Horses as Coaches: What a horse can teach you

At present, I am involved in the development of a coaching program on communication and leadership with horses.

This involvement was at first a professional opportunity to connect my life-long love for horses and the experience I have in that field with my passion for coaching. The process since then also led to a deep appreciation for the insights facilitated by the horses when we allow them to be our coaches. With this blog post I aim to share this enthusiasm and illuminate some of the principles that play together in such a process.

Challenges of Leadership and Communication

Good leadership is one of those things that can look easy from the outside. And yet, being a good leader is extremely difficult, something we realise quickly when being in a leadership position ourselves. Leaders need a multitude of skills, and one of the most important ones, I believe, is a well developed awareness for the interactions and dynamics between oneself and others.

A major challenge however is that when we are leading others, we often don’t really know how our actions are perceived as we can not step outside of ourselves. Multiple layers of concurrent information, events, as well as politics and hierarchies within an organisation further hamper this awareness. As a result, the message a leader wants to transfer is often skewed and misunderstood on the receivers’ side.

When leaders fail to get the results they expect, the underlying reasons often appear to be a black box. How can a leader get to an understanding of what it is they should change? If team members have an opinion of what their leader lacks or what they wish for, they are often not going to express this for a fear of disadvantaging themselves. And even if they did, people’s wishes are often incongruent or do not necessarily promote the best outcome for the organisation as a whole.

In spite of good intentions, a leader can easily get stuck in this complexity of human interactions. Some will rigidly stick to the style they believe is best and in the process often lose part of their invaluable human resources. Others resort to a rather messy process of trial and error which might heighten the uncertainty for all involved.

What if this complexity could be disentangled, so that the leader can find his or her leadership style which is authentic, balanced and understood by those to be led? And this is where the horses come in.

Horses as Leadership Coaches

The work with horses offers learning opportunities with immediate feedback, which is critical for leadership. Guided exercises directly mirror real life experiences and challenges around leadership, however freed of the distractions and ambiguity of human communication. Most of the reasons for horses being such powerful facilitators lie their nature as prey animals:

Evolutionary, horses have developed a very fine tuned survival response to sense and be aware of the present moment. This sensitivity to their environment allows them to stay safe when grazing the plains. Thus, horses do not normally leave their herd. Although there is a clear hierarchy within a herd, horses do not blindly follow a leading horse, but fulfil their special role and relationships towards the other horses.

From the viewpoint of a horse, it its placed into a dangerous spot away from the safety of the herd when it is being taken out by a human being. When we approach a horse in order to lead it, it will not be distracted by our words, status or appearance like many of our fellow human beings. Instead, they are alert to the human as a predator and need to trust the person as a leader.

Because of this well-developed sensitivity to detect dangers, horses test our intentions, ask questions and respond through their behaviour. In this way, they provide us with honest and clear feedback about our presence, impact as a leader, our body language and emotions. In other words, they reflect back to us our authentic selves. When humans are not congruent with themselves or towards the horse, the horse often becomes uneasy or walks away. When we remove our masks, are who we say we are and do what we say we will do, they visible calm down, relax and and often move towards us.

In this way, horses lead us into insights and reveal new ways of interacting with others and ourselves. Without judgment, they make us aware of what we can not see about ourselves.

Experiential Learning

Simply put, experiential learning means learning from direct experience, through the reflection on what we have done. When we are thinking of life lessons and the attainment of wisdom, this seems intuitive for most people. With regards to skills and specific content however the traditional expectation is that we are provided with information first. We have a teacher, book, video or presentation and try to swallow and digest the information in one way or another. The next step in which we attempt to apply the knowledge often gets neglected in traditional settings such as universities. This in turn means that we often know far more in theory than we can skilfully apply in practice.

