Research Paper By Maria Martins
(Life Coach, COSTA RICA)
When I read ICA’s module and attended the class about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) in February 2018, it resonated deeply with me. The idea of a framework that could help me manage and redirect my thoughts, generated a lot of interest because I recognized that the principles of CBT could help me address my negative thoughts in a productive way. I began studying CBT by thinking of my personal situation, where I sometimes want to change a certain behaviour, but do not even try to because I am bound by assumptions that I have created. I often think – “if I try, I know it will be a waste of my time.” For example, when a situation causes me to have a negative thought, like “I am not being respected”, I immediately react in a way that I later regret. However, I could change my behaviour by asking myself, “what if I just take a moment to think about it, before acting?” To which the answer would be, “I know that I would act in a different way that would make me feel much better about the situation and myself.”
Thinking about how people, including myself, could benefit from implementing CBT methods, I enrolled in an Udemy short course about Cognitive Behavioral Coaching (CBC), which explored the basic principles of CBT and how they could be applied in the coaching context. I have learned techniques that could be useful for people that are under stress caused by circumstances such as grief from the death of a loved one, divorce, and relationship problems, which are the principal areas that I plan to focus on during my coaching practice and career.
The purpose of this research paper is to demonstrate how CBT can be a powerful and useful tool in the coaching context and how it allows the client to address the obstacles that are hindering them from reaching their goals.
What is coaching?
Per the International Coaching Federation’s (ICF) definition, coaching is
partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires then to maximize their personal and professional potential.
Throughout the coaching process, clients are encouraged to understand the ways in which their thoughts influence their emotions and subsequently their behaviours. Simply put, our behaviours are driven by our thoughts and emotions – how can we change a disempowered behaviour, if we don’t first identify and manage the root of the behaviour? Coaches help their clients manage their automatic negative thoughts and reframe beliefs, values, perceptions, rules and assumptions that have become obstacles to achieving their goals and full potential.
Coaches employ a variety of effective frameworks and tools to help their clients create a better life and reach their goals, one of which could be CBT.
How is CBT useful in the coaching practice?
CBT was pioneered by Dr Aaron T. Beck in the 1960s. Dr Beck was a psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania working with people suffering from depression. He discovered that depressed patients experienced streams of negative thoughts that seemed to arise spontaneously. Dr Beck called these cognitions “automatic thoughts” and classified them into three categories: the patient had negative thoughts about themselves; about the world; and/or about the future. Through his practice, Dr Beck helped patients find alternative ways of managing their depression. He helped patients identify and evaluate their automatic thoughts, allowing them to feel better emotionally and behave more functionally. Hence, when patients changed their underlying beliefs about themselves, their world and other people, therapy resulted in long-lasting change. Dr Beck called this approach “cognitive therapy”, also known as “cognitive behaviour therapy” (The Beck Institute).
Several studies and literature demonstrate that CBT is a useful and successful approach, not just for treating mental health, but also as a tool to deal with other conditions. The Mayo Clinic states that “not everyone who benefits from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has a mental health condition. It can be an effective tool to help anyone learn how to better manage stressful life situations.” For example, it may help one learn techniques for coping with stressful life situations; identify and manage emotions; resolve relationships conflicts; learn better ways to communicate, and cope with grief or loss (Mayo Clinic).
What is Cognitive Behavioral Coaching (CBC)?
Since CBT proved successful in the therapeutic field, many coaches started to employ the cognitive-behavioural approach to coaching and created Cognitive Behavioral Coaching (CBC). CBC is “a fusion of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, rational emotive therapy, solution-focused approaches, goal setting theory and social cognitive theory” (Ascent Coaching). In the coaching context, CBT also stands for Cognitive Behavioral Technique.
Nick Wright (a coach mentor/facilitator-trainer/organization development consultant) defines Cognitive Behavioral Coaching (CBC) as:
Cognitive refers to mental processes: what we are thinking and what we believe. Behaviour refers to what we do: how we act in relationships and other situations. Coaching refers to helping a person enhance their life quality and effectiveness. (Nick Wright).
The CBC method uses the techniques of CBT in a non-therapeutic way and modifies the technique so that it can be used as a coaching tool. The aim of CBC is to incorporate strategies of CBT, while adhering to the coaching principles that are goal-focused, time-limited, and focused in the present, the “here and now.” This differs from the therapeutic context because it is intended for people who are not showing signs of mental conditions, such as depression, trauma and severe anxiety. This approach has been so effective in the coaching field, that there are some coaches whose only framework is the CBT model, while other coaches incorporate the CBT model as one of their frameworks and use it as a tool in their coaching practices. Coaches from different niches 3 are using this framework in different coaching areas, such as personal life, executive, leadership, and health coaching.
CBT is an effective Framework for Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs).
