When the Past Is Bound up With the Present, Coaching vs. Therapy

coach as instrument coaches newsletter Sep 28, 2023
Learning In Action, When the Past Is Bound up With the Present, Coaching vs. Therapy

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of presenting a webinar for the Institute of Coaching entitled “Our Client’s Past Need Not Foretell Their Future: Coaching to our Client’s Patterns and Attachment Styles.”  It was a delightful experience and gave me quite a bit to chew on.

I’ve been talking, writing, and teaching coaches about topics related to patterns and attachments for so long that I’d forgotten how provocative it can be to coaches hearing it for the first time. Because it was a webinar, I couldn’t see the faces of the coaches attending, and I sensed from what was written in the chat, the questions asked, and some feedback I received afterward that there were a fair number of eyebrows raised in response to my talk.

In fairness, I covered a significant number of concepts that I suspect were new to many members of the audience and strung them all together pretty quickly. It may have been a bridge too far to expect the audience to absorb it all in an hour.

That said, I suspect there’s something more to be explored in some of the audience’s reactions to the content. 

After having worked with coaches through the concepts of Attachment Theory and resulting relational patterns for the past decade, I’ve learned that many coaches have strong reactions to something that sounds like psychology or could be construed as therapy.

To a degree, I can understand the consternation. And most of the time that we have a strong reaction to something, it’s because OUR past is showing up in the present in some way.

To give you more context, here is the throughline of my talk...

  • We are each shaped by our past relationships (especially our earliest relationships).
  • We are shaped neurologically, psychologically, socially, and mentally by these relationships in ways we don’t know, can’t remember, and didn’t choose (because much of the shaping occurred at a time for which we have no memory, no language and no choice).
  • We are shaped by our earliest relationships in predictable ways, as documented in the research on Attachment Theory, and this shaping tends to stay with us into adulthood.
  • How we were shaped by our early relationships impacts not only how we relate to others into adulthood but also how we relate to ourselves and our world.
  • Our relational shaping results in patterns of thinking, feeling, and wanting, which make up our internal experience (in other words, we’ll tend to experience others, events, and ourselves in ways that follow predictable patterns).
  • We reveal our internal experience of ourselves and others and the world around us in how we narrate our experience.  (In other words, how we are relating to ourselves, others and the world is embedded within the stories we tell, in ways we aren’t aware of).
  • Our clients come to coaching and present challenges that reflect within them the patterns developed in their childhood.   These hidden patterns are revealed in their narratives. 
  • Our clients tend to be blind to their own patterns of experience.
  • When we can detect our client’s patterns from their narratives, we can work with them in deeper and more profound ways than if we work with them on one issue, opportunity, or challenge at a time.
  • When we coaches work with our clients at the level of the pattern, how the client sees, feels, and experiences themselves, others, and the world can shift.
  • We can coach each client relative to their pattern and how it formed without asking them questions about their past.   We don’t need to know their past to know their patterns.
  • Here is how you can detect and coach the most common patterns we see in clients.

OK, that’s probably too much for a one-hour talk. I can see that now. :)

That said, I’m intrigued by the questions and concerns I got along the lines of “This sounds more like therapy than coaching” and “Alison is asking us to diagnose.”

In my experience, when we start talking about psychological concepts and referring to our clients’ past, many coaches can have strong reactions. I honor the intention behind these kinds of reactions. Most coaches have strong ethics and boundaries around what is theirs to do and what they feel qualified to do.

Ethics and boundaries are healthy for us coaches and our clients. AND sometimes, our reactions can become obstacles to working with our clients in deeply meaningful ways.

Every human I’ve coached and every human I’ve met is shaped by their past, and that shaping shows up in the present in their narrative. Our past is bound up with our present (unless maybe you are a Buddhist monk, but I’m guessing they rarely pay for coaching) :) Yet, when we refer to something that has its origins in our client’s past, it can trigger a coach to think we are talking about therapy.

We coaches are working with and coaching our clients’ pasts in every coaching session (whether we realize it or not). That doesn’t mean we are digging around in their childhood or asking them about their past experiences, or engaging in therapy.

It means that every story our client tells us reveals a narrative pattern of how they are relating to themselves, others, and their lives today, which was shaped by the experiences of their past.

And becoming familiar with the predictable patterns that humans have for relating to their lives and listening for these patterns in our clients doesn’t mean we are diagnosing. It means we have a powerful lens through which to see our clients and what is unconscious to them about how they are experiencing their lives in patterned ways.

And when we work with our clients at the level of their patterns, at the level of their non-conscious material, we can support them in making profound shifts that allow them to re-author themselves. And THAT is the work of coaching.

If this intrigued you and you’d like to explore how to offer your clients more self-awareness and access to themselves by discerning how they are relating to themselves and others through their narratives, join me for an experiential 5-week live, virtual course starting November 9, “Going Deeper Faster: Using Attachment Theory to Identify Your Clients' Patterns in Weeks, Not Years.”