Dissolving boundaries between coaching and other helping professions

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 possibilties? Is it a shortcut to explaining the work you do? Is it a marketing tool?

Does it really matter what you are?

When I started coaching in the early days of coaching, we’d almost always define coaching by what is wasnt 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. We’re like mentors but we’re not because we don’t give advice. We’re like therapists but we’re not because we focus on the solution not the problem.”

And so it went on.

But when label encounters client, reality takes over.

It’s not long before any coach comes face to face with the fact that these boundaries are artificial. The past might not be your playground but it still calls to be heard. You might want solutions but problems demand attention. You might not give advice but your ideas and experience are often valuable.

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

It has seemed to me for sometime now that attachment to clear boundaries and practice definitions says more about a need for identity and certainty of role than the actual practice of coaching.

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

It’s time for the coaching world to fully mature and to allow in the uncertainty, blurred boundaries and multiple differences that comes from working in the fluid field of human change.

I still hear hugely-experienced coaches say, in all seriousness, when emotions, listening to a client’s story or understanding the client’s worldview are mentioned— “But isn’t that straying in to therapy?” On the flipside, I hear other coaches say things like “coaching is therapy for well-people” as though we can only understand what we do through the lens of that which already exists.

I have no easy answers for the differences and similarities between all these practices but I would suggest a starting point for a coach facing these questions is to feel into what their own need for certainty in their definition is saying about themselves. What is being protected? What is being held on to?

Thankfully, many within the coaching profession are embracing the learning and practices to be drawn from the range of people-helping professions. We’re living in a time of increasing integration and I believe that to work as a coach will demand a more sophisticated, 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 just this — they need individuals who can sit with complexity, space and unknowing without a need to adhere to articifical boundaries that do more to serve the coach than the client.

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