What is the Grey Space?

There has always been a boundary that coaches navigate between coaching and counselling or therapy, or indeed other professional services such as consultancy or mentoring. Knowing how to effectively manage that boundary is important for ensuring that a client is in fact receiving the most suitable, appropriate, and helpful professional service given their wants, needs and circumstances etc.

However, whilst this boundary has always existed, there is a noticeable trend of coaches increasingly experiencing conversations with clients around topics such as burn out, stress,  and anxiety. In some cases, the need to refer a coaching client to a more therapeutic setting is clear and obvious. In others however, it can be more nebulous, and this is what I call the “Grey Space”. The referral boundary is not always clear-cut and there is a space in between both disciplines where either or even both ways of working could be very useful.

Coaching is typically a forward moving, future-focussed, aspirational, and developmental space to work, it’s about maximising potential. Whereas counselling or therapy is more aimed at exploring, resolving, addressing, and healing past or present issues or experiences that are creating a blockage for the person in being able to fully engage in that forward movement and lead their life in the most fulfilling way. In simple terms, as we can see from the diagram above, coaching is usually focussed on the “+” aspects of life i.e., things I want to achieve, and therapy is often focussed more on the “-“ aspects, i.e., things I want to address, resolve, get over or let go of etc. If someone clearly feels at a “+8” or a “-8”, then the optimal service and way of working might be very clear, however, as we get closer to “0”, how do we know what is going to be most helpful to the client? To make things even more complex, what if a person feels at a “-8” on some aspect of their life but at a “+3” on another aspect?

Challenges within our mental health services can often mean that a person needs to fall to  quite a low “minus” level before support kicks in and they can receive the therapeutic intervention they need. Therefore, this grey space, albeit complex and unclear, can perhaps be a space where a coaching style can be of enormous value. I am certainly not advocating that coaching is a therapeutic tool; engaging in the therapeutic space without the appropriate levels of experience and qualifications is at best unhelpful and at worst risky or even dangerous. However, being able to carefully navigate the grey space could be incredibly helpful to many people.

What is the Benefit?

Coaching as a Preventative Measure
(not as a cure or a treatment)

Coaching someone who is beginning to feel less resourceful in some way or whose sense of well being is showing early signs of being compromised, could be a very powerful way of preventing them from sliding further down the mental health scales. As a preventative intervention, coaching could perhaps not only be very helpful to the individual, but it could also be of support and benefit to their organisation and also to the mental health services whose own resources are already very stretched.

Coaching within the grey space can also highlight the early warning signs of a developing issue which, if left unaddressed, could turn into a health challenge that becomes far harder to resolve and recover from. Through coaching, that person may be able to be referred to a suitable support service more quickly, thereby enabling them to work through their issue before it becomes overwhelming.

Coaching could also be a complementary intervention alongside other services, such as exercise, diet, massage, reflexology, meditation etc. When various approaches are brought together as a package, this can really help to underpin and support a person’s sense of well being during challenging times, without which, they may struggle to cope as effectively.

Even if a person is engaged in therapy, there are times when coaching can be very useful for additional support. Especially in those areas where the person feels more able to focus on their future and to set some achievable goals, the completion of which can provide a much-needed boost to their confidence, self-esteem, and sense of coping. This in turn supports their resilience and courage to tackle the more difficult aspects of their life that they may be working on in therapy. 

What is our Responsibility?
In order to realise the benefits of coaching noted above, it is important to bring a mindset of safety first. Here are some of the considerations we would do well to explore and put in place:

Professionalism, Safety, Ethics and Boundaries

 The ICF Core Competencies offer guidance here on some of the practices we are expected to carefully follow in order to engage with our clients in a professional, ethical, and safe way. Alignment to this guidance is important for all clients, however it is ever more critical to be aware of when working in the grey space. For example:

  • Coach maintains distinctions between coaching, consulting, psychotherapy, and other support professions. (ICF Core Competency 1)
  • Coach refers clients to other support professionals, as appropriate (ICF Core Competency 1)
  • Coach acknowledges that clients are responsible for their own choices (ICF Core Competency 2)
  • Coach seeks help from outside sources when necessary (ICF Core Competency 2)
  • Coach reaches agreement about what is and is not appropriate in the relationship, what is and is not being offered, and the responsibilities of the client and relevant stakeholders (ICF Core Competency 3)

Working at Depth:

The ICF Core Competencies also highlight some of the skills and qualities needed when working more at depth with our clients. Once again, these skills and qualities are relevant or all of our client work and need to be particularly attuned when working within the grey space. For example:

