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The Coaching Edge - Page 2

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I learned to use the first minutes of the coaching session more purposefully. After saying hello, I'd ask clients about their progress since the last session. Then, we'd discuss what ideas they had for the focus of the next hour, determine a plan for the session, and jump right in. "OK, Ruth," I might say, "I understand that you want to talk about whether to move to a new city. That's an important topic, but it's a big one to cover. Given our time today, what aspect of this topic makes most sense to discuss first?" Developing collaborative, clear goals for a session constituted the coaching agreement. If any one aspect of coaching could be called the most necessary, this would be it. Because each coaching session needed to deliver measurable results, I found that taking the time to set a good coaching agreement--being careful not to rush through this--greatly enhanced the likelihood of a successful hour. When I took the time to arrive at a solid, workable agreement, my coaching sessions usually went well, with the client very satisfied; however, when I forgot this step or the agreement was too vague, things tended to meander, and often the client left feeling unresolved about what we'd achieved.

As I grew more comfortable with coaching, I began to wonder about structuring my therapy sessions in a similar way, and tried to weave this and other coaching methods into my therapeutic work. A major feature separating the two approaches was the attitude that set the tone for sessions. Traditionally, psychotherapy has focused on pain and suffering--the dark side of the spectrum of life's emotions. But in coach training, optimism and a positive attitude rule supreme. At CoachU, we focused on expansive, even visionary, topics, which included peak performance, accomplishment, pleasure, and happiness. In fact, the coaching approach was so uncompromisingly hopeful that, initially, true to my psychodynamic training, I could barely keep from rolling my eyes at all this happiness-and-bliss talk.

I learned at CoachU, in no uncertain terms, that if I wanted to be a coach, I had to quash my cynicism and get on the happiness bandwagon. "You can't be a very good life coach without having a very good life," a senior coach said. Then, in a class called Buff--as in, getting to perfection--she asked everyone to complete the "Clean Sweep" checklist, a 100-item list of conditions in four categories of the perfect life--physical environment, relationships, money, and well-being--to which we should aspire. A few, which provide the tenor of the exercise, include:

  • I have 6 months' living expenses in an easily accessible account.
  • I do not suffer.
  • I laugh out loud every day.
  • There's no one whom I would dread or feel uncomfortable "bumping into" (in the street, at an airport, at a party.)
  • I don't gossip or talk negatively about others.
  • I surround myself with beautiful things.
  • As I worked down the list, one statement stopped me cold:
  • I live in the geographical location of my choice.

Now here was an item I didn't think I'd ever check off. In high school, when other students talked about their plans for college and beyond, I had only one goal: to get out of Silver Spring, Maryland. To me, at age 17, Silver Spring, a low-key, middle-class suburb of Washington, D.C., was the epitome of all things boring, and I wanted only to be gone. Determined to experience the '60s counterculture, I went to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, a genuine hotbed of revolutionary politics and protest--and best of all, it was so not Silver Spring. I got so caught up in the antiwar movement and my new freedoms that I didn't have time to go to classes. Dropping out after a year, I embarked on a nomadic, hippie lifestyle. Along with my husband at the time, I lived in a school bus that we drove around the country, making enough money to live on by organizing rock concerts.

But my adventure in a countercultural lifestyle ended as so many like it did in that era: after six years, my marriage fell apart and I came home, back to Silver Spring, to regroup, with a 4-year-old child in tow. I was exhausted, run-down, and seriously depressed. I thought I was just visiting long enough to get my energy back, but my parents sat me down and urged me to stay put, go back to college, find a job, grow up, and take care of my son. I saw their point and agreed. The one place I wanted to escape had now become home again.

Twenty years later, I was still in Silver Spring. With the help of my own therapy for more than a decade, I was no longer depressed, was married again--happily this time--enjoyed a circle of family and friends, lived in a comfortable house of my own, and had a private practice as a therapist. But I just couldn't make myself say that I "lived in the location of my choice." During the next coaching class, when I reported my inability to check off this item, the teacher asked if I appreciated the cost, to myself, of not loving where I lived. I had no answer for that. But, ever the diligent student, I wanted to get a passing score on the survey, so I decided to see what it would take to learn to love Silver Spring.

I started with my immediate neighborhood. I took long walks and found a hidden delight. Down a dead-end street, just minutes from my house, was a steep hillside that led to a secluded branch of the Anacostia River. The little path by the river was green, quiet, and private. Large, old oak trees blocked any sign of houses when I stood on a rock by the river. Waterfowl, deer, and fox called this area home. I felt as if I were in the country, instead of the suburbs. During another walk, I explored streets lined with flowering cherry and magnolia trees--a gift from the original city planners. I planted a small kitchen garden and dreamed about making my own salad. I met neighbors who stopped by to chat as I knelt outside digging in the dirt.

