Why Does Coaching Work?

There is no simple answer to the question – because the question itself has multiple ways of being interpreted. The following is my view from the perspective of “Why does coaching approach X work (as opposed to other methodologies)?” which I have heard in conversations between coaches of varying methodologies, levels of expertise and maturity as well as between coaches and potential clients.

The Dodo verdict

“Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.” -Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

In clinical psychology, there is an ongoing controversial topic called “The Dodo verdict” (or Dodo conjecture). The debate, in brief, is focused on whether or not the specific components of different treatments lead some treatments to outperform other treatments for specific disorders.

The conjecture was introduced by Saul Rosenzweig in 1936, drawing on the Dodo imagery in Lewis Carroll’s s novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but only came into prominence with the emergence of new research evidence in the 1970’s when Luborsky, Singer and Luborsky reported the results of one of the first comparative studies demonstrating few significant differences in the outcomes among different psychotherapies.

Rosenzweig argued that these common factors were more important than specific technical differences, so that (on the Dodo conjecture) all therapies are winners; they all produce equally effective outcomes.

Supporters of the Dodo verdict contend that all psychotherapies are equivalent because of “common factors” that are shared in all treatments (i.e., having a relationship with a therapist who is warm, respectful, and has high expectations for client success).

One of these “common factors” is the client-therapist interaction, also known as the therapeutic alliance. A 1992 paper by Lambert showed that nearly 40% of the improvement in psychotherapy is from these client-therapist variables. Wampold et al. (2002) also found that nearly 70% of the variability in treatment outcome was due to the therapist’s attitude toward the efficacy of the treatment.

In contrast, critics of the Dodo verdict would argue that the specific techniques used in different therapies are important, and not all therapies produce equivalent outcomes for specific disorders. There are a growing number of studies demonstrating that some treatments produce better outcomes for particular disorders when compared to other treatments, particularly in the area of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Overall, there remains a considerable degree of controversy about the Dodo verdict due to some of the more questionable research methods used.

The implications
Whether the Dodo conjecture is ultimately correct or not doesn’t really matter. The possibility that a client may experience change irrespective of the methodology used has implications for coaching (even though coaching is not generally considered as psychotherapy).

Incidentally, this is a view that I have recently come to regard with some caution – as coaches we operate in the realm of positive psychology and there are grey areas of overlap between coaching and therapy. After all, where would we be without Rogers, Maslow and the other greats of the first Human Potential Movement?

So if coaching comes from the same roots as psychotherapy, there may be a causal link that could assume the Dodo debate also applies to coaching.

We know that coaching works. Anyone who has sat with another person, established rapport, listened intently and questioned effectively will attest to that. As Maslow said

“What is necessary to change a person is to change his awareness of himself”

There is now a growing body of research supporting and evidencing the efficacy of coaching. The rise and flourishing of academic peer-reviewed journals (such as Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice; International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring; International Coaching Psychology Review) are a testament to this, as is the body of work being created specifically in relation to specific methodologies.

There is a “but” – a big “but”!
However, we are still not yet in a position to say with any degree of certainty why one particular methodology or intervention may be more effective than any another in a given coaching session. David Drake (Linley, 2006; Tanenbaum, 2005 cited by Drake, 2011) points to the ability of a coach to answer key questions in relation to their practice:

  • What works;
  • How it works;
  • Why it works;
  • How well it works;
  • How we know it works;
  • When and with whom it works; and
  • What might work better

There is no evidence I could uncover in research papers or academic journals that is able to prove a definite causal link between the use of a particular coaching model (as opposed to a different methodology) and its resulting effect on a client. As part of the field of Social Sciences, I don’t expect to find one any time in the near future either!

That is because we are dealing with a complex, multi-ordinal and ever-changing thing – a human being. There are no linear cause-effect operations being carried out unlike a machine, where pressing a button will result in a predicted behaviour. We are far more complicated and nuanced.

So maybe we need to re-frame the question. If we come from the view that coaching fundamentally works then “Why does X work (as opposed to other coaching methodologies)?” isn’t necessarily relevant or useful as a conversation. Instead, by removing the either/or frame by implication, we could more powerfully answer by focussing on the question “How, specifically, does methodology X work?”

Carroll, L. (1865) Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, New York: MacMillan.
Drake, D.B. (2011) What do coaches need to know? Using the Mastery Window to assess and develop expertise. Coaching: An International Journal of Theory Research and Practice, 4(2), pp.138–155.
Lambert, M. (1992). Implications for outcome research for psychotherapy integration. In J. C. Norcross & M. R. Goldstein (Eds.), Handbook of psychotherapy integration, pp. 94–129. New York: Basic Books
Luborsky, L; Singer, B; Luborsky, L (1975). “Is it true that ‘everyone has won and all must have prizes?'” Archives of General Psychology 32, pp.995-1008.
Rosenzweig, Saul (1936). “Some implicit common factors in diverse methods of psychotherapy”. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 6 (3), pp.412–415.
Wampold, B. E., Minami, T., Baskin, T. W., & Tierney, S. C. (2002). A meta-(re)analysis of the effects of cognitive therapy versus “other therapies” for depression. Journal of Affective Disorders, 68, pp.159-165.