When we read a book or listen to a lecture for example, we receive the information from the perspective of a writer or teacher, and try to filter out the information that is applicable to us. In contrast, when we do something and reflect on it afterwards, the experience strikes something within us which is exactly that which is meaningful to us, which we needed to learn (the “Aha-Effect”). We can then immediately apply our first hand discoveries and refine them in practice because the experience is tangible. The learner has the opportunity to consider and reflect on what is working or failing to work. This honours our uniqueness and the fact that we all have different world views through which we see, interpret and interact with the world. It is therefore not the curriculum that defines the learning process, but the learners, based on what is important for their roles and personal journeys.

Furthermore, the learner physically experiences the effects of his leadership actions in the ‘here-and-now’, in interaction with the horse as a being that knows nothing else than being and reacting in the moment. This mindfulness provides access to direct perception of reality, independent of rational processes. Much of what challenges us in our human relationships and in organizations is beyond words and rational thought, but must be felt. As outlined above, it is often the overload of pressures and information that prevent leaders from authentic and present interactions with their team members. While classic training settings often rely too heavily on cognitive, rational thinking, experiential learning acknowledges that there are more “kinds of knowledge” and makes this accessible in the experience.

In the context of our course for example, different horses will react differently – yet authentic – to a leader, so that a he or she can develop a leadership style that is based on integrity, balanced and yet effective in all settings. If the horses do not follow us, a leadership model from business school likely won’t help. Instead, we need to be sense and experience our own leadership and the results we produce.

I never teach my pupils, I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn. Albert Einstein

Info on the program

The program combines Co-Active Coaching principles with those of experiential learning in a tranquil and beautiful setting in the Swartland of South Africa (2 hours drive from Cape Town). The smaller, theoretical part is based on Transactional Analysis, an internationally renowned theory of communication. We work with specially trained and majestic, black Friesian horses.

UPDATE: The next course will take place from the 23rd to 25th of October 2013.

Please contact CIELARKO if you would like to know more.



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YouTube white board animation on Positive Psychology

Sometimes it can be difficult to explain certain concepts, where pictures make it so much easier. Enjoy!

The video was created by Nick Standlea, a former research associate for Mike Csikszentmihalyi at the Quality of Life Research Center. Thank you very much for the time, effort and sharing.

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The path to happiness – Part II: What makes you (really) happy?

Read part I of this series: Why bad news is stronger than good news

About a month ago, my financé and I were on holiday in Kwazulu-Natal and I was going to spend a day on my own. I was lying on a backpackers’ deck-chair in the sun, surrounded by lush vegetation and some monkeys playing games in the crowns of palm trees.

One would think I must have been very happy. What could I complain about? I was this privileged, young, healthy person in a beautiful place with time and money on my hands, free to do whatever I wanted to do.

And even though I was totally aware of that, I wasn’t happy on that day. Yes, I felt dissatisfied and my mood was clouded due to some issues out of my control.

Being in a bad mood is something that I can not stand for long, so I knew I had to change it. I thought I should do what I would do with my coaching clients and wrote some constructive thoughts into my notebook.

After that I was still not happy. I realised I was thinking too much. How could I practically uplift myself? I went through all the options I had available. The suggestions to myself included getting a cocktail, lie at the beach, having a good meal, shopping, relax in the jacuzzi, listen to good music, lie down for a nap. Nothing excited me really.

After a while I decided to go to the beach in order to simply enjoy nature and think positive thoughts. After all, I am all about Positive Psychology, right?

And there I was then, looking at the waves with the intention to meditate a bit. I hadn’t even started when I saw one of the guys from our backpackers chatting to an unknown beach beauty. I looked over to his spot which he had deserted, and next to his towel was a set of sandpit tools:  a bucket, a grate, a shovel and a sieve. Instruments I hadn’t seen or touched since pre-school times.

All my lights went on immediately. That was it! I was going to build a sandcastle!

For more than an hour, I made towers, built walls, collected decoration, went up and down fetching sea water, and was passionately immersed in the activity. Some teenagers nearby looked embarrassed for me, but that didn’t bother me at all. I was in flow, and while I was busy, I got all kinds of metathoughts. In short, it made my day and I knew exactly why.

