Has your coach told you they use a cognitive behavioural approach? Wondering what that means?!

In a survey conducted in 2007, it was found that over 61% of coaches used a CBC approach in their coaching engagements (Palmer & Whybrow, 2007), demonstrating the prevalence of the model. While the strengths of the CBT approach in coaching are supported through ‘practitioner wisdom’, the current research within the field of coaching psychology aims to qualify these benefits, to demonstrate not just that CBT can be applied within the coaching setting, but if and how CBT works specifically considering the unique elements of coaching. Read on to learn more about how this burgeoning field might come into play in your coaching relationship.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)is a well-researched approach developed within the world of psychotherapy, which can also be applied in coaching psychology. Even though the evidence-based research in coaching psychology is still in its early days, the scientific literature is very clear regarding the success of CBT generally, and the approach is highly regarded by qualified coaching practitioners and psychologists.In the following article, the overview of the cognitive behavioural approach will be described, demonstrated with particular examples of how it can be further adopted to coaching psychology.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a kind of psychotherapeutic treatment that helps people learn to identify destructive or disturbing thought patterns and change them in order to influence their behaviours, emotions, and lived experience. CBT methods started to develop in the mid-1960’s as a pragmatic approach to changing automatic negative thoughts and feelings for psychotherapy clients. It is based on the premise that negative spontaneous thoughts have an adverse influence on mood, which in turn impacts actions and outcomes (e.g., I think I’m not a good public speaker, therefore I feel anxious going into my big pitch, therefore I visibly shake at the presentation, and asa result my message doesn’t have the impact it could have). The theory poses that if the initial automatic thought could be rewired, that mood and emotions (e.g.,feelings) and social outcomes could be positively shifted to the benefit of the client’s psychological health and relationships. Using CBT frameworks in the clinical setting, the therapist aims to identify and bring awareness to the root dysfunctional thinking by bringing the extreme personal thoughts into the light of day, making the client aware that they might be magnifying their weaknesses, minimising their strengths, mind reading and predicting catastrophic results that are unrealistic (amongst others). These mental distortions and unhelpful emotions potentially spur the patient to take actions that amplify and reinforce their initial negative belief. CBT aims precisely to over-write old, destructive thinking processes and create new, healthy ones that help the patient re-write their limiting self-beliefs.

Palmer and Szymanska (2007, p.86) define cognitive behavioural coaching specifically as ‘an integrative approach which combines the use of cognitive, behavioural, imaginal and problem-solving techniques and strategies within a cognitive behavioural framework to enable coaches to achieve realistic goals.’ Coaches trained in CBT techniques can collaborate with you to manage procrastination, reduce stress levels and anxiety, address confidence issues, ease perfectionism or shift hesitancy in decision-making for example. If your coach is using a CBT approach to your coaching, the objectives and benefits as outlined by Good (2010) and Gyllensten et al. (2010) and Grant (2017) will probably include:

·      Increasing your flexibility in thinking by analysing any rigid mental models you might be holding;

·      Increasing your awareness of self-talk which enables a better understanding of your thoughts and the effects on your feelings and behaviours;

·      Analysis of your automatic thoughts, and experimentation with alternative future-oriented thoughts (Froggatt, 2009).;

·      To introduce practical and actionable change frameworks for you to experiment with in daily life; and,

·      To positively impact your goal attainment! (David, 2013).

These benefits are achieved through a supportive and collaborative relationship between you and your coach – they should be there to empower you to experiment with alternative thought patterns (Palmer & Szymanska, 2007). As with all professional coaching, we strongly emphasise that a coach with a background in coaching and specific training in CBT is required for this work.


DoubleClick – how does CBT work in coaching?


Albert Ellis’ 1957 ABC Technique of IrrationalBeliefs is a framework used regularly by therapists to deliver CBT, and has carried over into coaching psychology. The first letter stands for Activating event or situation. Here, the framework depicts that the coachees problem does not originate from an event happening in itself, but from their response to it. E.g., Emma is upset because she has been let go from her job – the end of a job is not inherently good or bad, but Emma’s perspective makes it so based on what this job means to her.Therefore, the first step in the ABC model is to identify sensitive situations that can trigger negative thoughts and emotions – i.e., perhaps it’s any situation where there’s an unforeseen change, in Emma’s situation. A Coach will also explore what thoughts and feelings arise as a result of the activating event.

The second part of Ellis’ model is Beliefs.It needs to be determined what belief is deeply associated with the critical triggering event. This deeply held belief is what actually causes the friction for the coachee (e.g., Emma believes she must not be competent, and that this becomes apparent once her boss really gets to really know her).

And finally, C stands for Consequences. The coach will work with the coachee to identify and explore the consequences of their belief system (e.g., Emma becomes depressed and withdraws from her professional network as a result of her belief that she isn’t competent).

When these inner consequences manifest themselves, the role of the Coach is to illuminate and challenges the belief system, present ways to see alternatives, and enable the coachee to craft a new way forward (e.g., to work with Emma to find evidence of her competence, disconnect her work competence from her self-worth, observe cases where even competent people are let go from their jobs sometimes, and reconnect with her community to make new meanings of her work change). When the coachee can embrace the newly discovered way of thinking or being, their new, balanced thought patterns will eventually distort the old, negative ones.

Through this illustration, if you put yourself into the shoes of Emma the coachee, you can observe the pragmatism of the CBT approach – Emma can not only dissect their own chains of thoughts, feelings, and behaviours and choose each differently, but also gains the skills to breakdown personal patterns in future, creating a more sustainable ‘self-help’ resource for herself. A strength of the CBT approach is that it enables personal change, making it appealing to the cause of coaching where we focus on sustainable self-efficacy in the coachee. If we do our jobs well, you won’t need us! 

In summary, you should speak with your coach about the CBT approach, and only engage in the methods if the coach has training. The positive impacts on your mental health, and goal attainment are backed up by strong research evidence in psychotherapy, however we do not have the rigorous evidence to substantiate this approach in coaching that we might wish for.However its early-stage evidence base makes it a suitably prevailing methodology for coaching in today's world while the research ‘catches up’.

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Breitmeyer, A. M. (2016). Cognitivebehavioral coaching and its assessment tools: A brief review. Journal ofRational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 34(4), 241-243. doi:

David, S. A. (2013). Goals: Along-term view. In Beyond goals : effective strategies for coaching andmentoring (pp. 1-20). Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.

de Haan, E., Duckworth, A., Birch,D., & Jones, C. (2013). Executive coaching outcome research: Thecontribution of common factors such as relationship, personality match, andself-efficacy. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 65(1),40-57. doi:

Froggatt, W. (2009). A briefintroduction to Cognitive-behaviour therapy. Your guide to overcominganxiety. Retrieved from

Good, D. Y., Bauback ; Yeganeh,Robin. (2010). Cognitive Behavioral Executive Coaching. OD practitioner:journal of the National Organization Development Network, 42(3),18-23. 

Grant, A. M. (2003). The impact oflife coaching on goal attainment, metacognition and mental health. SocialBehavior and Personality: An International Journal, 31(3), 253-264. doi:

Grant, A. M. (2017).Solution-focused cognitive-behavioral coaching for sustainable high performanceand circumventing stress, fatigue, and burnout. Consulting PsychologyJournal: Practice and Research, 69(2), 98-111. doi: