Why has BACP developed these coaching competences?
Readers of Coaching Today will be unsurprised to learn that an increasing number of therapists are working as coaches or showing an interest in coaching. Since 2016, BACP has recognised coaching in the Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions.1 What was not long ago the preserve of a marginal – if enthusiastic – group of therapists is becoming increasingly mainstream.
Responses to a survey of BACP Coaching members (discussed further below) highlight the range of ways in which practitioners are using therapy and coaching. Some have developed a separate coaching practice to run alongside their existing therapeutic one. Some have found ways to integrate elements of coaching into their therapeutic work. Vice versa, some have decided to practise as coaches in ways that draw on their therapeutic knowledge, skills and experience. Finally, some have sought a more comprehensive integration to create a single practice known variously as coach-therapy, integrative coach-therapy, therapeutic coaching or, adopting the title of Nash Popovic’s and Debra Jinks’s pioneering book, ‘personal consultancy’.2 The main reason respondents gave for combining therapy and coaching was that it enables them to address their clients’ needs and aspirations in a more holistic way.
The coaching competence framework has been created in response to these advances in practice. It is the latest in a series published by BACP’s Professional Standards department, as part of a broader strategy of producing evidence-based competences to inform the development of professional and ethical standards and guidelines. Previous frameworks have addressed:
- counselling and psychotherapy supervision
- online and telephone therapy
- counselling with children and young people (four to 18 years)
- counselling in further and higher education
- workplace counselling
- counselling skills, as distinguished from counselling proper.3
These frameworks are establishing more clearly defined and demarcated areas of practice, and will increasingly feed into curricula for training practitioners. In this way, it is hoped that they will clarify and enhance standards across the range of disciplines and contexts where BACP members practise. The publication of the coaching competence framework and the accompanying user guide marks the first significant step in the development of professional standards for coaching practitioners within BACP.
To summarise, in creating this competence framework, BACP is seeking to:
- respond to grassroots innovations by recognising and supporting practitioners who use both therapeutic and coaching approaches;
- meet the needs of prospective clients who might benefit from working with a dual-trained therapist-coach;
- provide leadership in the development and promotion of standards for effective, ethical practice, and in creating a curriculum for dual-trained practitioners;
- better meet the needs of current and prospective members, and secure a lasting presence within BACP for therapists who coach.
What’s the wider professional background to the development of these competences?
The last 15 years have seen the increasing use of competence frameworks in the therapy professions, since the appearance of the first competences for cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) in 2007. These were created in response to the establishment of the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme, and the demand from commissioners of NHS therapy services for more evidence-based forms of practice.
This period also saw the publication of competence frameworks by the three main professional coaching bodies in the UK: the Association for Coaching (AC), the European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC) and the International Coach Federation (ICF). These competences will be discussed further below.
How are the competences to be used, and who can use them?
The most important point to make is that the competences are not a set of requirements, with a practitioner needing to master every competence before they can work with clients. Rather, they aim to present a field of possible ways of working, by capturing the knowledge, skills and abilities that will generally feature in effective, ethical practice. A common way of explaining this is to say that the competences are descriptive, rather than prescriptive. However, there are some competences that arguably carry more weight, in the sense that it is more difficult to conceive of good practice that does not feature their use.
There is a role for supervision here; practitioners can work with their supervisors to identify those competences that are of more foundational importance. Two points from the ‘Good Practice’ section of the Ethical Framework1 are worth bearing in mind:
- 13. We must be competent to deliver the services being offered to at least fundamental professional standards or better;
- 45. Whenever we communicate our qualifications, professional experience and working methods, we will do so accurately and honestly.
The competence framework is primarily intended for use by therapists, supervisors and trainers:
- Therapists who are already working as coaches and/or integrating therapy and coaching can map their current practice against the framework, to gauge the extent of their knowledge and skills and to identify areas for further development or training;
- Therapists who are new to coaching or to integrating therapy and coaching can use the framework to understand their training needs;
- Supervisors can use the competences to support supervisees’ current work, and to explore with supervisees those areas where there might be need or opportunity for further development;
- Trainers can use the competences as a guide, or as the basis for training and/or assessment in specific areas of practice, or by adopting – once it has been developed – the BACP training curriculum.
The competences can also be used by those concerned with developing and upholding professional and ethical standards, by individual or organisational clients, by commissioners of services, and by researchers.
The requirement that BACP members are to make appropriate use of supervision might present a challenge, given that there are not currently a large number of supervisors with dual training and experience as therapists and coaches. Therapists who are applying, or seeking to apply, aspects of coaching might therefore find it difficult to find one person who can meet all of their supervision needs. They might need to engage a second supervisor, and perhaps consider joining a supervision group, in order to ensure that they can be appropriately supported in reflectively exploring all aspects of their client work.