My realisations brought me back to Martin Seligman’s differentiation between pleasures and gratifications:1

In western society we say “eating Sushi makes me happy” just as we say “hiking makes me happy”. This means mixing up two classes of the best things in life and can actually make us unhappy.

Eating Sushi belongs to the first class of delights, which are bodily pleasures. They are directly linked to positive emotions through our senses. The feeling of taking a hot bath, the taste of a good wine on the tongue, watching a movie, listening to music or the first ice cream in summer. Touch, taste, smell, vision and sound can evoke pleasures like comfort, exuberance or ecstasy. These pleasures come easily, need little interpretation, satisfy our biological needs and have an immediate effect.

The problem however is that we cannot build our lives around fleeting and momentary bodily pleasures. Pleasure fades rapidly once the stimulus disappears (for example once we have eaten the pack of chocolate). We also quickly get used to them. Indulging in the same pleasure after a short period of time has much less effect and might even not be pleasurable at all. Try it out by having your favourite meal every day or listening to your favourite song non-stop for 30 minutes. Another problem is that we also often develop cravings or need bigger doses of our favourite pleasures to get the same kick again. In short, nothing is built for the future when we enjoy pleasures, because we consume them and then they are gone.

The second class of things that make us happy are gratifications. Gratifications are activities we enjoy doing, like painting, hiking, singing, teaching, dancing, writing, coding etc. They engage us fully, we become absorbed in them and lose self-consciousness as they produce a special state called “flow”. This state can not be chemically induced nor attained by any short cuts. Think about artists, writers, musicians or any other person being immersed in their favourite activity. While they are busy, they forget about themselves, they are “in it”, become one with what they do.

Gratifications call on our strengths to meet a challenge while we also learn from them. Positive feelings from gratifications are authentic, deeply felt and last longer than those we gain from pleasures. Compare the feeling of having climbed a mountain versus taking the cable cars, or buying something versus making it yourself.  At the same time, gratifications are often hard-won and there is always a risk of failing before we get to enjoy the positive feelings, mostly only after our efforts. 

In simple terms, one can conclude that pleasures are more about short-term consumption and that they usually don’t have long term advantages.  Gratifications require “work” in order to gain the eventual reward, but their advantages usually result in long-term benefits and personal growth. 

In general, there is nothing wrong with enjoying short-term pleasures. I believe the problem is that our capitalist society teaches us the wrong lesson. The general idea portrayed by the media is that if we just have enough money, we will be happy, because then we can afford all the pleasures. We’re shown celebrities as role models for the good life, how they bathe in their money, lie at the beach, drink champagne, party every day and drive a fancy cabriolet. We get conditioned to want that. However, all of those things are pleasures, and while it might be exciting, fun and ego-boosting for the first while, the happiness will not last. That is why lotto millionaires are only ecstatic for a while, and after a few months they are as happy or unhappy with their lives as they were before. It is also why we always crave for more, every wish we grant ourselves, everything we buy and consume just makes us want more and we often can not see that our wants will never end. How often did I fell for the idea in my mind that it is just that one thing that I still need to feel complete? And as we make more money, what we think we need grows bigger. A bigger tv, a better car, a bigger house and then maybe a holiday home we use three weeks a year?

It can be very illuminating to look at those celebrities who have everything and have enjoyed all of life’s pleasures. Their cravings usually don’t stop either and they often become addicted to drugs, sex, new partners, alcohol and the admiration and envy they receive from normal people which prove to them that their life is ideal because so many people want it.

The truth is, when an entire lifetime is taken up by the pursuit of positive feelings gained from pleasures, authenticity and meaning are nowhere to be found. Authentic and lasting positive emotions come from a place within us, not from outer stimuli.

What are the things that make you really happy?

Read more in Seligman, M. E. P. (2007) Authentic happiness: Using the new Positive Psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. Nicholas Brealey Publishing, Boston.

