What is Cognitive Behavioural Coaching?

Cognitive Behavioural Coaching

It has been common practice for coaches to draw on and adapt clinical models of change to meet the needs of coachees (Sherin & Caiger, 2004). A relatively recent survey in the United Kingdom found that the most popular adapted psychotherapeutic approach used by coaches was the adaptation of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to develop Cognitive Behavioural Coaching (CBC) (Palmer & Gyllensten, 2008).? It has been estimated that up to 70% of coaches use a CBC approach as either their sole approach to coaching or as one of their major approaches (Sparrow, 2006). Given its current and increasing popularity, analyses of CBC as a valid and conceptually coherent approach to coaching are warranted. This analysis of CBC will briefly explore its origins in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and the translation of the CBT therapeutic model to the coaching domain. There is an emergent body of evidence examining the efficacy of the CBC approach and this shall be examined, as will the relative strengths and limitations of the CBC framework. As coaching is essentially about behaviour change (Grant, 2006), the CBC approach to self-regulation, motivation and goal setting shall be discussed. It will emerge that CBC provides a simple, flexible and effective framework for coaches and coachees that is appropriate, at least as an initial starting point, for most coaching situations.


Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is a broad descriptive term rather than a specific description of a therapeutic technique. CBT is distinguished from purely behavioural therapy by the assumption that our internal cognitive processes impact to some degree on our behaviour: The degree to which the cognitive process is emphasised can vary (Ducharme, 2004), (Palmer & Szymanska, 2008). CBT encompasses a wide variety of intervention techniques along the spectrum of behavioural to cognitive. However, there are 3 core elements or assumptions underpinning all of these techniques: Firstly, an individual?s behavioural response to a given event, or events, can be shaped by their cognitive appraisal of the event.? Secondly, the individual can access, monitor and alter these cognitions ? individuals can change the way they perceive and interpret events. Thirdly, changes in a person?s cognitions can result in behaviour change. CBT posits that unrealistic cognitive appraisals of events can result in thought patterns and emotions that impact negatively on behaviour. Conversely, appropriate behaviour can result from realistic cognitive appraisals of events (Ducharme, 2004).

CBT is derived from the clinical models of cognitive therapy developed by Aaron Beck (1976) and rational emotive behaviour therapy (REBT) developed by Albert Ellis (1962).

According to Ellis, individuals interpret events as determined by their core belief systems; their emotional and behavioural response being determined by this belief system. Irrational or unfounded beliefs may lead to emotional and behavioural blocks. REBT contends that identifying, challenging and modifying these irrational beliefs, thereby creating more realistic and useful beliefs, will result in the desired behaviour change (Neenan & Dryden, 1999). Ellis developed REBT to increase the individual?s capacity to think rationally and critically: The resultant development of psychologically sophisticated reasoning skills could enable individuals to challenge and replace beliefs or expectations that might be negatively impacting on their performance (Ellis, 1962).

Similar to Ellis, Beck posited that psychological problems often result from either faulty learning, making unrealistic assumptions premised on inadequate or incorrect information and confusing imagination and reality. Erroneous beliefs and assumptions may lead to flawed thinking that might be undermining and self-defeating. By thinking more critically, identifying and correcting misperceptions, more adaptive attitudes can be developed and psychological problems resolved (Auerbach, 2006).

CBT also posits that every individual has a schema ? or a map by which they interpret experiences. These schemas may be appropriate or inappropriate, or may have once been useful but now outlived their usefulness. CBT assists individuals in identifying and understanding their schema. They are then able, where necessary, to change their schema to choose productive behaviours consistent with their current goals and needs (Auerbach, 2006).

CBT has proven highly effective as a therapy and is currently first line treatment for a number of clinical mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, eating disorders, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (NICE, 2005).

