Introduction to the Humanistic Perspective

What is coaching about? 

Coaching is about human growth and change. It has its roots in traditions and disciplines that strive to support growth.

The humanistic perspective is a philosophical foundation for coaching providing values and assumptions.

Ingredients of executive coaching can be easily identified, resembling concepts, assumptions, and principles of humanistic, person-centered approaches. Translation of these principles for application in the coaching domain is an ongoing historical endeavor.

Coaching focuses on working with a person’s needs, wants, goals, or vision for where they want to go and to design steps for getting there. This is in contrast to therapy, where the focus is on resolving deficits and weaknesses to restore a person to functioning.

Both modalities share the idea that positive change is a driving force for clients.

The belief in the potential for positive growth as a driving force makes coaching a growth process distinct from general encouragement and advice-giving. The humanistic theory of self-actualization is a foundational assumption for coaching, focusing on enhancing growth rather than ameliorating dysfunction.

Growth may range from small positive changes in our daily lives to the grand, overarching view of actualizing one’s potentials over the whole journey of life.

Clients may come to coaching for help with getting more organized, improving interpersonal interactions at work, finding a new career, being a better leader, or starting a business; coaching may involve small steps of finding solutions, developing specific skills, or goal attainment.

The coach can hold the narrow, specific focus presented by the client in a broader framework of positive change and moving from a functional life to a full life. Coaching focuses on actions the client can take to meet their overall goals. Coaching aims to increase clients’ awareness of their experience for successful action and to make positive changes. For coaching, gaining clarity and fuller awareness is an initial step toward action.

Several defining characteristics in humanistic approaches that we can extend to coaching are

the person’s view as self-actualizing,

a relational emphasis as the fundamental source of change,

a holistic view of the person as a unique being, and 

a belief in freedom of choice with accompanying responsibility.

These humanistic philosophical assumptions are generally in operation for coaches, regardless of specific orientation or techniques.

The humanistic stance involves a deep involvement and active engagement with the client to facilitate growth.


{Direction: needs, wants, goals, vision for where to go.

Planning: designing steps for getting there.

Committed action.

Where does commitment come from?

Reflective judgment, which can yield belief in outcome or possibility;

Decision, based on congruence (of self-image, identity, and virtues) with the demands of the task at hand;

The exercise of will, based on self-knowledge, self-regulation.

We assume potential for growth and positive change. Growth implies directionality, toward what is this growth?

The process aims to transform a functional life into a full one.

The general focus of the process is to work with the client’s feelings to support practical actions the client can take to meet their overall goals.

The main result of the process is awareness as an end in itself; by processing one’s total experience, one becomes whole.

Gaining clarity and fuller awareness of thoughts, feelings, and sensations in addition to what is in the client’s environment is an initial step toward the desired result of action.

The coach views the person as self-actualizing, relational, whole, and unique, with freedom of choice and responsibility.}


Evidence from Research on Humanistic Approaches

What outcomes and processes influence client success or failure? What is the utility and outcome of humanistic psychotherapy?

What evidence is there for the effectiveness of humanistic approaches to human growth and change?

Meta-analysis of studies on humanistic approaches indicates that clients generally show significant change over time, with stable gains observed in follow-up.

The approaches studied were client-centered, Gestalt, process-experiential, emotion-focused, and focusing-oriented therapies.

Research on factors involved in successful change in psychotherapy substantiates much of the humanistic approaches’ theory on conditions for growth.

Variables that positively influence the outcome are empathic understanding; unconditional positive regard, acceptance, and affirmation; therapist’s engagement and collaboration with the client in constructing a positive working relationship; and therapist’s process directiveness. The therapist’s genuineness was more equivocal, pointing to the likely influence of other {mediating or moderating} factors in whether this quality is helpful.

We are only extrapolating this research evidence to coaching applications specifically.

The application of emotional intelligence in the workplace has become a popular topic. A healthy application of soft skills, empathy, trust, listening, and communication skills has consistently been shown to produce gains, innovations, and accomplishments by individuals, teams, and organizations and to be a critical factor in the success or failure of executive coaching.


Humanistic Applications in Coaching

Influence of Humanistic Models on Coaching

We can identify shared assumptions among many coaching models, indicating the direct and indirect humanistic philosophical influence and the acceptance of Rogers’ thinking by many. Acknowledging their origins, these widely held assumptions and views are considered obvious ingredients for successful coaching:

The context and relationship between practitioner and client are central to helping the client to tap into their growth capacity.

A trusting relationship based on empathy and empowering the client is essential.

Warm acceptance of clients for who they are, understanding them as unique individuals, and being authentic in the relationship with them are essential for successful coaching.

Individuals have a natural bent to self-actualize and move toward growth; this assumption is demonstrated by the focus on unlocking potential or facilitating development.

Every individual has a capacity, even yearning, for growth and fulfillment.


Humanistic Stance as a Foundation for Coaching

Regardless of additional techniques or theoretical approaches, the humanistic stance is a shared orientation in coaching; these values, assumptions, and concepts are foundational characteristics of coaching, and it is essential to build these into any coherent model of coaching.


Limitations of the Person-Centered Approach in Coaching

The person-centered stance is an excellent place to begin a coach-client relationship but may not be a good place to remain as the coaching process develops. Content knowledge, assessment skills, and motivational techniques are essential in executive coaching. You may complement the core conditions of the person-centered approach with insights from other theoretical perspectives.



Life coaching: Clients may know they want to change the direction of their life but struggle to hear their inner voice about the best way to move forward. Help them think through relationship choices, manage stressful situations, and explore values, beliefs, and assumptions.

Career coaching is suited to assist individuals in discovering what they want to do in their working lives and developing a strategy to achieve it. It is most suitable for clients with relevant information who struggle to choose their direction. A person-centered approach can serve to build up self-direction.

Development work: The person-centered approach is grounded in the idea of intrinsic motivation. It is helpful for developmental work in which the client is invested in making new decisions, understanding their values and beliefs, becoming authentic, or discovering a new purpose.

In organizational context: The client organization may have a particular goal for the client. Informed by the principled stance of non-directivity and going with the client’s direction, the person-centered coach will always stay with the client’s agenda. This can be problematic if they are employed by an organization whose goals differ from the client’s.

Executive and leadership coaching often focuses on organizational performance. In so far as the client is also focused on corporate aims, the person-centered coach will stay with that agenda. If the client’s plan shifted, the coach would stay with the client’s agenda. Moving towards a personal agenda may still benefit the organization since the client’s increase in self-understanding and developing social and emotional skills will affect decision-making and the ability to relate to others.

In the case of performance coaching, generally, person-centered coaching does not set out to achieve goals against set performance criteria.