Enough is enough: time to regulate divorce coaching

There is a great need for coaches to help clients through a divorce - the problem is that the profession is unregulated and, consequently, open to abuse

I was one of the first divorce coaches in the UK. I have been working as a self-employed divorce coach since 2010. At the time, divorce coaching was unknown – including by me: it is no exaggeration to say that my niche found me unexpectedly.

In 2009-10, I had the privilege of being taught by Kim Morgan, CEO of Barefoot Coaching, who has been training coaches for over 25 years and whose courses are considered as gold standard in the coaching world. At the end of the course, I undertook as much coaching as possible to get practice and gain confidence, but with some trepidation because I was not sure what my “niche” would be.

One day, a client asked me to speak to her friend, whose husband of 25 years had left her without any explanation for ending the marriage. I replied that I could certainly speak to her but that I was not sure whether I could help. I went to see this lady, a professional woman, and asked her ‘What happened?’ I have never forgotten her answer:

‘We had a very good marriage and he left.’

Well, that was it! I was hooked. The sentence jarred. It revealed the denial, desperation, guilt, and bewilderment associated with a separation. I proceeded to unpeel the statement to get to the core of what the client was really saying and help her gain clarity. From that moment on, I knew with absolute certainty that I had found my niche – “divorce coaching” – and wanted to do nothing else. I have built my practice from it, and truthfully, my passion for it has never diminished. Each time I have a coaching session with a client, I think “I love this”.

Not only did my niche find me, but it was a brand-new niche.

How things have changed! Now there appears to be a plethora of “divorce coaches” competing for attention on social media platforms. While I believe that there is a great need for coaching clients through a divorce, the problem is that the profession is unregulated and, consequently, open to abuse.

What does this look like?

To mention a few examples: I know of people who have never worked as coaches, but offer divorce coaching courses, some leading to “qualifications” which are frankly dubious. For example, assignments from course delegates are not subject to independent scrutiny. The organisation selling the course awards its own accreditation, again without scrutiny or checks by any external professional body. The entry requirements – unbelievably – consist in having been through a divorce. Other people appear to get up one morning and declare themselves divorce coaches, jumping on the bandwagon and without even the most basic grounding in the principles of coaching. It might be acceptable if they called themselves “mentors”, but not coaches.

How can this be acceptable? Experiencing a breakup, however painful or complex, does not make anyone a coach. No, you do not need to be divorced to be a divorce coach, any more than you need to be divorced to be a divorce lawyer. In the same way that a lawyer must qualify in law, real coaches must qualify in coaching. It is obviously not enough to be divorced to become a divorce coach. Divorce coaching is not merely about saying “I have been through it and I can do better”.

As a former academic (in my previous career, I was a head of department in a Russell Group University), I am dismayed by all this. When I trained, I specifically chose Barefoot because their long-established and always developing and innovative flagship course combined “psychological depth, academic rigour, and a highly practical focus”. In my view, those three elements are essential.

Coaching is deeply based in psychotherapy. In fact, the course I completed is approved by the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP). It is essential for a coach to be knowledgeable about the theories and concepts which underpin it. Equally, a good course must include a high number of hours of coaching practice, mostly observed by the examiners. This is quite nerve-racking at first. At Barefoot we also had to coach and be coached by our peers, which was good practice and built confidence. By the time we were able to work with paying clients, coaching had become quite natural to us. I cannot imagine how I would have done if I had not had this solid grounding first.

Poorly trained coaches can miss essential and subtle clues given by the client, simply because they have not been taught how to recognise them. They do not necessarily know how to challenge clients who are stuck in bad habits. Besides, clients can be adept at evading difficult questions and hiding deep-rooted feelings. A good coach is trained to get to the core of the problem quickly.

Without this solid foundation, unskilled coaches tend to work on a very superficial level. They are likely to follow a set formula, akin to painting by numbers and ask pre-scripted questions. This matters, because every client’s story is unique. I have worked with over 1,200 clients face to face over the past 13 years. Although my clients are all going through a divorce, or considering ending their relationship, I have truly never heard the same story twice. There is no one size fits all in coaching. All separations are unique, so it follows that recovery work is individual. Formulaic processes can only short-change clients. Still, many so-called divorce coaches work on a basic level and their clients, as well as their lawyers, deserve better.

I have also noticed that when they are not properly trained as coaches, people tend to speak of their own experience during a coaching session. That is completely inappropriate. Have you ever experienced loss and grief? How does it feel when you start talking about it and someone says “Oh yes, that happened to me,” and proceeds to speak about themselves? Not only is it off-putting, but it makes you recoil and feel even more isolated. More than anything, clients need to be heard. A well-trained coach knows how to provide an environment which nurtures this essential need.

In extreme cases, badly trained coaches can damage clients. I remember a client who had lost all her confidence after her husband of 40 years (with whom she had had four children and built businesses) had been persuaded that the split from her husband, who had left her for a younger woman, was “her fault because she had not accepted her responsibility in the breakup”. Where to begin?

Deplorably, many inadequate coaches make up their lack of professional knowledge by being very vocal about their own story and adept at self-promotion. It is impossible not to conclude that their enterprise is more about marketing, ignoring the fact that real coaching is not about the coach, but should be entirely client-centred. Claiming any bogus coaching ranking, nationally or even internationally, is not only impossible to substantiate, but also contravenes our Coaching Code of Practice which stipulates:

“Be modest about my achievements and avoid any behaviours or communication that suggest superiority in any way” (Coaching code of Practice, ICF)

Being in the eye of the media does not guarantee knowledge or quality. I find it frustrating to read poor contributions from coaches who are clearly better at PR than coaching. How utterly demoralising for many of us, who work at a different level.

