Dissolving Boundaries Between Coaching and Other Helping Professions

boundaries between coaching and therapy

Are you a coach? A counsellor? A therapist? A mentor?

What does having that title mean to you?

Does it help you define yourself, your practice, your limitations, your possibilities?

Does it give you meaning and purpose? A sense of belonging?

Is it a shortcut to explaining the work you do?

Is it a marketing tool?

Does it really matter?

When I started coaching, in the early days, we would almost always define coaching by what it wasn’t rather than what it was.

We’d sheepishly say things like: “It’s like counselling but it’s not because we don’t focus on the past and we are more interested in goals and the future.” or “We’re like mentors but we’re not because we don’t give advice.” or “We’re like therapists but we’re not because we focus on the solution not the problem.”

Not only are these definitions spurious in the first place, but when a label encounters a person, reality takes over.

…when a label encounters a person, reality takes over.

It’s not long before every coach comes face-to-face with the fact that these boundaries are relatively artificial.  The past might not be your main focus but it still calls to be heard. You might want to help clients find solutions but problems demand attention. You might not give advice but clients may find your ideas and experience valuable.

Your client is a person not a coachee who fits your category of work!

It has seemed to me for some time now that an attachment to clear boundaries and practice definitions says more about a need for identity and certainty of role than the actual practice of coaching.  Perhaps it even says more about our deeper fears of being rejected by our peers.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that coaches, therapists, counsellors, and mentors are all the same. There are certainly differences — especially in focus and client type— but the differences are separated not by solid walls but by permeable membranes.  

It is certainly the case that there are clients that coaches should not see – people who need the particular skills of a therapist, for instance.

And there are clients for whom a mentor with the right skills is what is needed and to coach that person would lead to unnecessary frustration.

The issue comes though in the grey areas where a coaching client momentarily needs the succour of the listener, or where the perfect idea from the coach might be just what’s required to help a client move forward.

Thankfully, over the last decade, the coaching profession has continued to mature and to allow for the uncertainty, blurred boundaries and multiple differences that come from working in the dynamic field of human change and experience.

Gone are the days of strict goal-centrism and of admonishments not to “go there” wherever “there” was that wasn’t the realm of coaching.

That said, I still hear coaches question whether listening to a client’s story for too long without raising a question or trying to “bottom line” it is really coaching — “But isn’t that straying into therapy?”  And they may well be right – but I wonder if that is truly their own voice or the voice of the “profession” they are adhering to?

On the flip-side, I hear other coaches say things like coaching is “therapy for well-people” as though we can only understand coaching through the lens of that which has gone before and the only difference is the person taking up the coaching not the thing we are doing.

To my mind, there is a clear a difference between these disciplines but they are not differences that are easily put into words.  It is something we feel.  It is energetic.  I go to a coach for a certain kind of exploration and I go to a therapist for a different kind.  Yet I would be hard pressed to be exact in that difference.

I could well imagine Socrates eliminating each of my explanations one by one with his lightly-mocking questions that would make my answers crumble into absurdity.

Despite Socrates’ chuckles, I still know there’s a difference – but it’s one of felt-experience rather than fixed definition.

Despite Socrates’ chuckles, I still know there’s a difference – but it’s one of felt-experience rather than fixed definition.

I have no easy answers for the differences and similarities between all these practices but I would suggest a starting point would be for each coach to feel into what their own need for certainty is saying about themselves – what concerns, fears and relationships to authority are being transferred from another part of their life? What is being protected? What is being held on to?

At least that way, when you come to your own conclusions, you do so from a place of critical reflection and authenticity.

If you’re new to coaching and exploring the profession, then you do so at a time of ever greater maturity and complexity in how we think about what we do.  And, for me, this can only be a good thing.

Within the coaching profession, people have embraced the knowledge and practices that can be drawn from a whole range of people-helping professions. We live in a time of increasing integration, and to work as a coach demands a more overtly psychologically-minded approach to our work.

Simple models such as GROW still have their place in the range of work we do but our clients need more than this — they need individuals who can sit with complexity, space and unknowing without a need to adhere to artificial boundaries that do more to serve the coach than the client.

Nick is the founder and CEO of Animas Centre for Coaching and the International Centre for Coaching Supervision. Nick is an existentially oriented coach and supervisor with a passion for the ideas, principles and philosophy that sits behind coaching.

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