Due to its success in the therapeutic field, many coaches have started to utilise a cognitive behavioural approach to coaching (Palmer & Gyllensten, 2008), (Sparrow, 2006). Some coaches assert that CBC is simply CBT used on a non-clinical population (Neenan & Palmer, 2001). This has led to some concern amongst other coaches that the boundaries between CBT and coaching are poorly defined and this of concern as coaching is essentially a non-therapeutic intervention (Sparrow, 2006), (Spence & Grant, 2007). A straight transfer of CBT to coaching, in particular with coaches from a counselling background, may overemphasise psychological issues or focus on them before there is sufficient evidence to support this approach (Sparrow, 2006). In addition, clients from coaching populations may have a higher representation of mental health issues than the general population (Green, Oades, & Grant, 2005), (Spence & Grant, 2007) and coaching sessions may become de facto therapy sessions. Clients with mental health issues that present for coaching should be screened and referred to specialised help as appropriate (Spence & Grant, 2007). Concerns that this may not always be the case have led to calls for coaching models that are developed specifically for coaching and not directly transferred from the realms of therapy (Passmore, 2007).


Cognitive behavioural coaching

Cognitive behavioural coaching is a fusion of cognitive behavioural therapy, rational emotive therapy, solution focused approaches, goal setting theory and social cognitive theory (Palmer & Szymanska, 2008). CBC is goal focused, time-limited and focused in the present. It is a non-therapeutic approach dealing with non-clinical problems and challenges. CBC premises that individuals may have inadequate problem solving skills or may not apply skills they have in a contextually appropriate manner, and that their thoughts, emotions and behaviours are key to understanding their perception of problems and situations (Palmer & Szymanska, 2008). Whilst CBC might use some CBT techniques where relevant, for example, the Thoughts Record Form, it also uses specific coaching techniques including the ?miracle question? and the rocking chair exercise (Clutterbuck & Megginson, 2009; Karas & Spada, 2009)

CBC premised on a solution-focused (SF) approach is a dual approach incorporating the psychological and the practical. In dealing with cognitions coachees are able to change how they view situations and stumbling blocks to change, such as procrastination, indecisiveness and self-doubt are removed (Grant, 2006). The concurrent behavioural approach assists the coachee develop goal directed action steps (Neenan, 2008; Palmer & Szymanska, 2008). CBC is parsimonious using the least effort to achieve the desired outcome for the coachee. It has the ultimate goal of assisting the coachee to learn how to ??self-coach? (Palmer & Szymanska, 2008). CBC uses Socratic questioning to facilitate insight and improve rational decision making: The focus is on stimulating thought and increasing awareness rather than providing a correct answer (Neenan & Palmer, 2001). This assists the coachee to identify and modify erroneous thinking patterns that cause stress (stress induced thinking), interfere with performance (performance inhibiting thoughts) and develop negative attitudes (automatic negative thoughts). If necessary, it involves the exploration, challenging and modulating of the coachees core beliefs, but only where parsimony dictates (Palmer & Szymanska, 2008)

In the United Kingdom CBC approaches are closely based on adaptation of cognitive therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy to coaching: Cognitive Coaching in the US is primarily an approach focused on the teaching profession (Palmer & Gyllensten, 2008). CBC has focused on personal life, executive, stress and health coaching (Neenan & Dryden, 2002; Palmer & Szymanska, 2008; Sherin & Caiger, 2004)

CBC and CBT posit that a person?s emotions and behaviours are directly related to the way in which they think about events and situations. By accessing, evaluating and changing these cognitions both methodologies elicit change in the individual. CBT ??heals? the individual by identifying and modulating emotional, behavioural and psychological blocks and their resultant behaviours. CBC improves performance and attainment by removing emotional, behavioural and psychological blocks (Palmer & Szymanska, 2008). CBC and CBT are similar but CBC focuses on achieving personal and professional fulfilment, not an understanding of psychological disturbance ? a core component of CBT (Neenan, 2009). Irrational beliefs that are inconsistent with reality can lead to unhealthy results for individuals and their relationships as well as undermining their pursuit of personally meaningful goals (Neenan & Dryden, 1999). All coaching interventions involve understanding the client?s beliefs to some degree, however, a CBC gives coaches a deep understanding of how people develop self-limiting beliefs and maintain them despite evidence to the contrary (Neenan, 2008).


