In this 4-part special series, Noel Posus provides a great overview of Life Coaching including: WHEN it started; the development of techniques and skills; HOW and WHY it works.

Concepts discussed in Part 1 (click here to access the full article):

  1. Overview of Life Coaching
  2. Definitions of Coaching
  3. Types Of Coaching

Coaching versus Counselling and Other Helping Professions

These definitions, and those similar to it, tend to identify that coaches typically work with people who are feeling functional now and simply want to achieve greater performance.  They also indicate that the clients do not self-identify a need for counselling or therapy.  However, this is not always the case and therefore some definitions and descriptions about what other helping professionals do may be useful.

Many helping professions use the same, or similar, tools and resources, however the application and approach is often different, based on the needs of the individual and the skill sets of the professional.

Coaching: Essentially, coaching focuses on the strengths and abilities of the client in a positive and affirming way, to assist them in achieving current and future goals.  It is a solution-focused approach, and coaches are, generally speaking, experts on individual change management.  Coaches typically work with individuals who identify as fully functional and are seeking to increase their performance and general life effectiveness and satisfaction.

Counselling: Counselling is often focused on working through particular issues which may be affecting the client’s current sense of wellbeing.  This can therefore also be past-focused at first, to identify issues and potentially work through a healing process.  It is also solution-focused in many cases.  There are many types of counsellors, and many varying approaches, some of which far more resemble the positive and future focused coaching approach.

Psychology: Psychology can be very pathology-focused, or in other words, identifying issues, including disorders, and then designing treatment plans to assist the individual to either overcome, or more effectively manage issues and disorders. There is also a growing movement of positive psychology, which focuses on new ways of thinking and behaviour which are positive, future and prevention-focused, specifically looking at the development of happiness in our everyday lives.

Psychiatry: Psychiatrists are medical doctors, who can diagnose disorders and disease. They provide a service very similar to psychology and are also able to prescribe medication as part of the overall treatment programme.

Mentoring: Mentoring has historically been focused on helping an individual by sharing the experience of someone who has already become successful in the area the individual is seeking assistance in. It can often include providing direction and advice. Today, we are seeing mentors using a more “coach-approach”, meaning that they are providing less advice, and challenging the individual to achieve their own conclusions and solutions, while combining the mentor’s topic expertise.

Most coaches maintain relationships with other helping professionals, including counsellors and psychologists.  We do this for two reasons. First, for our own professional development, and to work with individuals with specific expertise which we can learn from and share ideas with.  Secondly, as a referral network in which to better serve our clients.

In some client-coach relationships, an issue may come up which sits outside the coach’s area of expertise or qualifications.  In these situations, the coach will discuss with the client that the issue is not something the coach is capable or qualified to address. The coach will also ask the client how they would like to address the issue and if they are open to considering seeking out the assistance of another more qualified helping professional. In these cases the coach can assist the client further by making a referral.

Referrals are not endorsements or recommendations.  The coach will sometimes provide a short list of referral professionals, or direct the client to a listing of professionals on the Internet.  The coach will also often help the client research their own counsellor or other professional, first by helping the client be clear about what they are seeking the other professional for and the type of assistance they need and want, and then by supporting the client through the process of interviewing and selecting the professional.

Coaches sometimes work directly with the other professional, setting agreements about who is going to do what and to clarify boundaries and how to respond to the client’s needs which respect all members of the team.  This is of course only ever done with the client’s expressed permission to do so.

However, coaches and other professionals do not typically share information about the client back and forth with each other.  The conversation is only about developing strategies that are client-focused so that both the individual and team objectives are met.

The Research

Although there are more than 300 academic citations on the field of coaching over the past years, there has been admittedly a small amount compared to other disciplines.

However, the University of Sydney Coaching Psychology Department has been leading the global academic coaching community in developing clinical research to demonstrate the effectiveness of life coaching.  These Australian pioneers include Dr Anthony Grant, Dr Michael Cavanagh as well as Dr Suzy Green and Dr L. G. Oades from the University of Wollongong.

The first empirical investigation of life coaching was performed by Dr Grant in 2003.  That study utilised a cognitive behavioural, solution-focused model of coaching and provided preliminary evidence that evidence-based life coaching can enhance mental health, quality of life and goal attainment. 

This research was followed up by the July 2006 published research paper called, “Cognitive-behavioural, solution-focused life coaching: Enhancing goal striving, well-being and hope.”  The summary from that paper appears below.

