An increasingly common issue in my supervision is whether and how a coach or mentor can work alongside a therapist. How do you decide when it is appropriate to continue the coaching relationship and when you should withdraw until the client is in an appropriate state of mind to make effective use of the coaching opportunity? How wary should the coach be of interfering with the therapy? If the client wants to continue the coaching sessions, but the therapist is opposed, where do the coach’s responsibilities lie?

Some of my thinking around this issue so far revolves around context and this perspective seems to provide a basis for enabling coach and therapist to work in a complementary manner. To become a fully functional individual, a client needs to influence their internal context (the way they think and behave, their neuroses etc) and also their external environment (how they ensure that the people and systems around them are supportive of the internal changes they want to make). The issues of personal values, identity, life purpose and so on fall somewhere in the middle of these two perspectives.

It is understandable that some therapists would regard as intrusion or interference attempts by coaches to dig into issues such as these, while the client is undergoing therapy. And responsible coaches are equally wary of stepping over a line marked “amateur psychologist”.  Yet this caution may narrow the scope of their usefulness to the client, because understanding the client’s internal context is essential to helping them develop coping strategies for the external challenges.

I have increasingly come to the conclusion that coaches and therapists can achieve more for the client by working together. For example:

  • When a coaching client is referred to a therapist, the coach will often have a great deal of contextual information and insights that they can share (with the client’s permission), enriching the therapist’s understanding, particularly of the client’s external environment
  • When a client is not making progress and it appears that this is related to an internal psychological dysfunction, a therapist may be able to guide the coach on whether and how coaching can still be beneficial
  • The coach’s understanding of the work environment that the client operates in can support the therapist’s efforts by exploring practical changes in, for example, work routines, time management, negotiating workload with others or making career choices.
  • At a very general level, therapy tends to be problem-focused, while coaching (when done well) and mentoring are opportunity-focused. Great coaching conversations are punctuated by the laughter that comes from insights – a lightness and irreverence that may not be so easy to achieve (or desirable) in a traditional therapeutic environment. (Yes, I know there is also something called laughter therapy, but that’s not at the core of therapeutic practice)

Tripartite meetings between client, coach and therapist are still relatively rare, but appear to be valuable when they do occur. I am increasingly convinced of the need for a protocol that establishes good practice and expectations for coaches and therapists to work together. If both seek to achieve the best possible outcomes for their clients, then it is hard to see how that is achieved with rigid separation of the two roles.

I would welcome the thoughts of both coaches and therapists – and colleagues who span both worlds – in developing a deeper understanding of the issues involved here.

© David Clutterbuck 2013

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