Confused by Coaching vs. Therapy

Man Scratching HeadFrom my perspective, both therapy and coaching fall under the umbrella of ‘the helping professions’. They each involve listening carefully, asking provoking questions, establishing a trusting relationship, and helping clients gain a new perspective to ultimately improve their lives. I think the difference is seen when you consider why someone is seeking help.

People usually see a therapist because they want to work through a troubling issue. Therapists are clinically trained to assess and treat their clientele. Often the presenting issues cause significant distress, and may be related to long-standing conditions such as depression or anxiety. They also may be situational, as in the case of divorce or a recent loss. While therapeutic approaches vary, most consider the client-therapist relationship a key component in therapy, with transference as a means to address core issues.

People also pursue coaching because they are bothered by a particular issue or want to make changes in their lives. However, the purpose of coaching is not to assess or treat a clinical concern, but to work towards particular desires. Coaching provides a framework for introspection that helps clients discover what’s getting in the way and what’s working well in their lives. This exploration helps them gain awareness and develop approaches that are used to progress towards their goals. The relationship is also an important component in coaching, but the nature of the partnership is one of collaboration and equality vs. a clinician “treating” a patient.

In order to benefit most from coaching, a certain degree of “psychological readiness” is important. If a person feels mentally and emotionally ready to explore changes and possible solutions and begin to take small steps forward, coaching may be the best fit. Everybody is impacted by prior life experiences, but if that history seems to repeatedly get in the way despite efforts to address it, therapy might be a better choice.

The typical, cliché distinctions I hear made about coaching and therapy, include:

  • Therapy deals only with the past; coaching deals with the future
  • Coaches deal with the conscious mind; therapists delve into the unconscious
  • Therapists deal with pathology and diagnosis; coaches work with “healthy” clients
  • Coaching is goal-oriented and time-limited; therapy is open-ended

While there is a bit of truth in some of those, these categorizations are too simplistic and are just not accurate in my opinion. How can anyone completely separate from their past, and would they want to? Learning from our past is crucial, and is an important element in both coaching and therapy, as is moving towards the future. There is an end-point for both modalities based on the needs and desires of the client, though some types of therapy, such as psychoanalysis, may continue for many years. As described above, being psychologically ready is important for coaching, but one doesn’t need to be the picture of perfect mental health to benefit, nor does one have to be a basket case to seek therapy. I hope this helps to clarify some of the differences as well as the areas of overlap. If you have comments, please send me an email, as I welcome your feedback.