What areas does the competence framework cover?
The framework is divided into two domains. The first, the core coaching domain, features those competences that a trained therapist will use in addition to their therapeutic knowledge and skills when practising as a coach. The second domain, integration, describes the knowledge, skills and awareness involved in the integration of therapeutic and coaching approaches. The relationship between the two domains is captured in the diagram below, along with the foundational competence that they share.
How were the competences identified, and what’s their relationship with SCoPEd?
When developing the core coaching domain, we were mindful that trained therapists already have some of the foundational aspects of coaching competence – such as, for example, a high level of facilitative skill and relational awareness, and an understanding of some psychological theories. It was therefore decided not to produce an entire set of coaching competences, but to identify the competences that trained therapists will use in addition to their basic therapeutic competences when practising as coaches.
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This involved a two-stage process. First, we reviewed the competence frameworks of the three main coaching bodies that were mentioned above, and from a synthesis of these frameworks, we created a generic set of coaching competences based on existing professional knowledge and experience. Second, these were mapped against Column A of the most recent version of the SCoPEd framework. Although it is not yet certain that SCoPEd will be adopted, the January 2022 version4 enabled us to identify the foundational therapy competences that feature on good practitioner training courses. This enabled us in turn to identify the coaching competences that do not typically form part of basic training and practice in therapy, and these were then organised to create the core coaching domain. The result is a set of coaching competences that, unlike those of the three main coaching bodies, meets the specific needs of trained therapists by recognising and building on the skills, knowledge and awareness that they have already developed.
For the integration domain, we conducted an initial literature review, which showed that there is as yet virtually no academic research into the integration of therapy and coaching, and little in the way of textbooks or other ‘grey material’, such as unpublished postgraduate theses. It was therefore decided to build the evidence base from the ground up, by canvassing the views and experiences of a group of practitioners with first-hand experience: BACP Coaching members. The December 2021 survey had a very good response rate, and by conducting an analysis of the themes found in members’ responses, we identified the competences involved in integrating therapy and coaching. Like those in the core coaching domain, these competences will be periodically revised as the evidence base develops.
Why do we need competences?
Like a flexible ethical framework such as BACP’s, a set of competences gives us a map with which to navigate the varied terrains and uneven topography of real-world practice. Even with the secure base of supervision, working as a therapist or coach can be a lonely journey. Success is rarely unqualified, and reflection can easily slide from healthy acceptance of uncertainty into ruminative self-doubt.5,6 Having a set of competences can help us to reorientate ourselves, both by reminding us of the complexity of our work and by furnishing ways of developing our range. We can gauge our practice against a general standard; we can also notice if we’ve fallen into the habit of staying on well-trodden paths in familiar zones. If this is the case, we can adopt a growth mindset – as all good coaches should!7 – and branch out into new regions.
Moving from the individual practitioner to the profession as a collective, we can change the metaphor to say that competence frameworks provide a common vocabulary for the complex and varied processes involved in working with clients. They help supervisors, trainers and others tasked with promoting and upholding standards to identify the components of effective and ethical practice. They also offer clarity to prospective clients, commissioners of services and other stakeholders.
Are competences a means for BACP to police its members’ practice?
In a word, no. To repeat the point made earlier, the competences are designed to be descriptive rather than prescriptive. They seek to capture what the current state of our knowledge suggests are the factors that contribute to effective practice. Another way of putting this is to say that the competences are designed to be an enabling structure that can hold the tension between the need for practitioner autonomy on the one hand and, on the other, the need for a shared understanding of our work, without which any form of association is meaningless.
Aren’t competences too simplistic to capture the complexities of real-world practice?
No, and yes. This is a case that has been made forcefully by two thoughtful practitioner-researchers, Tatiana Bachkirova and Carmelina Lawton Smith.8 They argue that competences are mechanical, reductive and rigid, and that over-reliance on competences stultifies the creativity and responsiveness that real-world practice requires. Competences are also an inadequate means of assessing proficiency. What is needed instead is a more holistic focus on capabilities, including reflective awareness, skilled judgment, conceptual thinking and a commitment to, and capacity for, ongoing development.
