cell phones for phone coaching

DBT Phone Coaching

You may have heard that one part of DBT therapy is phone coaching. Or maybe your therapist has talked about phone coaching with you in sessions. Or maybe you are interested in learning more about a therapy that provides support outside of therapy sessions. Well you’ve come to the right place! Let’s discuss how phone coaching can be a helpful part of a therapeutic experience. 

What is Phone Coaching in DBT Therapy?

DBT is a therapy that teaches you how to replace unhelpful behaviors with skillful and adaptive behaviors. Throughout treatment, you and your therapist work together to identify behaviors you want to change: which behaviors do you want to decrease and which behaviors do you want to increase?

a cell phone that says "phone coaching in dialectical behavior therapy" on the screen

The best way to work on this is practice, practice and more practice. Especially in the moments when they are most needed. But ironically, being skillful is most difficult in the moments when skills are most needed. When emotions are high, it is extra hard to control urges to react maladaptively. This is where phone coaching can be helpful.

Phone coaching is meant to support you coping with in-the-moment problems that arise between therapy sessions. Your DBT therapist will encourage the you to utilize phone coaching to prevent the problem behaviors you are working on. Instead, with phone coaching, you can practice using the tools learning in session by using them in real life situations.

A phone coaching call is generally 5-15 minutes with very specific focus on what to do in the present moment.

How Do I Know When to Use Phone Coaching?

If you haven’t used phone coaching before, it can be difficult to know when it is okay to call your therapist. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to know if it is an opportunity for phone coaching.

Is this a crisis situation?

A crisis is defined as a short-term problem that can cause extreme distress. When a crisis occurs, you may have a sense of urgency to solve the problem immediately. This could cause you to engage in the unhelpful or maladaptive behaviors that you are working on in therapy. It is a good idea to use phone coaching during a crisis. Your therapist will help you use skills as opposed to acting impulsively and possibly making the situation worse.

Do I need help using skills?

In such a crisis, it can be difficult to remember the skills you learned in your therapy session. You may not be able to figure out which skill is best for this situation. You may also have thoughts telling you “this won’t work” or “I don’t know how to do it.” This is a great time to utilize phone coaching. Your therapist can walk you through how to use the skills or can give you suggestions on which skills to try. 

Did I try using my skills and it still feel like nothing is helping?

During a crisis you may have tried multiple skills that you learned in your sessions. Even then, you may continue to have a difficult time regulating your emotions and knowing what to do next. This is another great opportunity for you to use phone coaching. Your therapist can walk through the skills you’ve already tried and go over how to improve on the skills used or pick others you could try. They might even help you redefine your goal in that particular moment.

Do I struggle with shame in reaching out for help?

Even when all your skills are working, there are some people who’s specific behavior goal is to increase reaching out for support when struggling and decreasing shame-driven isolation. If this is a goal that you and your therapist have predetermined, calling for phone coaching can be very useful. It teaches you that you don’t have to go through life entirely alone and that support from others is essential for a life worth living.

When Not To Use Phone Coaching

The purpose of phone coaching is to help you apply skills in your everyday life. This means that phone coaching is NOT a therapy session. Phone coaching is not meant for long processing of a painful situation that occurred. Nor is it just a time to chat with your therapist about the ongoing issues you’ve been working on in session. It is a good idea to ask yourself, “Can this wait till my next session?” 

Phone coaching is also not helpful if you’ve already engaged in the unskillful behavior you were trying to prevent. If you’ve already engaged in the impulsive behavior, phone coaching cannot help you rewind time to be more skillful in preventing it. Your next session would be the time to discuss what opportunities you had to do it differently, including possibly calling for phone coaching earlier. For more information on this- check out this explanation of the 24-hour rule.

And lastly, phone coaching is also not appropriate if you are in imminent or immediate danger. If you need an IMMEDIATE response in order to keep yourself or someone else safe, call 911 instead of calling your therapist.

How does DBT phone coaching work?

Every DBT therapist who provides phone coaching has their own expectations and requirements for how to use it. It is very important that you know and understand your therapist’s phone coaching protocol. You therapist should be orienting you to their particular process either at the very beginning of your therapy work together, or at any point in therapy that you decide to add phone coaching to your treatment plan.

Is phone coaching available 24/7?

Phone coaching is not a crisis hotline. Your therapist may not pick up right away and depending on their orientation to you, they may not answer 24/7. Your therapist may have designated times they are available for phone coaching. Or they may give you an estimated window of the longest you’d have to wait for a return phone call. Knowing what to expect in terms our response time is important. And it is a good idea to make a plan with your therapist on what you can do if/when your therapist is not immediately available for phone coaching and you have to wait.

Can I call or text to use phone coaching?

Black teenager with glasses,  wearing a coat and hat, smiling, holding her phone in her hand.

This may vary case to case. It is often determined by a combination the therapists’ comfort as well as the client’s needs. Some therapists will allow you to text instead of talking on the phone. Some clients feel more comfortable doing this and in some circumstances it is better for privacy. In others, it can be hard for your therapist to truly understanding the problem without hearing the ton. It can be equally hard for you to receive the skills coaching without intonation too, depending on the skill. Check with your therapist’s preference about texting for phone coaching.

Is there such a thing as too much phone coaching?

If you continue to have trouble knowing when it is appropriate to use phone coaching, you and your therapist should continue to review when and how to use it. You can even make a plan with your therapist to practice using phone coaching so that you can become more comfortable with the service. The goal is that you use it often in early stages of therapy in order to get good practice with the skills. Then eventually wean off of phone coaching as you become more independent in your ability to navigate your emotions.

Learn more about Montgomery County Counseling Center’s DBT offerings here. For more infor

About The Author

Kristen Moyer, DBT therapist and EMDR therapist in Maryland

Kristen Moyer, LCPC is a licensed clinical professional counselor with Montgomery County Counseling Center in Maryland. She received her Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from West Chester University (PA) in 2010 and continued on to earn her Master’s Degree in Professional Clinical Counseling from La Salle University (PA) in 2014. In 2017, she began working with children and adolescents who struggle with education and their behavior in a school setting and has since evolved to working with adolescents and young adults in DBT settings. Kristen became EMDR trained in June of 2021. Kristen is currently accepting EMDR and DBT clients ages 12 and up for online therapy.

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