Coaching with emotions

Coaching with emotions

Since I began my practice as an art therapist and a coach – keeping the two professional activities deliberately separate -, I’ve been mindful of the boundary between coaching and therapy. Coaches can rely on guidelines from organisations like the International Coaching Federation (ICF) which carefully address emotions, collaboration with other professionals and appropriate referrals. Nevertheless, in practice, drawing the line remains a delicate dance. This article gives me a chance to explore how coaches can engage with emotions while staying within the realm of coaching.


Emotions have traditionally been viewed with scepticism in the workplace. Anger, frustration, stress, uncertainty or even some “positive” emotional states such as love or amusement can be seen as hindrances to clear thinking and sound decision-making. This perspective, rooted in the belief of an antagonism between emotion and cognition, could lead professional coaches to keep emotions, at least intense ones, at bay in their sessions, leaving them to psychotherapists.

Yet, today, there’s a notable shift in attitude towards emotions and mental well-being in professional settings, with a growing recognition of the importance they have in the work environment. Current research consistently highlights the beneficial effects of happiness, trust and empathy on various indicators such as staff performance, engagement, creativity, and retention. Moreover, emotional intelligence, which encompasses the ability to understand and manage one’s own emotions while navigating those of others, has emerged as a sought-after “work superpower”1“work superpower”: Why your emotions are your work superpower, Forbes Magazine, August 2023, particularly in leadership roles.

The terms “emotion” and “feeling” are often used interchangeably. For simplicity, I’ll predominantly use “emotion” here to encompass both concepts, although a feeling can be understood as the conscious interpretation or perception of an emotional experience, shaped by mental associations. Typically, feelings are less intense and more enduring than emotions; for instance, anger may give way to the more sustained feeling of resentment over time.

In his seminal book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” (2011), Daniel Kahneman emphasises the tenuous divide between emotion and cognition, highlighting a connection far more entwined than opposed. Emotion, whether triggered internally by biological factors, physiological sensations, or memories, or externally by perceptions and sensory experiences, precedes cognition on a neurological level. The sensory input first goes through emotional centres of the brain like the amygdala before reaching the rational faculties (the frontal cortex). However, this relationship between emotion and thought is not unidirectional, since we know that cognition can also shape emotions. Similarly, while it’s widely accepted that thought, whether conscious or subconscious, precedes action, actions themselves can profoundly influence future thought and emotion. Thus, emotion, thought, and behaviour interact in a dynamic interplay, forming a chain relationship with bidirectional influences (see Graph 1).

Graph 1: Bidirectional interplay between emotion, thought and action.

Bidirectional interplay between emotion, thought and action

This means that to effectively change what we do and what we think, it’s essential to acknowledge and influence our emotions. Consequently, it becomes imperative for professional coaches to address emotions. To explore how coaches can work with emotions within the boundaries of the coaching realm, we’ll examine three key aspects:

  1. The space for emotions in professional coaching versus in therapy.
  2. How clients’ emotions serve the coaching process, particularly personal growth and goal attainment.
  3. And embracing the coach’s emotions as another useful tool.

1. The space for emotions in professional coaching compared with therapy.

Occasionally, we encounter the title “Emotions Coach,” referring to a coach dedicated to assisting clients in understanding and managing their emotions. This role is prevalent in parenting coaching or when working with children. My focus here lies elsewhere. I’m interested in how professional coaches navigate emotions and particularly the distinctions between their approach and the place for emotions in therapy.
There are similarities between how coaches and therapists make space for emotional expression, in particular in how the foundations of the partnership and relationship are laid, such as: fostering a safe, confidential, and trusting environment, adhering to ethical standards, maintaining presence, and demonstrating a supportive mindset.
There are also notable differences. One significant distinction lies in the methods of questioning and communication employed with clients or patients. Traditionally, therapy addresses past and present situations. Past traumas, childhood experiences, and underlying psychological factors are examined to uncover sources of current emotions, thoughts, and behaviours. Therapists delve into these root causes, including with the use of “why” questions to analyse emotions. They navigate sensitive topics, inquiring both about what clients have said and what they have not said. Clients are encouraged to share personal concerns and emotions. Emotional exploration and healing are integral components of the therapeutic process.

The coach, on the other hand:

  • Primarily focuses on the present and the future, guiding clients to move forwards, define goals and devise strategies to achieve them.
  • Asks questions that project the client forwards, steering away from questions that prompt justification or looking backwards.
  • Makes careful use of “why” questions, recognising their potential to be received as intrusive or judging, and typically avoids them.
  • Demonstrates curiosity about what the person has said while attuning to unspoken cues, though refrains from probing into undisclosed elements.
  • Emphasises “positive” emotions to harness the client’s strengths and resources, leveraging them to support goal attainment and personal growth.
  • “Notices,” “acknowledges,” “explores” and “supports” the client’s expression of emotions and feelings, in line with the ICF core competencies, without actively encouraging them2encouraging them: Interestingly, until they were revised in October 2019, the original ICF core competencies recommended that the coach “encourage” the expression of emotions: “5.5. Encourages, accepts, explores, and reinforces the client’s expression of feelings, perceptions, concerns, beliefs, suggestions, etc.”.
  • Recognizes that while coaching can contribute to mental well-being and mental health, addressing mental illness, including diagnosis and treatment, falls outside the coach’s purview. Accordingly, the coach refers clients to qualified professionals such as licensed therapists, psychiatrists, or clinical intervention specialists.

