A Case Against Using the Word “Healthy” in Coaching

By David Steele

What follows is my own opinion and you are welcome to agree or disagree. I can only speak for myself, not for an entire profession, but I’ve been holding these thoughts for decades now, and every time I see or hear the word “healthy” used by a coach or helping professional, it’s like nails on a chalkboard for me, and here’s why.

As a Marriage and Family Therapist I grew to dislike how my colleagues used the word “Healthy” as a label, as in “You have an unhealthy relationship with your ex.” and “That’s a healthy choice.”

Seems benign enough, right?

However, if you critically examine the two above statements you might spot two problems:

Problem 1: Both statements communicate a judgment made by a helping professional to a client; therefore the statement becomes a professional judgment or opinion.

Problem 2: Both statements communicate approval or disapproval, right/wrong/good/bad, which is a personal opinion, not a professional opinion. They are crossing a line and awarding their clients a label that doesn’t exist in their professional lexicon and viewing them through a lens that is not part of their job.

Do you see the problem now?

Using a word to judge and label a client that doesn’t exist in your professional lexicon, textbooks, training or research, in my opinion is simply unprofessional. It sounds professional, but it’s actually pseudo-professional. That’s right, I’m going so far as to say that it’s a fake word that has no useful place in professional language.

Words matter. Especially professional communications to a client who will react to this “unprofessional label” as an official diagnosis, which, of course it is not, and might not have been intended as such, but the client doesn’t know that. The word “healthy” is vague, judgmental and imprecise as a label for anything, which is probably why it’s not used in any official manner in the helping professions.

While you might like to view human behavior through the lens of “healthy vs. unhealthy,” the rest of the world, your clients and the public in general, do not like being labeled and tend to interpret your use of this word as your judgment of them (professional or otherwise) and will not have warm fuzzy feelings about you as a result.

It’s bad enough when licensed mental health professionals use pseudo-professional language or jargon, it’s even worse when coaches do so.

Why do I hold coaches to a higher standard in their use of language?

Your language reveals the lens that you view your clients through, and coaches are not supposed to view their clients through such a black and white, good/bad/right/wrong, “healthy vs. unhealthy” lens. Period.

Coaches are not trained to diagnose and treat mental, emotional, and psychological disorders like therapists and other mental health professionals who might (misguidedly) associate the label “healthy” with their work. Coaches help functional people achieve their most important goals. Coaches are positive, results-oriented, future-focused, etc., and are trained to remove judgment, advice-giving and ego from their work with their clients.

I don’t believe it’s OK when a therapist develops the bad habit of mixing their professional opinions with their personal opinions and judgmental (“unprofessional”) language into their communications with their clients, but they might simply be parroting jargon they heard from their misguided professors, supervisors, and colleagues.

Trained coaches should know better. So in this case I do hold coaches to a higher standard than therapists in owning their opinions and communicating cleanly.

For a coach to use the word “healthy” in their communications is like an auto mechanic saying, “That’s a healthy car!” While people know what you mean, it’s a word that just doesn’t belong in your professional vocabulary, and in this case, the word “healthy” can actually do damage with vulnerable clients who give you credibility and power over their lives, or turn off clients who don’t like being labeled by someone who isn’t qualified to label them.

What can you do instead?

Good substitutes for “healthy” include effective, successful, functional, and productive, all words that point to something more observable and measurable; the external result (which is objective) rather than an internal, arbitrary judgment (which is arguable).

So please, any coach or helping professional reading this, I beg of you to remove the word “healthy” from your vocabulary when communicating with clients or the public. It might refer to a high value of yours (albeit vague and unspecified), but it is not in your professional lexicon and is potentially damaging to your clients and your ability to serve them effectively.