Evidence Based Coaching: What it is and how it works

by Leni
Wildflower, PhD, PCC

The success of coaching

In recent years the practice of executive and life coaching has exploded in
Europe and around the world. Coaching has proved a successful newcomer in a
crowded market, competing aggressively with more established sources of guidance
and support for businesses and individuals. While there is no shortage of anecdotal
evidence of the benefits of coaching in its many forms, and adherents to one
school or other are vocal in their support of their chosen systems, there has
so far been too little time for extensive outcome research or much rigorous
analysis of which techniques achieve results. Coaching is still in the process
of cohering as a profession. Meanwhile it is helpful to study its intellectual
underpinnings, and to draw the lines between bodies of established theory and
research on the one hand and aspects of coaching methodology on the other.

An evidence-based approach

An evidence-based approach to coach training draws on a range of related disciplines,
including psychology, communication, adult development and organizational studies,
and aims to match them with the best current techniques, skills and strategies
in coaching. The aim is not to add yet one more trade-marked coaching system,
but rather to enrich the individual coach’s repertoire of strategies and
to deepen his or her sense of the intellectual stream from which these practices
have emerged.

Although coaching can be seen to have sprung from theories of humanistic psychology,
behavioral therapy, and the human potential movements of the 1970’s, its
origins are many and varied. What makes coaching so exciting is precisely what
makes it difficult to identify as a discipline or a codified set of principles.
Certainly there is an emerging model that distinguishes the practice of coaching
from consulting or counseling. But the most skilled coaches are able to employ
principles and techniques from a whole range of disciplines.

While adhering to what is unmistakably a coaching role in relation to the client,
a coach might lean on theories drawn from humanistic, behavioral or Gestalt
psychology, or from positive psychology and appreciative inquiry. At times it
might be helpful for the coach to be equipped with theories of adult development,
adult learning, or intelligence. At other times theories of communication, leadership
and organizational management will be more helpful. Some coaches might be able
to draw on knowledge as diverse as neurobiology and brain research on the one
hand, and religious and spiritual traditions on the other. Depending on the
client’s issues and circumstances, theories of conflict and conflict resolution,
theories of change and transition management, or theories of gender, cultural
and racial difference might be part of an appropriate background to the coaching
conversation, or might find their way into the conversation itself.

Background or Foreground

Whether or not any one of these areas remains intellectual background for
the coach or becomes a topic of conversation between the coach and the client
will depend on various factors, and there are a number of ways in which a theory
might become relevant.

First, there are areas of theory that provide the general principles basic
to the coaching enterprise, and on which any coaching practice must be founded.
For example, the skill of developing a coaching presence and co-creating a relationship
are underpinned by research-based theories found both in humanistic psychology
and cognitive behavioral therapy. For a coach with a pragmatic sense of what
works, a study of theory can add a fresh awareness of why it works, bringing
to the practice a greater sense of coherence.

Second, there are times when an aspect of theory will become an appropriate
part of the dialogue between the coach and the client, providing a lens through
which the client may view his or her situation and process. A client in mid-life,
for example, experiencing an impulse to pull away from daily work and find more
meaningful outlets may be aided through a discussion of Erikson’s mid-life
stage theory of development.

Third, an individual theory can become a tool within the coaching process.
For example, a client experiencing difficulty with personal or professional
change can be helped through the application of Bridge’s change management

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Coaching

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one example of an evidence-based framework
that can be applied in coaching. It is particularly effective when working with
mid-level professionals (managers and directors) where the goal is to improve
performance and the coaching engagement is limited in scope. CBT is based on
a psychological theory attributed to Aaron Beck (1987, 2004). The behavioral
approach of Beck and other theorists is based on the idea that the process for
changing behavior should focus on identifying the factors maintaining problems,
rather than the origin of the factors. Beck asserted that encouraging clients
to test assumptions through behavioural experiments is an effective therapeutic
process. In essence, changing behavior patterns will in turn change attitude.

Using principles of CBT, the coach and client can make significant changes
in performance in a short period of time. The coach might, for example, ask
the client to watch a person who is successful at work and to make notes towards
a discussion on what accounts for their success. Or, where the client’s
belief system is preventing him or her from shifting behavior, coach and client
together might devise an experiment to directly test those beliefs. In such
exercises, the client must, of course, be committed to the process, but need
not necessarily be conscious of its theoretical premise.

Coaching has exploded as a profession within the past decade in businesses,
schools, and organizations. Now, the field of coaching is faced with the challenge
of becoming more academically rigorous and research-based in order to continue
effectively serving the global needs. In an increasingly competitive marketplace,
being an evidence-based coach provides professionals with a distinct advantage.


Beck, A.T. et. al (2004). Cognitive therapy of personality disorders. New
: Guilford Press.
Beck, A.T., et. al. (1987). Cognitive therapy of depression. New York:
Guilford Press.
Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s
. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Helgesen, S. (1990). The female advantage: Women’s ways of leadership.
New York: Doubleday Currency.
Helgesen. S. (1995). The web of inclusion: A new architecture for building
great organizations
. New York: Doubleday Currency.
Wildflower, L. (2006) Origins and Applications of Evidence Based Coaching
(in publication: Wiley and Sons).


Leni Wildflower, PhD, MPH, PCC, is an executive coach, consultant, author and
professor. Currently, she directs Fielding Graduate University’s Evidence
Based Coaching certificate program. This is one of the few programs in America
to offer graduate credit in addition to certification from the International
Coach Federation, and the only one that grants credit towards a PhD. For more
information, please visit http://www.fielding.edu/programs/hod/ebcC
or contact Leni at lwildflower@fielding.edu.

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