The key distinction between the role of emotions in coaching versus therapy lies in what is done with them. In coaching, the emphasis is on identifying and effectively managing emotions, contrasting with the therapeutic approach of unpacking, analysing, and interpreting them. In therapy, clients may be guided to revisit past emotions or events, allowing for a deepening of understanding and potential evolution of both the emotional experience itself and its narrative. Conversely, coaching prioritises altering the narrative surrounding emotions, such as beliefs, assumptions, and judgments. 3Emotion-focused therapy: Coaching clients to work through their feelings, L.S Greenberg, 2015

2. Emotions serve the coaching process, personal growth and goal attainment.

Exploring a client’s emotions within the established boundaries of a coaching relationship can serve as a powerful coaching tool.
When the client expresses emotions in a coaching session, it serves a dual purpose: a regulatory function and a social one (as in therapy). Through the coach’s attentive listening, empathetic presence, non-judgmental attitude, and containment of the client’s expressions, a safe space is created for the client to release and share the weight of their emotions. The coach “stays” with the emotion as it is being communicated to allow the client to fully express it.

When the coach reflects the client’s emotions (usually sticking to the client’s words), it can convey a profound sense of being heard, seen, understood, and validated for the client. The exchange can enhance the client’s feelings of connection, sense of belonging and support, and place them in better dispositions for the rest of the session. The space created for emotional expression contributes to building trust and a deeper rapport between the coach and the client. In this way, the intentional cultivation of emotional expression within the coaching relationship not only enriches the coaching process but also strengthens the foundation of trust and collaboration upon which it thrives.

Coaching plays a role in regulating emotional intensity and arousal by providing this safe outlet. Through the process of identifying and naming emotions, clients can establish a healthy distance from them, reducing their intensity. Rather than feeling entangled in their emotions, clients learn to recognize and acknowledge them as separate entities. Observing emotions in a supportive environment and labelling them fosters a sense of detachment, lessening vulnerability to “negative” emotions. Simultaneously, this practice enables clients to harness the energy of “positive” emotions, which are perceived as safe and constructive.

Approaching emotions with a sense of curious detachment and security fosters their acceptance and deepens the client’s self-awareness. Emotions serve as valuable indicators, offering insights into the client’s inner landscape. By welcoming emotions into the coaching space, opportunities for personal growth and well-being are expanded. Developing proficiency in identifying and managing emotions can cultivate a personal resilience and a growth mindset. Through this process, clients enhance their emotional literacy and gain a sense of empowerment in navigating their emotional terrain. By actively engaging with their emotions, clients reinforce their adaptive capacities and undertake cognitive restructuring – such as reshaping negative thought patterns and emotions or reframing the narrative they are embedded in. 4Coaching with emotions: How coaches deal with difficult emotional situations, Elaine Cox and Tatiana Bachkirova, 2007, Oxford Brookes University, International Coaching Psychology Review For instance, when a client expresses, “I feel angry because my team never wants to have lunch with me and don’t like me,” it presents an opportunity to examine the underlying beliefs, assumptions, and potential exaggerations influencing this emotion.

By engaging with the client’s emotions and evoking awareness, the coach moves away from transactional coaching and towards developmental coaching or transformational coaching. 5A Shift in Being; The Art and Practices of Deep Transformational Coaching, Leon Vanderpol, 2017To paraphrase Marcia Reynolds, it becomes about coaching the person, not the problem. 6Coach the Person, Not the Problem: A Guide to Using Reflective Inquiry, Marcia Reynolds, 2020This entails more than tackling isolated situations; it’s about facilitating a journey where clients learn about themselves, expand their capacities, experience deep shifts, ultimately undergoing sustainable transformations and gaining greater autonomy.

Working with emotions in a coaching partnership is pivotal for goal attainment. Emotions such as fear, guilt or shame can be major inhibitors and obstacles to change and action. They can significantly impede progress, cloud reasoning, disrupt behaviour, and deviate the focus of conversations. By providing a safe space for clients to acknowledge and confront these emotional barriers, coaches enable them to overcome obstacles on their path to desired outcomes. For example, if a client feels guilty about potentially earning more than her husband, it could deter her from pursuing a job with greater responsibilities within her company. Through coaching, alternative perspectives on this matter can be explored, while the deeper-rooted causes of her guilt may be better addressed through psychotherapy.

