The Difference Between Coaching and Counseling

The Difference Between Coaching and Counseling

Coaching is Relationship-based, But It’s Not Therapy or Counseling

Professional coaching focuses on an individual’s life as it relates to setting goals, creating results, and managing personal change.  Because coaching is a relatively new profession (having taken the name in the 1980s), and because it implements skills drawn from other helping and consultative disciplines, people often want to know: what’s the difference between coaching and counseling (or therapy)?

We’ve set out a number of different ways of looking at the different disciplines of coaching and psychotherapy, and we will examine them in increasing depth as we go down the page.

The Quick Study

Let’s say you wanted to learn to drive a car.  If you hired a:

Therapist, the therapist would help you find out what might be holding you back from driving the car.  He would delve into your past to discover what kinds of experience you have had with automobiles.

Consultant, the consultant would bring you an owner’s manual and tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the workings of a car.  The consultant would then leave you.  She might return six months later to see how you had managed the actual driving part.

Mentor, the mentor would share her experiences of driving cars and the wisdom and lessons she had learned in her more rich experience with the matter.

Coach, the coach would seat you in the car, place himself in the passenger seat, and teach you key life skills and emotional regulation, encourage and support you, and hold you accountable to your goals until you felt comfortable enough to go it alone.

Flaws in Most Distinctions

If you go on many life coaching websites, or read through books on coaching, you’ll often see something quite facile like this:  “A therapist typically works with a dysfunctional person to get them to functional.  A coach works with a functional person to get them to exceptional.”  Both of these sentences are over-simplifications, and they seem designed to make the reader want to see himself as the ideal coaching client; worse, if you listen closely you can actually hear the coach patting him- or herself on the back.

Particularly with psychology’s belated interest in positive psychology (the study of states above zero, or of what makes us happy or joyful), the distinctions are no longer so full of bright lines, though it’s still true that most psychologists and most of the clients who seek them out still fall into the definition of “traditional counseling” we offer below.

That said, the primary distinction lies in the client’s need and intention.  Generally speaking, clients seek:

• Traditional counseling when they sense something is wrong.
• Coaching when they sense something is not quite right, or off a bit, or out of balance – note the distinctions in degree, wherein things aren’t as you’d like them to be.
• Coaching when they want to focus more on changing future behavior.

A More Detailed View

While types of therapy vary widely, and some are more successful than others, some of the fundamental distinctions between coaching and the most popular types of counseling are as follows:

Traditional Therapy or Counseling Coaching
Primary Life Focus A person’s past, which usually includes some form of trauma. Deals with healing emotional pain or conflict within an individual or in a relationship between two people.  BUT: some forms of therapy, or individual therapists, do focus on the future. A person’s present, in order to help them design and act toward the future.  While positive feelings may be a natural outgrowth, the primary focus is on creating actionable strategies for achieving specific goals in one’s work or personal life.  The emphasis in a coaching relationship is on action, accountability and follow through.
BUT:  a responsible coach knows when it’s useful to look at the past, precisely because the past informs the present, as well as in order to help extinguish limiting belief systems.
Subject Focus Feelings Action and outcomes and feelings (the heart of values and intuition).
Model Medical or clinical, relying on diagnosis of pathology or relationship conflicts Positive Psychology, or positive states of emotion.  Learning/developmental, focusing on attainable goals and possibilities
Nature of Issue Identifiable dysfunction A generally functional client desiring a better situation through skillful means
Treatment of the Past Understand and resolve the past Understanding the past as the context in which future goals are set and fears become habituated
Questions Asked WHY? HOW?  WHAT?  Asking WHY, a form of seeking insight, is usually directed toward making clients more aware of their reasons for current opinions, beliefs, actions
Client Goals Help patients resolve old pain and improve emotional states Helps clients learn new skills and tools to build a more satisfying successful future; focuses on goals
Accountability for Goals The goals of therapy are often necessarily vague or intangible, or not easily measured. It can be difficult (even undesirable) to identify success with much particularity Coaching goals, like business goals, usually have to do with one’s external world and behavior, and therefore can be measured.
Relationship Doctor-patient relationship
(The therapist is the expert)
Co-creative equal partnership that extends beyond the coaching call into collaboration vie email, text message, and instant message between sessions.
(The coach offers perspectives and helps the clients discover their own answers)
Function The Therapist diagnoses, then provides professional expertise and guidelines to provide a path to healing The coach stands with a client and helps him or her identify the challenges, then partners to turn challenges into victories, holding the client accountable to reach desired goals
Training or Educational Background Therapists require extensive expertise in the subject matter of the therapy: marital counseling, childhood abuse, etc. A therapist can try to coach. Coaches, who deal in process, do not require subject matter expertise.  But coaches cannot try to be therapists.
Style Patient, nurturing, evocative, indirect, parenting, cathartic Similar, though coaches dabble less in parenting, but coaching is also catalytic, challenging, direct, straight talk, accountability
Rate of Change Progress is often slow and painful because the issues are often subconscious and fundamental Growth and progress are rapid and usually enjoyable
Responsibility for Outcomes The therapist is responsible for both the process and the outcome The coach is responsible for the process; the client for the results
Disclosure Limited, if any, personal disclosure by the therapist Personal disclosure by the coach used when relevant as an aid to communicating (a similarity with mentoring)
Payment Often covered in some part by insurance; almost never by any other third-party Not covered by insurance; employers may pay for coaching of individuals directly or through Employee Assistance Programs (EAP)
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