There is much merit in this argument. However, Bachkirova and Lawton Smith are referring specifically to the competences of the three main coaching bodies, and the reliance on them for assessment and accreditation processes. These competences are indeed rather mechanical, being couched at times in concrete and behavioural language that could give the impression that coaching largely involves the technical application of skills underpinned by rather basic theory. An important difference between BACP’s coaching competences and those of the three coaching bodies is that BACP’s are presented in language that captures more of the intentionality and discernment that are involved in client-responsive practice. To give an illustrative example, compare the AC’s
Asks questions to challenge client’s assumptions, elicit new insights, raise self-awareness and gain learning with BACP’s Ability to listen for, and help the client to identify, underlying assumptions and how they shape perceptions of self, others and situations
There are many other instances in the BACP competences of this sense that, as in therapy, the use of skills in coaching follows organically from subtle, sensitive listening, rather than being an essentially technical procedure. The BACP competences also place more emphasis on the need for theoretical understanding, for example in areas such as motivation, goal-orientation and working with clients’ strengths. They also emphasise the need for continuing development, as for example in one of the competences from the integration domain:
Ability to be responsive to the full range of human experience, and to commit to ongoing personal development work in order to enable and enhance such responsiveness
In this way, the framework includes at least part of what Bachkirova and Lawton Smith mean by capabilities.
Even so, these authors are justified in arguing that competences can only get us so far. To extend the metaphor of the map used earlier, if the competences are the map we still need the compass of our values, self-awareness and professional wisdom. We need our unconscious competence in navigating micro-aspects of the terrain that don’t show on the large-scale map; we need the well-provisioned rucksack of self-care. We need to be prepared to explore new routes, and to develop the skills involved in negotiating unfamiliar territory. We need the basic existential courage to strike out on a journey that will be different each time, and that will sometimes present obstacles we can only overcome with real difficulty. We need to embrace those moments when the map has to be temporarily folded away, so the coach can just be with and respond to the client as a compassionate witness. And we must do all of this with our vision obscured by the mists of uncertainty that have settled, it seems permanently, on the 21st century landscape.9
How will publication of the competences affect my practice and membership, both immediately and in the longer term?
In the short term, the impact on practice will depend on the extent to which each practitioner, in conjunction with their supervisor(s), makes use of the competences in reflecting on and developing their work with clients. BACP is currently developing a curriculum, underpinned by the framework, which will enable training providers to establish courses for therapists who want to develop as coaches. The curriculum will be flexible, in that providers will be able to offer training to therapists who want to learn how to coach as a distinct activity, as well as to those who are seeking to integrate coaching and therapy. The great advantage of any training based on the competence framework is that it will take full account of, and intentionally build on, therapists’ existing knowledge, skills and personal awareness.
The publication of the competences has no immediate impact on membership. At the time of writing, BACP has given no indication of any plans to create a separate accreditation category for dual-trained coach-therapist practitioners, though this does not mean that such a development will never take place. For the time being, the impact on membership is more psychological: a strong endorsement of the role that coaching has to play in the present and future of the psychological therapies, and a sign of BACP’s valuing of, and commitment to, those who are striking these new paths through a well-trodden landscape.
Despite its growing popularity, the combination of coaching and therapy as a distinct form of practice remains in an early stage of development. There is much that we don’t yet know about how it might be most effectively done, or about the kinds of clients for whom, and circumstances in which, it is likely to be beneficial. More detailed research is needed, and while we certainly need to know more about outcomes, my personal hope (and belief) is that fine-grained qualitative research can keep future versions of the competences firmly grounded in the experiences of clients and practitioners.
Since it was first proposed nearly 10 years ago, the development of the coaching competence framework has proved to be a drawn-out process, and has involved contributions from a number of people. There is therefore a sense in which publication marks both an end and a beginning: the first substantial yield from seeds planted a number of years ago, one that promises in time to be followed by further harvests.
Note: this article includes some edited extracts from the user guide that has been published alongside the competence framework. Readers who are looking for more detail about some of the matters discussed can access the BACP competences and curricula guide.
1 British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. Ethical framework for the counselling professions. Lutterworth: BACP; 2018. [Online.]
2 Popovic N, Jinks D. Personal consultancy: a model for integrating counselling and coaching. London, Routledge; 2014.
5 Petherick S. A leap into the unknown: the self-employed coach's experience of self-doubt. International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring 2010; Special Issue No 10; 128–146.
6 Thériault A, Gazzola N. Feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, and incompetence among experienced therapists. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research 2006; 5 (1): 11–18.
7 Dweck C. Mindset: the new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine Books; 2006.
8 Bachkirova T, Lawton Smith C. From competencies to capabilities in the assessment and accreditation of coaches. International Journal of Evidence-Based Coaching and Mentoring 2015; 13(2): 123–140.
9 O’Hara M, Leicester G. Dancing at the edge: competence, culture and organization in the 21st century. Axminster: Triarchy Press; 2019.