Coach's Casebook

Using Cognitive Behaviour Therapy in the Coaching Arena

Using Cognitive Behaviour Therapy in the Coaching Arena

Since its development by Aaron Beck in the 1970s, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has been used to help therapists deal with distortions of individual thinking that lead to a selection of conditions such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), emotional trauma and phobias.

These conditions are extremes of distortion in the thinking process of the patient and CBT is a power therapeutic approach to help qualified therapists address these conditions.

As coaches, we also encounter situations where the thinking processes of our clients are distorted. Not to the level that requires the assistance of a therapist but to the level where the client is being held back from achieving their full potential. In such situations, an approach that is similar in profile to a CBT intervention can be useful.

There are some great similarities between the CBT approach and the process of reframing a client’s limiting belief and so this approach is perhaps just a slightly more structured way to undertake a reframing intervention. If you like, you can perhaps think of this approach as Cognitive Behavioural Coaching (a reframe in itself).

The stages of the process are easily remembered as ABC:

1. Identify the Activating Event – What is the trigger from the external environment that makes us begin our negative thinking pattern?

2. Identify the Beliefs – What beliefs does the client have about this and why are they selecting the particular one that is causing them pain or sub-optimal for the situation?

3. Identify the Consequences – highlight the emotional and behavioural consequences that result from the response induced by the belief.


So imagine that your boss comes in to work in the morning looking thoughtful and a little unhappy.

He looks directly at you and says, “I’d like to see you in my office at 10 O’clock”.

How do you react?

This event might trigger feelings of anxiety or confusion as to why the boss was unhappy and now wants to see you. You start to rehearse a series of scenarios where you are brought to account for mistakes or professional shortfalls. Then you remember the board was meeting the other day and there was talk of change.

You believe that there might be some financial problems in the company there may be some redundancies in the plan. As a consequence, your body has generated a number of hormonal responses, which may not be particularly useful as well as your mind running a number of scenarios that reflect a negative point of view, such as being made redundant.

At the meeting, your boss sits you down, smiles broadly and thanks you for the outstanding performance you have recently given on a project and he tells you that you are getting a £5000 bonus as a result of delivering early and under budget.


The beliefs we have will guide us towards a pre-conceived and often negative view as a direct result of an often neutral trigger.

These responses are far more common than you would think and can actually stop people performing well.

For example: a leader needs a high level of tolerance of risk but leaders often fail to make decisions that appear too risky for fear of the results of failure.

This will often hold back both the leader and the organisation because the team can become frustrated by not being stretched. Additionally, the competition, if they are more open to risk, may gain a competitive advantage.

A negative belief holding back a leader and a team!



With a client that has a presenting problem that is clearly a distortion of thinking, such as catastrophizing (as above), an exploration of the beliefs the client has can be very revealing. In fact, by framing the questions correctly, the client can come to understand that it’s the thoughts we generate based on the beliefs we have that create the positive or negative emotional impact we feel.

The majority of people can fall into the pattern of Automatic Negative Thinking.

Such negative patterns systematically distort a person’s view of reality.

By allowing your client to identify the distortions in their beliefs, they can come to realise that they are choosing an irrational emotional response to a neutral trigger and begin to select a more empowering belief set.

By becoming more aware of their emotional triggers and increasing the choices they have in how they can respond to those triggers, a client takes more control of their life and so becomes more emotionally empowered in times of decision, risk, stress and crisis.


Change the World

NB. For those with an NLP background, these thinking distortions have similarities with elements of the Meta Model.

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