Psychological Coaching: Blending Disciplines For Maximum Impact

When managing life’s challenges or setting out on a journey of personal or professional growth, I think most coaches would agree that it’s wise to pursue professional help. Instead of struggling alone, professional help can take you further faster and lead to superior outcomes.

Clients have two good options when seeking professional help — coaches and counselors — but which is right for their journey? In the 25-plus years since I became a psychologist and professional coach, I have worked with many counselors and coaches, and I’ve found that those individuals who blended the two disciplines were more effective. To better illustrate this point, let’s take a look at my own career path.

For the first five years of my psychology career, I focused on clinical work based on a medical model of diagnosing my patients’ pathology and treating their “disease.” One day, it dawned on me that my outpatient counseling work fell into three categories. Imagine two overlapping circles, one for coaching and the other for counseling clients. The two overlap in a third section in the middle. About 60% of my clients fell into the area where the circles overlap, with the remaining 40% divided between the pure counseling and pure coaching spaces. Realizing that 60% of my clients were best served by a blend of counseling and coaching, I altered my approach so that our sessions gradually shifted from counseling that addressed maladaptive behavior to coaching that identified and supported their potential. In turn, this shaped the trajectory of my career as a professional.

Another way to think of my client’s journey involves a train metaphor. If clients boarded at the “pure counseling station,” our work would focus on identifying underlying behavioral issues that created their psychological pain and obstacles that interfered with their growth. During therapy, they would be guided through a growth process from a wounded and damaged sense of self toward a more cohesive sense of self.

After the pure counseling train station, the rail line has stations with decreasing counseling and increasing coaching needs, and our relationship becomes a blend of counseling and coaching. Upon arrival at the pure coaching station, a coaching contract with identified goals is created. From that station, we shift to pure professional coaching and I become an encouraging and supportive partner helping to maintain movement toward self-directed self-actualization.

I believe that helping professionals should tailor their approach to meet clients where they are and deliver the right help at the right time. A blend of experience and education in both counseling and coaching is necessary to achieve that goal. The ideal blend can be achieved within the same professional or through a “well-oiled” collaborative relationship between a counselor and a coach. Counseling Today reports that many professional counselors believe professionals in both disciplines can learn to coexist and that collaboration is best for professionals and clients alike.

The International Coach Federation is adamant that coaches should not work with clients who have serious mental or emotional challenges because determining whether a client has serious issues is not a simple matter. It requires advanced education and experience that coach training does not offer because that is not the primary focus of professional coaches.

Statistically, less than 10% of the population have “diagnosable, psycho-emotional cases that require pathology, diagnosis and traditional psychotherapy,” but attempting to coach them can have catastrophic results for the client and the coach. For this reason, coaches and counselors who collaborate (or professionals who are trained in both psychology and coaching) offer the safest and most effective scenario.

Graduate-level psychology and counseling programs require education and supervised experience about how to properly diagnose clients. In my opinion, coach training does not prepare coaches to detect clients with issues that are best served by counseling. Without sufficient diagnostic training, coaches are vulnerable to coaching someone who should be in counseling and violate a foundational coaching principle.

Assessments are an important tool that can inform the coach on a deeper psychological level. However, some of the better assessments can only be used by those with training in psychology and psychometrics. I co-founded an assessment called PAIRIN that is based on a “psychologist only” platform but produces information that can be utilized with minimal training. Another assessment that I find valuable is the Birkman. It has good psychometrics and is useful in understanding clients’ usual behavior, their needs relative to that behavior and their stress behavior when those needs are not met. I frequently use both the PAIRIN and the Birkman models with my coaching clients.

In my coaching and consulting firm, our clients complete an assessment before their second session as a way to help match them to the right coach and determine if a counselor is a better fit. We celebrate the unique value of coaches and counselors as we collaborate to bring the best of both disciplines to our clients.

If you are a helping professional in coaching or counseling, I encourage you to consider getting additional training in the other discipline. Another option is to find helping professionals in the alternate discipline and build a collaborative relationship. I believe you will find that blended services will lead to maximum impact for your clients. And isn’t that the end goal of your work as a helping professional?