Life Coaching Theories: 9 Frameworks For Powerful Coaching

Is it important to learn coaching theories while pursuing a coaching career? What impact does theoretical knowledge have on practical coaching experience?

The International Coaching Federation (ICF) announced in a blog:

“We need coaches to base their practice in theories and ideas that have established validity. In other words, we need them to follow the evidence-based practice.”

The ICF blog acknowledges that coaching theories are emerging fields of study. But most scholars and coaches rely on knowledge gathered from a wide range of fields. These include fields of psychology, theories of leadership and organizational development.

How Are Coaching Theories and Practice Linked?

The ICF blog also tries to establish the link between coaching theories and practice. It provides the following pointers:

  • Theory provides both a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of human behavior. Coaching theories borrow from theories of:
    • Humanistic psychology
    • Cognitive-behavioural psychology therapy
    • Transactional analysis
    • Neuroscience
    • Culture, gender and aging
    • Relationship between emotions and the body
  • Coaching theories give you a way to approach clients within a social context. This may refer to their work, family or social network. Applicable frameworks include theories of organizations, leadership coaching, and team and group behavior. They also include theories of family and organizational systems.
  • Most coaching engagements involve some form of change. Clients might want to develop more skills in a specific area. They may want to enhance their outlook on life, or change behavior patterns or attitudes. Theories of change are critical in helping with this transition. Theories of change support coaching psychologists for conflict management or career or personal transitions. All of these fall under coaching theories.
  • Many clients are seeking to experience more joy, serenity and meaning in their lives. Traditions of self-help, personal growth concepts and spirituality help clients in this regard. These are covered in coaching theories.

In a changing world, the challenge is to “transform knowledge and learning into a skill”. Yes, coaching is a practical skill. But there is no doubt that it borrows from different disciplines.

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This publication explains this very well. Coaching is a powerful relationship for people making important changes in their lives. Coaching as a target-oriented approach due to the integration of different views into an operational one is ideal for the present century. It helps to convert knowledge to skill and leads to transformative learning. The paper presents some of the theories that inform the practice of coaching. Do give it a read.

What Are Life Coaching Theories?

Let us first establish what coaching is. Then we can understand how it borrows from various disciplines.

What is coaching?

The oft-quoted definition was by Grant. He said: “Coaching is a collaborative, solution-focused, result-orientated systematic process, used with normal, non-clinical populations”. In this, the “coach facilitates the enhancement of the coachee’s life experience and performance in various domains.” The coach fosters self-directed learning, personal growth and goal attainment of the coachee.

What are some of the benefits of coaching?

As quoted here, the benefits of coaching include:

  • Heightened self-awareness, self-acceptance and a sense of well-being
  • Improved goal-setting and goal attainment, life balance and lower stress levels
  • Increased self-discovery, self-confidence and self-expression
  • Better communication and problem-solving skills
  • Enhanced quality of life
  • Changed and broader perspectives and insight

It is now clear that all these skills are at the heart of various disciplines. To make an impact, coaching must not only borrow and learn theories but also allow for evolution.

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So which are the coaching theories that are most common?

Coaching Theories

What are some of the basic coaching theories you should know in your practice?

First, let us establish that there are no shortcuts to learning. You must explore the foundation of all existing and related theories to understand coaching theories. Then, study their influence on modern-day practice in some detail.

For the sake of this blog, I have outlined some of the many theories. I have introduced some topics that are often talked about. I hope this introduction will urge you to research and learn about each of these theories in depth. You may also use the ICF portal here to access all the published research.

As an introduction to some of the many theories in coaching, I would refer you to this article. I have paraphrased some of the points below. Several coaching institutes use these approaches as a referral point for their syllabus.

Humanist Perspective

Based upon Rogerian (Rogers, 1951; 1959) person-centred principles, it views positive change and self-actualization as a driving force in the human psyche (Stober, 2006).

Coaching, from this point of view, capitalizes on a person’s inherent tendency to self-actualize and looks to stimulate a person’s inherent growth potential. This approach, which draws from psychotherapy, places a strong emphasis on the practitioner-client relationship, suggesting that the relationship itself (its warmth and positive regard) is a main ingredient for growth. It also promotes a holistic approach, requiring the coach to address all negative and positive aspects of the person.

Behaviour-based Approach

Peterson (2006) advocates a behavioural approach that acknowledges the complexity of both the human being and her environment. Nevertheless, it focuses on facilitating practical change over psychological theory and adjustments.

