Managing with care the boundaries between coaching and counselling by Sally East
Updated: Apr 11
It is useful to start a discussion referring to coaching and counselling with some kind of working definitions. These are definitions that I use to guide my work: Coaching is defined as, “A one-to-one conversation focused on the enhancement of learning and development through increasing self-awareness and a sense of personal responsibility where the coach facilitates the self-directed learning of the coachee through questioning, active listening and appropriate challenge in a supportive and encouraging climate." Christian van Nieuwerburgh, 2012 The British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy definition of counselling/ psychotherapy states that, “Counselling and psychotherapy are umbrella terms that cover a range of talking therapies. They are delivered by trained practitioners who work with people over a short or long term to help them bring about effective change and/or enhance their wellbeing”. I'm quite lucky because most of the time in my coaching we're using psychometric tools. I can always refer back to that objective that has been set for the session. I can say, "Well, we just look back at this." If I've got props, I can come back to in a way that they don't even almost realize that I've done it. So I don't overtly refuse them by explicitly saying, "I'm not going there". But when I'm talking to a client, I will acknowledge their challenge and gently draw them back to the purpose of the meeting, and make sure that we are back on track. I always do that in an unconscious way. I won't say seamlessly, it might not be to an observer but I manage to get them back to where they were before.
Let me share an example: I have a little form for clients to complete to share some of their background before I do the interview in order to set the scene. They sometimes even volunteer to send us their CV or resume. One of my recent clients, an eminent designer with a well-educated and diverse background, sent through to me a diary, and their CV/resume before the interview. They don't need to do this. There's no requirement to do that. And as part of the background, a detailed Gantt chart was included that detailed their personal, professional and family life and day to day events, and 101 other things. As I looked at what had been sent over I thought, "This is going to be a big one." Finally, when we met and started talking, it was fascinating. Reflecting on the conversation, I was geared up for this enormous chat. Although, we only had, in theory, not even an hour it went to an hour. I was geared up for it. I was thinking, "How am I going to close this in and box it in, that kind of thing." Throughout the conversation they didn't refer too much of it, and it’s because I think I didn't let him. At the start, I said, "Thank you so much for the resume. […] Really helpful background. We'll weave some of this into our conversation", which we obviously did, which is really important. You can't talk to a client like that without acknowledging where they're at in their lives. It's important. It's background, but it's not foreground. It could have then gone one of two ways or one of a number of ways but I managed to start it off by acknowledging it was there. Then saying, "This is how we're now going to look at it in the context of the report that's come up". Having that meant that we could talk through the report, and do the feedback coaching without straying into what could have easily become a counselling session. I think by taking this approach he felt like I hadn't just dismissed it and not bothered to look at it. And I really did look at all that had been shared, I'd highlighted bits and pieces and played around with it to try and understand what it was trying to say. As I pieced the data together it seemed as if he was really in quite a bad place. The fact that I felt sorry for them didn't stop me carrying on and doing the interview as I would normally. The loyalty was there. The objectivity was there with, "This is what we've got." And being authentic with him meant just being there for the situation that I had, simple as that.
Reflecting on this case
In this particular case, it was a matter of discerning the useful information from the background, acknowledging its existence with genuine care whilst getting on with the job, the coaching. I guess I'm very aware of the boundaries, more so as I've done some counselling courses but I am not a qualified counsellor, and this could have easily moved into something outside the agreed objectives. In other examples, they might even volunteer some of their mental health problems so that I am already aware of them before we meet. Whether they are seeing a counsellor or not is none of my business, I don’t need to address that overtly because it wasn't something that needed to happen and partly, because I had the feedback assessment to talk about. Saying that, it does make it a huge amount easier when people have told you that they've got it rather than suddenly sharing it in a conversation. However, even though it's much more difficult to deal with in the moment, I would still acknowledge that it exists and say, "I hope that's going well," or something similar, and then leave it to one side rather than directly deal with it.
Carefully managing with clarity and confidence of how to keep the coaching on track, using the background information to consider the best way to engage with clients before actually doing the work. Being able to step back is important especially as I'm very much a "fix it" sort of person, I want to "fix it" for people. I want to make it okay, I want to make it right. I want to sort the world problems out today or maybe tomorrow. Having that ‘planning’ space, I think gives me that ability to then say, "Actually, no. I just need to sit back," and I can show that distance when I deliver my feedback coaching. Making that distance obvious: You're there, and they're there. You're going to talk and reassure them, and at the same time let them know you're going to be in their space, wherever their starting point might be. You have to accept their reality of what's going on for them, in a way, in order to effectively do the coaching.