I was asked to contribute a “sex and intimacy coaching” chapter for the book
Breaking Barriers in Counseling Men: Insights and Innovations
This book is a brilliant compilation of out-of-the-box strategies to use in coaching or counseling men. If you work with men in this capacity, Breaking Barriers is a treasure chest. I learned a ton by reading the chapters from the other contributors.
Here’s my contribution. If you find value in it, please consider purchasing the book.
A DIRECT APPROACH TO INTIMACY AND SEXUALITY
I’m dining at a Manhattan restaurant the evening after I’ve led a two-day workshop on relationships, intimacy and sexuality for men. I’m telling my companions about the techniques I used in my one-on-one sessions with three different workshop participants. One of them says, “That sounds like coaching to me.” She mentions that she and two of her friends at the table participated in a coaching program in the San Francisco Bay Area. “You should check it out,” she adds. When I got back to California, I did.
And that’s how I started on my path to becoming a coach.
What exactly is coaching? Here’s a short definition I like from the Association of Personal and Professional Coaches: Coaching enhances the client’s ability to get clear, to focus on learning, making changes, achieving desired objectives and experiencing fulfillment.
However you define it, it seems that coaching attracts a greater percentage of men than does therapy — more than twice as many. Recent data from the International Coaching Federation states that the male/female ratio of coaching clients is 45/55 (ICF, 2008), while the male/female ratio for those who voluntarily enter psychotherapy is much more skewed toward women (Addis & Mahalik, 2003).
Later in this chapter I’ll offer my theories about why a greater percentage of men are drawn to coaching. I also have a number of suggestions for introducing coaching techniques into an existing therapeutic practice. But right now I want to talk about sex.
Sex and Relationship Coaching
My particular arena of coaching — sex and relationships — turns out to be an ideal focus for this book. First of all, for nearly all men, having good sex is very important. When they run into difficulties, they are highly motivated to make changes. Also, many guys facing sexual challenges might shy away from therapy, but those same men seem to be more comfortable talking with a sex and relationship coach like me, who they perceive as less psychologically judgmental.
Men confide in me about issues like their lack of confidence in bed, premature ejaculation, and expectations from partners that aren’t being met. Difficult conversations? Absolutely. But just having the conversation begins the healing process for many men, simply because they’ve never talked about these issues with anyone.
Because I am known as a sex coach and promote myself as such, men often seek me out to specifically address their sexuality concerns. With these guys, talking about sex is relatively easy. Even with general coaching clients, though, I usually take the first step and ask about their sex life. Is it satisfying? Do they want more from their sexual encounters? Any hang-ups or problems? My own comfort and sincere curiosity, combined with my belief (often made explicit) that sexuality is reflective of an individual’s overall health and integration, orients my client to a non-shaming atmosphere regarding sex. Together we look at their sex life simply as one part of their life situation.
Providing a safe, comfortable context in which men can honestly explore their sexuality is key, whether or not they have come to me specifically for sex coaching. I’ve found there to be a few fundamental elements to providing this context:
1. My own self-management. If I’m met with an aspect of a client’s sexuality I find jarring or hard to understand — a particular fetish or fantasy, or protracted infidelity, for example — I need to be fastidious in addressing and digesting my own response. My capacity to remain welcoming and non-shaming is essential for a successful outcome. If I find that I cannot hold this kind of equanimity (my client harming others for sexual gratification, for example), I will share this with them and discuss referral.
2. Initiating sexual vocabulary. Clients are often initially reluctant to speak openly about specific sexual issues. So if they start off with, “Sex is over pretty quickly,” I ask, “Oh, so are you ejaculating earlier than you’d like?” There’s often an audible sigh of relief on the other end of the line, now that I’ve spoken so directly to what was formerly unspeakable. I’ll continue to lead the way: “Is it mostly when you’re fucking, or also when she’s going down on you?” I establish a vocabulary that is casual and very man-friendly as soon as possible in our session. For instance, I use words like cock, pussy, and other “dirty” words in lieu of more clinical terms. I also listen closely to each client for their own sexual words and phrases, which I add to our growing shared vocabulary.
3. Normalizing pleasure, emphasizing success. Tito, a 29 year-old Latino with a foot fetish, carried a heavy burden of shame when he initially broached the subject with me. Here’s how I proceeded in our session.
- I asked genuinely curious, judgement-free questions to get more detail (frequently using affirmations like “Cool!” or “Great!” with each new disclosure).
- I acknowledged him for his bravery and vulnerability in sharing his sexual history.