This approach is action-focused. This means that it looks to the future and seeks to create change and embed it in real-life contexts. But, it still leans towards personal development. It emphasizes the need for client learning, and to a lesser degree adopts a therapeutic emphasis on the coaching relationship.

Adult-development Approach

This approach is based on constructive-developmental theories. Such theories state that as people develop they become more aware of and open to a mature understanding of authority and responsibility. They display greater tolerance for ambiguity.

Coaching from this perspective is based upon the idea of four main stages of development. It suggests that coaching at each stage needs to focus on stage-of-development related issues (Berger, 2006).

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Cognitive Coaching

Auerbach (2006) claims that although coaching must address the many facets of the individual, it is mainly a cognitive method. A fundament of cognitive coaching is the view that one’s feelings and emotions are the product of one’s thoughts. These include a person’s perceptions, interpretations, mental attitudes and beliefs.

Cognitive therapy helps clients replace maladaptive and inaccurate cognitions (Ellis, 1979; Burns, 1980). Auerbach argues that a primary function of the coach is to assist the client in challenging and overcoming their maladaptive and distorted perceptions.

Adult Learning Approach

This approach seeks to use coaching to stimulate deep learning. It draws from a range of adult-learning theories, such as andragogy (Knowles, 1980), reflective practice (Boud et al., 1994) and experiential learning (Kolb, 1984).

These theories collectively argue that adults learn by reflecting on their experiences. Cox (2006) says coaching is also a learning approach designed to nurture goal-focused, self-directed learners. Such people draw on their reservoir of previous experience for solving real-life dilemmas.

Gray (2005) advocates a transformative learning coaching model that seeks to raise the coachee’s critical reflection to question assumptions. He suggests that coaching has become a tool in the increasing shift towards informal, self-directed learning in organizations.

Positive Psychology Model

Kauffman (2006) argues that coaching should work to identify and build on the client’s strengths and should seek to bring hope and happiness. Positive psychology seeks to encourage people to look to what is good and going well in their lives to reinforce a positive disposition. Positive emotions widen a person’s attention span. They broaden access to the person’s intellectual and psychological resources. This results in improved performance.

Certain aspects of the positive coaching model can be used to achieve specific goals. But it seems primarily designed to effect general enhancement and life balance.

Neenan and Dryden’s (2002) Life Coaching is entirely based on positive psychology and focuses on changing perceptions and attitudes.

Adventure-based Model

According to Kemp (2006), adventure education is an appropriate conception of coaching. Both seek to cross boundaries and explore new frontiers and horizons. Both, he argues, begin with an analysis of the present state. Both set out the desired destination and develop the means of reaching it. Both involve a willingness to accept risk and uncertainty (with coaching: psychological injury), to move to the edge of their physical or psychological comfort zone. It is out of this risk that personal growth occurs.

Kemp argues that adventure-based coaching asks the participant to test his cognitive, behavioural and emotional competence. It brings about change by creating new behavioural responses to situations. Adventure is a process rather than an activity (Priest 1999). The learning attained during the adventure is captured or anchored and the lessons are later applied in real life settings.

Systemic Approach

Coaching using a systemic framework is about helping the client to recognize hitherto unrecognized patterns of behaviour and forms of feedback. While doing so, they see their experiences in new ways.

This approach also encourages a holistic view, in which various other parts of the system may have relevance to the issue at hand. Humans are complex adaptive systems insofar as they consist of a combination of interacting systems that are affected by the change and can respond to changed circumstances (See Carver & Scheier, 1998 chap 14).

A systemic coaching model seeks to foreground complexity, unpredictability and contextual factors, and highlights the importance of small changes. It encourages openness, growth and creativity. This approach views the balance between stability and instability as optimal for performance (Cavanagh, 2006).

Goal-oriented Approach

The foregoing approaches may be compared against a strict goal-focused or solution-driven approach which sees the primary function of coaching fostering the client’s self-regulation. According to Grant (2006 p. 153), “Coaching is essentially about helping individuals regulate and direct their interpersonal and intrapersonal resources to better attain their goals.” The primary method is assisting the client to identify and form well-crafted goals and develop an effective action plan.

The role of the coach is to stimulate ideas and action and to ensure that the goals are consistent with the client’s main life values and interests, rather than working on helping the client to adjust her values and beliefs. In this conception, coaching is about raising performance and supporting effective action, rather than addressing feelings and thoughts, which it is thought will be indirectly addressed through actual positive results (Grant, 2003). This type of approach is sometimes called ‘brief coaching’ (Berg & Szabo, 2005) as it aims to achieve its goals in a comparatively short space of time and normally focusing on a relatively defined issue or goal.

