What is Coaching?
The term life coaching has entered into everyday language. It’s a catch-all term to describe a professional relationship where a practitioner assists a client to identify and achieve personal (and professional) goals. If we use the transport metaphor, a coach helps you to get from A to B. It works on the principle of ‘two heads are better than one’. You can have coaching for any aspect of life. If you can set a goal for it, you can have coaching for it.
In this article, I’ll describe what coaching is, the links between counselling, psychotherapy and coaching and discuss some of the key features of Solution-Focused Brief Coaching. However, if you just need a quick overview see: ‘frequently asked questions‘. Or, if you want to ‘cut to the chase’ and ask a specific question, get in touch.
The Coaching Process
Ideally, coaching a collaborative, professional relationship where clients provide the agenda and the coach provides various tools and techniques. The clients bring the content and the coach facilitates the process. Life coaching has its origins in sports coaching and draws from psychology, learning theory, teaching practice, counselling, therapy, and, of course, the self-help movement. My practice is grounded in my background in academic psychology and teaching.
Coaching as Focused Conversations
Put simply, coaching is a series of focused conversations between a practitioner (coach) and you, the client. (It can also be a three-way process between the coach and a couple). Within the process, the coach will assist you, as the client, to assess where you are in your life. This includes your strengths, values and exploring the factors that underpin your motivation (to change). Such understanding will assist you to manage change, clarifying ambitions and achieve your goals. This includes working to create more compelling and robust action plans, unlike New Year’s resolutions that fizzle out after a few weeks. The coach helps you to assess progress and provide feedback to keep you on track. Coaching is about empowerment and building confidence and self-esteem, as you learn the coaching style of thinking. The overall aim is that you acquire the skills to become your own coach once the agreed number of sessions come to an end. In turn, you will be able to build confidence in others by passing on your new insights and skills. This is a key theme in my book Unlock Your Confidence.
Coaching and Psychotherapy
Coaching can be applied to any aspect of your life irrespective of your background. You may have a strong idea of where you want to be, such as achieving better work-life balance, improving performance, building confidence and esteem, improving personal and professional relationships, study skills or staff development. The main common factors in people seeking coaching are having goals and a personal investment in taking action to achieve them. Coaching differs from counselling and psychotherapy in that coaching is usually about the ‘here and now’ and the future. Counselling usually covers, past, present and future and includes an element of distress or psychological disturbance. Psychotherapy is often a longer-term prospect and deals with more severe disturbances. In essence, coaching is about goals. It’s a commonly heard phrase that ‘if there ain’t goals, then it ain’t coaching‘. Coaches are not therapists and should refer clients on to suitably qualified professionals, with an option to return to coaching, of course. Apart from answering questions from potential clients, the main reason I offer a free 20-minute consultation (by telephone or Skype) is to make sure that coaching is the most suitable option. If not, I have links to other professionals (counsellors and psychotherapists) who might be better-placed help.
There are debates on whether coaching, counselling and therapy should be mixed. For the client receiving coaching, it is not a good idea, even if the coach has the relevant skills. Blurring the boundaries may disrupt the coaching process and confuse the client. For the counsellor and psychotherapist, arguably, it’s slightly different, as they are often about past trauma or distress. Coaching skills might be a useful bridge to focus on the future. Ideally, though, a counsellor or psychotherapist would refer a client on to a coach after addressing the emotional issues.
Coaching and Evidence-Based Psychology
Some life coaching models are grounded in theory and research and some are not. Some are approaches to coaching are often called ‘inspirational’ which can also include established principles of human psychology. However, they may also contain elements that operate on the principle that doing something is better than doing nothing at all. Often ‘inspirational’ coaching training does not equip its practitioners with the depth of knowledge to take a critical perspective. Instead, practitioners may continue to adopt the ‘try something different’ approach. Clients deserve better. They deserve a coaching approach that has its basis in evidence-based psychology. Two such coaching approaches have their roots in psychotherapy. They form the basis of the coaching I offer.
