The Impact of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy on Coaching

cognitive behavioural therapy and coaching

The Impact of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy on Coaching

In the ever-expanding landscape of psychological theory and practice, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) holds a dominant position in the eyes of many commissioning bodies as being an effective intervention for many conditions.

Yet, it would be fair to say that it has as many detractors as it does adherents! The focus on fast solutions is often antithetical to many other parts of the therapeutic world.  

In this article, however, my aim is not to dissect, critique or promote CBT but rather explore its influence on coaching and some of the tools and models with which it has gifted the coaching world.

We’ll take a look at the foundations of CBT, its core principles and some of the well-known models that many coaches use and which Animas has integrated into our transformative approach to coaching. 

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy in a Nutshell

CBT emerged from the confluence of cognitive and behavioural psychological theories in the mid-20th century. 

Psychologists like Albert Ellis and Aaron T. Beck pioneered this approach, aiming to challenge and alter dysfunctional thoughts and behaviours to improve emotional responses and overall well-being.

At its core, CBT proposes that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours are intimately interconnected. 

Whilst this is not a particularly profound insight, the real breakthrough, as far as CBT was concerned, was how we work with that intricately interwoven relationship.

Distorted or negative thought patterns can result in maladaptive behaviours and emotional distress. CBT seeks to modify these thought patterns, fostering healthier behaviours and improving emotional well-being.

However, unlike, say, psychodynamic approaches which seek to address repressed memories and inner dynamics, CBT sets out to interrupt patterns of thinking without attempting to find the source at an unconscious level.  

The Foundations of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

The Behaviourist Dimension

The foundations of (CBT) can be traced back to the pioneering work of early behaviourists. 

Researchers like Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner paved the way for understanding human behaviour and its modification, forming a key part of what would become CBT.

Ivan Pavlov is best known for his work on classical conditioning, a learning process that occurs when two stimuli are repeatedly paired together. 

His famous experiments with dogs demonstrated that a neutral stimulus (a bell) could be associated with an unconditioned stimulus (food) to produce a conditioned response (salivation). 

This concept has deeply influenced the way CBT practitioners understand and treat phobias and anxiety disorders. For example, if a person has developed a fear of dogs after being bitten (a traumatic unconditioned stimulus), a therapist could use systematic desensitisation, a CBT technique, to gradually expose the person to the feared object, thereby weakening the conditioned fear response.

B.F. Skinner, on the other hand, proposed the theory of operant conditioning. 

Skinner believed that behaviour is determined by its consequences, which can be either reinforcing or punishing. Behaviours followed by desirable outcomes are likely to be repeated, whereas those followed by undesirable outcomes are not. 

This principle underlies many CBT techniques. For instance, in cognitive-behavioural therapy, rewarding oneself for achieving a small goal (like completing a task) can reinforce the desired behaviour and encourage its repetition.

Behaviourism, with its focus on observable behaviours and the environment’s influence was a significant precursor to CBT. However, it was the later addition of cognitive theory, recognising the crucial role of thoughts and interpretations, that led to the development of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy as we know it today.

Aaron Beck & Albert Ellis

The Cognitive Dimension

Albert Ellis and Aaron T. Beck are widely recognised as the key thinkers and practitioners who introduced the cognitive element of what would become CBT and Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT).

Albert Ellis was an American psychologist who developed Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy in the 1950s. 

Ellis believed that people often make irrational assumptions that lead to psychological distress. According to Ellis, it is not the activating event (A) that causes negative emotional and behavioural consequences (C), but what people believe (B) about the event. Hence the model is often referred to as the ABC model of REBT. Ellis suggested that by disputing (D) these irrational beliefs, one can significantly improve emotional well-being.

This was not a new idea, of course, and was even voiced as far back as the first century AD by the philosopher Epictetus who stated:

People are not emotionally distressed by events but by their beliefs about them.

Similarly, Shakespeare, through the character of Hamlets opines that:

“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

Around the same time, Aaron T. Beck developed Cognitive Therapy (often considered synonymous with CBT) in the 1960s. He proposed that distorted or dysfunctional thinking (which he called automatic thoughts) leads to emotional distress and maladaptive behaviours. 

He introduced cognitive restructuring, a process of identifying, challenging, and changing distorted thoughts and beliefs. 

Beck also developed the concept of cognitive distortions, which are biased perspectives we adopt about ourselves, others, or the world around us. 