Read part I of this series: Why bad news is stronger than good news

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The path to happiness – Part I: Why bad news is stronger than good news

Let’s look at some facts about happiness(1): Over the last half century, purchasing power has doubled for people in the wealthy nations like the USA or Europe. This means, there are more people in the world than ever before that are as rich as never before in history. At the same time, health care has advanced to an awe-inspiring standard, and Psychology claims to be able to treat more disorders than ever before.

However, studies show that the the level of life satisfaction has stayed flat for people in those countries, while objective physical health is barely connected to happiness, and depression is now ten times more prevalent than in 1960.

Why that is so?

Positive Psychology tries to provide answers to this issue, which I will write about in a little series of which this is the first one. This blog post gives an introduction to a basic biological principle that leads back to our early days as human beings, and shows how we often hold ourselves back from happiness unconsciously.

Let’s start with a question: Take a moment and think of an experience in which you failed badly at something. And then of a comparable one in which you succeeded beautifully. 

When we look at different aspects of society, it appears that those things in life that can be characterised as “bad” appear to hold greater power in human lives than the those that are “good”. For the majority of people, negative experiences feel more intense than positive ones, and they come back to mind as a memory more often. You can also take a look at what we report as news. Newspapers are filled with reports of events which are threatening and bad.

On top of that, it has also be shown that bad news get processed more completely and people are more likely to form bad impressions than good ones. Think of stereotypes you know about different cultures. You will most probably find that you know more negative prejudices than positive ones. We form them more quickly and they are also more resistant to being dis-confirmed than positive beliefs.

The reason for this lies in our brain. The brain works according to an organising principle, which is to classify the world around us into things that will either hurt us or help us to stay alive. Everything we do in life is based on our brain’s determination to minimize danger or maximise reward. When it detects a threat that could endanger our life, for example a lion, feeling hungry or angry people around us, we feel negative emotions like anxiety, sadness or fear, and prepare ourselves to flee, fight, or conserve.

When the brain detects something that could help us survive, we experience a sense of reward. Examples are food, money, sex, or a familiar person. The emotions we feel then are curiosity, happiness or contentment.

Everything we experience is scanned by the limbic system in the brain, specifically by a structure called the Amygdala. It becomes aroused by what happens and gives either an away or a towards response. It is constantly making these decisions based on our emotions, about half a second before we are aware and often also subconsciously. A study(2) showed that we even do that with none-sense words, for example based on how they sound.

Thinking about our evolution, we we lived out in the wild for much longer than in today’s civilized and sheltered environment. Our ancestors had to pay a lot of attention to every little hint for possible dangers, like a rustle that could have been a lion. In a dangerous world, it was the hypervigilant people who survived. In fact, our early survival as a species may have depended more on passing on fear-based thoughts (away response) to offspring than future-directed thinking (towards response). Therefore, the Amygdala fires fare more intensely when it detects possible danger in comparison to possible reward. The arousal from a danger also happens faster, lasts longer and gets burned deeper into our memory. This is the reason why we often remember negative experiences together with the emotions of those situations. The brain warns us so that we can stay alive and protect what we have.

However, what does this mean for us today?

In simple words, we overestimate how often negative events happen and how bad they really are. It strengthens our tendency to avoid risks.

When we make decisions and set goals in life, we have the choice to set toward or away goals. Away goals are based on fear, they make us visualise what can go wrong and activate negative emotions. Future-directed thinking entails positive visualizations and expectations, and the emotions that flow from that make us feel good. The problem is that because of how our brain works, problems come to mind so much easier than unknown solutions, and positive thinking requires more effort too. Thus, toward goals are rare and setting them might sometimes require the help from someone else, like a mentor or coach.

