Coaching psychology has grown significantly over the past 20 years and Siobhain O’Riordan has been a prominent contributor, helping establish and evolve its accreditation process. Liz Hall reports
If Siobhain O’Riordan, award-winning coaching psychologist and chair of the International Society for Coaching Psychology (ISCP), hadn’t had the chance to volunteer with the British Psychological Society (BPS) in the early days of the field’s evolution, she would probably not have bothered with coaching.
It would have been the profession’s loss. O’Riordan, who is also a coach, coach supervisor, academic and trainer, has been a prominent contributor to the development of the field of coaching, including coaching psychology over the past two decades, helping to build an accreditation pathway for coaching psychologists, for example.
On getting into coaching, O’Riordan says that after she completed her PhD in 2002: “Coaching was everywhere. My interest was really piqued around working with high performance, wellbeing, those kinds of things. So I did a coach training course.
“If I’m honest, I felt a bit frustrated – where was the psychology in coaching [at that time]? I found myself typing into a search engine, the words coaching and psychology, and it brought up [the late] Alison Whybrow’s name.”
The BPS’s precursor to the Special Group in Coaching Psychology (SGCP), the Coaching Psychology Forum, was looking for volunteers.
With her strong background in volunteering and burgeoning interest in combining coaching with psychology, O’Riordan said to Whybrow, who ended up being a very close colleague, “ ‘I’ll do anything!’ And I went along to a committee meeting and that consolidated the psychology and the coaching.
“To be quite honest, if that hadn’t happened, I don’t know if I’d have stayed with coaching at that point. My business was new and there were other consultative projects I was doing. It’s funny, isn’t it, how these things happen? That meant that I tied those two things together. And from that moment, coaching has been at the forefront of what I’ve been doing for the past 20 years.”
O’Riordan is a chartered psychologist, chartered scientist and ISCP accredited coaching psychologist and supervisor, and she’s also a course co-director/trainer on the coaching and coaching psychology programmes at the Centre for Coaching and Centre for Stress Management in the UK. Topics include performance coaching, stress management, Positive Psychology, cognitive behavioural solution focused coaching, resilience and supervision.
She has been very active in supporting an accreditation process for coaching psychology, which didn’t yet exist anywhere in the world at that time.
“At the beginning, there wasn’t anything. Now there is within the BPS, of course. It’s wonderful to see that that has happened for coaching psychologists –the chartership route, which is great for our profession.
“Essentially, I think what the accreditation offers is a pathway for people, and also getting professional recognition for what we’re doing. As we know, it involves often various steps in submitting portfolios and having your submission scrutinised and those kinds of things. I think that’s really important. That’s how we have turned an industry into a profession, I think, when we look at coaching.
“Coaching psychology has had a significant momentum. It’s grown exponentially over the past 15 years. I first became involved in the SGCP as a committee member then became its chair – a great responsibility but also an honour. I continue to work on a voluntary basis today.”
She then became the founder chair of the ISCP, which has grown as an international professional body.
Through her career and professional activities, she’s sought to actively support the advancement of coaching psychology and coaching in the UK and globally. As a volunteer, she has held many roles in professional psychology, coaching psychology, and allied bodies to support the development of the profession. She’s also contributed in academic and educational settings and has worked as a coach, coaching psychologist and supervisor in organisations and with individuals.
In recognition of her many contributions, O’Riordan has received accolades including a Coaching at Work Lifetime Achievement Award in 2021 for contributions to developing coaching psychology internationally and the BPS SGCP’s Distinguished Contribution to Coaching Psychology Award in 2010. She was Highly Commended in the Coaching at Work External Coaching and Mentoring Champion award category in 2019.
As part of her PhD, she looked at how people cope with the transition to retirement, and at selective attention processing bias. Ongoing coaching interests include transition, stress, resilience, wellbeing, learning and development, performance, and health promotion in the workplace and education, and more recently coaching for animal welfare.
“Because of my interest in animals [she has dogs and horses], I decided to focus more on that and how as coaches and psychologists, we can support people who are custodians of animals, but also professionals who work within that space.”
She recently jointly developed the PARTNERSHIP animal-centred coaching framework, which seeks to support pet custodians and professionals to enhance animal welfare, co-authoring an article on this (O’Riordan, Lyndsen, & Arroll, 2023).
“It’s basically a coaching model, but also a framework of psycho-education and practical tips for when you’re working in an animal-related context. So that doesn’t necessarily mean animal-assisted coaching where the animal has to be in the room, but coaching for people who have pets, or vets, or dog or cat trainers.
“There’s a lot of rehoming happening that carries over from the pandemic through lack of socialisation and lack of access to professionals. There are a lot of people experiencing burnout or who are ill-equipped to cope with animals. So there’s a real need and this enables me to get into something I’m very interested in as well.”