Some of these distortions include all-or-nothing thinking, overgeneralisation, and catastrophising. By helping individuals recognise and challenge these cognitive distortions, 

Beck’s approach allows them to alter their behaviours and improve their emotional health.

Both Ellis’s REBT and Beck’s Cognitive Therapy have influenced the development of various forms of CBT, making them both prominent figures in the field. Their work continues to guide therapists and coaches, equipping them with effective strategies for helping individuals manage a wide range of psychological issues.

The Principles and Assumptions of CBT

We’ve looked briefly at the basic assumption of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy but now let’s dig a little deeper into the principles of this approach as it will help us see its legacy in coaching.

Psychological distress is largely a product of cognitive processes. 

CBT asserts that it’s not events themselves that upset us, but the meanings we give them. Our thoughts and interpretations about a situation influence how we feel and behave.

Thoughts, feelings, and behaviours are interconnected. 

This trifecta forms a cyclical relationship – our thoughts affect our emotions, which influence our behaviours, which in turn reinforce our thoughts. 

People can learn to change maladaptive thoughts and behaviours. 

By identifying, challenging, and modifying distorted thoughts and unhealthy behaviours, individuals can alleviate their distress and improve their quality of life.

CBT is a collaborative and active process. 

Therapists and clients work together to understand problems and develop strategies for change. Homework assignments often form an integral part of CBT, encouraging clients to apply their learnings in real-world settings.

CBT is goal-oriented and problem-focused.

Therapy is directed towards achieving specific goals, such as reducing symptoms of a particular disorder or improving a certain aspect of the client’s life.

CBT is evidence-based. 

It’s supported by numerous research studies demonstrating its effectiveness in treating various mental health conditions.

Having understood the principles, we’ll now explore Beck’s concept of cognitive distortions, a key tool in the armoury of coaches training in cognitive behavioural approaches.

CBT and coaching

Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive distortions, a concept introduced by Aaron T. Beck, are biased perspectives we take on ourselves, others, or the world around us. 

They’re often patterns of thinking or ‘thought habits’ that are ingrained over time, leading to negative emotions and behaviours. 

Understanding cognitive distortions is crucial in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and coaching, as they often underpin the negative thought patterns that these practices aim to change. 

Some classic cognitive distortions include:

All-or-Nothing Thinking 

Also known as Black-and-White Thinking, this distortion involves viewing things in extreme, polarised categories. For instance, if you make a mistake, you might think you’re a total failure instead of recognising that everyone makes mistakes.


This involves drawing broad conclusions from a single event or piece of evidence. If you fail at a particular task, you might think, “I’m always failing.”

Mental Filter

This distortion involves dwelling excessively on negatives and ignoring positives. For instance, you might focus on a single negative comment while disregarding all the compliments you received.

Disqualifying the Positive

This involves rejecting positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count.” If you do a good job, you might tell yourself that it wasn’t good enough or that it was only due to luck.

Jumping to Conclusions

This distortion involves making negative interpretations without actual evidence. It takes two forms – Mind Reading (assuming the thoughts and intentions of others) and Fortune Telling (predicting negative outcomes in the future).

Magnification (Catastrophising) and Minimisation

This involves exaggerating the significance of problems or errors (magnification) or downplaying the importance of positive qualities or achievements (minimisation).

Emotional Reasoning

This distortion involves assuming that because you feel a certain way, what you think must be true. For example, if you feel guilty, you believe you must have done something wrong.

Should Statements

This involves dictating what you or others ‘should’, ‘ought to’ or ‘must’ do. These statements can lead to feelings of guilt, frustration, and disappointment.

Labelling and Mislabelling

This involves attaching a negative label to oneself or others based on a particular event or behaviour. Instead of acknowledging a mistake, you might label yourself as a ‘loser’ or ‘failure.’

Personalisation and Blame

This distortion involves blaming yourself for events outside of your control or blaming others for your problems, ignoring the fact that many factors usually contribute to a given outcome.

This list of cognitive distortions, whilst not exhaustive, represent the most common thinking errors that can fuel negative emotions and maladaptive behaviours. 

By identifying and challenging these distortions, individuals can learn to see things more accurately, leading to better emotional health and more effective behaviour.

With these as a background, we can now start to explore some key models that coaching has adopted from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

Key CBT Models in Coaching

Several models that underpin the practice of CBT have found their way into coaching. 

Two significant ones include the A-F Model and the SPACER model. 