Evidence for the efficacy of cognitive behavioural coaching

CBC is a relatively recent phenomena ? as indeed is coaching. The efficacy of CBT has been well established for a range of clinical disorders (NICE, 2005). However, evidence for the effectiveness of CBC, although increasing, is currently of a limited nature. (Palmer & Szymanska, 2008). Though lack of evidence does no equal lack of effect, an evidenced based approach to coaching would view it as desirable to test the conceptual models that have posited that CBC may have benefits in preventing mental health problems, enhancing performance and reducing work force stress (Palmer & Gyllensten, 2008). The sparseness of evidence for CBC is not anomalous with levels of evidence in other coaching approaches ? for example behavioural or neuro-linguistic coaching. Reflecting the current high level of interest in CBC there have been a number of recent published studies using CBC in both life coaching and executive coaching. Despite limitations in design, these studies have generally given cause for optimism that CBC offers clients a valid methodology for changing thoughts, emotions and behaviour and for achieving their goals and enhancing well being.

A study by Conway using a CBC reported significant improvement in the accuracy of participants' self-perceptions or individual skills. The survey respondents also self reported perceptions that feedback and coaching positively impacted on their leadership skills (Conway, 2000): Life coaching, premised on a solution focused (SF) cognitive behavioural approach, with coaches in training demonstrated enhanced goal attainment, insight and learning but no improvements in psychological well being (Grant, 2008): A wait-listed CBC life coaching intervention was associated with enhanced goal striving, well-being and hope (Green, Oades, &Grant, 2006). A comparison between life coaching by peers and life coaching by professional coaches using a CB SF approach found improvements in levels of engagement, goal commitment, progress towards goals and some improvement in well-being (Spence & Grant, 2007): Improvements in behavioural and decisional procrastination using brief cognitive behavioural coaching have been reported (Karas & Spada, 2009): Levels of perfectionism and self-handicapping were studies by Kearns et al and positive effects were noted during the workshops and at follow up series for perfectionism and at follow up for self-handicapping (Kearns, Forbes, & Gardiner, 2007). This study is of particular interest as other studies have reported negative health implications when clients continually struggle to achieve unrealistic goals (Miller & Wrosch, 2007): A CBC based telephone health coaching program for youths at risk of type 2 diabetes reported that coping skills training using cognitive restructuring showed improvements in surrogate health markers such as cholesterol levels (Jefferson et al., 2011)

All of the above studies demonstrated at least some positive impact of a CBC approach. Various limitations of the studies include lack of a control group (Grant, 2008; Karas & Spada, 2009; Kearns, et al., 2007), a within subject design (Grant, 2008), lack of randomisation (Green et al., 2006), possible selection bias (Kearns, et al., 2007), a reliance on self reporting (Green et al., 2006) and lack of clarity in reporting (Jefferson, et al., 2011). Notwithstanding these limitations, there is a consistent benefit to the client associated with a CBC approach. It is not clear from the available evidence whether these benefits derive specifically from a specific CBC approach or from coaching per se and could have been achieved regardless of the modality used.