“This study is the first controlled study completed on an evidence-based group life-coaching intervention. It provided evidence that a cognitive-behavioural, solution-focused life coaching group programme is effective in increasing goal striving, well-being and hope. The results also suggest that the gains can be maintained over time. It is suggested that the role of hope theory may explain increases in goal striving and well-being within a life coaching intervention for a non-clinical population. Life coaching programmes that utilise evidence-based techniques provide a framework for further research on psychological processes that occur in non-clinical populations who wish to make changes in their lives and enhance their positive psychological functioning.”

To understand the above summary more fully, it may also be helpful to define how the construct of hope relates.

According to the report, “Hope theory consists of three cognitive components:  goals, agency and pathways thoughts.  Hope theory is based on the assumption that human actions are goal directed (Snyder, Michael & Cheavens, 1999).

To pursue goals, a person must perceive himself or herself as being able to generate one or several alternative routes to such goals (pathways) and also have the perceived capacity to utilise these routes to reach the desired goal (agency).  It has been found that thinking about goals immediately triggers agentic and pathways thoughts that are both necessary for goal-directed behaviour.  Thus helping individuals to articulate their goals may stimulate hope (Snyder et al., 1999).

Snyder claims that hope enhancement is best achieved by integration of solution-focused, narrative and cognitive-behavioural interventions with hope therapy designed to “help client in conceptualising clearer goals, producing numerous pathways to attainment, summoning the mental energy to maintain the goal pursuit and reframing insurmountable obstacles as challenges to be overcome” (Snyder, 2000).

Coaching participants may utilise the cognitive-behavioural and solution-focused techniques, to increase both agentic and pathways thoughts during goal striving which will promote self-regulation and enhance generalisation of such skills over time, i.e. when overcoming future obstacles.”

Another significant area of research related to coaching comes from the Positive Psychology movement, a rapidly growing sub-section of psychology, and lead by Dr Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania in the USA.

According to the University of Pennsylvania website, “Positive Psychology is the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive. This field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work and play.

Positive Psychology has three central concerns:  positive emotions, positive individual traits, and positive institutions.  Understanding positive emotions entails the study of contentment with the past, happiness in the present, and hope for the future.  Understanding positive individual traits consists of the study of the strengths and virtues, such as the capacity for love and work, courage, compassion, resilience, creativity, curiosity, integrity, self-knowledge, moderation, self-control and wisdom.

Understanding positive institutions entails the study of the strengths that foster better communities, such as justice, responsibility, civility, parenting, nurturance, work ethic, leadership, teamwork, purpose and tolerance.”

Some of the goals of Positive Psychology are to build a science that supports:

  • Families and schools that allow children to flourish
  • Workplaces that foster satisfaction and high productivity
  • Communities that encourage civic engagement
  • Therapists, coaches and other professionals, who identify and nurture their client’s strengths
  • The teaching of Positive Psychology
  • Dissemination of Positive Psychology interventions in organisations and communities

Dr Seligman (University of Pennsylvania), Dr Nansook Park (University of Rhode Island) and Dr Christopher Peterson (University of Michigan) published their July-August 2005 paper, “Positive Psychology Progress – Empirical Validation of Interventions” in which some interesting findings which apply to life coaching were identified.

The term “happiness” can be defined into three distinct and better defined routes: (a) positive emotion and pleasure (the pleasant life); (b) engagement (the engaged life); and (c) meaning (the meaningful life).  “Our recent research suggests that people reliably differ according to the type of life that they pursue and, further, that the most satisfied people are those who orient their pursuits to all three, with the greatest weight carried by engagement and meaning.”

Seligman and his colleagues have been able to prove that a number of happiness supporting methodologies are clinically effective to increase happiness and decrease depressive symptoms from one to six months.  These exercises included the following focus areas:

  • Gratitude
  • Identifying Signature Strengths
  • Using Signature Strengths
  • Identifying Good Things 
  • You At Your Best

Furthermore, they have been able to show that combining a number of strategies, and when facilitated by a qualified and experienced coach or other professional, that the positive outcomes are quite likely to occur much faster and to be sustained longer.

Finally, there is also an amazing wealth of non-clinical methodologies and research being conducted, which combined with the scientific evidence-based tools, creates an amazing toolkit for coaches to work with to support our clients.

About the Author:

This article is an excerpt from the paper Understanding Life Coaching written by Noel Posus, Master Coach and Director of, reprinted here with his permission. Noel is also the current Coach of the Year awarded by the Australian New Zealand Institute of Coaching. He is also a Master Coach and instructor with the Life Coaching Institute.