The truth is, fear has become less essential, perhaps often even irrational in today’s society. Our progress as human beings has always depended on us moving into an unknown future with hope instead of being ruled by fear. In our days, future-directed thinking offers the greatest advantages over fear because most of the things that we perceive as threats are actually opportunities within a pretty safe system. Think of public speaking, starting a business or new career, travelling to less developed countries, approaching unknown people or leaving those behind that are not good for us. Whatever you want to think of for yourself. All of this can seem daunting and we might feel safe and relieved at first just keeping everything the way it is. However, it is not going to make us happy (not) to act based on fear. There are actually very few real lions out there that threaten our life. In fact, most of the things we fear offer incredible rewards in the form of authentic happiness after we’ve approached them.

And this change starts with our thoughts and the realization of the power we have, knowing the above.

So ask yourself, what do you want in life, and why don’t you do it?

Is it a real lion, or does it just feel like that?


(1)The individual studies providing this data can be found in: Seligman, M. E. P. (2007) Authentic happiness: Using the new Positive Psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. Nicholas Brealey Publishing, Boston.

(2)Nacchache, L. et al. (2005). A direct intracranial record of emotions evoked by subliminal words. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 102, 7713-7717.

More about the theory of “bad being stronger than good”:

Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenhaur, C. & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5, 323-370.

Rock, D. (2009). Your brain at work. New York: Harper Business.

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Would you benefit from coaching? – A simple checklist

There are a lot of misunderstandings around coaching, what it is and which benefits it can provide. If you consider getting a coach, this simple list can help you with your decision.

8 indications that you will benefit from coaching

  1. You have goals you want to achieve. You are not sure on how to tackle them or look for support in order to get there (e. g. starting a new career, a project at work, writing a book, expanding your business…).
  2. You want to understand yourself better or learn a better way of thinking (read my blog on how I use Metathoughts in coaching).
  3. You want to increase your potential in a specific area of life (e. g. career performance, public speaking…).
  4. You want to change in some way (e. g. the way you live your life, communication, feel more satisfied…).
  5. You seek insight or clarity around a situation you find yourself in (e. g. on a relationship, your life situation…).
  6. You want to discover new possibilities and ways of doing things (e. g. living a healthy lifestyle, making friends…).
  7. You are stuck in a situation and don’t know how to get out of it (e. g. finding a new job).
  8. You are looking for an unbiased, professional conversation partner.

8 indications that coaching is not the right thing for you (and what you can do instead)

  1. You are suffering from a current crisis like a case of death (then counseling is probably the best solution).
  2. You are looking for advice on a specific topic based on someone’s personal experience (that would be mentoring).
  3. You would like to learn a specific professional skill (that would be training).
  4. You suffer from emotional pain and feel unable to approach your life’s challenges (then psychotherapy will be the right choice. Read my blog on the difference between psychotherapy and coaching).
  5. You want someone who will take all responsibility and instruct you on what to do (a teacher, personal (fitness) trainer or drill instructor might do that).
  6. Someone else wants you to be coached (for successful coaching, you should want to be there by yourself. It could help to find out why someone else would want you to do it).
  7. You mainly want to explore and understand your past (while not all therapy focuses on the past, coaching is always future-oriented).
  8. You are not willing to change (coaching is all about achieving desired change).

If you find your current situation reflected in one of the points of the first half, contact me for a free meeting or Skype session in order to find out how I can help you as a coach. The same offer applies even if you are not sure. I can refer you to excellent colleagues of mine who do counseling, psychotherapy and training in case coaching is not the right approach for your situation.

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What are Metathoughts?

Ordinary Thoughts

Thoughts are the driving force in our lives; every idea, action and creation originates in thought. However, most of the time we experience thoughts as automatic and accept our inner voice without reflection. The result are thought processes that are often dysfunctional for our well-being and happiness, as expressed in the saying “the devil whispered in my ear”.


The Greek prefix ‘meta‘ is often used to indicate that something is ‘about’ or ‘beyond’ something, for example its own category. For instance, a Meta-Analysis is the summary of the results of many other studies.

