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Provocative therapy for coaches

Provocative therapy for coaches

"In provocative therapy you play devil's advocate with the client. It's like the affectionate teasing banter between close friends" - Frank Farrelly

“In provocative therapy you play devil’s advocate with the client. It’s like the affectionate teasing banter between close friends” – Frank Farrelly

Barefoot Coaching Circle’s annual conference this year included a highly stimulating session run by Sue Knight on the use of a provocative therapy approach in coaching sessions. We thought that Barefoot alumni might welcome some further background and thoughts and some suggested further reading for anyone who was interested in investigating further.

What is Provocative Therapy?

Provocative therapy is an approach which was developed by Frank Farrelly (1931-2013).

Provocative therapy appears to be informed by several helping disciplines, including NLP and the meta-model, the work of Milton Erikson, Carl Rogers’ Person Centred Approach, and Existential Psychotherapy.

Provocative therapy uses humour, teasing, mimicry and reverse psychology to bring about positive change in the client. It is vital to create a “safe container” within which coaches can work effectively in this way. Once a “safe container” is established, this will allow the coach to play with all sorts of interventions and strategies which might appear shocking and a significant departure from what we might regard as usual coaching behaviours. The work is undertaken with an overriding positive intention and regard for the client and their interests and a belief in their resilience and capacity for change. Frank Farrelly described the approach as “working from the heart”. He compared this way of working to “the affectionate teasing banter between close friends” and stressed the importance of proceeding “with a twinkle in the eye and affection in the heart”.

The word ‘provocative’ derives from the Latin word ‘provocare’ which means to elicit or call forth and the positive intention of a provocative approach is to call forth resources in the client. By gently teasing or challenging the client, a coach is aiming to call forth the client’s own ability to assert themselves, to defend themselves, to demonstrate a sense of their own self-worth, to engage with their vulnerability for a positive purpose, to take responsibility for their own change.

The provocative coach represents and mirrors back to the client their own unhelpful behaviours, distorted thinking and repeating patterns to such an extent that the client will eventually disagree with and challenge their own self-limiting beliefs as manifested in the behaviour of the provocative coach.

This approach can be useful to counteract any tendency for coaching sessions to become too “cosy” or for coaches to enable or reinforce their clients’ unhelpful patterns of behaviour. (It might be particularly helpful to those of us who recognise a people-pleasing tendency in ourselves!).

Farrelly’s book “Provocative Therapy” offers the model of coach as Shakespearian fool or court jester:

“Among several possible models…for the psychotherapist, consider the court jester. This figure we are told, made playful comments about the king, his followers, and affairs of state. He punctured pretensions, took an upside-down look at human events. Now the patient, it might be said, suffers from gravity. To him life is a burden, his personality a riddle; yet viewed from the outside, he may seem altogether obvious and his problems nothing much. Indeed, just because he hurts and has a dreadful sense of failure, eventually he must find laughter in the midst of his accustomed tears and glimpse his own absurdity. Without irreverence, he and the therapist stay mired in earnestness”- Fisher (1970)

How does a provocative approach work?

Underpinning assumptions

  • Clients have a greater ability to change than may be assumed by coaches or other helpers.
  • Clients are not as fragile as they, or others, believe them to be.
  • The client’s behaviour with the therapist/coach is a probably a good reflection of their habitual behaviours with others.
  • Individuals can make changes themselves if they receive useful feedback.
  • Change can happen quickly.


A provocative coach or therapist may use any of the following approaches and techniques to provoke the client into taking responsibility for change:

  • Use of humour.
  • Playing devil’s advocate.
  • Making ridiculous suggestions.
  • Using reverse psychology.
  • Making up outrageous research.
  • Giving the client two extreme and opposite options from which to choose.
  • Apportioning blame for the client’s “problem” (astrological signs, parents, family, age, place of birth, nationality, time of day, men, women, the media can all be blamed for the current situation).
  • Suggesting that the client is responsible for absolutely everything that has happened in the past, present and future.
  • Asking “What’s wrong with that?” to the client’s ‘problem’.

There tends to come a point in the session when the client will react or resist the provocation and at this point, the session often moves towards consolidation and the integration of new behaviours. When Kim Morgan, Managing Director of Barefoot Coaching, was a client in a provocative therapy session, it was at this point that the coach ceased deploying provocative techniques and began providing personal affirmation, which Kim found a valuable and safe closure to the session.

What next for coaches:

  • You may find you already use it with clients with whom you have great rapport.
  • If you feel uncomfortable about this approach, explore reasons behind your discomfort in your supervision sessions.
  • If you feel just too uncomfortable about this approach, don’t do it!
  • If you are interested in seeking to incorporate a provocative approach within your coaching practice, you could practice with your peers until you feel comfortable.
  • If you would like to undertake some further reading, here are a few suggested texts:
    – Brandsma, J. and Farrelly, F. (1974) Provocative Therapy, Shields Publishing Co: Fort Collins, Colorado.
    – Rogers, C.R.(1951) Client Centered Therapy, Houghton-Mifflin: Boston, MA.
    – Hollander, J. (2012) Provocative Coaching, Crown House Publishing: Camarthen.

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