Reconsidering what the concept of home meant to me, I began to appreciate the gifts of being back where I grew up and getting the chance to "do over" old, sometimes painful childhood memories. Looking back on my 24-year-old self who agreed to stay in Silver Spring for the sake of her child, I could regard my personal history with more compassion. In just a few weeks, I began to shift from resigned acceptance to real affection for my immediate surroundings--a process that continued long after the coaching class was over.

With a lot of help from good therapists through the years, I'd looked at my family-of-origin and the issues that led to my desire to escape Silver Spring, much of it based on feelings of anxiety and depression, and had found ways to shift old beliefs that I was unlovable and unworthy. But the pursuit of unalloyed happiness had never been on the agenda of my own psychotherapy, and wasn't part of what I offered my clients. Before learning to be a coach, I functioned well. I showed no egregious symptoms of emotional distress, accepted myself, and had acquired a degree of self-awareness and self-acceptance. But coaching taught me to seek delight in life, rather than just feeling a sense of quotidian OK-ness. It offered strategies for a larger sense of fulfillment and happiness, and normalized them as realistic goals--a completely novel way for me to view and live my life. With more to choose from, including happiness and possibility, in the jargon of CoachU, I was finally "at choice."

I printed off the Clean Sweep checklist and began to offer it to my therapy clients as a resource for life improvement. One client, who suffered from depression, was in a difficult marriage, worked a low-level job, and was barely surviving financially, came in with it the next week and handed it back, angrily. "I have a score of 6 out of 100 on this list," she said snarling, "It's a stupid exercise." Other clients in later stages of therapy, not so depressed and more ready to think about their future potential, welcomed the list, and picked items to add as topics for therapeutic discussion. Some clients, who might have been on the verge of terminating because their early therapy goals felt complete, now asked to stay and work on more future-oriented goals and visions, spurred on by ideas from the checklist.

As I proceeded in my coach training, what began to stand out as the critical element--the difference between coaching and therapy and the one I was most unsure of carrying over to a therapy setting--was the idea of partnership. Coaches are, above all, partners with their clients, not quasi-medical experts or psychological wisdom dispensers. The difference in the coaching partnership relationship is often explained by imagining you're learning to ride a bicycle for the first time and being helped by a therapist, a consultant, and a coach. A therapist would be standing off to the side, closely observing your attempt to stay upright. She'd be empathic, compassionate when you fell, and might make insightful interpretations about why you're so unbalanced. She'd help you understand the origins of your lack of stability and again watch as you got back on the bike, this time, armed with all of your new (theoretical) insights.

A consultant might be the ex-Olympian bike-riding expert accompanying you, riding speedy circles around you while you wobble along, struggling to keep the bike and yourself upright. He'd note your current lack of ability at riding, tell you exactly how and where you're doing it wrong, give you a detailed, step-by-step plan for doing it right, submit a report with all of the findings and suggestions, including specs for the state-of-the-art bike you'd need to buy, and then ride off, leaving you to do what he'd told you to do. A coach would climb on the seat right behind you and ask, "Where do you want to go today?"
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  • Comment Link Tuesday, 01 January 2013 22:35 posted by Katherine Ferris

    Thank you Lynn, for this great article. I believe your article is well worth reading, not just by psychotherapists, but by all therapists involved in working with clients in a therapeutic setting.

    As a clinical hypnotherapist and childbirth educator, I can relate to your model of integrating coaching into clinical practice. A good hypnotherapy session will usually involve suggestions that lead to solutions, in other words some form of conscious or subconscious coaching is generally involved.

    I have enjoyed reading your newsletters and am looking forward to reading your book.

    Katherine Ferris
    Clinical Hypnotherapist

  • Comment Link Wednesday, 26 December 2012 20:55 posted by Mary Castor

    I truly appreciated reading this timely article. I have recently embarked on a new career as a psychotherapist after having worked as a social worker in the capacity of a case manager for the past 35 years. In working with clients now using psychotherapeutic skills, the tenets of coaching techniques resonate well with me as these skills offer tangible measures of hopefulness for clients early on in treatment. Empathy, acceptance and genuine positive regard are the hallmarks to a successful therapist-client relationship but I have found people want action steps like a road map in getting from point A to point B. A good therapist I believe promotes due diligence by incorporating coaching skills during treatment. I would advocate for more research in this area. Thanks again for sharing your insights.

  • Comment Link Wednesday, 12 December 2012 13:43 posted by Jonathan Sibley

    Thank you, Lynn, for a thought-provoking article.