These are some of the approaches that researchers often quote. I encourage you to read up more in the books mentioned towards the end of this blog.

Keep exploring!

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How Are Coaching Theories Used in Practice?

It is important to understand why theories inform and empower coaches, irrespective of the niche that they would like to operate in. The ICF provides some insights here:

  • Theory can inform the approach you take to a coaching engagement. For example, adult development theories can help you understand what a client needs from the engagement and help you select stage-appropriate coaching tools and tasks. They can even clue you into a client’s emotional state.
  • Tapping into a theoretical framework can enhance the breadth and scope of your understanding of human behavior. This in turn expands your coaching tool kit. For example, a coach who has studied theories of human behavior and change has a context for how change occurs, what visible signs support or sabotage the client, and what it takes to navigate the process.
  • Theories become teaching tools. For example, a client who is going through personal or professional changes might find understanding and emotional relief by studying a framework such as William Bridges’ transition model and discussing its application to her situation.

As the blog explains, “coaching is not a profession that arrived fully formed. Rather, it has grown from a history of wisdom and study and been refined by individual practitioners and the protocols of our professional coaching schools.”

Which brings me to the next point: where can you learn these coaching theories?

Where Can You Learn Coaching Theories?

There is no dearth of coaching institutes across the world. I have dedicated an entire blog to researching some of the best places for you to learn coaching. Do look up my blog How to Select the Best Coaching Training Program for details.

As I have explained, all coaching training programs are not similar. They vary according to the institute’s format. You need to do your research before taking up any coaching program.

You should also be aware of the core competencies that every coach should develop, irrespective of their style or niche. The International Coach Federation lays them out here in form of an international coaching psychology review.

However, is it necessary for you to get training from institutes? Will a degree help?

I have addressed these questions in my blog Do You Need Coaching Certification In 2021? Getting a degree will arm you with knowledge of these coaching theories and formal education. But there is nothing stopping you from self-learning, especially since all the research is now available online.

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Research on Coaching Theories

There is a lot of information available online that will give you much more information than I have provided here.

Here are some of the publications that you may find interesting:

You will also find a lot of information from a number of research and reference links provided in that last link above.

