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On coaching and therapy

Evgeny Shadchnev
Evgeny Shadchnev
2 min read

I find it curious that most challenges I see founders face are psychological in nature, even if on the surface they look practical: fundraising, co-founder conflicts, team restructuring etc. Yet, both psychotherapists and coaches tend to be ill-equipped to help founders address them, although for different reasons.

Therapists, due to their lack of business experience, may not necessarily see how the client's struggle to manage their board may be linked to their conflict avoidance stemming from childhood. The founder and the therapist speak different languages and don't understand each other: the founder thinks in business terms, but the therapist sees an emotional dynamic.

Coaches, however, by and large don't understand how the mind works at a sufficient depth. As coaches, we are trained to know where's the boundary between coaching and therapy and not cross it. All for a good reason: more harm than good can be done if that line is crossed unskilfully. However, if a coach doesn't understand the psychological dimension of the entrepreneur's struggle, they'll be unable to help them get enough insight into their challenges, contain transference or offer them a coaching relationship that would be healing, when this is what the client needs the most.

An additional challenge is that founder psychology is different, especially in case of founders of venture-scale businesses. Entrepreneurs are often driven by an unconscious desire to heal a past wound (same can be said about nearly everyone), combined with a near-irrational belief that they are able (if not destined) to change the world through their work, sometimes with other narcissistic traits present, because they correlate with success.

The importance of understanding founder psychology for a coach was driven home to me when I saw with my own eyes Jerry Colonna help Tracy Lawrence connect the dots between the business she started (helping office workers have lunches together) and her experience growing up in a group coaching setting. They later recorded a podcast episode, talking about how reclaiming a disowned part of herself helped Tracy become a more authentic CEO.

They don't teach this kind of "black magic" on most coaching courses (although there's some relevant literature). What Jerry did was a combination of both coaching and therapy skilfully combined in a single move.

Maybe founders could be supported by both a coach and a therapist. In practice, very few of my clients do so, due to both time and expense. Even then, it would be up to the client to connect the dots between both kinds of work. Is there a better way?

I believe that coaching work can be greatly enhanced by a deeper understanding of the dynamic of the human mind and of coaching relationship, including transference, countertransference and other concepts deeply understood by psychoanalysts.

After all, psychoanalysis, coaching and leadership are all concerned with searching for what is true and facing it. Psychoanalysts help clients face the contents of their psyche. Coaches help clients face their current reality, however uncomfortable, and find steps forward. Leaders help their organisations confront the most brutal facts of their situation. All are searching for what's true and facing it.

Coaches don't have to be therapists, let alone psychoanalysts. However, I believe that doing their own deep work in therapy, reflecting on their business history, and having at least a cursory understanding of how therapy works will help coaches have a much deeper understanding of what their clients are facing. That's the way to the "black magic" of skilful fusion of coaching and therapy in the name of alleviating suffering and enabling growth for our clients.