- I affirmed his fetish by letting him know that there is no “normal,” and that, rather than encouraging him to overcome or bypass his kink, my goal was to help him accept, celebrate, and fully “own” his kink.
- I asked if he’d ever had a successful “foot” encounter with a partner from which to build upon. He could indeed recall a very enjoyable night during which his fetish was in full expression, and we expanded his potential for greater fulfillment with that experience as a foundation. (If he hadn’t, we would have explored ways for him to find an appropriate partner with whom he could share his desires.)
4. Appropriate self-disclosure and humor. To help move clients toward greater self-acceptance, I regularly use humor, as well as disclose some of my own sexual trauma and “kinks.” Obviously, you’ll not want to make inappropriate jokes, nor will you want to disclose parts of your sexual history that you haven’t fully come to terms with yet. But I find that showing my humanity to clients can teach them important lessons, and can also help them become more vulnerable in our sessions. And my playful attitude toward sex encourages them to hold their issue more lightly then they have been doing so far.
As I help men begin to understand and heal their sexual and relationship issues, “side benefits” typically appear. Some clients make changes to their diet, return to their meditation practice, or become more assertive in addressing problems at home and work. Sometimes it’s because I’ve directly encouraged them to do so (since I’m also trained in life coaching), but just as often it’s because they’re beginning to respect themselves in a new way. I’m giving them the information and guidance they’re seeking about sex and intimacy, but at a deeper level, I’m walking with them on the path to greater self-acceptance and self-love — which, of course, affects every area of their lives.
A Case Study
In order to better understand my approach to coaching and its effectiveness in working with male clients in particular, I offer a recent case example.
Jamie, 27, lives in a rural town in the Pacific Northwest. In our initial interview I ask if he’s ever been in therapy. He says he’s not sure that there are any therapists in his area, and if there were, he wouldn’t want to run into someone around town with whom he had a therapeutic relationship. Jamie works for a small non-profit organization. He’s introverted and conflict-avoidant, which has been impacting his relationships with family and friends, and has kept him from meeting the kind of women he’s interested in.
Over the course of our six-month coaching term, I helped Jamie in a number of areas. In nearly every session we discussed topics he had never spoken about with anyone.
First, I assessed how satisfied Jamie was in a number of different areas in his life. It turned out that he was struggling with some personal relationships. I helped him understand how to have an authentic, direct conversation with his parents and co-worker by describing how he might do it, and then I asked him to role-play it with me. I also found out what physical health practices he was currently doing, and what he might want to do in the future. As a result, he started going to the gym three times a week and enrolled in a yoga class in a nearby city.
To work on his intimacy issues, I encouraged him to start conversations with women after the yoga classes. We discussed how he might meet women in ways that were aligned with his introversion and values. After about two months of working together, he shared his experience of the somatic symptoms of being rejected by women. I encouraged him to allow and then magnify the sensations. He emerged from this “process coaching” feeling more stable and secure in himself. A month after this he was dating three different women, and soon after, he chose one of them with whom he wanted to “go steady.” Jamie then shyly asked me for a plan to help him become a better lover, which I designed with him.
Around this time I heard a dramatic change in the quality of his speech. He hesitated less and spoke with more authority and conviction. I pointed this out, and encouraged him to use this new strength to explore what changes he’d like to make in his work life. He decided to ask his supervisor for more responsibility and more money, and we co-created a way for him to present his case. It turned out that his boss couldn’t give him what he wanted, but the process helped him commit to explore new employment possibilities.
Not all of my coaching relationships unfold as steadily and smoothly as my work with Jamie, but most successful ones do follow a particular progression. Over the course of four to six months, guys who were struggling with a presenting sex or relationship issue see a clear improvement or progress toward their goal as well as other positive changes in their lives.
Coaching ≠ Therapy ≠ Consulting ≠ Mentoring?
“Therapy,” says psychologist Michael Cavanagh, “seeks to comfort the afflicted. But in coaching, however, the coach is often called upon to afflict the comfortable!” (Cavanagh, 2009)
In contrast to therapy’s medical-model roots, coaching traces its origins to mentoring traditions around the world; to sports coaching (Tim Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Tennis is the seminal tome here); to contemporary business management theory and executive training programs; and to personal growth workshops that emerged in the 60s and 70s from (surprise!) California.
“Pure” coaching — what I learned in my life coaching training — is not the same as consulting or mentoring. In pure coaching, the coach asks questions designed to draw out the client’s own wisdom. Pure coaches can coach a client on any subject without knowing much about the subject matter itself. But people seek out consultants and mentors because they have expertise in particular areas.