Emotions also serve as catalysts for achieving goals through the positive energy they encapsulate, such as motivational drive. For instance, a client might describe feeling invigorated, joyful, and valued when leading team projects, and may draw motivation and inspiration from acknowledging these emotions. Research in habit formation also underscores the significance of happy feelings and celebration; they act as potent forces in ingraining new habits. Celebrating small milestones, and linking happiness or rewards to new behaviours, helps individuals solidify these actions into habits. In this regard, coaches can inquire about the client’s plans for celebrating achievements, leveraging the positive energy inherent in celebration to foster enduring change.7Tiny Habits, BJ Fogg, 2019
Beyond emotions, coaches can create an environment where clients feel comfortable expressing their “somatic feelings,” including gut instincts, bodily sensations, energy fluctuations, and shifts in breathing patterns. By attentively observing and reflecting back some of these cues, coaches can deepen the client’s self-awareness. For instance, they might usefully remark, “I noticed you touching your throat…” or inquire, “Tell me if I’m wrong, but I’m sensing that you became more animated just now,” as prompts for potential new insights.

3. Embracing the coach’s emotions as another useful tool.

Coaches who work with emotions often find themselves engaging their own emotions too. They might choose to leverage their emotions or bodily sensations as potential cues for new understandings. For instance, a coach might express a physical sensation they’re experiencing in response to the client’s communication, or they might share a perception of a shift in the emotional or energetic atmosphere within the coaching space. According to the ICF core competencies, coaches should share observations, insights, and feelings without being attached to them, giving the client the possibility to disagree or disregard them. This approach invites coaches to utilise their “intuition and self-awareness”. The previous version of the competencies even mentioned the coach using their “gut” and “inner knowing”.

Other core competencies highlight the importance of coaches taking care of their own emotional well-being. This involves coaches “mentally and emotionally” preparing for a session, managing their emotions to “stay present with the client”, demonstrating ability to regulate their emotions, displaying vulnerability and demonstrating “confidence in working with strong client emotions” (cf. ICF core competencies).

In her research, Katina Cremona, a Greek corporate psychologist and leadership coach, emphasises the importance of coaches regulating their own emotions not only for their long-term emotional well-being, but also to effectively manage the impact of their emotional manifestations on the client. Coaches must indeed skillfully manage their display of emotions, both in verbal and non-verbal expression, including observable facial and bodily reactions. To prevent personal distress and burnout, coaches must prioritise their own self-care, striking a delicate balance between empathy and maintaining a healthy emotional distance. Furthermore, Cremona’s research outlines how coaches’ levels of engagement with emotions vary according to three main factors: how comfortable they feel with emotions, their coaching purpose, and how they delineate the boundary between coaching and therapy.


I have experienced and strongly believe that emotions possess the remarkable ability to either propel clients forward or to impede their progress significantly. They serve as a rich reservoir for learning and fostering personal growth. Some authors go further and suggest that deep transformations or complex learning processes are only achievable when there’s an emotional shift or experience. These authors assert that coping with an emotional crisis is integral to the transformative process. 8Adams, Hayes and Hopson, 1976; Hooper, 2007; Dirkx, 2008
In light of the profound impact emotions have in professional coaching, it has become key, especially in today’s technological landscape, to continually track the efficacy of artificial intelligence (AI) systems in handling emotions. Research indicates that current AI systems sometimes outperform humans, particularly in straightforward scenarios, when it comes to discerning and responding to emotions. Surprisingly, some clients participating in tests involving AI chatbots reported experiencing almost as much empathy from the chatbot than from human practitioners. Among the comparative advantages of AI systems over humans is that they are always available, never tired, great at “listening” and never in a bad mood. They can process and extract insights from huge quantities of data at an extreme speed, potentially demonstrating fewer biases and judgements than humans (although ultimately humans, with their inherent biases, are the ones that feed and train the AI system).
In my view, the advancing capacity of AI systems in addressing emotions advocates in favour of human coaches blending AI tools into their work as a way to engage more effectively and efficiently with emotions. I’m not suggesting that AI systems could replace intricate human coaching processes, but rather that they could serve as valuable aids to human coaches, even in managing emotions and demonstrating empathy.


  • 1
    “work superpower”: Why your emotions are your work superpower, Forbes Magazine, August 2023
  • 2
    encouraging them: Interestingly, until they were revised in October 2019, the original ICF core competencies recommended that the coach “encourage” the expression of emotions: “5.5. Encourages, accepts, explores, and reinforces the client’s expression of feelings, perceptions, concerns, beliefs, suggestions, etc.”
  • 3
    Emotion-focused therapy: Coaching clients to work through their feelings, L.S Greenberg, 2015
  • 4
    Coaching with emotions: How coaches deal with difficult emotional situations, Elaine Cox and Tatiana Bachkirova, 2007, Oxford Brookes University, International Coaching Psychology Review
  • 5
    A Shift in Being; The Art and Practices of Deep Transformational Coaching, Leon Vanderpol, 2017
  • 6
    Coach the Person, Not the Problem: A Guide to Using Reflective Inquiry, Marcia Reynolds, 2020
  • 7
    Tiny Habits, BJ Fogg, 2019
  • 8
    Adams, Hayes and Hopson, 1976; Hooper, 2007; Dirkx, 2008

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