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What Coaching Can Learn from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has been a form of therapy since the 1950s and 1960s. Recently with the use of online apps, automation, and additional research, CBT has grown its adoption, favor, effectiveness, and efficacy. What then are some coaching insights we can take away from CBT that might apply to the coaching conversation? This insight article takes a look into this topic to explore more deeply some valuable lessons CBT has contributed to coaching conversation. Written by Ozzie Gontang, Ph.D. Psychology; Curator of CoachWisdom,; and Executive and Life Coach.

"Progress is not achieved by luck or accident,

but by working on yourself daily."

What is Cognitive Behavior Therapy?


The roots of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) go back to Albert Ellis in the 50s with Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) and CBT founder psychiatrist Aaron T. Beck in the 60s. Beck’s research on depression theorized that one’s emotions and behaviors were determined more by the way they interpreted a given situation rather than the situation itself (Beck, 2014).

Beck outlined this way of thinking and the thoughts themselves into 3 layers of thinking: Core Beliefs, Dysfunctional Assumptions, and Negative Automatic Thoughts (Fenn & Byrne, 2013).

Core beliefs are deeply held feelings about oneself, others/the world, and the future.

The self, e.g. ‘I’m a failure.’ ‘I’m so stupid.’ ‘I’m just useless’.

The world and others, e.g. ‘Everyone’s better than me.’ ‘Life isn’t fair.”

The future, e.g. ‘I’ll never get ahead.’ ‘No one would want to marry me.’

Locked into these beliefs are the dysfunctional assumptions and negative thoughts.

CBT’s aim is to teach the individual to be their own therapist by helping them change their negative, flawed thinking and behavior patterns. One begins to see where coaching has been strongly influenced by CBT.

CBT helps foster an environment of collaborative observations that focus on supporting problem-solving by defining problems and roadblocks to solutions by gaining the skills and the ability to manage and overcome them.


For cognitive therapy, a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are connected.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has built its foundation on changing the thought patterns of individuals. In 2017, the American Psychological Association (APA) and the Society of Clinical Psychology state that CBT has three foundational principles:

  1. Psychological problems are based, in part, on faulty or unhelpful ways of thinking.

  2. Psychological problems are based, in part, on learned patterns of unhelpful behavior.

  3. People suffering from psychological problems can learn better ways of coping with them, thereby relieving their symptoms and becoming more effective in their lives.

These principles are applied by psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors in their clinical work with patients. At its core, CBT seeks to change the thought patterns, false beliefs, or “automatic’ learned ways of behaving.

Does It Work?

The research surrounding the effectiveness of CBT is extensive. Hofmann et al. identify 269 studies that address Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (2012). Since Hofmann’s research in 2012, it can be inferenced that the research has only grown covering different aspects of CBT. According to the results of over 100 academic studies, CBT was shown as an effective form of treatment for depression, anxiety, cannabis addiction, insomnia, and other behavioral disorders (Hofmann et al., 2012).

One significant finding that relates to the workplace is that CBT was “more effective” for occupational stress and general stress than “organization focused therapies, especially when CBT focused on psychosocial outcomes in employees” (Hofmann et al., 2012) These studies support the use of CBT for multiple disorders showing that the techniques associated with it are impactful both on thought patterns and client behaviors.

Applying Cognitive Behavioral Principles To Coaching

Positive Psychology and Adult Development research in the last 25 years has altered the playing field (Al Taher, 2020). The move has been away from the negative focus of psychology: the disease model.

Coaching does not deal with mental illness. That is the realm of therapists.

It is essential for coaches to note the boundaries and limits of their practice. It would be wise to have resources for clients who could benefit from a psychologist, psychiatrist, or therapist to be assured of their client’s success and well-being should they have to deal with mental health issues.

However, today many of the tools and techniques of CBT are used by coaches for their clients’ personal and professional growth and development.

Coaches focus on the present and creating the future using all that has been learned from CBT, the Human Potential Movement, and Positive Psychology.

Coaches help clients achieve their identified goals. Coaches help clients reach their goals by overcoming problems and obstacles such as faulty thinking and assumptions, ingrained habits, problem behaviors, and reactive responses to people and situations.

Goals are achieved because along with their coach the client focuses on skill-building and works to remove what blocks their success. The specific skills they learn in order to positively move their lives forward have CBT to thank. Skills such as: identifying distorted thinking, questioning basic assumptions, modifying beliefs, relating to people and situations in newly learned ways, and changing behaviors.

