Julia Vaughan Smith

What’s the difference between coaching and therapy when working with trauma?

I’m asked this question a lot so am capturing my response in this blog.  To be able to know the boundary between coaching and therapy as a coach, you need to be clear about the focus and purpose of your practice. If you are not, then you run the risk of being all things to all people and crossing a range of boundaries.  This clarity forms our contract with clients, setting the boundaries for the work. This is essential for safety and effective working.

It is important too, that we understand what trauma is and how it manifests itself.  Trauma is a lasting neuro-physiological response to profound danger, leaving feelings of lack of safety, insecurity, fear and painful vulnerability.  To survive, we develop a range of survival defence strategies or responses to the external environment. These are designed to keep the trauma feelings repressed. You can read about these in previous blogs or in my book ‘Coaching and Trauma’.  These parts, the trauma and survival selves, are fragmented unlike our healthy self which is integrated, doesn’t use survival responses, and is able to access the painful feelings without being overwhelmed. This is a self-regulating part of us, which isn’t caught up in trauma, stress and can think clearly about what is healthy for ourselves, from which we love and protect ourselves.

It is the survival self we mostly meet in coaching in ourselves and our clients.  If we are trauma informed, we understand the dynamics of trauma, survival and healthy selves. From that understanding we can prevent our own survival responses running the coaching, and thus avoid becoming entangled with clients. We are then able to place the focus of our coaching onto the healthy self of the client and support them to access these resources,  to know what they want and what they need for a healthy vital life.  In so doing, we are helping them practise being in connection with themselves.

A therapeutic approach does this and in addition, uses an appropriate and safe methodology to help clients release the locked away trauma feelings and come into contact with the reality of their experience.  In this way, it reduces the need for the survival responses as the previously cut off feelings, experience and truth are integrated with the healthy self.  This is not the function of coaching.

Coaching is not the vehicle for working with clients whose survival strategies include addictions to drugs, alcohol, gambling, shopping or sex, unless the coach has specialist training and supervision.  The same is true for clients who consistently show signs of hyper-vigilance, paranoia, or of traumatic stress (where the fight or flight responses are at a high pitch), as a coach you are also not trained to work with them. If these arise in a session, we can remain calm, help the client become better self-regulated through breathing and calming exercises to become better self-regulated, and then encourage them to think of what help they need and how they will get it. In most cases this help would be therapeutic rather than coaching, as the roots to this behaviour lie deep in our psyche.

If a client feels safe with us and talks about early trauma, for example childhood sexual or physical abuse, for the first time, we can listen actively with compassion, and be a witness to the client’s experience.  We must avoid rescuing or closing down the client, both of which are our own survival strategies. If the client wished to delve more into those memories and to access the repressed feelings associated with them, our response as a coach is to help them think through who they might do that work with.  It is not in the remit of coaching to do this work.

Coaching needs enough ‘sense of agency’ in the client to be able to work. That is, enough healthy self to be able to direct life, so clients (and coaches) are not constantly triggered and are able to protect themselves.  Where the healthy self is in retreat because of the volume of unprocessed trauma feelings, and the survival self is also rampant, this is not the context where coaching can be effective.

I recognise there are integrative practitioners, who are trained psychotherapists and coaches, and they will contract with their clients differently perhaps to cover a wider brief. However, this is not the case for most coaches.

If you are ever in doubt about the boundary with a specific client, or feel overwhelmed or concerned about any client, talk to your supervisor. Supervision is there to protect us and our clients.  It is also an essential part of our learning and development as a practitioner. It provides a forum for self-reflection and oversees the maintenance of the boundaries of our practice.

Some coaches talk about ‘wanting to work with trauma’. If you are interested in trauma, take your own trauma seriously by doing your own trauma work with an appropriate therapist.  Then do a proper accredited training. There is no safe way to skip these steps. If you do, the risks of retraumatisation and entanglement with clients is high with potentially serious consequences.

Coaches work in a trauma-informed way. Therapists work with the trauma.

I hope this helps answer that question….


Jules Vaughan Smith

May 2020


Julia Vaughan Smith  (2019)  ‘Coaching and Trauma’  Open University Press

Julia Vaughan Smith (2006)  ‘Therapist to Coach’ Open University Press

Vivian Broughton  (2014) ‘becoming your true self’  Green Balloon Publishing

Franz Ruppert (2012) ‘Trauma, fear and Love’  Green Balloon Publishing