As a coach, you will face situations throughout your career when it’s necessary to refer a client to a professional counselor. For example, a client may divulge that he or she struggles with a life-controlling problem or a serious mental health issue. Although it can be tempting to blur the lines between coaching and counseling, if you do, you put both the client and yourself at risk.
Identifying Distinctives Between Coaching and Counseling
First, it’s important to understand that the International Coach Federation (ICF) clearly distinguishes professional coaching from therapy. Their website states:
Professional coaching focuses on setting goals, creating outcomes, and managing personal change . . . therapy deals with healing pain, dysfunction and conflict within an individual or in relationships. The focus is often on resolving difficulties arising from the past that hamper an individual’s emotional functioning in the present, improving overall psychological functioning, and dealing with the present in more emotionally healthy ways.
Coaching, on the other hand, supports personal and professional growth based on self-initiated change in pursuit of specific actionable outcomes . . . Coaching is future focused. The emphases in a coaching relationship are on action, accountability, and follow through.
According to the ICF, any professional relationship focused on healing pain, dysfunction and conflict within an individual or in relationships isn’t coaching. In like manner, conversations that focus on resolving difficulties from the past that hamper an individual’s emotional functioning in the present, isn’t coaching.
The Dangers of Blurring the Line Between Coaching and Counseling
As coaches, most of us entered the profession because we want to help others. However, empathy that blurs the line between coaching and counseling and manifests itself by trying to help heal a client’s pain, is misplaced and puts both the client and you at risk.
We risk harming the client because we lack professional training and credentials, which could have dire results for the client. Think of it this way: If you needed brain surgery, would you want anyone, other than a skilled brain surgeon, to operate on you? Of course not!
Clients with life-controlling problems or serious mental health issues require the help of a trained, mental health practitioner. If you wander into territory outside of the realm of coaching, you risk damaging not only the client but also yourself. God forbid, what if, in your earnest desire to help, you say something that results in a client’s self-harm or death?
The impact to you and the client’s family would be monumental. And you just might be looking at a lawsuit
Handling Client Issues Related to Healing or Dysfunction
So, what to do when a client you’re working with confides in you that she has a mental health issue or a life-controlling problem?
Your first step is to refer him or her to a mental health professional for treatment. Generally speaking, a person suffering from a life-controlling problem or serious mental illness is unable to move forward. If that is the case, coaching is pointless.
In a situation like this, you might say to the client:
After learning more about your situation, I’d like to refer you to a professional counselor. As much as I enjoy our coaching relationship, I would do you a disservice by continuing to coach you. Areas like this fall outside of the domain of coaching, and I’m simply not qualified to help you.
If you’d like, you can use the coaching time today to identify next steps in finding the right professional to help you. I’m open to resuming the coaching relationship once you’ve resolved this issue.
Perhaps you’re wondering if it is ever ok to coach an individual while he or she is in counseling. Unfortunately, there are no one-size-fits-all answers. I suggest contacting a mentor coach who can walk you through the decisioning process.
Remember, professional coaching focuses on setting goals, creating outcomes, and managing personal change . . . therapy deals with healing pain, dysfunction and conflict within an individual or in relationships.
We serve our clients best when we do what we’re trained to do.