We are moved by our thoughts, both the positive and negative ones. Our thinking generates our feelings and attitudes, which will impact our lives, and subsequently the lives of the people around us. Positive thinking helps people build self-confidence and self-esteem that will create behaviours, which leads to better ways of coping with stressful situations and situations where the fear of the “unknown” is present. Positive thinking always produces favourable results. On the other hand, negative thoughts are normal in daily life and can be useful for detecting potential threats and problems before they occur. Hence, negative thoughts have a purpose and can produce positive results. Negative thoughts, however, can become weaponized in our minds, causing us to react in ways and generate attitudes that lead us to deal with uncomfortable situations in ways that go against our best interest. When a negative thought becomes a habit in a person’s life, it will produce a negative effect on their mind and body. This will result in behaviour patterns that will prevent them from living productive and happy lives. Dr Aaron T. Beck called this thinking pattern the Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs).
According to Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, ANTs “are thoughts that are negative and random in nature in reference to one’s self.” Also, ANTs are referred to as Cognitive Distortions. “Cognitive distortions are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true” (Psych Central).
In cases where a client demonstrates ANTs, Cognitive Behavior Coaching will use some techniques of CBT to help the client understand their thoughts and feelings that influence their behaviours. The client will learn how to identify and change destructive thinking patterns that have negative influences on their behaviour and adversely affect their daily life by repeatedly creating a distorted reality. The goal of using CBT techniques in coaching is to help the client focus on exploring their thoughts and generating a stronger sense of self-awareness. The client will realize that while they cannot control every aspect of their life or the world around them, they can learn how to identify and interpret their thoughts in ways that allow them to cope and respond to aspects of their life and environment in a more empowered and serving manner. CBC will provide the client with tools that will enable them to become emotionally intelligent. By changing their automatic thoughts, the client will learn how to better manage their emotions and feelings, with the ultimate goal of enabling clients to become their own coach every time an ANT becomes an obstacle in their lives.
ANTs are not all the same and they come in the form of beliefs, rules, and assumptions which are three different concepts. A belief is an idea and certainty about what is the truth, about what is right and wrong. A rule is a statement that tells people what they should do to in order to achieve the expected result. An assumption is a supposition or a presumption about what a person expects to happen.
CBC helps the client differentiate and identify the form of ANT. Some of the most common forms of cognitive distortions are: mind-reading (assumptions); catastrophizing; fortune-telling 4 (predictions); over-generalizing (the use of “always” or “never”); emotional reasoning (reliance on the need to act); making demands (the use of “must”, “should”, “ought”); only noticing the negative aspects (ignoring the positive aspects); and excessive self-criticism (focusing on the negative qualities). The goal of CBC is to help the client counter-balance their ANTs or cognitive distortions with positive, realistic thoughts.
This is a hypothetical situation where the CBC approach is very useful and successful. Marcel is considering turning down a job promotion because the new position will require him to do a presentation. Every time that he imagines giving a speech, he freezes, even when he is among friends and family. His automatic thought is: “I always stumble with words.” Just the idea of being observed puts him under such levels of stress that he feels physically ill. In this particular case, one of the approaches that a coach can use is called the “AS IF” technique, which is a CBT tool. Once the client has identified the ANT, the self-sabotaging thought, the “AS IF” technique invites the client to engage in rehearsing the opposite behaviours and thought. By practising these rehearsed behaviours over and over again, the client will feel more confident and he will be able to eliminate his insecurities. Marcel’s adjusted thought will be “I am able to express myself in an eloquent way.” Thus, the ANT is replaced by an adjusted thought that allows the client to achieve their goals.
One important distinction between CBT employed in the therapeutic versus the coaching context is that coaching is not meant to address ANTs associated with mental diagnoses, such as depression or generalized anxiety. A coach can use the CBC model as an effective approach for clients with unhealthy thoughts, emotions and beliefs. It has been a great tool for clients struggling with stressful situations, procrastination, event-specific anxiety, communication, self-esteem, and self-confidence, amongst others. CBC will help the client achieve positive changes in their life, by reframing their thinking, feelings and behaviours.
Differences and similarities between the CBT and CBC practice – IW Coaching Association
Below is a list of differences and similarities between the CBT and CBC practices as defined by the IW Coaching Association.
Therapists are clinically trained to help clients below a healthy functional baseline get back to a functioning level. Coaches are not clinically trained, and although they rely on similar evidence-based models as their clinical counterparts, coaches never treat mental illness.
Therapists aim to help clients heal past emotional wounds by exploring the history of the issue. Coaches focus on the setting of goals and solving the present/future problems.
Therapists help clients resolve past issues and psychological ailments. Coaches help clients design a clear, well-articulated path forward, with a focus on the present and the future. Working collaboratively with clients to help them design their lives.
Therapists and Coaches help their clients to reach their full potential.
Therapists and Coaches are experts at facilitating change.