Writing, and editing, has long been one of the ways O’Riordan contributes to professionalising coaching. She edited the SGCP’s The Coaching Psychologist, and is currently editor of Coaching Psychology International and the International Journal of Coaching Psychology, and a co-editor of the International Journal of Stress Prevention and Wellbeing and the European Journal of Applied Positive Psychology. She’s also a former editor of journals including the International Journal of Health Promotion and Education, and the Rational Emotive Therapist.
“One of the privileges, really, of being an editor is you get the opportunity to see articles that keep you and your knowledge at the forefront of the field. I have a real interest in research, which I’m still actively involved in. And you get to give feedback.”
She’s also written research papers, co-authored chapters, including on stress, and on transition with Stephen Palmer and Sheila Panchal, and co-edited with Stephen Palmer, the Introduction to Coaching Psychology (Routledge, 2021), part of a coaching psychology series: “That was a real highlight. It’s been translated into Italian, and just this week we saw the Japanese translation of it – I felt very proud to see that.
“What was also important, because there are clearly other books available, was that we really wanted to focus it at introductory level, so that it would still be really useful to people already practising, who just want to dip in and out of the book, but also people such as undergraduates, those and embarking on a career in coaching psychology.”
Highlights and achievements
What is she proud of, looking back?
“It’s about being able to contribute to the development of a profession, playing my part-time job in that. I’ve got a background as a volunteer. I spent around 10 years’ worth of service – with a particular charitable body. So I’m really pleased that I’ve been able to apply that within a professional context.
“I guess the highlights are being involved with all the journals, also, being part of working with the team of people that I’ve had around me.
“But I think really it was the accreditation process and also the conferences that I’ve been involved in over the years, wearing different hats, because most of them are international. And also, of course, the Coaching at Work conference, I’ve had involvement with many of them. I just love bringing people together and [being part of] those communities.”
Bringing people together is one of her strengths, and has helped her not feel isolated: “I’m sure a lot of people would say the same – that doing a PhD can be quite an isolating experience.
“I was determined when I started my own practice and business not to be isolated. So that was another driver to get involved in professional bodies and the communities, to not feel isolated as a lone worker, which is essentially what many of us are. The ISCP provides a forum to bring together the international community. That’s another highlight.
“I think, broadly, if we look at milestones, the coaching profession and the coaching psychology profession are in good shape in terms of where we’re getting to with professionalisation. I think it is exciting. It’s exciting to be in it. I do enjoy it, particularly the people side.”
“Another highlight for me is getting to meet people that are at various stages of their professional or personal development…There is the academic and a term I quite like that I’ve adopted from Stephen Palmer is pracademic. So there’s the doctorate supervisor as well as the practice supervisor here too.”
As a supervisor, she’s “always interested in how as practitioners, as coaches, we resource ourselves and manage our own stress and our own resilience. I see that quite a lot in supervision.
“Of course, we’re still in a period of adjustment…there’s the whole hybrid piece and how people are managing that…There are so many different levels impacting us – the Ukraine war, returning to work or not returning to work, hybrid working, the cost of living, climate, of course…How we’re connecting into the context feeds into stress and resilience…There’s so much commonality in terms of what we’re all having to grapple with. And it’s impacting the coach, of course.
“You have the coach who hopefully is getting the support through coaching, has a network and has supervision. Then I hope the supervisor is also being supervised. So who’s supervising the supervisor? That’s quite interesting. … I guess you could keep going on and on and on!
She’s been a supervisor even longer than she’s been a psychologist.
“It’s something that not a lot of people know about me, but in that life pre-coaching I was always very interested in supervision. In the charity bodies that I was involved in, I got stuck into their supervision models and also worked in the role of supervisor and I took that forward into coaching.
“So when the time was right, when I felt I had that experience, it was very natural for me to do coach supervision, and I’ve been doing academic supervision for some years as well.”
Although she wasn’t yet chartered when she was working in the not-for-profit sector, she had an undergraduate degree in psychology.
“But what a lot of academic university-based courses lack is practice experience. Whilst you learn academically all about things, you’re not actually out having conversations with people. There were a couple of voluntary organisations I was involved in but the one I had 10 years’ service with is Victim Support. They offer support to people who have experienced crime. It’s not coaching or counselling, it’s just that practical and emotional support. And so that’s the role that I just found so rewarding and beneficial, and I learnt such a lot.
“You’re not often going to find in the coaching room the difficulties that you experience when you’re working with victims of crime, or their families. But some of [the skills required] … helped me when I started coaching.
“There are those core communication skills, but then there are things like boundaries, knowing your competence and the boundaries of that. One of the most competent things you can do is to know when you’re at your competence boundary, rather than think, ‘I’ve just got to help this person’. Signposting, resourcing, looking after your own wellbeing, the importance of supervision, all of those things.
“There’s also that ‘skilled helper’ [concept] I’ve taken into my career since then – it’s something I’m really interested in, the boundary between coaching and the skilled helper, and if there is one or not.