  • Coach focuses on what the client is and is not saying… (ICF Core Competency 6)
  • Coach recognises and inquires when there is more to what the client is communicating (ICF Core Competency 6)
  • Coach notices, acknowledges, and explores the client’s emotions, energy shifts, non-verbal cues or other behaviours (ICF Core Competency 6)
  • Coach notices trends in the client’s behaviours and emotions across sessions to discern themes or patterns (ICF Core Competency 6)
  • Coach helps the client identify factors that influence current and future patterns of behaviours, thinking or emotion (ICF Core Competency 7)

Working with the Whole Client:

Whilst a client may bring a particular topic, goal, or issue into coaching, we know that ultimately, we are coaching a whole person and not just a topic, this is ever more relevant when working with someone in the grey space. Here we can see where the ICF Core Competencies highlight this approach:

  • Coach partners with the client to define what the client believes they need to address or resolve to achieve what they want to accomplish in the session (ICF Core Competency 3)
  • Coach seeks to understand the client within their context, which may include their identity, environment, experiences, values and beliefs . (ICF Core Competency 4)
  • Coach shows support, empathy and concern for the client. (ICF Core Competency 4)
  • Coach demonstrates confidence working with strong client emotions during the coaching process. (ICF Core Competency 5)

Supporting Client Expression:

The Humanistic Approach to psychology and psychotherapy, and specifically Carol Rogers, proposes as set of “necessary and sufficient conditions for change”. One of the key purposes of those conditions is to enable the client to feel safe to fully express themselves, as it is through that expression that the processing of difficult, limiting thoughts and feelings can begin. Once again, the ICF Core Competencies reference this in aspects such as:

  • Coach partners with the client to create a safe, supportive environment that allows the client to share freely(ICF Core Competency 4)
  • Coach acknowledges and supports the client’s expression of feelings, perceptions, concerns, beliefs and suggestions. (ICF Core Competency 4)
  • Coach invites the client to share more about their experience in the moment (ICF Core Competency 7)

Inviting Forward Movement:

Ultimately, within a coaching context, we are inviting the client to engage in some kind of forward movement in order to maximise their potential. As noted above, whilst a client may not feel able to engage in forward movement in all aspects of their life, being able to take even small steps towards a reasonable and achievable goal can offer significant additional support alongside therapy. Here we see a couple of examples of how the ICF Core Competencies could be useful in inviting that forward movement when working with a client in the grey space:

  • Coach invites the client to generate ideas about how they can move forward and what they are willing and able to do (ICF Core Competency 7)
  • Coach celebrates client’s progress and successes (ICF Core Competency 8)

Useful Resources for Working in the Grey Space

Apart from guidance offered from within the ICF Core Competencies and the Code of Ethics,  ICF has also prepared a white paper to support coaches when working within the grey space and to feel more equipped to refer a client to therapy if it feels that the boundary has presented itself within our work with a particular client. This can be found within the ICF’s portfolio of Academic Research

Queries or concerns when working in this space can also be taken into Coaching Supervision so that we can step back and reflect upon the situation, exploring what we are noticing and considering the most appropriate options for supporting our client in the best possible way, which of course may be to propose a different professional service.

A very useful development opportunity for coaches has emerged in recent years which is to complete a Mental Health First Aid programme. This can provide very valuable insight as to the signs of a mental health challenge and effective ways to address it as well as many other useful resources to help us be of best service to someone when their needs may be beyond the scope of the coaching service we offer.

Coach Advancement by Tracy Sinclair supports organisations to develop the potential of their people through coachingcoaching skills and coaching culture. Our Coaching with Conscience services specialise in offering coaching and coaching related services in support of positive social impact and social progress.

Tracy Sinclair, MCC

Tracy Sinclair, MCC is co-founder and CEO of Coach Advancement by Tracy Sinclair. She co-authored Becoming a Coach: The Essential ICF Guide (2020) and hosts the Coaching in Conversation podcast. In 2020, she founded Coaching with Conscience to have a positive impact on society and our environment through coaching.

Tracy is dedicated to the development of the coaching profession and the coaching community and has served in both local and global boards and workgroups for the International Coaching Federation. She was awarded an ICF Coaching Impact Award for Distinguished Coach in 2023, named one of the Leading Global Coaches of the Thinkers50 Marshall Goldsmith Coaching Awards (2019, 2021), and was a finalist for the Thinkers50 Coaching and Mentoring Award (2021). She is also a member of the Marshall Goldsmith 100Coaches and a trained coaching supervisor, mentor coach and ICF assessor.

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