The Coach as Therapist

What we can learn from traditional forms of therapy.

Patrick Heller
4 min readJan 24


Considering that true organizational change happens only when (certain) individuals within the organization change their thinking and behavior, it makes sense to explore the tools that psychotherapists use to bring about change in their clients’ behavior and reasoning.

Before we dive into the world of psychotherapy, I want to set some expectations. When we talk about therapy, what are we actually talking about? I suspect that many of you picture a client, slash patient, lying on a couch, with a serious-looking grey-haired gentleman with spectacles sitting right next to the couch, one leg over the other, in a comfortable armchair — near the head of the client — sporting a pen and a notepad, asking serious questions. These questions could range from, “how are we feeling today?”, to, “when I say gun, you say…” This would be the image of classical psychotherapy in the era of Freud.

Psychodynamic psychotherapy

Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) founded what is known as psychodynamic psychotherapy, basically what is described in the paragraph above — a dialogue between a patient and a therapist, in which the therapist takes the lead and guides the patient. Freud named his theories and methods psychoanalysis.

Today, the term psychoanalysis is used for forms of psychodynamic psychotherapy that closely align with Freud’s methods — in practice only about 10% of therapists use the term. Therapies that are more loosely based on Freud’s methods are called psychodynamic therapy — around 15% of therapists consider themselves to fall into this category.

Some characteristics of psychodynamic psychotherapy include a focus on the unconscious, finding clues about personal issues in early childhood experiences, finding meaning in a patient’s specific use of words — including mistakes, and dissecting dreams to find clues to the unconscious.

The therapist — the psychoanalyst in Freud’s lingo — searches for gateways into the unconscious of the patient and derives meaning from what is found. Thus, by relaying these findings to the patient through questioning, the analyst makes the patient aware of their unconscious thoughts, which helps them to act upon these now conscious thoughts. Conflicting beliefs can be sorted out and unrealistic beliefs and pursuits can be realigned to more healthy thoughts. It is essential for the patient to experience these insights themselves, and not just have the analyst explain them to them.

Humanistic psychotherapy

In 1951, American psychologist Carl Rogers (1902–1987) introduced what he called client-centered therapy. Rogers took a different approach from Freud to the therapeutic process and focused not on the ability of the therapist (the psychoanalyst) to find meaning in the words of the patient, but rather on the ability of the client to gain insights into their own thoughts and words.

Modern therapists who adhere to this method speak of person-based therapy, in which the therapist and the client explore the inner world of the client together. Key to this approach is the respectful and supportive manner in which the therapist handles the process with the client, in which the client is allowed to take the lead and the therapist minds their own thoughts and words carefully in order to be fully empathic and unconditionally supportive towards the client.

These “classic” forms of psychotherapy are usually quite extensive in nature. They sometimes require multiple sessions per week and can run from anywhere between a few months to several years. As you might imagine, these forms of therapy are a little less suited for a work environment. Nonetheless, as a coach in an organization built up of individuals, it might at times be effective to apply some of these psychodynamic techniques to get to the nitty-gritty of a certain person’s character and issues in order to force a breakthrough in a tough situation.

I have certainly initiated my share of one-on-one conversations with persons that were blocking the progress of a team or even an entire department. I’ve always tried to use the more humanistic approach, to be empathic and a careful listener, asking triggering questions to try and guide someone to new understandings. I’ve had people break down and cry in front of me more than once. Even though one can be blind to their own behavior, I’d like to think the tears were not the result of my brutishness, but rather of the person’s own illuminating insights into their thoughts and behavior — but who knows?

More to come about different forms of therapy in the next articles.

If you are interested in stories like these and more, you can buy Essential Psychology for Modern Organizations from Amazon and other bookstores:

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