“The skilled helper one, I still get a bit stuck on, because when you’re coaching, clearly you’re the coach, but there are scenarios where coaching perhaps isn’t the right fit for that person, but you might be able to help them in a skilful way. So how does that all fit? Of course, it depends on lots of different factors, even timekeeping.”
What about her own coaching practice?
“Evidence-based is probably the summary term. I’m very much influenced by the cognitive, behavioural approach. Also solution-focused. And those two go together very nicely.
“I also enjoy Positive Psychology, and certainly the science and the evidence base of it really appeals to me. Beyond that, I might also draw on humanistic. I think that’s right at the core of all coaching, really, isn’t it? The person-centred approach, and Motivational Interviewing, because health coaching is something that I do as well.
“I think being able to draw on that evidence as I’m working, and I hope I’m not prescriptive in how I work, that’s become more embedded within me as a practitioner.
“I usually have a theoretical evidence-based rationale when I’m working, although I don’t necessarily know how I’m going to work until I’m in the session.
“I’m really intrigued about the science and the art of coaching, because of course that’s really important too. I’m having a conversation with myself as I’m working, checking in with where I am, where we are, how is it going? I’m checking in with the coachees, supervisees and when I’m training as well. So I think that’s a bit of my style.
“There are core principles, I think, a lot of us have as coaches, and right at the top of mine is transparency. I really do believe that the coachee is the best expert. So let’s just ask them as we’re going along. That pluralistic approach, almost. How helpful is it? Are we on the right track? So that’s another way, as well as having a conversation with myself, I’m asking the coachee so that we do it together.”
O’Riordan is a strong believer in not writing people off, partly because of her own experience – she failed her A-Levels the first time she took them, but of course then went on to be a successful academic.
“I was spending far too long hanging around with horses and did no work whatsoever. Actually, it was quite monumentous, the best thing that happened looking back because within a year or so, I’d re-sat them and then went off to university to study social sciences and then psychology. How many people that were around me in my younger days might have said, Well, actually, she could go and get a degree or a PhD or whatever.”
Such a keen supporter of others, she also acknowledges that she too has received lots of support and works well with colleagues, including Stephen Palmer.
“Probably professionally, the most significant influence on my professional life and career is Professor Palmer. We work together quite closely on a number of projects.”
Focus and balance
O’Riordan works hard but plays hard too. Work-life balance is important to her.
“I’m a busy person, like many people are. I am quite focused and driven. I have my professional goals and if I say I’m going to do something, I’ll do it. So that’s essentially my attitude.
“But I’m quite disciplined around when the laptop gets shut, the hours that I work. My animals are part of the whole wellbeing team, the whole setup. I’ve also got a husband. I should probably add him in as well! And I’m very close to my family.
“I try and show up as me, to be genuine and approachable. I work hard, but I play hard as well with my hobbies and interests.
“Something that I’ve learnt and put into practice more recently, is I try and deal with what’s in front of me every day. That’s how I turn up without worrying about next week or the week after. I’ve adopted that over nearly a year, because it’s been a bit tricky with moving house and a few other things going on.”
Where the drive to work hard come from?
“Well, when you have horses from a young age, you learn that whether it’s raining, snowing, you feel ill, you get out and do it. It teaches you a high level of commitment. And I think that anybody who has that, whether it’s animals or anything else, has had that involvement from a young age, you do often learn those kinds of skills. So it undoubtedly comes from that.
“I think also because of family role models, I’ve got a number of high achievers in the family. So I’ve learnt how they operate and what goes well. I think also it’s about wanting to do a good job and work with the team.
“One of my strengths is persistence. When I look at the Positive Psychology strengths, the top three that come up often are love, honesty and perseverance. So maybe that’s a nice summary, really, of all the things I need… That’s me in action.”
What is her vision for coaching and coaching psychology going forward?
“We’ve got to sustain what we’ve achieved. But sometimes we can be so busy looking forward, we don’t look back. I think we need to be mindful of that.
“The other thing I want to be conscious of is that sometimes when we get to a position in our careers and we’ve gone up the ladder, we start bringing the ladder up behind us, so it makes it more difficult for other people to climb it. I think we need to be mindful of that.
“I also want us to focus much more on some of the bigger things and actually what they mean to us as coaches and coach supervisors. For example, Coaching at Work’s work around climate and facilitating roundtables, that’s key. I hope that
that will continue. It’s important that it does.
“What I’d also like to see is more academic opportunities [globally]. It’s probably going to happen in the UK for coaching psychology because of the way the chartership is happening. But I’d like to see more coaching and coaching psychology courses [elsewhere] around the world as well.
“I hope, I believe, as coaching is a goal-focused way of working – we’re quite good as a profession, actually, that when we set goals, we’ll take ourselves forward.
“I think it’s an exciting time still, after almost well over two decades now in the profession. We’ve still got more to do.