At the outset of my quest to Transform Coaching in Asia And Beyond, there is something that I need get off my chest – the strange obsession of the coaching profession to dis-identify itself from psychology. I’m referring to coaches stating “I’m a coach, I don’t do psychology” and the ever-popular discussion on coach training programmes to differentiate coaching from psychology (or counselling or therapy). (*For the purpose of this discussion, I will refer to psychology as catch-all term for counselling, therapy, and psychology in general.)
I don’t subscribe to the “coaching is not psychology” school of thought. In fact, I think that it is a false dichotomy. And in recent years I’ve come to the conclusion that this false dichotomy is harmful to the coaching profession. In this blog, I will argue that coaching is a form of psychology and that it is a good thing. Full disclosure, I am a registered Industrial and Organisational Psychologist. I’m also a passionate coach, trainer of coaches and coaching supervisor.
Let’s start by exploring what psychology is and then explore some of the reasons for the perceived differences between coaching and psychology. In the broadest sense, psychology is the study of human behaviour. This includes the origins of behaviour, behavioural change, treatment of dysfunctional behaviour and helping people to live more fulfilled lives. It does not matter what your definition of coaching is, it is bound to include changing, shaping or optimising human behaviour. Different coaching definitions and approaches are simply reflective of different schools of thought in psychology – they all essentially deal with human behaviour. So, let’s get this out of the way once and for all: there is no form of coaching that is not based on and informed by psychology. Coaching is a form of applied psychology. But why do we feel so strongly about this separation in the first place?
One possible explanation for the separation is that people confuse “psychology” with “pathology”. In layman’s terms, psychopathology (a rather outdated term) deals with behaviour that prevents a person from functioning in society. It goes beyond mere behavioural “challenges” and includes depression, addiction, and extreme psychiatric disorders. These problems are often dealt with by psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, and counsellors. I have no doubt about the fact that coaches should not deal with psychopathology. But since psychology is not the same as pathology it is not a valid basis for claiming that coaching is not psychology.
Another common misunderstanding is that coaches focus on “behaviour”, not “psychology”. (This reminds me of people saying they don’t raise their children “with psychology”). Behaviour in this sense refers to goals, action plans, habits, repetition and using the well-known GROW model to address client issues. These coaches are unaware of the fact that they are merely adopting an early psychological approach called Behaviourism. Behaviourism suggests that we should only focus on observable behaviour, and it disregards or even rejects thinking, emotions and any introspective methods for being too subjective.
On the first coaching programme that I attended, I practised coaching on a buddy who wanted to be “being more disciplined”. He has been avoiding starting his own business for five years and he was beating himself up for being “lazy” and “undisciplined”. When he described his situation, it was clear that starting his own business meant giving up the security of full-time employment – and that scared him to death. I was certain it was this unacknowledged fear, not his lack of discipline that stopped him from acting. Yet, the facilitator encouraged me to “stay away from emotions”. This beautifully exemplifies the behavioural approach often taught to coaches. The bottom line is that Behaviourism is still just a school of psychology.
Another plausible explanation for the perceived separation is the aspiration of the coaching profession to define its own identity. To separate itself from psychology, training, consulting and other disciplines as an independent profession. This is an important and necessary pursuit if coaching is to continue to develop as a fully functioning profession. However, basing our differentiation on weak or unsupported assumptions will only result in us reinventing the wheel or evolve into pseudo-science. Some jokingly say that the only real difference between a coach and a counsellor is how much they charge. This may be closer to the truth than most feel comfortable with. It is no secret that an executive coach could earn more than the average counsellor or even a therapist. If this is true, it provides a strong incentive for coaches to differentiate themselves from psychologists to justify their fees, but not their underlying theoretical foundations.
Lastly, this “different identity” may release coaches from the limitations put on psychologists and embolden coaches to “rush in where psychologists fear to tread”. You only need to browse coaching websites to see that coaches are encouraged to offer their services for things like eating disorders, quitting smoking, low self-esteem, self-confidence, and negative self-talk. Most of these topics would make experienced psychologists approach with caution, but somehow coaches with very elementary training consider themselves capable to intervene in these domains.
I think the message is clear, the reasons for differentiating coaching from psychology is primarily based on misunderstanding and ignorance. However noble our intentions, this separation does not make sense and it does not serve the coaching profession or its clients. If we are to design the future of coaching, it is important to start at the right place and with the right assumptions. If we don’t, we will create a road map that is not based on the reality. We will try to navigate New York City with a map of Shanghai.
If we get it right though, we will have a nifty little road map that will show us the best routes, highlights the obstacles, and enable us to equip ourselves for the journey. It will help us to define our profession based on reality, not imagined differences. It will allow us to draw on decades of psychological research to design and implement the training, development, supervision, and other practises needed to equip professional coaches to deliver impactful, client centred coaching, ethically. Making coaching better, not different – that’s what I’m advocating for.
In the next blog I’ll explore the ways in which embracing psychology could increase the power and impact of coaching. But first, I’d like to hear from you. Is coaching psychology or not? Did I miss an obvious explanation for the separation? What is your most compelling reason for separating coaching and psychology?