Questions are an essential part of successful coaching.

If this topic interests you, check out our article on 7 Aspects of Powerful Questions HERE. The following paragraphs break down each principle of CBT into practical questions a coach can use in their practice. By knowing the difference between coaching and therapy a coach’s questions are applied to life, career, health, and other goal-oriented issues.

Foundation 1: Psychological problems are based, in part, on faulty or unhelpful ways of thinking.

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble.

It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

– Mark Twain

When coaching clients, it is important to recognize their roadblocks to success after understanding what they believe “success” is. Sometimes these roadblocks are self-perceptions or assumptions about their abilities or current situations. According to the principles of CBT, it is important to confront these “unhelpful ways of thinking”. Questions are a wonderful way to uncover these hidden assumptions or false thinking. Consider the following questions:

  • What do you think would happen if…? What makes you think this would happen?

  • Have you tested out that assumption?

  • What are two other possibilities that could explain that?

  • What evidence do you have for that outcome?

  • What other possibilities could you think of?

  • What have you seen work for others?

Foundation 2: Psychological problems are based, in part, on learned patterns of unhelpful behavior.

All behavior is learned through intentional or accidental reinforcements. For example, a client’s avoidance of conflict might be situationally reinforced by the fear of conflict. However, for someone in a leadership role, it is essential that conflict is confronted early to avoid larger issues by not dealing with it. In this example, the client’s coach could question what was causing the client to avoid conflict and how the avoidance genuinely served them. Some questions that would address this principle are:

  • As you look at the options, what are the pros and cons of each?

  • Which would give you the best result?

  • What is your desired outcome?

  • How will doing _____ help you achieve that?

  • What obstacles might you meet along the way?

  • What would prevent you from getting the job done?

  • What data can you collect that could challenge that aspect of your belief?

  • Which of these solutions appeals to you most, or feels best to you?

  • Which would give you the most satisfaction?

Foundation 3: People suffering from psychological problems can learn better ways of coping with them, thereby relieving their symptoms and becoming more effective in their lives.

As stated previously, it is important to note that these principles can only be directly applied by a professional therapist. However, these same fundamental concepts can be applied to a coaching practice with people not dealing with mental health issues. In the role of a coach, we can remove the word “psychological” and offer hope to those facing challenges in their personal and professional lives. This last principle is what coaching does for the individual: learning better ways of coping and becoming more effective.

A coach’s questions draw the client out to realize they have better ways to tackle their unhelpful assumptions, beliefs, or habitual setbacks that get in the way of their goal achievements. The coach’s questions can help them move at their pace to realize the answer to reaching their goals is in how they think, act, and behave. The coach’s questions create a dialogue with the client about the end goal. A coach’s question can change a client’s thought, perspective, belief, or assumption and open a whole new way of thinking, being and doing. Questions like:

  • Are your assumptions helping you achieve your goals? Can you give me several ways someone might overcome these assumptions?

  • What are the facts that make you believe it’s true?

  • What else are you assuming?

  • Is that a belief masquerading as a fact? Is it true?

  • What would be the worst thing for you about that?

  • If you did/didn’t believe this idea… how do you think your performance would change?

  • What are some practical steps a person could take if _____ was helpful or unhelpful?

Tools for Coaches

Below are some resources for coaches seeking to further engage with improving their coaching skills. Our goal is to provide you with as much research-based information on coaching to help your quest as a lifetime learner. As an effective coach, you are learning, inspecting, and updating the tools in your toolkit. We can also learn from the examples of great coaches such as those interviewed in our weekly podcasts (Arete Coach Podcast). Also in coaching, finding your own tribe is important as you want to identify and collaborate with people on the same learning journey. Remember the African proverb: To go fast, go alone; to go far, go together.

Related to this particular Insights article on CBT, the popular work of Shirzad Chamine’s “Positive Intelligence” that explores the concept of strengthening mental fitness is based on “Positive Intelligence” or “PQ.” According to Chamine mental fitness “is a measure of the strength of your positive mental muscles (Sage) versus the negative (Saboteur)” (Positive intelligence). These different “muscles” in your thought processes or perceptions can hinder or advance your career in different ways. He identifies what CBT might call unhelpful beliefs or behaviors as “Saboteurs”. These 10 “Saboteurs” each have their own unique negative and harmful outlook. Chamine believes that by training your brain to confront the saboteurs and embrace “sage” thinking, people can achieve their goals and at the same time find peace of mind and a happier balanced life. For more on PQ and saboteurs check out the discussion of PQ with Lisha Davidovits ( Episode 1012) and Mark Taylor (Episode 1022) of the Arete Coach podcast.