Therapists and Coaches are catalysts in helping clients discover what is most important to them.” (www.iwcoachingassociation.org)
How the CBC model differs from other coaching models:
While other popular coaching models, such as GROW (Goals, Reality, Options and Will), provide a coaching structure for the conversation that focuses on setting goals and creating action plans that will help the client move forward to their desired goal, the CBC model focuses on helping a client who has a psychological or emotional barrier which prevents them from achieving their desired goal and living a more productive and happy life. Using the CBC model, the coach will invite the client to explore what is the cause of their feelings such as frustration, stress or feeling limited, by opening up about their thinking patterns. The coach will help the client think in a more serving and supportive way. The coach will equip the client with tools that will help them manage their cognitive distortions or ANTs in a more productive way, giving the client a powerful sense of being in control of their lives (Pocket Book).
Sample of CBT Coaching Tools
The use of some CBT techniques and worksheets in coaching, helps clients identify the problem areas that need to be addressed. Below is a list of common CBC assessments and techniques.
Some of these assessments include:
- Journaling, the core of CBT, helps clients identify thought patterns and the emotions; and,
- Self-questionnaires are another common way of helping the client have more clarity about their thinking process.
Some of the most common techniques and activities are:
- ‘Play the script until the end’, wherein the client imagines the outcome of the worst-case scenario of the situation that he/she fears, by doing that the client will realize that what they fear comes to pass;
- Behavioural Experimentation Technique which uses a series of ‘what if’ questions to encourage the client to experiment with different ways of thinking;
- Meditation helps the client disengage with the obsessive thoughts and ANTs and to focus on the present moment;
- A visualization is a powerful tool for dealing with disempowering thoughts because it helps to create an enabling perspective based on the fact that the brain doesn’t distinguish between imagination and reality;
- “Homework” is an essential part of CBT because it will help the client work on the process of their growth. A typical homework assignment includes monitoring automatic thoughts, journaling and reflection.
(Udemy Life Coaching Certification)
CBC Case study – Confidence (by Gladeana McMahon)
“Michael was a director of the strategy and a board member of a city institution. He created a number of projects that would significantly benefit the business. He started with a positive mindset, but although successful, he believed that he could achieve far more in his working life if he had not been held by, as he called, “a lack of confidence.” Because of this, he started to feel anxious and it was manifested in the inconsistent way he managed situations on the board meetings. A coaching program with 12 sessions of one-half hour each was agreed. During the coaching sessions, a series of psychometric tests were used to identify his personality type and associated strengths and weaknesses, as a way of helping him highlight the skills he needed to develop. CBC helped Michael to identify his thinking style. He noticed, by focusing on his thoughts and emotions, that his way of thinking had a negative impact on his performance. He became aware of how the inconsistency he experienced related directly to his perception of situations. One of Michael’s challenges was his fear of failure that manifested itself in a preoccupation with what people would think about him. He recognized that this type of thinking stopped him from being able to make objective judgements. Michael’s homework was designed to help him to identify his thoughts, the feelings these generated, and the behaviours he then manifested together with the counter-measures he could employ. At the end of the coaching program, Michael became more consistent in his presentation to others and in his personal thinking style and was able to deal with difficult meetings in a calm and effective way. Since the completion of his coaching program, Michael is now seen as a key player in his organization.” (Cognitive Behavioral Coaching Works)
CBT is a useful and applicable tool to the coaching practice, through its application of tools that motivate the client to identify negative thought patterns that prevent them from achieving their goals.
It contains relevant principles that complement other coaching frameworks and tools, therefore facilitating the coach to be able to help his client to create more awareness that will allow them to change their thinking and their behaviour in a more productive way and action-oriented manner. An additional advantage is that the CBT approach provides practical and easy to understand techniques and assessments, that can be used by the client every time they have cognitive distortions.
Although CBT in coaching is different from clinical therapy, it shares the same key traits, without the intention of blurring the line between mental health issues and stress caused by daily life situations.
“History of cognitive behaviour therapy,” The Beck Institute. www.beckinstitute.org
“Cognitive behavioural therapy,” The Mayo Clinic. www.mayoclinic.org
Nick Wright, nick-wright.com
Sinclair, Kevin, “What is Cognitive Behavioral Coaching?” Ascent Coaching and Training, October 25, 2017.
Grohol, John M., “15 Common Cognitive Distortions,” The PyschCentral, April 12, 2018. https://psychcentral.com/lib/15-common-cognitive-distortions/
CBT Life Coach Certification Course, IW Coaching Association, https://www.udemy.com/cbt-life-coach-certification, courses are taken by the author in 2018.
Alban, Deane, “Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs): How to Break Habit,” Be Brain Fit. https://bebrainfit.com/automatic-negative-thoughts
Coaching and Mentoring Skills, Crowe Associates Ltd., www.crowe-associates.co.uk
Spry, Dorothy, “The Cognitive Behavioral Coaching Pocketbook,” https://www.pocketbook.co.uk/media_mp/preview/9781906610173(Preview).pdf
McMahon, Gladeana, Confidence Works: Learn to be your own life coach (Overcoming common problems),” Sheldon Press, November 23, 2001. http://www.cognitivebehaviouralcoachingworks.com