  • L. Whitworth, H. Kimsey-House, P. Sandahl, “Co-Active Coaching: new skills for coaching people toward success in work and life”, CA. Davis Black Publishing 2007
  • Y. Ives, “What is ‘Coaching’? An Exploration of Conflicting Paradigms”, International Journal of Evidence-Based Coaching and Mentoring
  • K. Griffiths, “Personal coaching: A model for effective learning”, Journal of Learning Design,
  • J. Whitmore, “Coaching for performance” 3rd ed. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing
  • R. Hargrove, “Masterful Coaching (Revised Edition). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Pfeiffer
  • B. M. A. Wilkins, “Grounded theory study of personal coaching”. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, San Diego State: University of Montana, 2000
  • J. Travis Kemp, “Psychology’s Unique Contribution to Solution-Focused Coaching: Exploring Clients’ Past to Inform Their Present and Design Their Future”. Evidence-based Coaching: Theory, research and practice from the behavioral sciences.
  • P. Zeus, & S. Skiffington, “The Complete Guide to Coaching at Work, Sydney: McGraw-Hill Australia
  • D. Carnahan, J. Righeimer, L. Tarr, C. Toll, C. Voss, “Reading First Coaching: A Guide for Coaches and Reading First Leaders”. Chicaco: Learning Point Associates
  • J. L. Hurd, “Learning for Life: A phenomenological investigation into the effect of organizational coaching on individual lives” Unpublished doctoral dissertation, USA: Union Institute and University Graduate College
  • A. M. Grant, “Towards a Psychology of Coaching: The Impact of Coaching on Metacognition”, Mental Health and Goal Attainment. Submitted in partial requirement for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Department of Psychology, unpublished Doctoral Dissertations, Australia; Macquarie University
  • A. Griffiths, “Coaching and Spiritual Values in the Workplace: exploring the perspective of coaches. International Journal of Evidence-Based Coaching and Mentoring Special Issue. 4
  • B. G. Spence, G. L. Oades, “Coaching with self-determination in mind: Using theory to advance evidence-based coaching practice”, International Journal of Evidence-Based Coaching and Mentoring
  • C. A. Douglas, C. D. McCauley, “Formal developmental relationships: A survey of organizational practices” Human Resource Development Quarterly, 1999, 10(3)
  • P. A. Aparece, “Teaching, Learning, and Community: An Examination of Wittgenstein a Themes applied to the philosophy of education”
  • Carter T M., Appreciative inquiry and adult transformative learning as an integrated framework to guide life coaching practice. Unpublished Dissertation of doctoral of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Psychology, San Francisco, California: faculty of Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center in partial fulfilment of the requirements
  • A. M. Grant, An Integrative Goal-Focused Approach to Executive Coaching. Evidence-based coaching handbook: putting best practices to work for your clients Hoboken, N.J: John Wiley & Sons, 156- 192, 2006
  • K. Griffiths, “Personal coaching: A model for effective learning” Journal of Learning Design, vol.1 no.2, pp. 55-65, 2005
  • G. Cheetham, G. Chivers, “How professionals learn in practice: an investigation of informal learning amongst people working in professions’”, Journal of European Industrial Training
  • P. S. Linder, “NLP Coaching: An evidence-based approach for coaches, leaders and individuals”, First published the United States, Kogan Page
  • B. Bachkirova, E. Cox, E. Clutterbuck “The Complete Handbook of coaching”, London: SAGE, 2010
  • L. Dunn “Learning and Teaching Briefing Papers Series” Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development, 2002
  • J. Hay, “Coaching, train the trainer”, London: Fenman Ltd, Issue 7, 2003
  • O’Connor, Joseph & Lages, Andrea. How Coaching Works. A & C Black. First published, Great Britain, 2007
  • M. Smith, R. A. Gilbert, “learning team approach to executive recruitment, coaching & consultancy”, Institute of Work-Based Learning, Middlesex University, 2011
  • S. J. Armstrong, C. Fukami, “Handbook of Management Learning, Education and Development” London: Sage Publications, 2008
  • E. Cox, “An Adult Learning Approach to Coaching. Evidence-based coaching handbook: putting best practices to work for your clients Hoboken”, New Jersey, John Wiley & Sons , p 200, 2006
  • C. Harding, “Using the Multiple Intelligences as a learning intervention: a model for coaching and mentoring” , International Journal of Evidence-Based Coaching and Mentoring, Vol. 4, No.2, Bournemouth University, UK, PP:19-42
  • J. Mezirow, “Transformative Learning: Theory to Practice, new directions for adult and continuing education” no. 74, Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1997
  • G. Olivero, K. Bane, D. Kopelman, E. Richard, “Executive coaching as a transfer of training tool: effects on productivity in a public agency” Public Personnel Management pp 12-22, 1997
  • C. A. Frayne, G. P. Latham, “Self-management training for increased job attendance: A follow-up and a replication,” Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol.74, 411- 416, 1989
  • C. R. Rogers, “The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change” Journal of Consultative Psychology, Vol.21, 95– 103, 1957
  • J. Starr, “The Coaching Manual The definitive guide to the process, principles and skills of personal coaching” Pearson Education, 2003
  • Munro, R, (2012), Coaching and the Change Paradox: A Heuristic Study, International Journal of Evidence-Based Coaching and Mentoring Special Issue No.6, PP:88-101, Oxford, UK.
  • N. Nielsen, K. Nielsen, “The Graves Model and its application in coching” Berlin: NLP & Coaching Institute 2010 available at p 8
  • M. Marquardt, H. S. Leonard, A. Freedman, C. Hill, “Action learning for developing leaders and organizations: Principles, strategies, and cases”, Washington DC American Psychological Association, 2009
  • V. Vaarttjes, “Integrating action learning practices into executive coaching to enhance business results” International Journal of Evidence-Based Coaching and Mentoring, Vol. 3, No. 1, 2005. p 1-17

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is meant by coach behaviours?

Behaviours are what people see. By defining coaching through behaviours, we are able to present clearly what great coaching looks like through the eyes of the participant.

What do behavioral coaches do?

Behavioral coaching can be defined as the art of aiding the performance, learning and development of the individual or team, which in turn helps in the growth of the organization. Many organizations and coaches declare to use behavioral coaching simply because they are dealing with behavior.

How do I become a good behavior coach?

You don’t need a certification to become a good behavior coach since coaching is still an unregulated industry.

How does a behavior coach teach?

Behavioral Coaches provide individuals, groups, teachers, students and administrative personnel with a wide variety of coaching interventions. They train senior teachers to coach new and experienced teachers and students as well as establishing and monitoring peer coaching programs.

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