROW model.  The realisation that coaches cannot avoid working with the “whole person” has meant that professional coaching bodies and educators of coaches are seeking greater psychological underpinning for coaching interventions and the inclusion of psychological concepts within coach training.

Coaching continues to be an unregulated industry and, although there is movement towards the professionalization of the industry, progress is slow. Commentators and coaching authorities are calling for a clear definition for coaching and for clarification of the boundaries between coaching and therapy.   It is widely acknowledged that this will not be an easy task as there are many ways in which the boundaries between the two are blurred. It is now apparent that:

  • Coaches are likely to work on remedial issues as well as developmental ones.
  • Coaches cannot be limited to a future focus when there are lifelong behaviour patterns which are having a negative impact on the client’s present life – either professional or personal.
  • Coaches cannot avoid working on blocks in the client’s thinking, feeling, behaviours or beliefs if they wish to enable the client to achieve mobility and development.

There has been one generally accepted distinction which has been subscribed to by most coaching bodies and that is that the coach works only with a mentally healthy person and a therapist works with psychological dysfunction and/or mental ill health. Yet even this is now being questioned by many commentators on coaching who suggest that mental ill health is not a simple “have or have not”, that it can be temporary and it is not always readily diagnosable.  Equally the assumption that therapists only work with people who need healing is unsustainable as many therapeutic relationships are about achieving potential and growth in psychologically healthy people.

When coaching emerged as an industry there were tensions between therapy and coaching but these initial rivalries are disappearing.  Recently the BACP launched a coaching division and the British Psychological Society has a Special Group in Coaching Psychology.  Let us commend the late David Doohan who welcomed coaches into the NCP as early as 2001!

More therapists are including coaching among their services, with some now rebranding themselves as “Personal Consultants”.  If you are a therapist who is already also working as a coach, the chances are that you will be less likely to be inhibited by perceived boundaries and will feel more comfortable straddling the two worlds.

But in this blurry world of “helping by talking” how can a coach manage the boundaries effectively and safely for themselves and their clients?  I have the following practical suggestions to offer:

  • Coaches should be able to appraise the extent of the training they have undertaken, their capabilities and their limitations so that they can provide the best possible service to their client.  Working with some level of psychological depth requires theoretical and practical skills and knowledge. 
  • Initial contracting conversations are key.  All coaches should have clear conversations about what they are offering and how the boundaries will be managed throughout the coaching relationship. 
  • Coaches should respect, celebrate and appreciate their colleagues who may have different expertise and skill-sets from their own.
  • Coaches should have an ability to notice possible indications of a psychological or mental health issue and have the confidence to discuss this with the client so that the best course of action can be taken. Coaches need to accept that their role is not to diagnose what is wrong with a client but to ask the question “what is the best choice for this client?” or be able to ask themselves the question “is coaching working or do I need to refer this client on?”
  • Coaches should have an understanding of the ethics of the industry in which they are working and to this end coaches can benefit from joining one of the many reputable coaching associations and professional bodies which are working together to professionalize the industry.
  • The world of coaching is moving quickly and new approaches are being developed all the time so commitment to regular CPD is essential.
  • Supervision, supervision, supervision! For therapists, supervision is a prerequisite.  In the coaching industry it is not yet obligatory yet most professional coaches are now coming to realise the value of attending regular supervision to provide formative, normative and restorative support and development.
  • Enjoy the ever-changing landscape! Working as a therapist or a coach requires a mindset of “staying with the not knowing” and an ability to tolerate ambiguity and enjoy shades of grey (no, not that book!) These are exciting times – coaching is something of a cultural phenomenon and it means that many people who would not have sought out therapy are benefiting from “helping by talking”.  We can all take pride in being part of this important cultural change.