A-F Model

The A-F Model, also known as the ABCDE Model, was proposed by Albert Ellis as part of his Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy. The F was added later and can sometimes represent Future Steps and at other time Future Feelings.  At Animas, we focus on Future Steps.

This model outlines the process by which individuals come to experience emotional distress:

  • A: Activating Event
  • B: Beliefs (rational or irrational) about the event
  • C: Consequence (emotional response and external outcomes)
  • D: Disputing irrational beliefs (challenging the belief)
  • E: Exchange (adopting a new belief to experiment with)
  • F: Future Steps (The next steps to try out the new belief)

The A-F model illustrates how individuals can learn to challenge and change irrational beliefs, leading to healthier emotional responses.

A quick example will show how this works:

A – A client gets asked to present on stage and is panicking and thinking to decline the offer.

B – They believe that they will fail and look ridiculous on stage.

C – The consequence is that they will feel awful.  But another consequence is that they will miss the opportunity to advance their business if they don’t take up the opportunity.

D – Explore times when the client has succeeded, or even when, if it wasn’t perfect, the outcome wasn’t the disaster they fear. Uncover new possibilities for how it’s a learning opportunity not a do-or-die moment.

E – They decide a new belief could be that they might not be the best speaker but that audiences are generally kind and encouraging, that you only improve by practice and that there is much they can do to prepare as best they can.

F – They will accept the invitation and start to focus on what they can learn about themselves and the art of speaking by going out there and doing it.  


The SPACER model, first proposed by Nick Edgerton and Professor Stephen Palmer, is another coaching model influenced by CBT principles. 

It consists of six dimensions that allow for a client to fully understand and explore their challenge:

  • S: Situation
  • P: Physiology
  • A: Actions
  • C: Cognition
  • E: Emotion
  • R: Result

By exploring each of the different dimensions of a client’s challenge or desire, they can uncover what elements are having the most significant impact on their ability to achieve their outcomes.

The model is not a diagnostic tool but rather a mental map to ensure that all parts of the client’s experience are being uncovered.

cbt and coaching

CBT’s Lasting Influence on Coaching

Whilst the models that have been developed from CBT have been immensely useful to coaching, the real legacy has been the focus on methodically unpicking the chain between thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

The models are less important than the underlying principle that, at the heart of many challenges and ineffective behaviours, are chains of thinking, feeling and behaviour that get outcomes the client is not happy with.

Some coaching schools, of which Animas is one, teach Cognitive Behavioural Coaching as a core part of their curriculum. The ability for coaches to be able to help clients step back and evaluate their thoughts and the consequent feelings and behaviours is a vital skill, we believe.

That said, not everyone is in agreement.  CBT and CBC have had their detractors and it is worth exploring this briefly before concluding this article.

Critiques of CBT 

Despite its wide application and success, CBT has been the subject of ongoing critiques. 

Some argue it is overly mechanistic and reductionist, simplifying complex emotional and psychological issues into an equation of thoughts leading to feelings and behaviours. 

Others believe it places undue responsibility on the individual for their distress, neglecting the broader socio-cultural context.

Others challenge CBT on the level of where change happens best.  For instance, a psychodynamic coach may consider that cognitive behavioural work is simply scratching the surface. An intuitive coach might consider the cognitive behavioural approach to be limited in its linear logic.

In reality, these critiques often overlook the flexibility and adaptability of CBT. 

While its core principles remain constant, the application of CBT is as diverse as the individuals it serves. It doesn’t just focus on symptom reduction but also fosters the development of skills for managing future challenges, thus promoting sustainable well-being.

Moreover, in a coaching context, CBT is used as a tool for cognitive restructuring rather than as a therapy. It equips clients to harness their thoughts productively towards their goals, complementing the forward-looking, action-oriented nature of coaching.

Nonetheless, each coach needs to decide how they want to work and what they believe about the very nature of being and change.


The legacy of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy on coaching is profound. 

It has brought valuable tools for cognitive restructuring into coaching practice, empowering individuals to manage their thoughts and behaviours effectively. 

Critiques, while useful for continual evolution, often reduce CBT’s qualities and fail to acknowledge its adaptability and sustainability. 

As we continue to advance in our understanding and application of psychological principles, the fusion of CBT and coaching remains a promising avenue for fostering personal and professional growth.

Author Details
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.
Nick Bolton Avatar
Nick Bolton

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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