‘Asking the provocative questions is the real value we add’

01 November 2021

Coaching is an unusual division – like a canopy, over pretty much every different area of psychology?

Yes, its membership is made up of individuals who come from many other divisions, predominantly occupational, and sports, but we also have members from health, forensic, counselling, and clinical. These members see the value of applying coaching to the challenges that they face in their workplace. 

Like neuroscience, coaching can be applied in many different aspects of psychological inquiry and practice. A million years ago, hunter gatherers no doubt had coaching conversations – at its most basic it’s a conversation style. But in the 1980s, there was an explosion of interest in organisational coaching, around how we could learn from what was happening in sports. Consultants were beginning to take these ideas and think about how to apply them to leaders and managers, particularly in the United States, but also in the UK, with people like John Whitmore. They were asking how can people grow, develop greater self-awareness, enhance their personal responsibility, become the best versions of themselves. 

How did that begin to take root in the BPS?

In 2001, Anthony Grant, based at the University of Sydney, completed his doctoral thesis on coaching psychology, and established the coaching psychology unit. In response Stephen Palmer, Alison Whybrow, myself and a number of others came together to form in 2002 the BPS coaching psychology network which subsequently become the Special Group for Coaching Psychology (SGCP). This was the start of the journey towards a new division. 

By 2005, the group had around 2500 members, and hoped to apply for divisional status. But the BPS was very resistant to making any changes at that time. There was another attempt around 2009 – by which time membership had grown, there was a growing body science that was building and university programmes had emerged, such as at the University of East London. But there was no interest from the BPS… it went off the agenda, and some original members in frustration left and created a separate Society. That was a serious challenge to taking coaching psychology forward within the BPS. It's only been in the last three years, really since Sarb Bajwa’s appointment as Chief Executive, that there has been an engagement and a willingness to say we need to be a Society that's alive, dynamic, and which reflects the changing nature of our science and scientific inquiry. Coaching Psychology was back on the agenda. 

The Division was then approved at the AGM in July. What’s your ambition for it?

To ensure that the new Division is inclusive as possible – that we don't just have one single route towards chartership, requiring individuals to complete an approved masters degree programme in the UK. We can also look in creative ways at portfolios, reflecting individual's experiences, and acknowledging that many of the members who might be applying to become a chartered coaching psychologist are individuals who might have completed courses back in 2008, or have practiced coaching psychology for many years. In short we need to find ways to be as inclusive as possible, while recognising the distinctive nature of chartered status.

Given that coaching isn't part of the Health Care and Professions Council regulation of psychologists, what difference does it make, practically and perhaps psychologically, to become chartered as a coaching psychologist?

First of all, it recognises that psychologists have a role to play in coaching – both in terms of our understanding and interest in the science, the components that make up coaching inquiry, and the evidence that coaching makes a difference. Coach programmes are informed by that research evidence, and people are taught interventions that then work. And the second aspect is recognising that psychologists are themselves practitioners, and that is a useful qualification to have.

Over the 20 years that we have been having these discussions internally, other professional bodies have seized the initiative. In the United States, the International Coaching Federation, probably had about the same number of members back in 2001. They’re now 40,000 members worldwide, and are seen as the global voice for coaching. Had the BPS taken a more proactive approach, it could have driven forward coaching, placing a greater priority on evidence-based standards and promoting research. Sadly, the BPS missed the bus. And that failure has meant the first 10-15 years of these professional bodies have drawn on anecdotal experiences as opposed to research. However, the good news is that over the last two or three years, we've seen those professional bodies begin to engage with evidence and themselves start to commission more coaching research which can contribute to the development coach education and practice. 

You once said that ‘coaching often exists in the space between Dear Deirdre and counselling psychology.’ So you're hopeful that the formation of a Division will begin to change that?

Coaching is an unregulated practice, as a result individuals with little or no training and limited skills can be attracted by these low barriers to entry.  There are probably more than 50 per cent of those who earn part or all of their living from coaching but who have no formal training, no accreditation, and operate outside of any professional codes of ethics. The BPS new division in collaboration with the other professional bodies, can continue the journey of professionalising coaching, setting standards, and I hope in time putting in place some form of regulation. 

