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What is Compassion Focused Coaching?

A blog banner for compassion focused coaching.

Compassion Focused Coaching (CFC) originates from a therapeutic approach developed by clinical psychologist Dr. Paul Gilbert and colleagues defined as Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT). It was primarily designed to address issues related to shame, self-criticism, and self-esteem, with a strong focus on cultivating self-compassion and emotional regulation.

CFT integrates elements from various psychological theories, including attachment, cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), evolutionary psychology, and mindfulness, to help individuals improve their mental well-being. It is particularly beneficial for individuals who struggle with self-criticism, shame, and low self-esteem, as it offers tools and techniques to foster self-compassion and emotional well-being.

Essential reading: The Compassionate Mind >

What is compassion focused coaching?

Compassion focused coaching (CFC) aims to use a range of interventions to support coachees in building awareness and noticing the impact of negative emotions, worry, self-monitoring, and self-criticism. In addition, CFC can guide the coachee to create a more soothing and reassuring support system.

Below is an overview of the key principles and components of compassion focused coaching:

Three Emotional Systems

The CFC is built on the idea that humans have three emotional systems – the threat system, the drive system, and the soothing system. The threat system is responsible for our fight-flight-freeze responses and can trigger anxiety and self-criticism. The drive system motivates us to achieve goals and pursue rewards. The soothing system, which is a key component of the CFC, helps us experience feelings of safety, comfort, and self-compassion.

Emotional Regulation Systems related to Compassionate Focused Coaching
Gilbert, P (2009). The Compassionate Mind

Self-Criticism and Shame

CFC recognizes that many individuals struggle with self-criticism, shame, and a lack of self-compassion. These negative self-evaluations can contribute to mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. It is also key to explore areas related to fears of compassion for the individual. This can be broken into three areas:

Fears of self-compassion
Fears of giving compassion to others
Fears of receiving compassion from others

Compassion: The core of CFC is the cultivation of compassion, both for oneself and others. To help coachees develop self-compassion by teaching them to treat themselves with kindness, understanding, and non-judgment. This involves acknowledging one's suffering and responding to it with warmth and care. In addition, it creates a warm, soothing, and reassuring inner voice. As Cozolino (2007) aptly states, ‘Feeling cared for, accepted and having a sense of belonging is essential to our physiological maturation and wellbeing’.

Role of Coaching Psychologist

As a coaching psychologist, it is essential to create a case formulation to understand the needs and goals of the intervention. In addition, it is also useful to help recognise areas outside of your competency or skill set that would require a referral.

Case formulation in compassion focused approaches is a crucial process that helps practitioners and coachees understand the coachee's difficulties, identify targets for the intervention, and what the intervention needs to include. It involves gathering information, making sense of the coachee's experiences, and tailoring compassion focused techniques to address the specific needs of the coachee. Below is an outline of how to move through a case formulation using a compassion focused approach:

Assessment and Information Gathering:

  • Begin by conducting a comprehensive assessment of the coachee, including their presenting problems, history, and current life circumstances.

  • Explore the coachee's emotional experiences, thoughts, and behaviours, paying particular attention to self-criticism, shame, and self-compassion.

  • Assess the coachee's emotional regulation, focusing on how they respond to distress and threats.

  • Identify any traumatic experiences or adverse life events that may have contributed to their current difficulties. At this point a consideration of your competency and training and if a referral is required.

Identify Emotional Systems:

  • Use CFT's framework of the three emotional systems (threat, drive, and soothing) to understand how the coachee's emotions and behaviours are influenced by these systems.

  • Determine which emotional system(s) are most active or problematic for the coachee. For example, some coachees may be dominated by their threat system, leading to high levels of anxiety and self-criticism.

Self-Criticism and Shame

  • Assess the coachee’s levels of self-criticism and shame. Explore the origins of these self-evaluations and their impact on the coachee’s self-esteem and mental well-being.

Compassion Assessment

  • Evaluate the coachee’s ability to experience and express self-compassion. Are they able to treat themselves with kindness and understanding, or is their self-talk primarily critical and harsh? Also, consider the tone of this inner voice.

  • Identify any fears, blocks, or resistances (FBRs) related to self-compassion, such as concerns about weakness or unworthiness. This could also extend to FBRs related to receiving compassion from others or giving compassion to others.

Core Beliefs and Schemas

  • Explore the coachee's core beliefs and schemas about themselves, others, and the world. These beliefs may be related to self-worth, trust, or attachment.

  • Identify patterns that maintain self-criticism and shame.

CFT Formulation

  • Create a CFT-specific case formulation that integrates the gathered information. This formulation should highlight the interplay between the emotional systems, self-criticism, shame, and self-compassion.

  • Consider how the coachee's difficulties have developed over time and are maintained by their emotional regulation patterns and belief systems.


  • Collaboratively develop a plan with the coachee that outlines specific goals and interventions. These should be tailored to address the coachee's unique case formulation.

  • Arrange targets for intervention, such as increasing self-compassion, reducing self-criticism, and enhancing emotional regulation.

  • Discuss the process and what coachees can expect from CFC.


  • Implement CFT techniques and exercises that align with the case formulation.

  • Encourage coachees to engage in regular homework and practice to reinforce the development of self-compassion.

Ongoing Assessment and Review

  • Continuously assess and review the coachee's progress in coaching, adjusting the plan as needed.

  • Monitor changes in self-criticism, shame, and self-compassion as well as improvements in emotional regulation and well-being.

A well-constructed case formulation in CFT serves as a guideline for coaching, helping both the coaching psychologist and the coachee understand the origins of distress. Furthermore, the application of CFT techniques help to promote healing, self-compassion, and emotional well-being.

In a compassion focused approach, the coaching psychologist will seek to create an environment in which the coachee feels safe and secure. It's important to approach this process collaboratively with empathy, fostering a safe and compassionate working relationship.

Compassion focused coaching core methods

  1. Mindfulness and Mindful Self-Compassion: Mindfulness practices are integrated into compassion focused coaching to help individuals become more aware of their thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations. Mindful self-compassion involves using mindfulness to redirect self-criticism and replace it with self-kindness and understanding.

  2. Imagery and Visualization: CFA often incorporates guided imagery and visualization techniques to help coachees access and strengthen their soothing system. These exercises can involve creating mental images of compassionate figures or safe places that provide comfort and emotional regulation.

  3. Chair Work: Chair work is a common therapeutic technique in CFA, where coachees engage in dialogue with different aspects of themselves. This can include conversations between the self-critical part and the compassionate self, facilitating inner conflict resolution. An alternative version of chair work is working through the multiple selves exercise. (Multiple selves sheet)

  4. Psychoeducation: Coachees receive education about the evolution of the brain and the role of the threat, drive, and soothing systems. Understanding the science behind these emotional systems can help individuals gain insight into their emotions and behaviours. For individuals who struggle with high self-criticism and shame the compassion focused approach helps individuals ‘to feel’ the difference by accessing the affect regulation systems through neurophysiology. (three affect system)

  5. Homework and Practice: Coachees are often assigned homework and practice exercises to integrate self-compassion and emotional regulation skills into their daily lives. Regular practice is crucial for lasting change.

Key takeaways of compassion focused coaching

From this article, you will have a clear understanding of compassion focused coaching including the key concepts and theory. An overview has been provided of the role of a coaching psychologist and how to conduct a case formulation with a compassion focused lens.

In addition, an outline of the core methods of a compassion focused approach has been included to show the application in your coaching sessions.


What is compassion focused coaching blog author bio.


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