The Cognitive-Behavioural Approach to Coaching
Cognitive-Behavioural Coaching emerged from Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which in term developed from research insights into human behaviour and cognition. In short, rather than being guesswork like some inspirational models, it draws on what the evidence says about human behaviour and cognition and how we make sense of the world. Added to this, there has been much research into outcome studies in CBT, that is, the efficacy of therapy and various techniques. Similarly, Solution-Focused Brief Coaching has emerged from Solution-Focused Brief Therapy(SFBT) and so benefits from decades of outcome studies. Two pioneers in SFBT were Insoo Kim Berg and Steve de Shazer. As explained by Berg ‘Instead of problem-solving, we focus on solution-building. Which sounds like a play on words, but it’s a profoundly different paradigm’. Essentially, there is a shift in the amount of time spent discussing the problem. Instead, SFBT shifts the focus to what the client wants to achieve through therapy, that is a picture of the future, rather than picking over the past and the problems that motivated them to see the help of a professional. When I first studied Solution Focused Therapeutic skills, I was immediately struck by how little change was required for it to work for coaching clients, with its goal-directed, future-oriented approach. As with CBT, a coaching model based on SBFT benefits from the insights from outcome studies. Throughout the development of SFBT, Insoo Kim Berg, Steve de Shazer and other practitioners studied the relative effects of question-wording, including the effects of subtle changes. SFBT is not encumbered by complicated models of human behaviour and experience. In some ways, it is almost atheoretical. The approach was developed by seeing what produces the best outcomes for clients.
The Brief Approach to Therapy and Coaching
The SFBT approach to coaching is also supported by general themes from outcomes studies of therapy. Moshe Talmon (1990) considers the question of why the median number of sessions for coaching is just one. Previously, this has been viewed by therapists as a failure. However, Talmon considered the possibility that maybe people just need one session to enable them to move on. Some therapists have considered what they might do to get clients to return. We routinely hear the phrase that ‘clients are the architect of their own lives’. And yet, when it comes to the duration of therapy, some therapists claim to know better than their clients. Instead, Talmon argues that if the majority of people only attend once then how might therapists maximize the effect of this one session. This entirely fits with the ‘person-centred’ emphasis of therapy and counselling. Based on the evidence, the optimal number of therapy sessions is between four and ten. This is when clients make the majority of progress (change). After this, there is a law of diminishing returns. Therefore the notion of brevity is supported. As a coach, I offer coaching for up to ten sessions. Furthermore, part of the Solution-Focused Brief approach is to check with the client, how they will know that they do not need to see a coach anymore. It’s another way of creating a picture of an ideal future. Many of the standard questions in SFBT and Solution Focused Brief Coaching are future focused.
Future Orientation – Solution Focused Brief Coaching
Solution Focused Brief Coaching employs questions that focus and refocus the coaching sessions on solutions, clients’ strengths and on the future. The questions help to focus on the areas of life that are ‘problem free’, such as hobbies, strengths and times of relaxation. They also look help to clarify clients’ coping strategies to highlight transferable skills. Other techniques are designed to explore exceptions to negative evaluations of situations or skill sets. Other questions help clients to create a picture of their ideal future and consider the aspects of this picture that they have already attained and aspects that are within reach. Overall, a Tanzanian Proverb sums up the Solution-Focused approach: ‘Little by little, a little becomes a lot’. Clients are usually surprised how quickly positive changes take place and usually over the course of a few sessions clients have learned a different way of thinking about their lives, their problems and how to focus on solutions.
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About the Author, Dr Gary Wood
Chartered Psychologist Dr Gary Wood combines a solid background in academic psychology and adult teaching and learning with substantial expertise in the application of evidence-based methods in coaching. He is a Chartered Member of the British Psychological Society’s Special Group in Coaching Psychology and a Fellow of Higher Education Academy. He has taught psychology and research methods in several UK universities and over twenty years of coaching experience. His approach is best summed up by the phrase ‘It’s your life, so take it personally’, from his personal development book ‘Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It!‘. His new book, Unlock Your Confidence employs has a strong solution-focused emphasis and was developed through his coaching practice and his confidence building workshops. His coaching practice is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh and is registered with the Life Coach Directory and Coach Digg.
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