A case conceptualization or case formulation is a common practice across the psychology profession - including clinical, counselling, forensic psychology and psychotherapy. It is a science-based approach to documenting the themes of a therapy or treatment session, enabling the practitioner to make notes concerning the research basis for their treatment, and to reflect on their emerging understanding of the client, and their own learning about the dynamics of the therapeutic relationship. As Lane and Corrie (2009) point out: “Its purpose is to provide a descriptive and explanatory narrative that the client and practitioner can use to plan interventions. The case conceptualization also provides useful documentation and a reflective resource to be utilized between a practitioner and their supervisor, in a confidential relationship where the goal is to support the therapist in their role for the client.
The case conceptualization has been popularized in coaching as the coaching psychology field has matured. No longer is it acceptable for a coach to do a 3 day course and hang a shingle - they need to qualify by professional standards, abide by a code of ethics, take on training with a foundation preferably in psychology, and demonstrate their use of best-practice techniques and processes ongoing. This is especially the case for executive coaching, however is becoming the quality benchmark requirement for coaching at all levels. After all - coaches work in a close relationship with their clients, and are there to work through not only key life and career decisions, but also critical work relationships and mental health. A coach must know where the boundaries of their skill and practice are in helping their clients, and this is where a case conceptualization comes into play. Not only does it enable the coach to crystallise the themes and concepts of the coaching engagement, acting as a tool for reflection and insight, it also aims to ensure that the coach knows when they’ve ‘reached their limit’ in assisting a client.
The coach should have a private version of the case conceptualization, where they can explore their true thoughts and reflect on the themes emerging from coaching. The client should select a coach based on their chemistry, and this means the coach may sometimes surface hard feedback or limiting themes for the coachee. The coach needs their own private space in the case conceptualization to work though their understanding to be of the highest service to the coachee.
However, there will be elements of the case conceptualization that will be co-created with the coachee, and that the coach will share or bring to coaching sessions. The act of appropriate sharing of a case conceptualization can bring both parties to a higher level of understanding about the performance, relationship, wellness or identity themes the coachee is experiencing, for example. By sharing elements of the case conceptualization, the client may see patterns, such as triggering thoughts or limiting beliefs. In this way, a case conceptualization can have huge impact and utility in terms of driving greater self awareness and insight for the coachee.
As a buyer, whether you’re HR, a business leader, or buying coaching for yourself, you can certainly ask your coach if they keep a case conceptualization record for their engagements. If you have a junior engagement (eg, MBA career coaching) it’s unlikely that the coach will have a formulation (although they should have a clear note taking process and secure record keeping!) however as you get into executive coaching, they should certainly be practicing case formulation. If you’re a HR or business leader, you should not expect to see the case conceptualization, as the case is confidential to the coachee, however you can ask the coach about their process.
Case Formulation and the Coaching Psychologist, September 2009, Educational Psychology Review 4:1750-2764, Project: Supervision in Psychological Professions - building a personalised model. Authors: David Lane