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Paul O. Olsen

Last year, there was a blog in a major Norwegian newsweekly: ‘The war between psychologists and coaches.’ It appears that coaches had decided that psychologists should not be helping the mentally healthy. Our methods only apply to the sick. It became the longest and one of the most intense blogging events that year. Actually, I didn’t know that there was a war on, but the firing line was fun.

To me it had an unexpected effect as it lead to my becoming an advisor to both a psychologist and committee convenor for the Norwegian Standard for Coaching, a new project initiated by a group of about 20 coaches. Since then I have discussed examples from my own practice and other cases about when coaching and therapy have gone wrong. An infamous lawsuit in Denmark involving gestalt therapists escalated all the way to the National Assembly. Therefore, I have reasoned that coaches have done harm in the past and will continue to do so, unless they realise that in real life there is no clear line between health and pathology.

I have also raised the ethical concern that some coaching methods are potentially covert, invasive and manipulative. I have argued that when a sub-committee meeting in large coaching organisations discusses specific mental health issues, such as ADHD and adolescent identity problems, it is not the right forum. This level of competence may be available in some countries, but not yet in Norway. Currently if coaches want to get involved with mental disorders, they need to qualify as therapists first.

Do we need a Norwegian coaching standard?

In Norway it seems that many coaches believe that 120 hours of training is the minimum needed for coaching perfectly healthy people. The Norwegian authorities agreed that a minimum should be set, but are more concerned about quality than quantity.

One of the real issues, from a legal point of view, is that coaches (in particular life coaches) may be seeing coachees with clinical problems that they do not reveal. Or they may be helping a psychopath or narcissist to get even better at manipulating others. The coach can also be subject to the Norwegian Law for what is known as ‘alternative treatment’ (2004 revision), acting as an ‘alternative’ to public health care. The principle applied is then what the coach ‘should know’ and that a therapist is only allowed to act, ‘within your specific area of competence’. A signed statement from the coachee that confirms that he or she has no mental disorders may be immaterial in a court of law.

Other equally difficult issues have been raised by the Norwegian Health Directorate. ‘NLP Master Therapists’ are definitely involved in ‘alternative’ treatment. Some of the practitioner’s claim that NLP is the best therapy for depression (sic) and such claims are unlawful in Norway. Also any reference to hypnotherapy will need to be removed from as many as 20 coaching websites and their coaching school curricula. In Norway hypnosis is the exclusive domain of medical doctors, psychologists and dentists, the latter only for pain/anxiety control. The health authorities are currently looking into this matter, and if any hypnotherapy has actually taken place within coaching, criminal charges may be commenced. Understandably, some of the coaches were reported to be angry that they cannot freely practice what they had learnt. By practising they risk a custodial sentence of up to two years in prison.

Equally frustrating to the coaches, is that Norwegian psychologists are legally allowed to coach anybody, irrespective of any mental disorders a client may have, as all psychologists in Norway get clinical training, although interestingly, not enough therapy practice to become a Chartered Psychologist in the UK. Only about five per cent work outside of the clinical field of practice.

In Norway four universities have MSc or PhD programmes, but even when students complete one of these programmes, they can still not call themselves a psychologist. University level coaching courses have also become available at the largest Norwegian business school.

The way ahead

In line with public policy, the coaching standards committee convenor has been very interested in the views of the psychology community, although the Norwegian Psychological Association turned down an invitation to join the work. However, with the upsurge of interest in positive psychology, they could be changing their mind.

With the new standards, coaches will need to co-operate with clinical psychologists as their only possible emergency backup, and the standards committee convenor has urged for co-operation rather than ‘war’. Due to the legal restrictions in Norway, they will have no choice. In this respect, the so-called ‘war’ is over before it begun.

The upcoming hearing will outline a standard that does not certify individual practitioners, but rather calls for training providers to state compliance with the standards. These providers will in turn be responsible for standards of training and certification at well defined levels of competence. Most coaches will need to attend clinical workshops and non-clinical practitioners will need to ensure they have backup resources for emergencies and referrals, and probably supervision.

A Norwegian standard for coaching is probably not a bad thing, but if it were a marketing ploy, the coaches have lost the ‘war’ for market protection before it even begun.

Paul O. Olson
Nordic IESF/First Executive Nordic,
Edvard Griegs vei 1,
N-1410 Kolbotn,
E-mail: olson@firstexecutive.net


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