And is the longer term hope is that the Division will become aligned with the HCPC system?

I've always been critical of the application of the HCPC in areas such as occupational psychology. The Council have little idea of the types of issues that occupational psychologists and coaching psychologists working in organisational settings engage with. Their language is still dominated by a focus on ‘patients’, and the assumption that the vulnerable patent, who might be a board director of Tesco, a cabinet minister or a barrister, needs protecting. From the work I do with senior people, they are very clear what they want and expect and the language and protection of the HCPC feels completely out of place. Clearly for many of our colleagues in health and some other settings, it offers a value, but overall the HCPC has failed in its work to protect the public. A simple test, given the HCPC only regulates protected titles not the term ‘psychologists’, is to ask ten of your friends if they know if they know the difference between an ‘occupational’, ‘business’, ‘organisational’ and ‘industrial’ psychologist. While these terms are all used, only one of them offers any ‘protection’ as a regulated title. If the public does not know the difference, they remain unprotected. This is completely different to the other areas of HCPC where terms such as ‘dentist’ are protected and thus untrained individuals cannot set themselves up as an ‘oral’ dentist, or ‘children’s’ dentist.
There is another challenge. Psychologists, particularly occupational and coaching, operate across the world. My clients are in the Middle East, the US, and across the world. And people in those territories are coaching people in the UK. How do we begin to form an international set of standards? I would argue that the BPS should, like professional bodies such as the RICS, see itself as an international body helping individuals to secure chartership wherever they might be in the world, if they have completed the appropriate qualifications. However, such an approach requires us to be more inclusive; to move away from ourselves as a national body, and adopt a collaborative and international focus.

When you're dealing with those clients all over the world, how does that ‘conversational style’ you mentioned translate into a typical session with a client?

Delivering coaching as a service is not too dissimilar from a counselling psychologist delivering counselling. You'd have a series of client appointments during the course of a day. Pre-Covid-19, it was not unusual to visit clients at their offices in the City. Now this work has moved online. The reality is that this reduces travel time and cost, and with many people working remotely or hybrid working, online coaching has become the default, making it far easier to organise a coaching session wherever the client or I might be in the world  

While there are lots of parallels with counselling, what's different is that coaching is non-clinical, future focused, much more challenging than a typical counselling conversation. Although empathy and the relationship are an important part, even for senior leaders, they also require people to hold their feet over the fire, and to get them to reflect deeply, and think critically about what they are doing, why and how their actions align with their strategy, values and connect with the needs of their wider stakeholders. The role of an external coach is to provide a space where they are free to disclose things that they might not be able to disclose to colleagues, and develop new insights, and plans of actions. 

That idea of holding their feet to the fire… I don't think there's enough of that in most organisations. I personally think it’s important to surround yourself with smarter people, and in particular people who are willing to disagree with you. Creativity often comes from that conflict. But presumably people at the very top aren't necessarily used to having people challenge in that way, so it’s quite a risky line to walk for a psychologist as a professional?

While it might feel risky for the coach, it’s important to put aside our needs as the coach. I have no vested interest in this conversation: I am not seeking promotion or a specific outcome or agenda. I don’t mind if the person succeeds or fails with their plans. This is their success and their failure. My responsibility is to provide the safe space for this conversion, to empathise and also to encourage deep self-enquiry. 

But you've got a financial interest in the work continuing,

I do, but if I fixate on that, then I'm just going to be nice, in the hope the client will come back. Asking the provocative questions is the real value we add. Asking the question no one else has asked, and preventing the diffusion, the obfuscation and prevarication, returning the client to face the issue… holding their feet over the fire… only then can real progress be made.

What I find is that clients more often recommend you to somebody else in their network when you have had more challenging conversations; when you have been more provocative. 

If you found that the conversations were becoming focused around mental health, is there a boundary where you say, ‘I think you really need a counselling psychologist, or a clinical?’ 

Absolutely. Often people who are not trained believe themselves to be ‘bulletproof coaches’… they have been coaching for X period of time, or they've read a couple of coaching books, and they think they can coach everything. The reality is, the more training you have, the more you realise what you don’t know. Recognise where your boundary is, and have the confidence to stop at that boundary, and to make a referral to a counsellor, a GP or another helping professional. It might be if it’s a mental health issue, or a specialist business question, but knowing your limitations and stopping at this boundary is a key skill.

