In recent years, there has been a growing trend of psychologists, psychotherapists and counsellors undertaking coach training.
There are a number of reasons for this which we won’t go into here but, along with the perceived benefits of adding coaching to their services, there are challenges.
One of these challenges is that these professionals can initially feel like they’re unnecessarily going back to basics and begin to question the value of the training. Unlike someone coming to a helping profession such as coaching for the first time, these experienced individuals have already undertaken extensive training in related fields, have learned a wide range of theories, and have likely clocked up many hours with clients.
The question arises then: If you’re experienced in the helping professions, will you get much benefit from undertaking coach retraining?
In this article, I’ll answer this openly and frankly.
My first answer is, “it depends”.
However, we’ve trained enough experienced helping professionals over the years to know some of the common feelings and thoughts you might have.
Some of the early thoughts experienced practitioners might have are:
- This feels too basic
- I know all this
- I disagree with that – it’s not how we learned [fill in the concept]
- That’s not how I’d do it as a [fill in your profession]
- I’m studying alongside novices and I don’t feel stretched by them
- The trainer has less psychological background than I do!
- I’ve made the wrong choice!
- Where is the depth and breadth of learning/knowledge/knowing?
So let’s get into this.
Firstly, it’s useful to remember that most coaching courses are aimed at beginners, as well as those adding coaching to existing professional helping skills. This means that, as a psychologist, psychotherapist or counsellor, you’ll likely feel ahead of the game and you might feel the early part of a course is “a bit basic”. As you start your coach training, you might question whether it’s going to add to your knowledge or skills.
I believe, however, that this misses the real point of retraining as a coach and looks at the coaching skills through the wrong lens.
Where it almost always gets interesting for psychologists, psychotherapists and counsellors, is when they truly open themselves to the coaching approach. Our experience has shown that the greatest learning for most experienced professionals is not new theory, new models or new concepts, but rather a new way of working that is subtly yet distinctly different and challenges long-held ways of working with clients.
Individuals from other helping professions often have habits and ways of working that actually get in the way of coaching whether that’s in how they contract with clients, how they set up and lead (or not) a session, how they ask questions, how they utilise their own sense-making, and many more areas. There can be significant differences in application that mark out coaching from other practices.
Although not always the case, these different backgrounds can lead variously to a leaning towards diagnosis, analysis, prescription, labelling or even overly non-verbal space-holding, that is unhelpful from a coaching perspective.
The journey for psychologists, psychotherapists and counsellors is often one of letting go rather than adding on. In other words, it is less to do with learning “new stuff” – theories, models, or conceptual frameworks – and rather developing new ways to work with existing knowledge and skills that are then flavoured by the principles of coaching.
You may not feel that that’s enough to justify the cost and time of retraining and, indeed, you don’t need to. There’s no legal obligation to train in order to practise as a coach. However, what you will likely find is that, without training, your style of practice will remain largely unchanged and misaligned with coaching.
To give a concrete example of this, we know of a highly experienced therapist who decided to add coaching to her services but without undertaking training. She felt it was a simple add-on and one that would widen her client base. She believed, understandably, that she had all the basic skills of coaching from her years of therapy practice. Sometime later, she applied for Master Certified Coach with the ICF, having built up multiple thousands of hours of work. To her surprise, her application was declined. They explained that her sessions were deemed too diagnostic and overly directive through her focusing on what she felt was most important. She simply hadn’t embodied the coaching qualities of unknowing and truly collaborative inquiry.
Of course, that’s not to say all therapists or psychologists will face the same issue. But it is noteworthy that so many experienced practitioners who have trained through our school have commented that the real challenge for them was moving away from feeling they needed to find the answer or be able to notice a behavioural pattern as a “kind of”. Again, I’m aware that many psychotherapists and psychologists won’t have this urge, but we see enough to at least suggest it’s a relatively common challenge in the transition to coaching.
So why even make this journey of transition if you have your skills from the current work?
As an example of this, some years ago, I was due to lead a short course on existential coaching when I noticed that a consultant forensic psychiatrist had enrolled. To say I was intimidated would be an understatement! “What does he have to learn from me?”, I remember thinking. Over the two days of the course, however, I was delighted by his reaction and participation. He shared with me that after 20 plus years of diagnosing and prescribing patients based on structured models and ways of thinking, his eyes were opened to new ways of working that were more collaborative, egalitarian and exploratory. He knew, of course, that this couldn’t be transplanted wholesale back in to his work, but it would at least offer him new possibilities. The fact was that after more than 20 years in his career he had developed deeply-channeled ways of working, and coaching offered him a new epistemological position in his work and a more spacious way of being.
For counsellors, coaching can feel quite liberating with its more rounded conversational style and its focus on solutions. For some psychotherapists, it can feel liberating to be released from certain frameworks of thinking or practising. For some psychologists, it can be liberating to let go of a need to diagnose and prescribe.