Strengths of cognitive behavioural coaching

The key strength of CBC is that, despite limitations, the current available evidence demonstrates that it is effective. CBC is transparent, simple and easily measurable. Models such as the ABCDEF model? - (activating event, beliefs, consequences, disputation, effective new approach and future focus) derived from Ellis?s original ABC model or the ?house of change? model highlighting the reciprocal relationships between thoughts, emotions, environment, behaviour and goals (Grant & Greene, 2003) provide simple and effective frameworks for both coach and coachee to progress the coaching relationship (Neenan, 2008). Combining these frameworks with the use of simple tools such as Cost Benefit Analysis, the Responsibility Pie and Thought Records Forms, facilitates a collaborative approach between coach and coachee thus making the coaching process accessible for the coachee (Clutterbuck & Megginson, 2009). The single issue, specific focus of CBC lends itself well to goal identification and selection, delivering quantifiable results, particularly in the areas of skills development, stress reduction and adaptation to change (Ducharme, 2007). CBC reduces mental rigidity and increases flexible thinking which may be of particular benefit in executive coaching (Sherin & Caiger, 2004). Some coaches see CBC offering flexibility in delivery style in that it can be conducted either face-to-face, by telephone or email or by a combination of all three (Neenan & Palmer, 2001). This said, comparative studies evaluating the efficacy of CBC in these situations are currently lacking.


Limitations of cognitive behavioural coaching

It has been argued that the parsimonious approach of CBC can lead to superficiality. CBC focuses on the present and dealing with presenting issues one at a time: Some believe this compromises its effectiveness in developing a holistic view of the coachee and understanding the coachee?s needs in relation to relevant systems. Situations with underlying organisational complexities interacting negatively with unconscious psychological processes of the coachee may limit the effectiveness of CBC (Ducharme, 2007). CBC has been described as mechanical and unsophisticated and having no evidence to suggest it would benefit high performing clients (Ducharme, 2007). Lack of evidence is an issue in all coaching approaches; however, the narrow focus offered by CBC might not meet the needs of high functioning executives (Ducharme, 2004). It should be notes that CBC, whilst dealing with the present and the future does, where relevant, account for the impact of the coachee?s developmental processes (Palmer & Szymanska, 2008). A flexible approach would dictate that if these issues prove intractable then the CBC approach be modified or another approach adopted (Passmore, 2007).

Those who believe that coaching should be totally reflective in nature, as in narrative coaching for example, see CBC as potentially effective only in relation to psychological coaching (Clutterbuck & Megginson, 2009). However, it has been suggested that in-depth analyses and assessments are not the domain of coaching unless specific and unresolvable issues begin to emerge (Palmer & Szymanska, 2008). In these situations the boundaries between coaching and therapy become blurred: If CBC is best used for single issue coaching situations (Sherin & Caiger, 2004) then perhaps CBC could almost be used diagnostically ? uncovering of deeper issues not amenable to CBC might be indicative of the need for replacing the coaching approach with a therapeutic approach.

CBC will be limited in its effectiveness by the coachee?s ability and willingness to accept emotional responsibility, i.e. not being able or willing to see the locus of control as being within them, and by failing to take responsibility for following through with the behaviours that the have identified as consistent with their ?new cognitions? (Palmer & Szymanska, 2008). This may be a function of poor presentation and implementation of the model rather than any inherent problems with the model itself (Neenan, 2008).


Cognitive behavioural coaching and change, goals, self- regulation and motivation

The process of coaching is essentially about helping individuals regulate and direct their personal intrapersonal resources to better achieve their goals and the changes they are seeking (Grant, 2006). Change is a process of goal directed self-regulation involving goal setting, developing and implementing action plans, performing and evaluating performance. On the basis of this feedback actions are continued, changed or improved for future performance (Grant, 2006). The goals driving this process of change are internal representations of our desired states (Austin & Vancouver, 1996). They are complex cognitive structures, for example there are outcomes goals, approach goals, avoidance goals, proximal goals, distal goals, learning goals and performance goals. Goals are intrinsically linked to our values and have been described as tangible, specific manifestations of our values (Locke & Latham, 2002)

CBC posits goal attainment is best achieved by understanding the reciprocal relationships between the individuals? thoughts, feelings, behaviours and environment ? visualised in ?house of change? model (Grant & Greene, 2003). Goals are essentially cognitive structures (Locke & Latham, 2002) and CBC focuses on restructuring client cognitions to develop more flexible ways of thinking thereby facilitating the identification of problem solving strategies and developing more effective and satisfying ways of meeting challenges and attaining goals (Clutterbuck & Megginson, 2009)

