One of the most common professional goals for my coaching clients is expanding their private practice to include life coaching services. As professionals with a depth of knowledge in personal development and goal achievement strategies, therapists are ideal candidates for the coaching profession. Despite this near perfect fit, there are some glitches for therapists when offering coaching services alongside therapy, or when choosing to become professional coaches. In this post, I focus on detailing and offering solutions for these complications, in an effort to help you ethically practice coaching.
1 | State Laws and Rules
Because coaching is largely unregulated, as a licensed therapist offering coaching in your state, you may be held to the laws, rules, and ethics of your profession. This means that in order to protect yourself from liability, it’s essential that you follow state laws and rules pertaining to your license when working with coaching clients. Kaplan explains
". . . professional counselors who offer coaching services should understand that, legally, they are still practicing counselors. Be aware that licensing boards do not necessarily differentiate between counseling and coaching activities. Your licensing board may well view your coaching as falling under their scope of practice. Therefore, you should fulfill all mandated state licensing requirements — for example, obtaining informed consent, reporting child or elder abuse, etc. — with your coaching clients just as you do with your counseling clients" (as cited in Paterson, 2008).
The only way around complying with licensing requirements is to pursue coaching certification in lieu of a mental health license. In the absence of a license, a coach is not governed by a state licensing body, because currently, the profession is largely unregulated.
2 | Business Issues
The best practice for offering coaching as a licensed therapist is to create a coaching business. This is true whether or not you already own a therapy business. In other words, your coaching services should be offered under a business entity that does not include therapy. The business should have a separate name, marketing materials, client paperwork, informed consent, etc.
The reason for this is that state laws and rules exist to protect the public from exploitation, confusion, and potential harm. Advertising therapy and coaching together may inadvertently communicate similarities, and make it difficult for clients and potential clients to differentiate between coaching and therapy. On the other hand, offering the services under separate businesses ensures that clients are protected fully and contained within the boundaries of each service. Jasper (2015) explains:
"The practice of coaching and the practice of psychotherapy are clearly distinct and, as such, it is recommended the practices be advertised separately to avoid confusing and/or misleading clients regarding the scope of work performed as a coach and/or psychotherapist."
3 | Dual Relationships
Most states restrict dual relationships between therapists and their clients, as do the ACA and AAMFT ethical codes. In Florida, for example, a therapy client is considered a client for at least two years after the last therapeutic contact. In order to abide by this law, a therapist could not offer coaching services to a former therapy client within those two years.
Potentially, a client could receive coaching from their past therapist after the appropriate amount of time; however, it’s important to consider how going from one relationship to another could cloud the differences between the two services for clients. While the therapist-client and coach-client relationships are similar, they also have fundamentally different expectations on the client and the practitioner, as well as different potential levels of dependency. As Paterson (2008) notes, “Progress is often slow and painful in counseling, but it is . . . ‘rapid and usually enjoyable’ in coaching (Williams, as cited in Paterson). Given these differences, it is clear that the role of the therapist and the role of the coach are distinct, and clients should be protected, by the licensed therapist, from overlap and confusion.
The need to avoid dual relationships is also relevant when a client begins as a coaching client and later needs to receive therapy. This client should be referred to a different licensed therapist for therapy. It is paramount that licensed therapists practicing coaching understand and respect boundaries between coaching and therapy services in order to avoid confusion for themselves and their clients, and in order to avoid dual relationships.
4 | Training, or No Training?
Coaching certification is not required in order for therapists to practice coaching or use the title “coach.” And, in many instances, the training already required of professional therapists allows them to practice coaching with competence. Whether or not therapists wishing to practice coaching seek certification is largely based on their personal preferences. One thing to consider: The AAMFT code of ethics (2015) states:
"While developing new skills in specialty areas, marriage and family therapists take steps to ensure the competence of their work and to protect clients from possible harm. Marriage and family therapists practice in specialty areas new to them only after appropriate education, training, and/or supervised experience" (Standard 3.6, 2015).
There is room for interpretation in this statement, and therapists can assume that this standard is only relevant to the acquisition of new therapy skills and specialties; however, in order to ethically make this decision, it’s essential that therapists consult their state laws and understand the full meaning of relevant standards in their ethical codes.
5 | Niche
Some coaching niches have little overlap with therapy and therefore offer a layer of protection for therapists in regards to liability, especially when therapists adhere to best ethical practices. For example, there are significant differences between a therapist offering life coaching within a therapy practice, and a licensed therapist offering business coaching under a coaching business. Naturally, the first scenario holds more potential for the blurring of ethical lines than the second scenario. Niche and business focus influence liability and ethical practice; they can also show a licensed therapist's effort and intent toward protecting clients..
Before starting a coaching business and offering services, consult an attorney familiar with the state laws and rules governing your license, as well as a business attorney. In addition, make sure to obtain appropriate liability insurance.
In order to ethically offer coaching as a licensed therapist, you must:
- Treat coaching clients as therapy clients and abide by all state laws and rules governing your license, including but not limited to mandated reporting, dual relationships, and record keeping
- Offer coaching under a business separate from your therapy business
- Educate clients and potential clients about the limits of coaching as a service, and how you will proceed if it becomes clear that they need therapy
- Whether you want to become a coach as your sole profession, or offer coaching services in addition to therapy
- Your coaching qualifications
- Your coaching niche and scope of practice
- Whether or not you need to start a new business
- The laws and rules of your state regarding your professional license
- The relevance of your profession’s ethical code in regards to coaching (you can consult your national professional association for free legal advice)
- The need for specific and separate client contracts and paperwork
- Defining the boundary between therapy and coaching for yourself and clients
- Developing a policy for identifying therapy needs as well as referral procedures
- Separate and/or additional liability insurance
I've put together a step-by-step Ethical Coaching Guide to help you stay on track with ethically planning your coaching services. You can download it here:
In the comments below, let me know:
- What is your main (#1) concern with offering coaching services?
- What is one question I can answer for you on this topic?
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AAMFT (2015). The AAMFT code of ethics. Retrieved from http://www.aamft.org/iMIS15/AAMFT/Content/Legal_Ethics/Code_of_Ethics.aspx
Jasper, S. (2015). Coaching vs. therapy: Frequently asked questions. Retrieved from https://www.camft.org/ias/COS/Resources/Attorney_Articles/Sara/Coaching_vs_Therapy.aspx
Paterson (2008). Counseling vs. life coaching. Counseling Today. Retrieved from http://ct.counseling.org/2008/12/counseling-vs-life-coaching-2/