Feature

Like many psychology graduate students, Ben Dean, PhD, struggled to finish his dissertation. He sought help from a cognitive-behavioral psychologist, but when that didn’t work, he enlisted the aid of a former fellow student. Through supportive coaching, she had him commit to six goals a week, and if he didn’t meet them, she asked probing questions to get to the heart of his problem.

Six months later, Dean had typed the last sentence. “If I hadn’t worked with her, I could have easily dragged on for months or even years,” he says.

The experience made a huge impact on Dean, who went on to become a licensed psychologist and to found MentorCoach, one of the nation’s first life and executive coaching institutes and one of the few that mainly trains and is taught by licensed mental health professionals.

“Coaching has allowed me to help people transform their lives, to build a flourishing practice, and to do all kinds of other interesting things like writing and speaking here and abroad,” he says. “It’s done that for other people, too.”

But not everyone in the life-coaching field shares Dean’s expertise. The field is as unregulated as it is mushrooming: Its main trade group, the International Coach Federation (ICF), boasts of 17,000 members and counting. The lack of regulation means that anyone — including those without any training in behavioral science — can become a life coach, says psychologist Vicki Vandaveer, PhD, an executive coach based in Houston.

What’s more, the coaching field lacks a solid research base, and there’s little agreement among coaches on what constitutes its core education and training requirements, Vandaveer says.

Psychologists may be put off by these factors and feel concerned about lesser-trained practitioners attempting to counsel people outside of their expertise. Yet the coaching field is a terrific fit for psychologists, who have the expertise and skills to enhance the field’s credibility, says psychologist Jeffrey E. Auerbach, PhD, founder and president of the College of Executive Coaching, which trains only those with graduate degrees and uses psychological theory as a guide.

“Psychologists have the most training of any profession in understanding human motivation, behavior, learning and change,” he says. “And if they’ve done clinical work, they have a depth of one-on-one experience far greater than that of people who aren’t mental health professionals. Coaching is actually a great fit with what most of us already do.”

Interested in coaching? Auerbach and others suggest that you:

  • Learn the territory. Moving from psychotherapy to life coaching isn’t difficult, but it does requires a shift in focus.

“In therapy, your goal is healing. In coaching, you’re following the trail of dreams. When you see little sparks of interest, excitement or increased energy, that’s where to go,” says psychologist Carol Kauffman, PhD, director of the Institute of Coaching, a nonprofit organization at Harvard Medical School’s McLean Hospital dedicated to enhancing the scientific foundation and credibility of coaching. Coaches use such methods as helping clients verbalize their desires and set goals to achieving them; asking questions to help them overcome obstacles to those goals; and encouraging them to enlist allies for support, she says.

Coaching and therapy clients differ, too, at least in theory. These clients are supposedly “healthier” than traditional therapy clients and seek to attain excellence or extraordinary results in their lives, says Auerbach. (That said, many high-functioning people are depressed or anxious, and these people may benefit from coaching if they’re also getting mental health counseling in psychotherapy to address mental health issues.) Auerbach helped one client — a clergyman facing burnout — develop a dormant love of creative writing. Dean’s coaching enabled a woman to realize her goal of winning a seat on her city council.

Coaches also claim a more egalitarian relationship with clients, developing a “co-creative” relationship to achieve client goals — though some therapy schools certainly share a similar model. In general, coaches believe clients have innate strengths and can make their own decisions, so they deploy strategies accordingly. These include active listening and asking questions that help people tap their own wisdom and holding the person accountable for what they say they want.

In a similar vein, coaches may insert themselves into the work more than they do in therapy, where personal neutrality is used to protect the patient’s emotions, says Auerbach.

“My clients are going to know that I’m married, that I have two kids, and they might even know the age of my kids,” he says. “Most people drawn to coaching enjoy the fact that they can be more open with their clients.”

Unlike therapy, coaching is not reimbursable by insurance. While that might sound like a liability, coaches and clients alike say it’s a service worth paying for out of pocket.

Another difference? Coaches often do their work by phone, which allows them to work with any client, from anywhere, says Dean. “You have the freedom to work in your office, go out on your deck, walk outside or work from the beach” — or for that matter, do sessions while you’re on vacation, he says. This factor makes coaching an attractive pre-retirement segue for psychologists, Dean and others say.

  • Get training. To get a taste of the area, attend a coaching class that offers continuing-education credit, read relevant literature, and consider getting consultation or supervision from a psychologist or other mental health professional who has coaching expertise. If you want to dive deeper, think about attending a coaching institute. If you’re working, the process — much of it done via teleconference— takes about a year and a half, and you can start seeing clients midway through training, says Dean. Look for programs designed for mental heath professionals, which are more rigorous and more in line with your training than others. Good programs will also teach you creative ways to market yourself, those involved add.

  • Develop a niche. Depending on your background and interests, consider developing a coaching specialty. Many psychologists, of course, are involved in executive coaching, which has a more extensive — though still relatively young — empirical base compared with life coaching. But psychologists are plumbing other specialty niches as well. Ellen Ostrow, PhD, based in the Washington, D.C., area, has built a successful practice coaching female attorneys. ADD specialist Alan Graham, PhD, of Chicago, offers coaching for people with the condition (see A unique coaching niche). Others are providing coaching in health, career-building and performance issues. If you do go the specialty route, bear in mind you need to develop added expertise.

  • Consider other roles in coaching. Psychologists can provide training, research the area (see sidebar below), and write or lecture on the topic. Dean, for instance, pens three coaching newsletters with a worldwide readership of 150,000, and gives frequent lectures and workshops around the country.

Another vital role is educating the public on the differences between psychotherapy and coaching, including the level and types of training required for each, knowledgeable psychologists say. That can include the fact that unlike most coaches, psychologists are licensed, a process that takes years of training and is explicitly designed to protect the public from malpractice, says Lynn Bufka, PhD, APA’s assistant executive director for practice research and policy.

Vandaveer would also like to see psychologists differentiate coaching performed by qualified psychologists from coaching conducted by those without advanced degrees in human behavior and to create a clear taxonomy of coaching. Psychologists should work to specify required training, credentialing and continuing education in coaching, she believes.

“We need to be great at what we do, and then educate the world about what psychology can do,” she says.


Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.

Further reading

  • Auerbach, J.E. (2001). Executive coaching: The complete guide for mental health professionals. Ventura, Calif.: Executive College Press.

  • Biswas-Diener, R., & Dean, B. (2007). Positive psychology coaching: Putting the science of happiness to work for your clients. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley.

  • Grant, A., & Greene, J. (2003). Coach yourself: Make real changes in your life. New York: Basic Books.

  • Kilburg, R.R. (2006). Executive wisdom: Coaching and the emergence of virtuous leaders. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

  • Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The how of happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want. New York: Penguin Press.

  • Sheldon, K.M. (2004). Optimal human being: An integrated multi-level perspective. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.