Cognitive behaviour: I think therefore I am

Cognitive behavioural coaching is, say its proponents, an area whose benefits are soon visible and so easily measured. But it must be used with care.

When coaches are asked which methodology they use most frequently, they are likely to name cognitive behavioural coaching (CBC) before anything else.

“Seventy per cent of coaches use it,” says professor Stephen Palmer of City University and director of the Centre for Coaching in London. He surveys coaching on an annual basis and consistently finds CBC at the top of the list.

So what is this superstar of the coaching world? “CBC is an integrated approach that combines the use of cognitive, behavioural, imaginary – pictures that you can see in your mind – problem-solving techniques and strategies within a cognitive behavioural framework, and enables coachees to achieve their realistic goals,” says Palmer.


In other words, it is a way of helping people to visualise their blocks to performance, or even to everyday living – CBC is used extensively by life coaches – and to overcome them.

CBC’s popularity is a reminder that psychology underpins business coaching, which in turn means that caveat emptor remain the watchwords for buyers and sponsors of coaching who could be approached by the ill-experienced.

Palmer recommends that buyers look for suitable qualifications, such as accreditation from the Society for Coaching Psychology, or qualifications in occupational psychology, when interviewing potential coaches who claim to offer this method.

Very few coaches advertise themselves as offering solely CBC and nothing else, as Francois Moscovici, partner at consultancy Whitewater Strategies, points out.

“Our approach is 70% CBC and 30% other methods,” he says. “CBC is based in evidence-based research so it is known to work, but it is not the beginning and end of everything. In a business coaching context, credibility in a business environment is as important as being a good coach,” he says.


Most coaches, such as occupational psychologist and coach Pamela Kingsland, think of CBC as one of the tools at their disposal, but she says that its use cannot be decided in advance of the first meeting with the coachee.

“Until the coach gets into conversation with the coachee, they don’t know what is going to come up,” she says.

Kingsland, who specialises in coaching chief executives, finds CBC is valuable in helping people to change certain behaviours.

“CBC emphasises the links between their beliefs about a situation and how that affects their behaviours,” she says. “If their beliefs are not helpful, then my job as a coach is to develop the beliefs that help them. My job is to give them a reality check.”

Where CBC is coming into its own, says Kingsland, is in meeting the demands on subject experts who have to become leaders. Such new leaders, who are used to thinking in micro-detail, are often poor delegaters.

“Everyone has their own scripts in their heads,” she says. “And some scripts are doing us a disservice.” Kingsland says CBC can be used to change the script.

“If we can challenge this, there are intensely useful changes in thinking that can lead to better-quality performance.”

CBC is often cited as a useful tool in overcoming doubt and lack of confidence. At the Ascolto consultancy, chartered occupational psychologist Kris Bush says that she often uses CBC in executive coaching. Surprisingly, the ability to make an effective presentation is often the task that most worries senior people.

“In which case I ask them to identify the fundamental beliefs that cause the sweaty palms, and feelings of dread.”

CBC helps with identifying these triggers. “It leads to a clear behavioural change, such as the executive giving a focused presentation,” she says. “And because it makes a visible difference, its benefits can be measured.”

Case study: Duke University

One of the newest and fastest-growing applications of cognitive behavioural coaching in the workplace is in the area of employee health coaching, according to professor Stephen Palmer.

“This practice has really taken off in the US,” he says, and points to Duke University, in North Carolina.

Duke’s 30,000 employees are able to participate in an initiative called Duke Prospective Health, which the university says has brought the cost per head for health insurance to below the national and regional trends.

Duke pays an annual premium of $5,298 (£2,680) per employee, compared to a national average of $7,498 (£3,790).

The scheme gives staff access to a health coach, who helps them to think differently and who works to build new skills and establish healthy behaviours. The coach sets measurable goals in areas such as weight management and cholesterol, and employees are able to access the coach via e-mail, phone or in person.

“This is a prime example of cognitive behavioural coaching,” says Palmer, who is researching the application of CBC in health management. “And importantly for coaching, the results can be demonstrated. Figures such as improved savings productivity show the return on investment. I expect to see CBC used in this way in the UK as health coaching takes off over here.”

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