Self-regulation and motivation are critical components of goal attainment. Individuals are more likely to be better motivated to achieve goals they feel engagement with, feel are important, believe are attainable and congruent with their core beliefs and values (Locke, 1996; Sheldon, 2002). A key issue in conceptualising and developing self-concordant goals is the coachee?s ability to realistically appraise their needs and behaviour patterns and to understand their core values and beliefs (Sheldon, 2002). This ability to self reflect and objectively assess thoughts and behaviours is not common in those presenting for coaching (Grant, 2006). By challenging current thought and behaviour patterns, for example by using Socratic questioning and a SF approach, CBC facilitates the coachee?s development of realistic thinking patterns thus assisting them in identifying and working towards self congruent goals. This increases the likelihood of coachee engagement and motivation to make greater efforts towards goal attainment (Sheldon, 2002)

Baumeister suggests an individuals? ability to self regulate is a function of their ability to contextually modulate their responses and align them with social expectations and core beliefs thus supporting long term goal attainment. An individual?s ability to self regulate is a limited resource that depletes with usage. (Baumeister, Vohs, & Tice, 2007). If self-regulation were a finite resource then it would be prudent to ensure that the goals the coachee is pursuing are realistic, self-congruent and measurable. Goal identification and attainment is largely determined an individual?s perception of the goal in relation to their self: Is their goal determined by their authentic selves rather being rather than being externally forced, or introjected? Key here is the perception of the locus of causality rather than the reality of the locus of causality (Sheldon, 2002). Perception may result from incorrect thinking or assumptions. If so, then a CBC coaching approach is well suited to examining these perceptions and their impact on client emotions, behaviour and goal achievement. CBC with SF could identify false assumptions, identify more productive ways of choosing to think, identify and utilise current coachee resources and develop action plans and subsequent feedback mechanisms. This move to action is a critical part of the CBC approach and also key to successful goal attainment: Changing cognitions is not necessarily sufficient to bring about change ? the development and implementation and the ability to generate and act on feedback is also necessary for the coachee to achieve their goals (Neenan, 2008). CBC facilitates a shift in the client from deliberation to implementation premised on client self-efficacy resulting from new cognitions and the ability to choose to view situations differently and more realistically. Coachees who perceive their locus of control in a given situation as being internal tend to be more positive and optimistic and this mind-set is associated with higher levels of motivation and self regulation and enhanced goal attainment (Grant, 2006).



Cognitive behavioural coaching?s roots in cognitive behavioural therapy are clear. However, Cognitive behavioural coaching is not simply cognitive behavioural therapy applied to non-coaching populations but is distinguishable in a number of ways, primarily in focusing on goal achievement rather than ?healing?. Initial evidence for the efficacy of cognitive behavioural coaching, although limited both in quantity and quality, has been positive and certainly warrants further study. Cognitive behavioural coaching aligns well with current accepted theories of goal setting, motivation and self regulation underpinning current coaching approaches and can provide a conceptually coherent frame work for both coach and coachee to for effectively progress many, and maybe the majority of coaching engagements.





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  • Mary
    Posted at 21:24h, 21 May

    I have know about CBT but just learned about CBC. I am studying it to use it in my practice as a coach.

    • Kevin
      Posted at 09:29h, 23 May

      Hi Mary – All the very best in your coaching journey 🙂


  • Ruth
    Posted at 16:34h, 02 April

    hey – i stumbled across your piece while researching a coaching dissertation. Just wanted to let you know I thought it was a fascinating read! thank you

    • Kevin
      Posted at 18:24h, 20 July

      Hi Ruth – did you send me an email asking for some information on evidence regarding the impact of training coaches? If so, I’m sorry I appear to have misplaced it – could you please send it to me again?

      Best regards


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