If you’re balking at these descriptions and feel that counsellors, psychotherapists and psychologists are not constrained by their professional stance, then you might be one of the ones who is able to integrate multiple ways of working unfettered by theoretical assumptions. In this case, you might feel coaching has little to offer you. However, many therapists who train with us and, no doubt, other coaching schools, do experience this sense of liberation in their work.
Let’s be frank though. For most experienced helping professionals, the journey to become a coach is less an informative one than a developmental one. You will likely know the key concepts of solution-focused practice, cognitive behavioural work, transactional analysis, person-centred theory, and perhaps even narrative work, that we cover. You will likely already have many more tools than you’ll be taught on the course.
I know how that feels. Many years after I trained as a coach, accredited as a Master Coach with one of the leading professional bodies, and completed a Masters in Psychological Coaching, I embarked on a Masters in Integrative Counselling and Coaching which catered for beginners and experienced people alike. Along with everyone else, I had to go through the process of practising the basics – listening, holding space, contracting and so on. It was simply part of the programme to build someone’s skills from scratch.
The feeling that it was basic to me was nothing to do with programme. Nor was it due to the nature of counselling. It was simply the fact that the course was catering to people starting out on their journey as much as to those adding new skills to their way of working. The fascinating thing for me was how these foundational skills took on a different feel and tone when practised as counselling rather than coaching.
The real benefit for experienced practitioners then, I believe, becomes the developmental journey in which you allow new ways of working to emerge in a different context, with different fellow learners and different client types. That’s how it was for me in counselling, it’s how we see many of our own students experience it and it’s how it is likely to be for you entering coaching from a helping background.
Coming at it leftfield, another way to think about this is by imagining someone who’s played tennis for many years and wants to master badminton. Their fundamental skills are in place – hand-eye coordination, balance, agility, and so on, but the basics are subtly different and, like the psychotherapist becoming a coach, they’ll have to revisit the basic skills in a new context to move forward. Once they do, though, their progress will likely be more rapid than an absolute beginner.This leads to another key question: What’s the change you’re after in your practice?
If you’re a psychotherapist, psychologist or counsellor, what are you looking for from coaching? Is it a new style? The credibility to call yourself a coach? Some form of accreditation in a new field?
To be blunt, if you’re looking to be wowed by new theory and practices, then as a psychologist, psychotherapist or counsellor, you’re unlikely to be. It’s a coaching course for people beginning their journey – it would be unrealistic to expect that training alongside inexperienced people, you will come across ideas that are wholly new to you. Likewise, you might find that, to cater to the new students of these relational skills, the course might be feel a bit basic and slow to start.
But if you’re open to seeing and feeling what coaching is like in practice and you have the patience to see what emerges over time and practice, then you are likely to be well be rewarded.
If you’re going to join a coaching course as a seasoned people helper, then recognise that you’re making a choice to allow a new way of working to emerge. Many experienced people fall back upon their existing approaches and preferred methods, then wonder why they’re not learning something new. It’s understandable, of course, and I’ve been there too. All too often, when someone feels their professional competence is under scrutiny, through learning new skills in a context where they’d naturally take their traditional approach, they grasp at their professionalism. They know what needs to be done here and how and they stick to it! This can be frustrating for everyone involved since, instead of a coach-in-learning, a fellow student is suddenly faced with a confident therapist who’s not playing ball with the learning that’s being sought and, in turn, that therapist feels they learned nothing new. This then bounces back in to the training room with both therapist and “practice client” feeling like “well, that didn’t work!” and the course facilitator becomes under scrutiny. In the end, it’s the openness to “trying out” and “playing with” that will make the difference..
To come back to the opening question then, most coach training is foundational course. Yes, a good coach training course takes people to a high degree of competence but it is still a course for novices as much as transitioning experts and so I believe you need to embrace the training not as source of new, advanced theory, but as a journey of transformation in how you practise that takes patience, openness, a willingness to be ahead of others without feeling you’re not gaining value, and finally a humility to let what might emerge in the long haul reveal itself in time.
Ultimately, only you can really answer whether you’ll get anything from a coaching course but my strong advice would be to understand that, unlike beginners, it won’t be the information that helps you grow, but the journey of letting go and letting in, and that’s one you’d need to embrace, not one we can give to you.
Some key questions you should consider are:
- Why do you want to train as a coach?
- What are the important outcomes?
- Will this course enable you to achieve them?
- Is accreditation as a coach important to you?
- Are you willing to put aside the feeling that you already have all the skills you need and be open to the discovering the differences?
- Are you willing to step back to some basics to step forward in new ways?
- Are you willing to learn along far less experienced people?
No doubt, there are other questions you will need to consider for yourself but these questions are core if you are coming from an experienced background and making this choice to retrain as a coach. The more honest you are with yourself, the more likely you are to make the right choice for yourself.