These days, even “pure” coaches have areas that they specialize in, and more and more coaches are doing the job that consultants and mentors do — they just call themselves “coaches.” One of my colleagues was a CEO before he became a business coach. Another coach I collaborate with studied nutrition and led women’s groups for a decade before becoming a women’s health coach.
The distinctions between therapy, coaching, consulting and mentoring may become less significant as time rolls on. Programs like San Francisco’s Interchange Counseling, for instance, are on a mission to bridge the counseling-coaching gap. Founder Steve Bearman’s one-year training is designed to give tools to coaches to make them more aware and skillful in working with clients on psychological, emotional and interpersonal levels. The program also helps mental health professionals be more coach-like, directive and results-oriented in their work (S. Bearman, personal communication, April 18, 2012).
The bottom line is that, whatever it’s called — coaching, mentoring, witchcraft, mumblety-peg — if it helps guys create positive change for themselves, use it!
Hook ‘Em with Coaching
I believe there are many men who have the sense they might be able to change their lives in a positive way, but wouldn’t consider going to therapy. Coaching can be an effective hook to enroll guys who are new to the idea of personal growth.
Ron, 36, is a middle manager of an alternative energy company in Colorado. He has been sexual with a total of three women: A drunken one-night stand in his early 20s; a five-year relationship; and his current wife of six years. He called me three months after learning his wife had an affair with her co-worker. Her complaint — as he tells it — is that he isn’t emotionally available, and the sex is lousy. Not surprisingly, Ron is having a lot of confidence issues.
“I’m glad that we’re talking on the phone instead of meeting in person,” says Ron, in our first session. “Talking about all this sex stuff would be too much for me to do in person.” I ask him if he’s currently, or ever has been, in therapy. “Eight years ago I was in couple’s therapy to try and rescue my first relationship. The therapist was a woman and she always seemed to side with my partner. I never trusted her and refused to go back after a few sessions.” When I ask him why he’s coming to me instead of a therapist, Ron laughs, “Because I don’t think I’m screwed up enough to need a therapist! Seriously, I’m not big on self-reflection. I am big on getting results, and that’s why I thought coaching with you might be a better approach for me.”
In his own way, Ron points out a number of reasons why some men prefer coaching to therapy. Here’s how I would distinguish them:
Coaching doesn’t challenge most men’s sense of self. At certain points in their development, some men are simply not comfortable with (or able to do) deep, exposing, emotional work: It’s too confronting to their concept of themselves. There’s a social component as well: Guys will more readily tell a friend that they’re getting coaching instead of counseling because they’re afraid their mental health will be questioned. These men will choose a coaching relationship because they don’t want to be burdened with the (sadly outdated) stigma that “because I’m in therapy, something is wrong with me.”
Coaching aligns with the traditional masculine value of achievement. Many men who might have difficulty contacting and expressing feelings (traditionally, the realm of therapy) might be eager to be invited to the party through the side door by working with a coach. Coaches frequently help their clients design measurable goals and track their progress — including “homework” that has been co-designed with the client. It’s the kind of challenge that can motivate many results-oriented guys (like Ron) to begin the process of change.
Coaching on the phone — at least in the “sex and intimacy” arena — helps men feel safer. Every man I’ve worked with has had some amount of shame and performance anxiety regarding his sex life, and phone sessions seem to offer the hesitant man an ideal blend of “lack of threat of embarrassment” and “freedom to speak.”
In addition to the reasons from Ron’s example, here are four more theories about why guys who want to make changes in their lives are more likely to call a coach than a therapist.
Coaching has the potential of positive associations with sports coaching. Guys who had a favorite coach when they were younger might easily accept the idea of a personal coach just for them. Guys who didn’t have positive associations might want to correct their trauma by hiring a “good coach.” Either way, there’s the archetype of a strong, fiercely loving figure that offers the “fathering” that many men — especially younger guys — are craving in our increasingly fragmented Western culture.
Coaching is hot right now. Rising stars in corporations are often assigned a coach to help prepare them for advancement within the organization. It’s an indication that they’re worth an investment, and that the company believes in their potential. Who wouldn’t like that — inside or outside the corporate environment?
Coaching offers short-term solutions. Cognitive-behavioral and solution-focused therapy aside, most therapeutic clients benefit from years of weekly meetings with their therapists, building the secure attachment and the deep holding environment necessary for change. Most coaching engagements, in contrast, last from 4-6 months — very appealing to men who like the idea of achieving results within a specified amount of time.