Are the people who need coaching the most the people who are least likely to come forward and seek it?

I think most people can benefit from coaching conversations. The piece in The Psychologist in November, from Steve Taylor on pathocracy, raises some interesting questions about whether everybody could benefit from coaching. I suspect it does require individuals to be both willing to engage in the conversation, to be vulnerable to disclose their self, and to have some self-awareness. 

I've had clients who've been referred to coaching, who sit there, arms crossed, ‘OK what’s this all about?’. I'll say, ‘OK, if you don't want to do this, let’s just talk about the football at the week or the last episode of ‘The Crown’’… as you engage on the topic of their choice you start to build a relationship, and gradually trust emerges. In such situations it’s not unusual to find in 15 minutes or 45 minutes, slowly and gradually, the conversations turns away from what’s out there, to what’s inside, and the coaching work begins. 

The other aspect which is crucial is self-awareness. If that’s not there, in some clinical conditions for example, coaching may not be a very helpful individual intervention. Coaches need to be cautious about stepping into relationships which simply serve the ego of individuals, and maintain the status quo. Our focus must be on development, learning and change. 

What’s a coaching psychologist’s view on New Year's resolutions as a spur to be a better individual?

I've just recorded at CoachHub, a short series, the ‘Twelve days of Christmas’ – a series of three-minute recordings, effectively 12 short exercises. The outcome is to help people undertake a little self-coaching and build a plan to make next year their most productive ever. This draws on my own approach at New Year when I reflect on what I have done in the past year and what I want to prioritise or achieve in the coming year. In doing this I think about my values and the different identities or roles that I perform; as a father, a husband, a leader in an organisation, as Chair of the Division, as a swimmer, author and campaigner. How do I want to divide my time between these aspects, what do I want to focusing on, what do I want to achieve in each? 

The end of that process is to create a very simple one page of A4, with the different roles, priorities and goals, to put it on the inside of my wardrobe door. Every day when I open the wardrobe to get my clothes I am reminded of these goals and my values, and ask myself, ‘what do I need to do today to move closer to these?’. At the end of the day as I put my clothes away I can review the day: what did I achieve, what went well, what did I learn, what could I do better tomorrow? If we keep our priorities, values and goals in mind, it's more likely that we're going to live in a consistent way with them, and achieve what we aspire to achieve.

Fair enough. Sounds like my nightmare!
So, on Monday 1st November, you're officially a division… will there be cake? 

There is a launch event scheduled for 10 November… as it’s a virtual event (and one at lunchtime) we invite people to bring their own cake, or if they prefer their quinoa salad. It’s a chance to celebrate with us, what for me and many others has been the outcome of a 20-year journey from the coaching psychology forum’s first event, which I hosted at IBM, to the creation of the division and the start of the next part of the journey. 

- In 2014, on the 10th anniversary of the inauguration of the Special Group in Coaching Psychology we heard from some of its members. We also took a coaching-themed dip into the archives and reported from the international congress. 

Since then, we’ve featured more with a coaching psychology angle…

Forging brighter futures with young care leavers 
Duncan Gillard, Louise Hayes, Aoife McNally and Kate Willis on giving people skills to ‘reboot’ their lives. 

A binocular viewpoint
Ian Florance interviews Jon Stokes, a clinical psychologist and leadership coach 

Crossing borders 
Ian Florance meets Christian van Nieuwerburgh, Professor of Coaching and Positive Psychology at the University of East London. 

‘The World Cup demonstrated what changes when people feel differently’ 
Pete Olusoga meets Pippa Grange, the sports psychologist with the England men’s team.

‘Coaching has great potential in the world of mental health’ 
Lauren Bishop on her move into ‘wellness coaching’ and what might come next. 

From journalism to psychology – writing my story 
Rupert Cornford on combining a career in the media with a deeper passion for understanding people.

From vitamins to showing loving kindness 
Ian Florance meets Michèle Down. 

‘Mentally, the client had invaded that space’ 
Tia Moin on delivering online coaching – does it give you a false sense of safety and security?