Being an integrative practitioner: moving beyond the separations of coaching and counselling, by Kate McGuire (Guest)

Wood door entry in a sandstone wall

For a while now I have considered myself to be an integrative practitioner - someone who draws on both coaching and therapeutic methodologies in the service of my clients. But what do I actually mean by that?

An integrative practitioner, to me, is a skilled helper who can:

  • support the client’s desire to create a different future

  • hold the space for, and work with, raw emotions

  • guide a client in their exploration of the messy reality of the past in order to move forward to something new.

Exploring the ‘deep’ benefits of integrative practice

I’ve experienced both therapy and coaching as a client, and I work as a coach, largely in an organisational context.  I’m starting my inquiries by reflecting on personal experience to clarify what I mean by “integrative practice” and why I think it has value. 

As a client, therapy has brought me face-to-face with my inner feelings, emotions and beliefs.  It enables me to recognise and understand the past and to be honest about the feelings I experience, then and now - the distress, the mess and the pain as well as joy and pleasure.  I don’t have to find solutions; awareness and acceptance are enough.  

Therapy has allowed me to accept more of myself, and acknowledge how my history and early experiences have created deeply-ingrained habits in how I respond to today’s experiences.  This in itself opens up choices about the future.

And yet I have sometimes struggled with therapy precisely because it doesn’t often ask the question “so what do you want to do about it?” 

Coaching, on the other hand, assumes mental health and resourcefulness in me as the client, and is generally focused on here-and-now issues and the desired future I want to build.  The coaching questions of “what might be possible”, “what do you want in your life/work/relationships”, “how might you get that”, “what do you need to do/say or stop to achieve that”, “what and who will help you” have enabled me to focus on what needs to change, and what I need to do to make change happen.  Answering these questions is what enables me, and my clients, to consciously move towards a desired future. 

But my experience as client and coach tells me that trying to create a new future without exploring the deeper questions that underpin our personality and way of being can often result in simplistic behavioural strategies that buckle under the pressures of real life, when our social and psychological history inevitably makes itself felt in the heat of the present moment.

In an inevitably simplistic summary, I believe therapy’s strengths are its focus on emotions, personal history and an acceptance of who a person is and how they got here.  It can lack future-focused momentum.  Coaching focuses on a desired future and the actions necessary to create it.  It sometimes lacks exploration of deeper psychological and emotional obstacles and how they can impede progress. 

Adopting a ’therapeutic-coaching’ integrative approach that truly serves my clients

Being in therapy and coaching, often in parallel, has been a winning combination when it comes to making profound personal change in my own life.  It seems to make sense to build on the best of both approaches in the service of my clients. 

And yet, I have largely been in the hands of either a therapist or a coach and it is me, the client, who is responsible for ‘integrating’ the experiences in order to harness the strengths and benefits of both.  If a client only receives coaching and has never had therapy, they often miss out on the benefits that arise from examining our past as a source of learning and change.  It seems to me this situation has arisen because the two disciplines have emerged separately and are, currently, regulated (or not) and accredited by separate professional bodies, with only a limited amount of formal integration (eg the BACP’s coaching arm), with a maintenance of rather strict boundaries around what is practiced in each, which makes it easier for professional oversight but doesn’t necessarily serve the needs of our clients.

I’ve become more and more comfortable when conversations with clients turn “deep” and personal. These clients didn’t consider themselves to be ill, but they were certainly distressed and impeded from doing their best work by the emotional turmoil of these “personal” events.  I have had clients who have been bereaved, experienced miscarriages, still births and infertility, been through infidelity and/or divorce, wrestled with the historical impact of difficult relationships with parents and siblings, and paddled (sometimes waded) in the waters of burnout and breakdown. 

All, arguably, topics more suited to the therapy room than coaching.  All were issues with impacts and consequences in the working lives of my clients which needed coping with, and learning to function with; not some time, maybe, one day, but NOW.  Yet my clients didn’t want to go to therapy - not least because they already had a trusted partner - me - with whom they could be honest, and processes they had already found helpful and productive.  The fact that it was also “therapeutic” did not escape either them or me. 

I have heard practitioners highly qualified in both disciplines describe situations where they have held back from offering a coaching process or solution to a therapy client (or vice versa) because of (arguably) arbitrary boundaries imposed by the label attached to the nature of the work.  They are qualified and competent.  The client needs it.  Who does it benefit to withhold such a gift? 

Some of the observations arising from my experience as both client and practitioner about what clients might actually be looking for in the person they have asked for help include:

  • “I want the support of a person who has seen the whole of me and who is therefore best placed to help me move forward.“

  • “I want to understand my ‘problems’, yes, but I also want to do something about them.” 

  • “I don’t want someone who will only fix me when I’m ill or dysfunctional and I also don’t want someone who only focuses on my future and my ‘best self’.“

  • “I want someone who can acknowledge that I sometimes have less-than-optimal mental and emotional functioning AND I have the ability to achieve my potential, that sometimes I’m a mess and sometimes I’m a winner.”

  • “I’m all one person so why can’t they be?” 

Moving forward: developing as an integrative practitioner

Increasingly, in response to the actual needs of my clients, I have begun to work more and more integratively, drawing on both therapeutic and coaching practices, to harness the strengths of each and offer my clients a deeper, more holistic approach to bringing about the changes they seek in their lives. 

My background and training is rooted in the world of executive coaching and Organisational Development, which includes a robust amount of psychological theory and practice.  In response to the deeper emotional and psychological questions which arise in the reality of the coaching room, I have also qualified as a Fusion Certified Therapeutic Coach, to deepen my professional capability. 

But integrative training and development (by which I mean integration across coaching and therapy, rather than the more traditional definition of working with a range of approaches within therapy alone) is hard to come by, as is professional supervision of integrative work. 

I’m not saying I think there is no difference between therapy and coaching - there is.  Some people want therapy, others want coaching, and for those who want both they still might want to see different practitioners.  It is a bit of a cognitive leap to imagine sitting in a corporate meeting room discussing how to be a more effective leader and then finding oneself in floods of tears about a childhood trauma, both because of the setting and because we don’t always want to let out that inner child with someone whose primary role is to support our professional development.  And managing the shifts in focus for those clients who do want to go deeper requires skill and attention from the practitioner as they support and guide exploration and change. 

I wonder, though, how we can move to a model where the overlaps (or is it a space? What actually is this bit in the middle?) between them can become more blended in the services some of us offer to clients, and where the training and development is available to ensure we are competent and capable to provide them?  What I hope for in an integrative practitioner is that they:

  • Are competent across the spectrum e.g. How do I know I’m working ethically and competently?

  • Can manage the shifts in the focus of the conversation e.g. Are there boundaries I won’t cross?

  • Can work with the client as a partner in making choices about the direction of the work e.g. Do my clients really know what they’re signing up for?  Do they have a clear choice, in the moment, about how deep to go?

Establishing this competence is more difficult than it sounds in a world which holds these things as separate professional disciplines, but this integrative work is happening in practice and, in the right hands, it is beneficial for clients.  It must surely be time that we move towards formal acknowledgement and professional support for it. 


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Kate McGuire is a coach who helps mid- and senior-level clients transform their lives. She works with corporate and individual clients who want to increase their impact and effectiveness by developing their authentic personal leadership style. She has specialist expertise in, and a passion for, helping women to be authoritative and successful at work.