I have established Metathoughtsas a concept that guides my work. According to this definition, Metathoughts are thoughts about thoughts, one can think of them as thoughts on a higher level. They are more conscious, clear and reflective than the ordinary regiment of thoughts that pass our mind all day. They stand out, provide awareness and move us forward.

Sometimes we get Metathoughts automatically, they almost ‘pop out’; perhaps after doing excercise or when we wake up in the middle of the night with a new insight. Other times we get them through a learning experience that provides a key understanding, or by talking things through with someone. However, we can also learn to apply Metathoughts intentionally in order to make better decisions, gain clarity, direction and a better state of mind.

My goal in my work as a coach is to empower people to think Metathoughts, as the following examples illustrate:

1. The devil’s voice in our head: Sometimes thoughts reflect the influence other people had in our lives. These can be repressive, like the voice of our parents as we think to ourselves “I can not wear something like this, it is not acceptable!”. At times we follow these beliefs or instructions without recognising where they come from or questioning whether they are helpful to us.
Applying Metathoughts would mean to recognize that those thoughts don’t reflect our inner convictions, but have been taken over from others. Once we have that awareness, we can free ourselves from them and shape or replace them according to our own beliefs, like: “I know my parents would not allow me to dress like this, but I feel good in these clothes and don’t care what other people could think”.

2. Incomplete/one-dimensional thoughts: Sometimes we feel stuck in our own thoughts, for example when we try hard to find a solution for a problem. Thoughts then often go in circles, contradict themselves, are incomplete or head towards a dead end. In these situations we are unable to gain more perspective.
For the use of Metathoughts in this context I like to envision a bird’s eye view; this means to mentally step out of the situation and to look at it from above, like a bird that glides over it or as seen from an aeroplane. Suddenly things are not so confusing and overwhelming any more and we are able to see the shortcomings in our thinking.

3. Emotions: Feelings and thoughts are so closely linked that most thoughts are caused and driven by emotion. But the influence goes both ways: what and how we think when we feel something, can either heighten or change those feelings. If we for instance feel threatened in our self-worth by someone, we might develop negative, reactive thoughts such as “This person is against me and arrogant, I don’t like him/her”. These thoughts will strengthen the negative emotions and can turn into beliefs and actions that are harmful to ourselves and others.
To think on a Metalevel in this instance means to step away from negative thoughts that were caused by the emotion and to ask why we are thinking that way. We could think “I got defensive because I am scared person X could be better than me. (S)he did not do anything against me, so I should treat him/her fairly and stay calm”.

4. Self-Handicapping: With whatever activity or performance we are concerned with, it is not rarely our own inner voice that is our biggest enemy on the road to success. A lack of self-confidence, the fear of losing, embarrassment or the wish to impress and be perfect can lead to thoughts that prevent us from reaching our potential. An example could be that we hold a speech or presentation and get distracted by thoughts like “My boss looks so critical, did I say something wrong? Is this good enough?”. In this way, thoughts can sabotage our intentions as we get diverted or tense.
Thinking on a Metalevel means to become aware that we have these thoughts and to stop them during the performance. This absence of interfering thoughts means to be present or mindful, in a state of relaxed concentration. In the example, we could recognise that our boss looks grim, but would be self-confident and in the flow of the presentation, and therefore not lose the plot.

How I work with Metathoughts in Coaching

  • Coaches get trained in the formulation of powerful questions that lead to growth within the client. For example, questions that I would often ask when a client gets lost in the details of their story, are: “What is this really about?” or “Could there be another possibility?”. This will lead to Metathoughts in the client, opening up possibilities.
  • Often in life, people don’t have the time or willingness to listen to our problems without getting distracted or providing unsolicited advice or evaluation. As a coach I apply a deep kind of non-judgemental listening which allows my clients to “unlayer” their story, to get to a deeper or different understanding of where they are at, simply by feeling safe to talk it out to themselves and a witness.
  • As described above, thoughts often feel disorganized or incomplete. As a coach, I help my clients to bring order into their thoughts, for example by reflecting back to them what they have said with clarity. This process allows for the mental space in the client that lets new (Meta)thoughts arise.
  • One of my strongest intentions as a coach is to facilitate the growth of positive, healthy self-beliefs in my clients. I challenge dysfunctional thoughts in the coaching process and help the client to shape them into a better, more constructive form. Metathoughts as I use them, are always focused on the best we can be in the future.

