By Rob Owens, EdD & Beth Herman-Davis, EdD

Modern-day wellness philosophies and practices are typically around the idea that through proper leading or coaching individuals can thrive and flourish in various human contexts or dimensions. For example, the National Wellness Institute (NWI) identifies Six Dimensions of Wellness that are designed to build resilience and help us thrive. These wellness models are influenced by Self Determination Theory (SDT), one of the most prominent theoretical frameworks in health and exercise psychology. SDT posits that positive human growth and development are predicated on three basic human or psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Autonomy is the idea that human beings have the power to make choices, as well as feel a sense of empowerment and initiative. Competence is the need for humans to develop mastery and achieve full human potential. Relatedness refers to the innate human desire for connection with other humans. While all are essential for growth and development, in Western culture we tend to prioritize competence and autonomy over relatedness. For instance, wellness professionals, who engage a multicultural, social justice lens, presume individuals have full control over the choices in their lives and do not fully consider the social, cultural, and environmental contexts that limit choice or autonomy (c.f., Comstock et al., 2008). Humanistic psychology, which tends to focus on customizing the coaching process to fit the needs of the client, has influenced how we view the coach-client relationship. As wellness professionals, we are taught about the importance and the power of co-creating a coaching alliance with our clients to understand their lived experiences and influence both positive and sustainable change in their lives. Moreover, we know that behavior change and goal attainment occur more often when the clients have others in their lives who keep them accountable.

Relational Cultural Theory (RCT) is a theoretical model that complements many of the more common wellness approaches like the Health Belief Model or the Transtheoretical Model. In contrast to mainstay wellness approaches, RCT centers on mutuality, the idea that growth comes from mutual empowerment. Originating from feminist psychology, RCT is unique in that it promotes the centrality of the relationship in the communicative process and situates the client’s self-efficacy within the broader cultural context.  Central to this theory is the concept of growth-fostering relationships, a “process of active participation in the development and growth of other people and the relations that results in mutual development” (Jordan, 2018, p. 134). Jordan points out that growth-fostering relationships are characterized by five good things: zest, clarity, an increased sense of worth, productivity, and a desire for more connection. Zest is the vital energy generated through the coaching alliance. Clarity is when the client and coach are willing to share their perspectives and are open to each other’s perspective. Productivity is the motivation and ability to act within and outside the relationship. This usually leads to a desire for more connection.

Additionally, RCT considers a client’s relational images and controlling images in the coaching process. Relational images are “expressions of individuals’ experiences and fears of how others will respond to them” (Comstock et al., 2008, p. 284). Similarly, controlling images are images that “create patterns of isolation and disempowerment” (Jordan, 2018, p. 34). For example, racially controlling images (Collins, 2000) that promote stereotypes have been historically reproduced in Western societies to shame or disempower Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). Coaches should be cognizant of how these cultural stereotypes normalize power inequalities between the clients from diverse cultural backgrounds and the coach, and both identify and remove obstacles that might prevent mutually empathic, growth-fostering relationships. Imagine coaching a woman of color, who was recently promoted into an executive leadership position, coping with “imposter syndrome,” and seeking your services with the goal of obtaining work-life balance. In co-creating a wellness vision for this client, RCT would have coaches consider significant relationships in the client’s work and personal lives and how these relationships have influenced the client’s ideas of what it means to be occupationally well. Using RCT in conjunction with NWI’s Multicultural Wellness Wheel, coaches can explore the client’s social connections and disconnections as well as the possible consequences on the client’s relationships if she changes her workplace behaviors. Would a behavior change, like leaving work every day at 5 PM to exercise, have an impact on workplace relationships?  How might a reconnection or reinvestment of energy in another relationship, like a former workout partner, empower the client to maintain a healthy behavior change?  During their sessions, the coach also can broach stereotypes or controlling images the client holds about what it means to be a successful executive leader. Moreover, it is important for wellness professionals to consider how RCT can be applied in informal coaching and leadership situations. For example, take a moment to contemplate how wellness leaders could use RCT to champion wellness initiatives and secure stakeholder buy-in?  As wellness leaders, we should ask ourselves how effectively do we connect with our clients and stakeholders? Do our relationships have zest, clarity, and bring about an increased sense of worth? Are they productive and do our stakeholders and clients desire to have more connection with us? Finally, how have we grown as wellness professionals through our relationships with others?


Comstock, D. L., Hammer, T. R., Strentzsch, J., Cannon, K., Parsons, J., & Salazar II, G. (2008). Relational‐cultural theory: A framework for bridging relational, multicultural, and social justice competencies. Journal of Counseling & Development, 86(3), 279-287.

Collins, P. H. (2000). Gender, black feminism, and black political economy. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 568(1), 41-53.

Jordan, J. (2018). Relational-cultural therapy (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

n.a. (n.d.). The Six Dimensions of Wellness. Retrieved from

n.a. (n.d.) Multicultural Competency in Wellness. Retrieved from

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), 54-67.



Rob Owens, EdD, Certified Mental Performance Consultant®, Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist®, and Founder of Resolute Performance and Counseling Services, LLC

Beth Herman-Davis, EdD, Health & Wellness Coach, Certified Personal Trainer, and Nutrition Coach and Founder of Inspire Transform