The ground-breaking work of TDE Chief Knowledge Officers Dr. Robert Kegan & Dr. Lisa Lahey. In their book Immunity To Change, they help uncover the hidden assumptions stopping one from living a success well-lived life. Uncovering these basic assumptions allows for transformational changes to meet the more complex demands of work and a more fulfilling life.

The Developmental Sprint® created by TDE founders Andy Fleming and Claire Lee is a process not only for identifying the “hidden commitments” that prevent people from changing, but also for testing and overcoming those “hidden commitments” and “limiting assumptions” in the context of one’s regular work and practice.

This highly curated platform hosts some of the world’s most trusted mindfulness teachers and its powerful learning technology is the hub for the global mindfulness movement. Their blog contains articles, stories, and research for a healthy and happy life. Both for coaches and those they help reach their goals in life.

Precursors of certain fundamental aspects of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy have been identified in ancient philosophical traditions, particularly to Stoicists Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Zeno of Citium, Chrysippus, Panaetius of Rhodes, Cicero, and Seneca, and early Asian philosophers Confucius and Gautama Buddha. In his first major book on rational therapy, Ellis wrote that the central principle of his approach, people are rarely emotionally affected by external events but rather by their thinking about such events, "was originally discovered and stated by the ancient Stoic philosophers." Ellis illustrates this with a quote from the Enchiridion of Epictetus: "Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of them (Rational Emotive, 2021).

What does it all mean?

Cognitive Behavioral therapy can be best summarized in the words of Lee Thayer:

What’s wanted in “thinking” isn’t coming up with the answers but with the questions—the kinds of questions that lead to insights, ideas, and solution paths that would otherwise not be available.”

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy offers three foundational ideas about the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Clinically it is a unique and effective model that seeks to change thought patterns for those with disorders such as anxiety and depression. In the public area, coaches can use these principles with non-clinical issues such as career decisions, life decisions, or executive leadership actions to help their clients discover the setbacks to success held in their own thought processes.

The coach uses their skills to co-create with the client their future success using the principles of coaching:

  • Maintain a commitment to supporting the client.

  • Build the coaching relationship on truth, openness, and trust.

  • The client is responsible for the results they are generating.

  • The client is capable of much better results than they are currently generating.

  • Focus on what the client thinks and experiences

  • Clients can generate their own perfect solutions

  • The coaching conversation is based on equality.

By reflecting on these principles, the coach is reminded to operate from the assumption that the client is responsible for their circumstances and actions.

Coaches by understanding the three principles held by CBT (i.e, thoughts, feelings, and behavior), and applying them to coaching sessions. Coaches help the client bring out the best results for themselves with a better understanding how one’s thoughts can have a positive or negative effect on one’s actions. Helping clients address their thought processes ultimately helps them address their actions and overcome any lack of actions towards their stated goals.


Fenn, K., Byrne M. (2013). The Key Principles of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. InnovAiT:6(9) 579-585.

Society of Clinical Psychology & American Psychological Association (2017). “What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy” Clinical Practice Guideline,

Hofmann, S. G., Asnaani, A., Vonk, I. J., Sawyer, A. T., & Fang, A. (2012). The Efficacy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Review of Meta-analyses. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 36(5), 427-440. doi:10.1007/s10608-012-9476-1 Al Taher, R, (2020) Positive Psychology: The 5 Founding Fathers and A History of Positive Psychology

Rational emotive behavior therapy. (2021, March 31) In Wikipedia.

Chamine, S. (2016). Positive intelligence: Why only 20% of teams and individuals achieve their true potential and how you can achieve yours. Austin, TX: Greenleaf Book Group Press.

About the Author

Ozzie Gontang, Ph.D., Curator of CoachWisdom,, is an Executive and Life Coach, and a psychotherapist. He has 35 years coaching executives and leading CEO peer groups. He has also been a contributor with his involvement in Integrative Medicine for over 25 years working with cardiac patients in intensive cardiac rehab programs. His pro bono work includes over 40 years of coaching walkers and runners from beginners to ultramarathoners and Iron Man competitors.

Copyright © 2021 by Arete Coach LLC. All rights reserved.


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