I hope these examples help to provide some insight into the mechanisms behind ‘the devil and the angel talking to us’ and how we are not only able to decide which voice we want to listen to, but are actually in control of them.


1 The concept of Metathoughts came to my mind in the middle of the night on an endless bus trip through Bolivia when I realised that it was exactly the application of a higher level of thoughts that moved my life forward. I decided to write a blog about it in order to share my thoughts with others. Later I started to use the term Metathoughts in my work as a facilitator and coach, in order to help people to understand how they can improve their thinking.

Posted in Coaching, Metathoughts, Positive Psychology | Tagged | 6 Comments

Coaching versus Psychotherapy: What you need to know

Recently I met an older lady who got a bit upset when she heard I am a psychologist. She told me a story which was similar to others I have heard before: being unhappy with her role towards her grown up children and their communication style, she had recently gone to a psychotherapist. After eight weeks she ‘had enough‘ and stopped the intervention. She complained the therapy didn’t help her at all as it was ‘only talking about the past‘ while she still didn’t have any tools or ideas on how to change the situation. She was disappointed that she had invested her time and resources into seeing an expert who did not move her forward.

What is the problem here?
Not having been there, I can of course not be sure. What I can say though, is that many people seem to be confused when it comes to the question what Psychotherapy is and can do, and also what it isn’t suitable for. This confusion has even grown since the popularization of another, younger discipline which is still widely unknown and even more misunderstood: the practice of Coaching.

If you consider working with a professional to achieve personal growth, this article can help you to make the right choices.

1. What is Psychotherapy?

One of the main attributes of Psychotherapy is that it begins with the diagnosis of a psychological disorder or problem. The objective is to reduce the suffering caused by the disorder or to cure it completely. Some of the most common psychological problems being treated through Psychotherapy are anxiety disorders, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, personality or eating disorders, stress-related disorders, psychosomatic troubles, life crises or trauma.

There are many different forms of therapy and some are more suitable for specific disorders and personality types than others. Most of the time, Psychotherapy happens through conversation with the psychotherapist, while specific kinds of therapy also use methods like role playing, behavioral and mental exercises or relaxation techniques. Psychoanalytic based forms of therapy place more emphasis on the exploration of how problems in the past may have caused troubles in the present. Other forms like Behaviour Therapy focus more on the current situation, exploring thoughts and actions the patient must change in order to overcome his troubles.

Most patients find it essential to connect on a personal level with a therapist before they engage in the process. However, most psychotherapists are specialized in a specific therapy system, making it just as crucial to get informed about about the advantages and limitations of the method being used.

2. What is Coaching?

Coaching” is a term first used and commonly known from professional sports. It implies training, motivation, accountability and partnering with an athlete for his or her best performance. It later became obvious that the coaching methodology could also be a vital tool in the corporate world. This movement was partly created by a book called “The Inner Game of Tennis” (Gallwey, 1974). The core idea is that there will always be a gap between a person’s potential and their actual performance. The reason for this is often an interference based on fear and doubt: fear of losing or embarrassment, lack of self-confidence, trying too hard or to be perfect, trying to impress, a busy mind, anger or frustration. To illustrate it in the paradigm of tennis, it could be the little voice in our heads saying ‘Im an idiot, I should have played this ball backhand!‘ Gallwey concluded that if we are able to reduce this interference we will increase our performance.