For a long time, I have been appalled by the attitude of the coaches who seem to view divorce as a marketing opportunity. I was reminded of this again during the hype of “divorce day”. Is it necessary to remind those people that as divorce coaches, we are dealing with human misery and are privy to our clients’ innermost confidences? Divorce coaching work is an extraordinary privilege, which needs to be honoured, not exploited.

Enough is enough! All the above needs to be challenged. Bad behaviour in the profession demeans us all. How do we promote professionalism in the divorce coaching community and regulate the profession?

All other family consultants, such as IFAs, mediators and psychotherapists, are strictly regulated, as are bona fide coaches. Why is it that opportunists gravitate towards coaching? The answer is simple: the profession is not regulated. I also wonder if the word “coach” is too broad and not explanatory enough. I would like to see strict definitions of the term and others surrounding it.

What better way of getting back to basics than by reminding ourselves that real coaching is informed by a code of conduct. Genuine coaches know and adhere to the ICF (International Coaching Federation) code, written and adopted by bona fide coaching professional bodies and training providers. It stipulates that as a coach I must:

“Show professionalism: a commitment to a coaching mindset and professional quality that encompasses responsibility, respect, integrity, competence, and excellence;

Be true and accurate in my statements;

Commit to my life-long professional learning and personal development;

Deliver on my commitments;

Be resilient and confident when faced with challenges;

Behave with respect and transparency in all business dealings related to coaching;

Make clear and accurate representations in all my interactions in relation to coaching;

Commit to honesty, courage, consistency of action, ethical practice, and the highest standards;

Be willing to acknowledge and own my mistakes;

Be modest about my achievements;

Avoid any behaviours or communication that suggest superiority in any way.”

Not adhering to these core coaching principles should lead to disciplinary action, which would help weed out poor practice. The problem is that if a coach is not trained properly, they might be ignorant of the code, and they certainly do not belong to professional bodies that regulate the profession. This supports my previous assertion that to become a divorce coach, you need to be a coach first. You cannot and should not be a divorce coach if you are not a coach first.

For clarity, the following professional bodies are all dedicated to promoting best practice and raising the awareness and standards of coaching worldwide:

  • Association for Coaching (AC)
  • International Coaching Federation (ICF)
  • European Mentoring and Coaching Confederation (EMCC)

From my perspective, this is how to recognise genuine professional divorce coaches. They:

  • are qualified coaches who specialise in this area of expertise
  • do not claim to be “certified” if all they have gained is a dubious qualification
  • belong to a respected coaching professional body
  • work with integrity and authenticity and strive towards excellence
  • establish a relationship of trust with their clients
  • can demonstrate experience, expertise, a genuine desire to make a difference
  • undertake regular supervision
  • undertake Continuous Professional Development (CPD) – even if, like me, they have practiced for a long time. At least 12 hours a year is the basic recommendation
  • are insured (professional liability insurance for coaches)
  • always put the needs of their client at the centre at their work
  • care for safeguarding and confidentiality
  • promote their offering without using marketing strategies incompatible with their code of ethics
  • do not see divorce as a marketing or self-promotion opportunity
  • … and could weep at what is happening to their profession

The status quo is plainly wrong and it will only get worse because unscrupulous trainers churn out vast numbers of poorly trained coaches. I am not sure if they manage to earn a living, but what I know is that they do not have the same transformative impact on clients as would a genuine coach.

If we do not address the pressing issue of the lack of regulation in divorce coaching, we could be facing the perfect storm: poor coaches misrepresenting the profession and damaging its reputation; and lawyers unknowingly referring clients to coaches who are unable to do the best by them and even damage them. Under no circumstances should divorce coaches become a risk to family solicitors. Instead, their role is to support the lawyer’s work, add value, and bring a set of skills that the family lawyer does not have. Professionalism is crucial and regulating the profession has never been more important.

I have been doing this work for longer than anyone I know. During that time, my role has evolved and I work in ever closer partnership with the lawyers who refer their clients to me. Not only do I coach their clients, but I also participate in collaborative divorce meetings; I participate in integrated mediation; I belong and contribute to lawyers’ Pods; I contribute knowledge by offering workshops, talks and written content; I give advice to relevant professionals… the list is not exhaustive.

Can we make 2023 the year when we all commit, for everyone’s sake (clients, lawyers, and professional coaches), to demand that the divorce coaching profession be strictly regulated? Divorce coaches should be following a clear set of criteria designed to uphold professional standards. Lawyers and other professionals should have a list of criteria enabling them to check credentials fully. All this would promote good practice and weed out the rest.

The Association for Coaching (of which I have been a full member since 2010) states:

“Our purpose is to inspire and champion coaching excellence, to advance the coaching profession and make a sustainable difference to individuals… and society.”

Regulating the divorce coaching profession would give lawyers, and other professionals who refer their clients, the peace of mind they deserve.

Kim Morgan, CEO of Barefoot Coaching, has always made professionalism the centre of her offering:

“We take great pride in the fact that our students leave our programme as confident, exceptional coaches, ready to make a difference in the world.”

Accordingly, I take pride in my coaching. Making a difference in my clients’ lives is hugely rewarding and I never tire of it. I can also state that nothing motivates me more than getting referrals from the many lawyers who trust me with their clients. This recognition is what has kept me going for all those years and will make me continue for many more to come.

Let’s regulate!