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Humanism and coaching


Disciplines > Coaching >Schools of thought > Humanism and coaching

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Humanism, often called the person-centered or human-centered approach, is a school of thought in therapy and counselling that, in many ways, was developed as a reaction against the deterministic and impersonal approaches in psychoanalysis and behaviorism, where the client is treated as an object, a subject, a thing to be adjusted and fixed, like some kind of machine.

The general principle of humanism is to treat the whole person, rather than their symptoms. There is also a basic assumption that people are always, at heart, good, with unlimited potential (hence the offshoot 'human potential' movement). A humanist coaching approach thus seeks to unleash that potential, enabling people to become what they are capable of becoming.

The start point is to understand the person, to 'walk a mile in their shoes' or otherwise get under their skin. In doing so and subsequently, the humanist makes deliberate effort in developing a good working relationship with the client. Whilst they may not be friends, they should be friendly and like one another.

The humanist coach has excellent skills in listening and empathizing. They may probe and ask searching and difficult questions. They may well be skilled in Socratic questioning, helping their client to discover things themselves. The coach is more of a guide than a judge. They give control to the client and nudge them along rather than drag them kicking and screaming (or even pointing the 'right' way). They support the person appropriately, neither letting them get lost by themselves nor cosseting and over-protecting them. They get clients to truly own their own problems and own their solutions. When a person says 'I did it!' the coach can feel satisfied.

The humanist approach is not soft. Once they have developed a trusting relationship, they will authentically reflect what they see, even if it is difficult at first for the client to accept it. But, given the trust, the client has no option and must accept what the coach says. They must hence start to address personal problems, with light but effective support from the coach.


A humanist coach spends time up-front listening to an executive client, appreciating the complexity of their lives and the tensions they face. Through empathy and care they build a deep and trusting relationship. They slowly ask more penetrating questions, holding back when they can see the person has enough to deal with at this time. Through careful, shaping questions, they help the client find their own solutions. Over time, the client becomes happier, less stressed and, through transferring some of the humanist ideals to to the workplace, develops her own people into motivated, passionate workers.


Humanism often gets accused of being 'touchy-feely' and unscientific. In some ways this is true, as it pushes back against a cold positivist approach, aligning more with idealism and phenomenology. In other ways it is still very scientific, perhaps more so in the difficulty that is faced in proving its worth. Indeed, Carl Rogers, the founding father of the person-centered approach, put significant effort into empirical research, testing the core conditions associated with personal change.

Rogers described three essential characteristics of effective therapists:

  1. Congruence: Personal integrity in alignment of thinking, feeling and acting.
  2. Unconditional regard and acceptance: Accepting the person, if not their behavior.
  3. Empathetic understanding: Accurately identifying how they are feeling.

Humanist approaches work well in coaching as their focus on the client is highly flattering and engaging and paves the way for collaborative approaches. Few executives want to lie on a couch and spill the beans about bed-wetting and early trauma. The approach starts with trust and sustains a deep integrity. Coaches succeed by ensuring the client really wants to change, is prepared for the change, and owns the necessary actions.

By showing deep integrity, the coach encourages the client to do the same. And a person who is in harmony with themselves is generally a lot happier, less stressed and, overall, more successful in the truer meaning of the word.

See also

Maslow's Hierarchy, Listening, Questioning

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