This is where the coach comes in, by empowering a person to reach their full potential. However, performance coaching does not rely on the experience, wisdom, advice or insight of the coach even though we traditionally think of a coach transferring knowledge to the player(s). Coaching is mainly non-directive and instead builds on people’s capacity to learn and think for themselves.
The coach’s primary responsibility is therefore not to teach, but to facilitate learning through skills that raise awareness and help clients to understand themselves better in order to achieve goals they identified themselves. This in turn means that the coach is forced to give up on the idea that he has the right answers and respects the client doing things in his own way. This makes the learning process intrinsic, releasing more energy, creativity and imagination. Moreover, the reward is bigger when goals are being met and achievements will most likely be sustainable because they are not dependent on the presence of a “great teacher”.
Some people limit coaching to performance coaching in the workplace. However, the field  grew vastly in the last years and encompasses other categories such as Life Coaching and Career Coaching.

3. Summary of the main differences between Coaching and Psychotherapy1




Therapist and patient Coach and coachee/client


Medical/clinical model, based on diagnosis and pathology. Learning/developmental model, focusing on attainable goals.


Therapy patient usually has difficulty functioning and/or feels emotional pain. Coaching client feels stable and desires to move to a better level of functioning.


Relieving pain and symptoms. Reaching of self-defined goals.


Doctor-patient relationship (the therapist has answers) Co-creative partnership (the client discovers his/her own answers)


Emotional Clarification and Improvement Action and Practical Outcomes


The therapist diagnoses, then provides professional expertise and guidelines to provide a path to healing. The Coach helps the client to identify goals and challenges, facilitates learning while holding the client accountable to reach desired goals.
Progress Takes time as process goes deeper. Can be rapid as process stays more superficial.
Responsibility Therapist is being perceived as responsible for process and outcome Coach is responsible for process; Client is responsible for results
Costs Can be covered by health insurance Not covered by health insurance.
Qualification Therapist has standardized qualification and many years of training, different regulations from country to country. Coaches have varying levels of expertise and different backgrounds, not standardised. International Coaching Federation (ICF) seeks to provide accreditation.
History First schools established in the early 20th century. Psychological theories and scientific framework given. Established as an independent discipline in the mid 1990’s. Developed out of practical developments and needs, influenced by psychological theories.

4. What you need to know

The truth is, Coaching and Psychotherapy do often look and sound similar, and depending on the school of thought, the boundaries can blur. Both approaches aim to bring about behavioural change and help people to understand how their thoughts and actions can interfere with their performance and well-being. Nevertheless, that does not make coaching the same as psychotherapy and many health professionals are rightly concerned that the unstandardised state of coaching will result in people taking over tasks that they are not sufficiently trained for.

Therefore, two points appear essential:

  1. It is crucial to know the differences between the two disciplines. Psychological disorders require psychotherapeutic or psychiatric treatment while goal-orientated endeavours might be best met within a coaching paradigm. The right choice depends on the topic being brought to the sessions. Thinking back to the old lady, this distinction could provide an answer to her disappointment.

  2. Traditionally, learning happened through someone instructing others as a function of expertise, knowledge or status. This is what happens in most classrooms, offices and medical practices all over the world up to today. Many people don’t know any other approach and consequently expect a doctor or psychotherapist to provide them with the ‘right’ instructions and solutions. Coaching evolved out of a paradigm shift that challenges this tradition and therefore contains a lot of potential to help us realise that the responsibility for sustainable health and well-being lies in our own hands; in all settings.


Table adapted from Bluckert (2005). The boundaries between Coaching and Psychotherapy are not always clear and vary according to the framework and theories used in both approaches.

Bluckert, P. (2005). The similarities and differences between coaching and therapy. Industrial and Commercial Training, 37 (2), 91-96.

Downey, M. (2003) Effective Coaching. Lesson’s from the coach’s coach. Cengage Learning: United States.

Gallwey, W. T. (1974) The Inner Game of Tennis. New York, Random House.

Williams, P. (2003). The Potential Perils of Personal Issues in Coaching – The Continuing Debate: Therapy or Coaching? What Every Coach Must Know! International Journal of Coaching in Organizations, 2, 2, 21-30.

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