Stories of poor mental health, depression, anxiety and burn-out among the nation’s professional classes are rife in today’s media. But for every person unfortunate enough to be suffering from a serious mental health issue, there are countless others who are well, yet strive for something more in their professional or personal lives.
Similarly, many partnerships, teams and organisations come to recognise that although they work well, there is room for improvement: they are not realising their full potential. This is where coaching comes in.
The birth of coaching
Coaching grew up and out of America in the 1980s to support these kinds of people: people who were not dysfunctional or traumatised and in need of long-term support from a psychotherapist or psychologist, but who were actually high functioning professionals who found that they lacked a certain vitality, yet displayed a strong desire for a more dynamic experience in life.
Some were already high achievers – CEOs, lawyers, doctors, film stars – who wanted to maintain and enhance their roles, others were people who had achieved great success and wanted to diversify their talents into other areas or in new ways. The practitioners who tended to this group became coaches, and a new profession was born.
As the beneficial effects of coaching were felt, the profession grew rapidly to meet the surge in demand created by happy clients. It became particularly popular in innovative and creative sectors, such as the tech industry in Silicon Valley. Today it is rare to find a business or organisation that does not have some kind of coaching programme for its management team and executives. Coaching has become main-stream, raising self-awareness, success and fulfilment for employees and businesses.
Coaching vs psychotherapy
Coaching is not the same as psychotherapy. Psychotherapy tends to deal with mental dysfunction and trauma, introspectively focusing on the client’s past and analysing it. This is done in order to try and understand, diagnose and resolve problematic behaviour that often causes low self-esteem. Psychotherapists are apt to view their clients from a medical model, viewing themselves as the “expert” and the client as the “patient”, who will follow a treatment plan largely designed by the therapist. Therapy is often slow and painful.
Coaches work with functioning clients. They usually adopt a co-active approach based upon a jointly designed alliance, in which the coach and client work in a collaborative, resourceful and creative way. Coaches do not diagnose or treat their clients. The emphasis of coaching is on understanding the present and working towards identified future goals, using exercises to explore attitudes and actions that can manifest increased awareness, create solutions and generate higher self-esteem. A good coach maintains a meta stance and this assures their primary purpose: to support their clients to find their own answers to their own situations.
That said, in the last 15 years the distance between therapy and coaching is often barely discernible, as more psychotherapists take on relatively healthy clients and employ coaching methods that shorten the process with their patients, and training for coaches has adapted techniques from therapy in order to strengthen the repertoire of the coach.
Unlike psychotherapy or conventional individual coaching, systemic coaching for individuals views the client as belonging to a number of systems, and explores the needs of the client through their relationship to those systems. These systems may include the family system, their place of work, their culture and so on.
Systemic coaching for partners and teams focuses on the relationship between the individuals, recognising that the team is more than simply the sum of its parts, and the relationship within a team is a separate entity distinct from its members. In this way systemic coaching enhances the relationships between partners (whether business or romantic), and within teams and organisations, so that the system as a whole can flow and flourish. The wider perspective of systemic coaching makes it particularly helpful in uncovering and resolving issues whose cause and solution is not visible in the near-view.
A good coach will be able to recognise if someone needs to see a therapist, and a good therapist will recognise when someone is ready to spread their wings and start working with a coach.
As has been said, “Coaching is about shifting from today’s normal standard of ‘getting by’ into the fullness of our potential, and flourishing.”
Zita Tulyahikayo and James Pereira QC are founders of The Libra Partnership which provides coaching and training to the legal profession. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org