“Transactional” or “Transformational” coaching?

The structure of a coaching session is something that we feel at Wellness Coaching Australia (WCA) is one of the most important parts of our teaching. To enable students to put into practice the coaching skills and principles that they learn, they need to have a solid format to follow as they become more confident in coaching people around lifestyle behaviour change.

Coaching is a universal communication model and whether it’s life coaching, executive coaching or health and wellness coaching, there are certain things that we do and many that we don’t do. (Sports coaching is a little different!)

As many of you know there are two bodies who lead the way in the coaching world – International Coach Federation (ICF – general, life, executive coaching) and National Board for health and Wellness coaches (NBHWC). Both are widely recognised in setting standard an credentials for coaches internationally.

I have long been of the belief that supporting people to create new lifestyle habits has some specific requirements and although we align (and teach) all ICF competencies, the way we put together a program may have some unique differences.

To create new habits, people need a step by step approach and a good understanding of what is behind the existing habit. This is where the science of habit formation comes in and also why it is emphasised in our training. Our goal is to help the client create automatic behaviours.

Having said that, I am also open to refining and including any work from other models if it fits. We already find value in introducing models such as the Heath brothers’ Switch, Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies, and many other theories such as Non-violent communication (NVC) that inform our work.

Recently I have had reason to look closely at the ICF requirements and have identified some specific approaches that may be helpful to many HWC coaches. After a recent session with an ICF coach I got a better insight into how we overlap and at times differ and I will share my understanding.

The outcome for health and wellness coaching is around behaviour change. Which makes our conversation, at times, somewhat “transactional”. By that I mean it focuses on an action. Descriptions and definitions suggest that transactional coaching helps the client to achieve a short-term goal or change in performance and focuses on the external symptom or problem and can be very practical style to use (think health change behaviour).

To draw from ICF language, as the levels of accreditation increase the aim is to make the coaching “transformational”. A transformational life coach is a trained professional who helps guide people into their ideal life and most authentic self, particularly when navigating moments of change.

It was explained as being very much about coaching the person, (the “who”) not the problem, or even the behaviour; but instead digging deeper into why they are struggling to move forward. My understanding is that an ICF ACC accreditation will often have more focus on the transactional level of coaching., whereas PCC and eventually MCC is all about helping a client become fulfilled as a complete human being!

Now in defence of the model WCA teaches, I do believe that when our conversation goes deeper into the “why” someone wants a change (“what” they want to change), then we are moving into coaching the person, not just the problem. This is the reason we place so much emphasis on encouraging new coaches to find out what underlies a client’s motivation. Not just what they value but also what is the thing that is truly stopping them. A good HWC can have this conversation and still support a client to set specific behavioural goals. The outcome around the goal is important (e.g. to improve sleep) but the deeper conversation around what is causing the lack of sleep is crucial. It may not be a bedtime routine, but a deep seated worry for example, or a belief, a pattern of thinking or self-defeating behaviours. Although the outcome is better sleep, the process of getting there can be transformational. We may not use the term “who” when we coach, as do ICF, yet it is implied when we dig deeper.

This short piece is really just touching the surface on some of the differences and similarities of the two coaching models. So, I would suggest that HWC use more motivational interviewing and need a thorough knowledge of the science of habits, and perhaps positive psychology plays a bigger part as so many clients are discouraged by past failures to change. However, if we stay at the level of behaviour change being a “treatment” we may miss the opportunity to help that client “transform” in so many ways. Transformation involves lasting change – the end goal of Health and Wellness Coaching (HWC).

As Michael Arloski puts it so well, “When coaches are trained in a thorough methodology that is steeped in life coaching principles, holistic, and yet also grounded in behavioural science, and when it follows a positive psychology framework, so much more is possible”.

I look forward to the day when the ICF and NBHWC come together to discuss standards, competencies and underpinning models so we can truly learn from each other.

Here are a few personal observations on the differences and similarities of both coach approaches:

  • HWC will work at supporting the client to create a vision for overall change in tehir wellness. Including the reasons when it is important and what is stopping then.
  • ICF recommend creating a “big agenda” that covers the goal of the coaching program but in each session will ask what the goal of the session is.
  • Readiness to change features strongly in the work of HWC coaches as many people are reluctant or resistant to begin a process that has led to failure so many times in the past. They rely strongly on principles and process of Motivational Interviewing for people in early stages of change
  • HWC explore obstacles and categorise them often into behavioural, situational, cognitive or emotional barriers ICF may focus more on the cognitions (beliefs, rules, patterns of thinking and emotions than behaviours and situations.
  • Self accountability is important in both domains yet HWC may play a larger part in holding the client accountable yet always work towards building long term self-accountability.
  • In follow up sessions ICF model will focus on the new goal of the session whereas HWC follow a structured model of checking with goal achievement and working steadily towards the end result. Both ideally will explore insights that the client may have had or new learning.

This is by no means a definitive descript of the differences but rather observations which may help us to understand different language and approaches that lead to the same end result!

Reference: Arloski, M., (2021) Masterful Health and Wellness Coaching

Fiona Cosgrove