    As a therapist and coach, I am wary of a potentially overly binary question along the lines of "is X therapy or coaching?", preferring something closer to "Is this within the agreement I have with my client, within my scope of expertise, and is it potentially helpful to my client?"

    A therapist, coach, and consultant might disagree about how a specific intervention should be labeled (there is disagreement, for example, within coaching about whether something that sounds like consulting has a place within a coaching conversation), but if it helps the client, is based on the helper's expertise, falls within appropriate codes of ethics, and within an understanding of the work that will be done together, I am happy to work within overlapping domains.

    Also, I'd like to suggest that although therapy, particularly when it doesn't look like coaching, tends to be focused on healing, some of the other distinctions you make between therapy and coaching are not universally accurate. For example, many therapists make an effort not to position themselves as experts who are "above" their clients but see themselves as co-explorers on a shared journey.

    The bottom line is that it sounds like you are doing great work that is helping your clients and that some form of coaching-informed therapy and therapy-informed coaching is a good fit for you and your clients. You are also asking important questions about the relationship between coaching and therapy and how we can best help our clients.

  • Comment Link Tuesday, 20 November 2012 11:30 posted by Lisa R. Mitchell

    As always, Lynn's contribution to our field is timely and thought provoking. I admire her work deeply because she has always shown such a dual sensitivity to issues. In this article, she discusses the role of self disclosure (AKA "personal anecdotes" in the coaching world)and mentoring in a therapeutic relationship. And, in her honest, open-hearted fashion, she models this for us with her account of feeling "antsy" with a client and continuing to struggle and experiment with the integration of coaching and therapy.

    I have appreciated times when coaches have referred clients to me for therapeutic issues that existed outside of the coach's expertise. I have also referred clients to coaches when I felt a more specific and direct approach on subjects such as business and parenting would be better helped by a coach.

    It is interesting to start to think of an integration. I will now be looking for times when my "inner coach" is wanting to come out. And, I will begin to ask questions about that voice rather than squelch it in the name of "being a good therapist".

    Lynn, you ALWAYS hear and see between the lines.
    Thank you for the article and for highlighting this IN BETWEEN for our profession.

  • Comment Link Monday, 19 November 2012 14:37 posted by Ken Howard LCSW

    This is a great article, and I am a long-time fan of Lynn Grodzki. I work as she describes, as a therapist who applies coaching skills. I don't think therapy and coaching are -- or should be -- so "apart" as some people describe. Maybe coaching looks very different from psychodynamic and psychoanalytic therapy, but it doesn't look that different from Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy or Positive Psychology, or any behavioral/goal-oriented model. Also, while I love Lynn dearly, she fails to mention a serious commercial and political problem in the field: which is that there are people who cannot, or more likely will not, make the sacrifices necessary to get a college undergraduate degree, a graduate degree, and undergo supervised practice and licensing exams to become professional psychotherapists, but they want to make $100-200 per hour talking, so they become "coaches" instead, with no formal education, no formal oversight, no consumer protection agencies, no objective codes of ethics, and no continuing education requirements. Therapists undergo all of these. For a "coach" with no other training to earn what a therapist does with all of theirs is like paying a candystriper the same salary as a nurse practitioner. I believe in therapists using coaching techniques, but I don't believe in coaches competing for the same client dollar with therapists who actually know what they are doing in a very formal context of deep, prolonged, and supervised training.

  • Comment Link Sunday, 18 November 2012 17:36 posted by Larry Drell, MD

    Great article. Despite years of academic psychiatric and psychotherapy training, I have always thought of myself simply as a coach in the counseling room.

    Thank you for your beautiful story of your development. It is always good to not feel alone.

    I have often wondered how to merge the directness of a coach with the tools and knowledge of therapist. I think we can and must do this to really be good therapists.

    However there are bad teachers and bad coaches and one has to be very skillful at when to use which tools. Being honest with oneself and just more real with another human being always seems to be a useful part of the therapy.

    This may be a stretch but i think when i simply taught a senior partner in a law firm to throw a baseball in the alley behind my office (telling him to get his body into it and showing him he could loosen up and do it) I helped his self esteem and relationship with his wife more than challenging his belief system. Discussing and remembering how his mother criticized him excessively never got him to the next level of confidence.

    And directly telling a patient that they were actually talking to me with an annoying arrogant condescending tone and that was going to lose them points in the world they wanted to win in, was probably more effective than interpreting their behavior. Of course i think i had already established a positive relationship so he could hear me.

    But it is a never ending challenge of how to be most effective. I love your honesty about taking leaps listening to your inner voice.

    So thank you for focusing on incorporating coaching tools into the psychotherapy and suggesting how it can be used with ourselves and our patients.

    Looking forward to your book

    Larry Drell,MD for info on coaching,therapy,and the treatment of anxiety and depression.