May 12, 2024

Is coaching a cult?

You may know that my background is in theology. I also had a brief stint (as a teenager) in a Christian fundamentalist group and ever since then, I have been interested in “cults”, high demand religions and organizations. I think my experience in the fundamentalist group has made me very aware of how our environment shapes our minds, convictions, feelings etc. So if you wanted a psychological explanation for why I find social constructionism appealing, there it is 😊.

Now, is coaching a cult? Here are a few criteria for what makes a cult:

- Requires unwavering devotion to a set of beliefs and acceptance of “thought stopping clichés”.

- Critical thinking is not welcome and seen as apostasy.

- A cult coercively controls its members (via money (MLMs), shame (many religions), fear of exclusion / shunning (religions), fear of persecution (scientology)

- Often there is initial “lovebombing” – kindness, support and acceptance for new people.

- There is an “us vs. them” mentality which aims at separating the member from their outside support system.

When I compare this list to the “coachosphere” as I am experiencing it in my communities of EMCC and ICF, some of the criteria make me uneasy.

Thought stopping clichés

In coaching, I am encountering many “thought stopping clichés”. These are sentences that are accepted as true and all thinking stops when they have been uttered. Many corners of the coachosphere have them and there is no robust dialogue between the various corners to speak of. Examples that come to mind include: “parallel processes in supervision”, “no interruptions by the coach in a session”, “levels of consciousness / development of the client”, “right brain / left brain”, “core competences of coaching”, “personality diagnostics”, “learning styles” and many more. These clichés are rarely examined and discussed (and I personally hold all of them as problematic).

In “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense”, Friedrich Nietzsche argued that “truth” is:

“A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.”

These sadly abound by in the coaching word.

Lack of critical thinking and discourse

Coaches are nice human beings who strive to live in harmony with others and believe that every human has the right to their opinions. This “niceness” is often confounded with uncritical acceptance of whatever the other person is thinking. Hard questions are seldom asked in meetings or at conferences. Debate rarely happens.

I think that coaches need to contradict each other for the coaching profession to grow. We need the expression of the rich diversity of coaching without fear or favor and a critical exchange of views. You do not have to hurt someone’s feelings deliberately, but it is legitimate to ask questions like: “When you state that a coach should never interrupt a client, are you not excluding all linguistic communities in which frequent interruptions are a sign of listening?” or  “Are you aware that “left brain / right brain” is no longer a metaphor that neuroscientists are using?”

Coercive control

No, I have not seen any coercive control in the coaching world. However, if you do not agree with some of the “thought stopping clichés”, you will face consequences that may result in you not being able to practice your profession. Let’s say you do not believe that the ICF core competencies are valid measures of a coach’s quality. If you want to work for one of the major coaching platforms, you need an ICF credential. So, you face the choice either to accept them and coach accordingly, take a questionable test, pay a lot of money, get a credential, or not work for these providers. When I applied for a position in the ICF global board, I was asked to fill in a Hogan personality profile – there was no room whatsoever for me to question the validity of such profiles (and I have many questions).

“Us” vs. “Them”

The coaching “us vs. them” is very hidden and it comes in form of the “charlatan problem”. It is “us”, quality coaches against “them charlatans”. Quality coaches can be recognized by their adherence to the core competencies. Hm – really? Many other forms of coaching also “work” as long as coach and client are part of the same community and share the same set of beliefs.

Don’t get me wrong – I love coaching and coaches. I like being with my fellow ICF and EMCC coaches and I appreciate them. I am seeing unhelpful dynamics and would love to contribute to a more open dialogue about the foundations of what we are doing. These discourses happen mainly at universities which (for some reason) do not influence the discussions in the professional organizations. I would also love it if real research, research which makes epistemologies explicit and methodologies available for critique, could have more influence on the profession.

Sorry for the long rant! If you want to discuss, throw eggs and tomatoes at me, please join me for a free meetup and exchange.


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