Navigating the Fine Line: Coaching, Therapy, and Understanding Client Resources

a pretty picture of Exmouth beach to add a splash of colour

This post has been inspired by a post on LinkedIn by Yannick Jacob, an Existential coach and author of the refreshingly accessible Introduction to Existential Coaching. In the post he poses the question: 

"...both coaching and therapy can involve deep inquiry, holding space, and active listening. So, where do you draw the line?"

Transitioning from therapist to coach

As a seasoned therapist of over 12 years, and more latterly as a coach, this is a question on which I have much to say. After many years in private practice as a therapist, I embarked on a transformative journey into coaching. When looking at coaching training courses over a period of years, I felt unsatisfied with many of the offerings. When I discovered specialist Therapist to Coach training with Dr Trish Turner, at a robust Level 7, I felt that this was what I had been looking for. 

Part of the training involved delving deep into the distinctions between the two professions. This exploration, enriched by conversations within my coaching cohort, all of whom were experienced therapists, raised important questions about where the boundaries lie between coaching and therapy. Julia Vaughan Smith's insightful text, "Therapist to Coach," was a guiding beacon in this nuanced terrain. 

Is it coaching or therapy? Tuning into the client's resources, and the importance of contracting

Yannick states in his post:

"I believe understanding client resources is key. A well-resourced client can partner actively in coaching, while someone feeling fragile might need the therapeutic focus on healing and support." 

I have come to appreciate the importance of understanding the client's resources in determining the appropriate approach. One significant aspect that emerged during my training was the reiteration of the necessity of contracting. I often find myself acknowledging "the therapist in me" during coaching sessions, recognising when a therapeutic approach might be tempting but falls outside the coaching scope. I also may notice "the coach in me" during therapy sessions. Contracting becomes the cornerstone of defining the boundaries and ensuring alignment with the client's needs, as is crucial with a pluralistic approach.

In some coaching scenarios, it is apparent that incorporating therapeutic elements would be beneficial. Or it might arise that a coachee would benefit from a separate, therapeutic space. Conversely, therapy clients sometimes express an interest in integrating coaching into their sessions, or having a standalone session or two to focus specifically on, for example, goal setting. The ability for me to have this fluidity in my practice is in part due to the nature of the training I engaged in with Dr Trish Turner. Trish is a very experienced coach and therapist. Little did I know that I would experience a profound dismantling of my professional identity, enabling me, after a lot of soul searching, to seamlessly integrate the two aspects of my work. 

Therapy, generally, is deeper 

The relative depth of therapeutic work, as compared to coaching, became more evident through my training. Acknowledging these differences and overlaps required a profound understanding of therapy and specialised training in therapist-to-coach transitions. This process proved to be a discombobulating yet transformative journey, allowing me to truly comprehend the nuances of each realm.

The comments on the LinkedIn post above address the grappling with these non-binary edges. The distinction between therapy and coaching is often blurred, leading to the misconception that one can seamlessly substitute the other. It is crucial to acknowledge and address this confusion, to ensure that all practitioners are equipped with the necessary knowledge and training, and enough awareness and self-knowledge to refer onto another professional where appropriate.

Coaching and Counselling and the Professional Bodies

The frameworks provided by professional bodies, such as BACP and EMCC, with whom I am familiar, offer valuable guidance. However, as highlighted in the discussion, there are nuanced inconsistencies. One point I brought up in the LinkedIn post is the issue of how we might consider the broader systems in which our clients exist. The EMCC's emphasis on this aspect in coaching work in their Competence Framework stands in contrast to the BACP's more individual-focused approach in their Ethical Framework. The EMCC Competency Framework does allude to the situational context of coaching work by specifying that a senior accredited coach:

"Encourages client to explore wider contexts and impact of desired outcomes"

My understanding is that there is nothing in the BACP Ethical Framework that alludes to a client's situational context and I have submitted a request in their recent Ethical Framework review to address this as I see it as problematic and potentially dangerous. For example a client who has anger issues and is abusive towards their partner and has been sent to therapy; a therapist might only take into account the perspective of the client without any feedback from the partner, so there may unwittingly be a collusion with the client (particularly if the client has narcissistic tendencies). This can result in the behaviour/abuse worsening. I feel that if a practitioner is truly taking into account the system in which the client exists then a natural step would be to ask for some feedback from the other party/parties, as is frequently done in executive coaching.

I feel we have much work to do in understanding the strengths and limitations of coaching and therapy, and the corresponding professional bodies need to be a part of this evolution. The BACP has developed coaching competencies framework to help dual skilled practitioners in this endeavour and I look forward to seeing this develop further.

Trauma awareness

As I commented in the post, I very much respect the fact that some coaches are equipping themselves with trauma awareness and training. I think that there is a very important move towards trauma awareness in all realms of professionality; not just in therapy, and, of course coaching has the potential to teeter into that territory, whether coaches like it or not. So how do we manage that if it should happen? I  really value that there are individuals exploring these non-binary edges. I was heartened to see this free, short webinar by the coaching training company Catalyst 14 Ltd on this topic

Again. Julia Vaughan Smith has addressed and contributed to this emerging awareness in her book Coaching and Trauma.

The EMCC does specify that coaches are aware of the limitations of their practice:

"Identifies clients who may have an emotional or therapeutic need which is beyond their professional capability to work with safely"

The BACP also address this in their Ethical Framework stating that as members we should:

"Work to professional standards by...working within our competence"

As an aside it really frustrates me that there are therapists who believe that their training in working with individuals adequately equips them to work with couples. I digress...

In conclusion, the journey from therapist to coach is not merely a change in title but a profound transformation. It involved a deep understanding of both realms and specialised training to navigate the fine line between coaching and therapy successfully. By embracing this complexity and continually exploring these non-binary edges, and with robust supervision and contracting, we can ensure a more nuanced and effective approach to supporting our clients in their personal and professional growth. More importantly, we can know and recognise our limits in the service of our clients. 

Amanda Williamson is a dual skilled practitioner with accreditations as a senior therapist with the BACP and a senior practitioner with the EMCC,