Coaching doesn’t require face-to-face meetings. Although most psychotherapists offer supplemental phone contact and occasionally make use of Skype or other video technology for out-of-town clients with whom they have established relationships, many coaches work entirely on the phone. This kind of flexibility eliminates travel time and lets clients enjoy a session from any location. I’ve had dozens of coaching clients I’ve never met in person. (Although, truthfully, I’ve met a lot of men who prefer face-to-face meetings to phone sessions.)
Coaching for Addicts and the Mentally Ill
Is coaching for everyone? Definitely not. Anyone diagnosed with a mental illness will be better served with other forms of support (such as psychotherapy or psychiatry), but I’ve teamed up with a therapist to work successfully with a high-functioning bipolar client. Coaches, please note: it is unethical to pursue psychological work with clients when you have not been trained to do so. And you must refer mentally ill clients to a qualified mental health practitioner.
Also: When I first started coaching, I noticed that a couple of my clients were getting very limited results. They would initiate change but lack the staying power to concretize those changes over time. Further investigation revealed that they had active addictions (alcohol and drugs). In both cases, I stopped our work together and recommended that they enter a recovery program before proceeding with coaching. I now ask questions regarding addiction as part of my initial intake with clients.
The bottom line is that clients must be not just willing but able to make the changes they want in their lives.
Introducing Coaching to Your Existing Male Clients
We all want to feel effective in our work with men. It doesn’t take much to shift your practice to include more aspects that might appeal to men, as well as encourage them to stay. Here are some steps for you to consider if you’re interested in becoming more “coach-like” in your therapy practice.
Begin by discerning your best candidates. Some men may be better served through therapeutic modes — like encouragement to feel feelings, trauma recovery, an unconditional loving presence — rather than being supported toward particular goals. But if you sense a man wants more than that, and think that the coaching angle could work for both of you, then introduce a few coaching principles over time. Keep the process explicit and gradual, so as not to negatively impact the therapeutic bond.
In a session, start by tracking your own impulses. Notice when are you drawn to guide a client towards a specific action. Then check it out with yourself. Can you tell if it is truly an intuitive insight? Or is your own projection or counter-transference muddying the waters? Sometimes I’m completely transparent with a client and say something like: “I notice that I have a strong impulse right now to offer you an action you could take. I could be totally projecting my desires onto you, and you also may not be interested in hearing anything that sounds like advice. What say you?”
Here’s another direct approach you might try: “I’m feeling inspired to work with you more as a coach than your therapist right now. Is it OK with you if we try that? It means that I might be more directive with you, or that I might ask more challenging questions, or I may encourage you to take steps towards your goal. What do you think?”
If the client is game, consider asking mildly confronting, open-ended questions like, “What’s the next step you could take right away?” or “Who, besides me, could support you in this?” “So, what is the vision for your life?” Sometimes when a client says to me, “I don’t know,” I reply (as a kind of mental aikido), “What if you did know?”
If your client is locked into a particular way of thinking, you might suggest “Blue Sky Brainstorming.” Tell them that you’d like to see if there are some other ways they might look at this issue, or alternative directions for them to consider. Make it collaborative and inviting: “Let’s brainstorm some ideas here. If you could make it any way you wanted, what would this situation look like?” Then throw some of your ideas into the ring with theirs. Male clients seem to especially like brainstorming.
Let’s say that your client has agreed to take a specific action over the next week. It’s nearing the end of the session. Consider getting him to commit to that action. There are a number of ways to do this, but the simplest is for him to write it down — two copies, one for you and one for him — and have him sign and date both copies. Some clients might experience this as too threatening, but consider using it if a verbal commitment didn’t work from the week before. Other clients will take such commitments very seriously and rise to the challenge.
When you review the client’s actions or commitment in your next session with him, make sure to acknowledge him if he was successful in accomplishing his action: “Robert, I want to acknowledge all that it took for you to move past your inner resistances and outer obstacles to reach your goal. From my perspective, you’ve done a great job here.”
In the next session, help the client deepen his learning. You can do this whether or not they accomplished their goal. Ask him, “What are you taking away from this?” “How were you ‘well-used’ in this process?” “What new qualities have emerged in you?” Then add what you noticed to his list.
As you begin to expand your coaching repertoire, you’ll get to experience navigating between the roles of task-master, cheerleader, and loving parent. You might find it helpful to buy a couple of books or a home study program about coaching to help you get a feel for the territory. Good ones are Co-Active Coaching (Whitworth, Kimsey-House & Sandahl, 1998), Coaching for Performance (Whitmore, 2002), and Life Coach in a Box (Stanton, 2006).
