Coaching and counselling can be a dangerous mix

There’s a danger that coaches could find themselves dealing with issues best handled by counsellors or psychotherapists. Anyone commissioning coaching should know how to deal with this potential conflict.

As the deployment of workplace coaching has increased and shaken off its associations with life coaching, so business and executive coaches have been keen to emphasise the difference between coaching and counselling.

This chasm will deepen as the Department of Health looks to regulate the fields of counselling and psychotherapy by mapping out National Occupational Standards for Psychological Therapies.

The work is expected to result in a licensing process for counsellors, psychologists, psychotherapists and others next year. This means that the terms counselling and coaching will no longer be interchangeable – a move which should be widely welcomed.

“Counselling is about engaging with people who are disturbed or have a clinical condition,” says Gladeana McMahon, head of coaching for the Fairplace consultancy. “The coachee population however, is made up of ordinary people who might be unhappy, but this unhappiness should not get in the way of the coaching process.”

State of mind

McMahon has recently developed the ‘Minus-Plus Model’ of assessing a client’s needs. Within the model, a zero is used to denote the average state of mind. A client in need of counselling is placed on the minus side, which indicates distress or emotional disturbance and a need to return to zero. If receptive to the coaching process, the client is placed on the plus side, indicating an ability to be able to use coaching interventions successfully.

“A coach should look out for people with more than general difficulties and for those issues that get in the way of them benefiting from the coaching process,” she says.

McMahon is well-placed to comment on both coaching and counselling, as she is vice-president of the Association for Coaching, and fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. However, she is not advocating that a coach tries to simultaneously act as a counsellor.

Other experts agree. “Don’t mix the boundaries,” says professor Stephen Palmer, director of the coaching psychology unit at City University.

His concern is that lack of specialist training means business coaches cannot differentiate between serious depressive disorders and lack of motivation. A line manager acting as coach could be even more naïve. “The very nature of being depressed means that people cannot hold ideas in their head or become goal-focused,” adds Palmer.

Unable to cope

Putting a person with mental health issues onto a programme of coaching will be a waste of time but could also be damaging, as an unstable coachee will be unable to cope with a process which focuses on goals and change, rather than support.

Andrew Buckley, author of A Guide to Coaching and Mental Health, says purchasers also need to be aware of the ramifications of the confidential nature of the coaching contract. “If the coach becomes aware of a problem, the coach and the coachee have to agree what to tell other people,” he says.

But the implications of this confidentiality may mean that the coaching organiser – for example, the learning and development manager – may not be the first to know if a coaching intervention is likely to hit the rocks.

For this reason it is often best, advises Buckley, to include in the terms of external coaching contracts an obligation for the coach to comment on the ability of the coachee to benefit from coaching.

Palmer says that at the contracting stage, external coaches should also be made of any employee assistance programmes or counselling services to which they may wish to refer the coachee. “There should be something in writing about what should happen, what the deal is,” he says.

Coaches touting for business may make claims about their ability to understand therapeutic issues. So how can the purchaser have any confidence about quality assurance?

Look for evidence that the coach seeks out relevant supervision, advises Siobhan O’Riordan, chair of the British Psychological Society’s special group in coaching psychology.

“It’s an added safeguard if a coach is being supervised by someone with clinical knowledge,” she says.

Another option for the purchaser is to check if the coach has taken one of the burgeoning range of training courses that cover coaching, psychology and counselling. For example, the Centre for Coaching has a Faculty of Coaching Psychology that offers such courses. And specialist consultancy Peter Bluckert Coaching offers a 12-month course leading to a postgraduate diploma in coaching psychology, validated by Leeds Metropolitan University.

“The course is about raising awareness,” says Geoff Pelham, head of coaching practice at Peter Bluckert. “And if the need for counselling arises, we would recommend appropriate discussions between the coach and coachee on seeking help from an outside party.

“If a coach is flagging up counselling as a main selling point then [as a purchaser] I would be cautious. Coaching is not about being an agony aunt.”

by Stephanie Sparrow

Coach or counsellor?

Andrew Buckley has worked as both a business coach and counsellor, but stresses that he never confuses the two.

“For example, I was asked to coach a female chief executive in strategic skills,” he says. “But at our second meeting we stopped short. She was clearly stressed and not coping with her job.”

Buckley and the coachee agreed that she would talk to her sponsoring company and get help from elsewhere. He stepped aside.

“She saw a doctor and got support within the business,” he says. Six months later, when the client felt better, Buckley returned as her coach.

“As her coach I had to recognise that she needed different types of support,” he says.

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