The Next Step
Some therapists and counselors get very enthusiastic about adding coaching tools to their sessions, and some want to have a coaching practice that stands side-by-side with their therapeutic practice. If this is you, here are my suggestions on how to proceed.
First of all, get coached yourself. Hire an experienced, qualified coach and work with them for six months. Then, to experience a different working model, let that coach go and hire a new coach — one who was trained in a different coaching program than the first one — for another six months. Repeat as often as you like. I found this method extremely helpful for me on both the personal and professional levels. One way of insuring that you’ll be getting high-quality coaching is to work with a coach who holds a PCC or MCC credential with the International Coach Federation.
In your first session with your coach, tell them that in addition to working with you as a coach, you’d like them to mentor you in your new coaching practice as well. Ask them to explain what they’re doing with you while they’re doing it. Consider hiring a therapist-coach as one of your mentors — someone who has already made the transition you want to make.
Next, enroll in a reputable coaching training so you can experientially learn the craft of coaching. Most basic coaching programs offer 100-125 hours of training, and are offered either in-person or on the phone. Again, look for ICF-accredited coaching programs to give yourself the best chance of a quality education.
Consider putting out your shingle as a coach. That might mean changing your work description to something like “Therapist and Men’s Coach.” When new clients call, you can ask if they’re interested in coaching or therapy — or ask if it even matters to them. You might experiment with working with some of your new coaching clients strictly on the phone and see how you enjoy that.
Be clear in your initial meeting with a client if you’re going to be doing coaching or therapy with them. If either you or the client is unsure, use that initial meeting to find out.
Going All The Way
Some therapists engaged in this process end up preferring their coaching work to their therapeutic work, and stop accepting new clients who are mentally ill. They increase their hourly rate (sometimes as much as double or triple their therapist’s rate), stop filing insurance paperwork, and focus solely on high-functioning clients.
There are entire books and programs dedicated to helping you build your coaching practice. Your mentor coaches will have lots of ideas for you as well. In the meantime, here are some ideas for you to chew on.
I suggest that you define a niche for yourself. Is there a particular male demographic that interests you, or one in which you have specific expertise? Guys in their 20s? Men transitioning out of the corporate world? Recovering addicts? Gay men? Limiting your audience will make you more attractive to that same audience.
As you begin to put yourself out there, go with your strengths. If you’re a good speaker, make recordings and podcasts, get interviewed on radio shows, and book speaking gigs. If you like to write, start a blog and publish consumer (non-academic) articles. If you’re a people-person, join networking groups. If you’re a closet techie, do the best practices to get your site ranked high by search engines.
Consider coaching groups of men — in your chosen niche — via teleconference. I took a training in how to lead group coaching programs and found it very helpful. Remember to think big: You can attract men from all over the world to join a group you’re leading.
Another step many coaches take is to create products and sell them: E-books. CDs or mp3s. DVDs or downloadable videos. Products mean passive income that can build over time. I can also recommend that you establish partnerships and affiliate relationships with people you trust. I formed an alliance with a company who marketed personal-growth programs and products to men. They helped me convert an in-person sexuality seminar that typically attracted 20 participants into a teleseminar that registered nearly 10 times that number of men. I gained valuable reach into a new market as a men’s sex and relationship expert.
Wrapping it Up
When you add coaching skills to your psychotherapeutic toolkit, you’re creating a win-win for you and your potential male clients. The men win — those guys who might avoid a strictly therapeutic relationship with you — because they’re invited into an out-of-the-box environment that holds more potential for their self-actualization. You win because you can serve more men — perhaps a lot more — by doing more of what you love to do.
~ END ~
Purchase the book here: Breaking Barriers in Counseling Men: Insights and Innovations
Click to read more of my writing on this website.
Addis, M. E., & Mahalik, J. R. (2003). Men, masculinity, and the contexts of help seeking. American Psychologist, 58(1), 5-14.
Cavanagh, M. (2009). Coaching from a systemic perspective: A complex adaptive conversation. In D. Stober & A.M. Grant (Eds.), Evidence based coaching handbook (pp. 313-54). New York, NY: Wiley.
International Coaching Federation (2008). Global Coaching Study, Executive Summary.
Stanton, C. (2006). Life Coach in a Box: A motivational kit for making the most out of life. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle.
Whitmore, J. (2002). Coaching for Performance: Growing people, performance and purpose. London, England: Nicholas Brealey.
Whitworth, L., Kimsey-House, H., & Sandahl, P. (1998). Co-Active Coaching: New skills for coaching people toward success in work and life. Palo Alto, CA: Davies-Black.