How Is Coaching Different from Therapy or Counseling?
I get this question so often that I decided to devote a separate section to this topic on my website. I am making an attempt to show the differences from client’s perspective - what he/she could expect from each practitioner, rather than education or licensure requirements. An important note is that by counseling I do not mean psychological counselors or psychologists, rather school, marriage, or other types of counselors, etc.
Personally, I have a background in each of these three fields, so, my perspective would include not just general knowledge that you may find in other sources, but also my personal perception on what are the best uses for each of these techniques. Please keep in mind that it is a very general overview that doesn’t take into account particular schools or styles.
Let’s begin with the common. All of them are the so-called “helping professions”, as defined by the American Psychological Association and they all have the purpose of helping a client to be more resourceful and to achieve a greater life balance. But this is where the common ends. To navigate the differences, I suggest to focus on three main aspects:
Mental Health Status of a Client
Out of the three techniques, various types of therapy are best suited to address such conditions as depression, bi-polar disorder, anxiety, and many other states when a client needs additional support in handling extreme emotions, uncontrolled behaviors, changes of mood unrelated to the surrounding situation, etc.
Counselors have a very high specialization and may or may not be trained to work with mental health disorders depending on their field of expertise. For instance, behavior disorder counselors specialize in handling specific disorders while school counselors are not supposed to treat patient with any types of mental health disorder, unless they team up with other professionals.
Coaching is not intended to support clients who have mental health issues as a stand-alone technique. Does it mean though that coaching is ineffective for someone who suffers from and eating disorder, for instance? Absolutely not! Such a client may benefit more from both coaching and therapy comparing to therapy alone. For instance, he/she would find better comfort with self from a therapist and learn to use own resources and limitations with a coach. Yet, it is a coach’s duty to articulate the need for a client to see a mental health professional if a coach suspects symptoms of depression or any other type of disorder.
Can not address mental health issues as a stand-alone technique, unless in a team with a specialized professional
Can address mental health issues within the scope of license, if any
Effectively addresses mental health concerns; addition of coaching or counseling may bring extra value
Session Dynamics and Interaction Style
When comparing the three approaches, there is an important difference in the flow of a session and interaction style between a practitioner and a client.
Coaching interaction is the most dynamic of all three and requires the most resources and active engagement on behalf of a client. You may often feel like you are pushing through the limits. Metaphorically, I see coaching interaction as a strenuous and exciting hike where after going over various obstacles, we eventually reach a mountain top vista with breathtaking views.
In terms of interaction, in a coaching process, a client is always a co-creator of new knowledge or action plan by either setting up own actions or committing to those offered by the coach. Even if a directive coach presents him/herself as an expert, overall the interaction is more equal, a form of a partnership.
Finally, a successful coaching session usually ends up with an action plan that a client commits to which allows him/her practice the new skills “in the field.” This plan may include either active behavior actions, or more passive actions, like reflections. Nonetheless mutual agreement on the follow up is what typically adjourns a coaching session.
"This hike was challenging but we made it on top!"
With the whole array of therapy schools, I may be accused of generalizing too much, but I am choosing this "big stroke" approach not to get lost in too many details. You can find more on different psychotherapy approaches on the website of the American Psychological Association.
Overall, in terms of the session dynamics, therapeutic interaction would be the exact opposite from coaching. And while some coaching techniques embrace therapy tools to get deeper to the roots (and I actively use that in my practice), the overall flow of a session is much slower, comfortable for the client, and has least amount of pressure, if any. In fact, the very purpose of therapy is to “unwind,” release emotions and thoughts that have been suppressed a long time ago, which are not easily accessible on the surface. That work can only happen when we grant full acceptance to the client and take away any expectations from him/her.
Metaphorically, I see therapy as sitting with someone well known and trusted near a lake and enjoying the view, as the chat goes.
A typical outcome of a therapeutic session is understanding something new about self or digging out something from the past with a new perspective, like “now I know why I do this or that.” That realization is, however, usually not supported by any specific action plan and it is up to the client to decide if he/she wants to change his/her behavior in response to the new knowledge.
"This place and conversation makes me feel so peaceful..."
Counselors normally specialize in a particular topic which makes them similar to directive coaches. They have an idea of how to help you reach your goal, provided it is within their competence.
Yet, the flow of the counseling session is oftentimes somewhere in between the two techniques, mentioned above. It is faster and more action-oriented than a therapy session, yet not as dynamic and limit-pushing as coaching. There is a big listening component focusing the essence of a problem after which a counselor would most likely suggest a set of tools or a strategy to solve it. Metaphorically speaking, a counseling session could be compared to a comfortable hike, a walk with not too much effort, yet with some views to enjoy.
At the end of a counseling session, a client usually has a pretty clear vision of ways to cope with a challenge, provided the vision of a counsellor correlates with the one of a client. Normally, a counseling session would be more action-oriented than therapy, however, a client is usually less involved in developing of the follow-up action plan and takes less commitment to fulfil it comparing to coaching.
"It's rewarding to visit new sites as we share this walk..."
Most/Least Suitable Inquiries for Each Technique
Most Suitable Inquiries for Coaching
Personal life and career changes. Sometimes these changes are out of the client's control, e.g. retirement or children leaving parents’ home, etc., or there may be changes that a client wants to implement but doesn't have not enough courage or a clear vision how to do so, e.g. starting a new career, etc.
Dissatisfaction or lack of meaning in life.
Challenges in personal or professional communications, inability to build sustainable and rewarding long-term relationships.
Any types of career-related or personal development goals, which can be action-oriented, like “I want to do something” or state-oriented – “I want to understand why,” etc.
Least and Non-Suitable Inquiries for Coaching
Mental health disorders and associated behaviors.
“Do something with me” type of attitude when a client is not willing to actively engage in the process of coaching or is willing to just “vent” about challenges rather than change anything
Most Suitable Inquiries for Counseling
Specific challenges related to a certain area of life, like relationships, school issues, specific addictions, etc.
Behavior-oriented objectives related to areas of knowledge within the expertise of a counselor.
Lack of a previous “role model” or lack of knowledge about positive behavior in a specific aspect of life. For instance, a person aspires to build long-term relationships and to have children with a life partner while being raised by abusive parents.
Mental health issues within the expertise of a counselor.
Least and Non-Suitable Inquiries for Counseling
Topics outside of specific expertise of the professional.
Most Suitable Inquiries for Therapy
Mental health disorders involving systemic inability to support critical life functions (eating, sleeping, working, etc.)
Highly impactful past traumatic events that persistently come back in the memory or trigger inadequate behavior/feelings in new situations
Addictions or any sorts
Self-exploration, which is particularly well addressed by creative therapies, such as arts, movement, etc.
Coping with severe losses and destructive life changes in the present
Least and Non-Suitable Inquiries for Therapy
Desire to learn new skills
I hope that this article helps you better distinguish between these different approaches. As I mentioned earlier, it is a very high level view on the topic and there is so much more to unveil. Yet', as a coach, my premiere goal was to make sure that my audience is clear on what to expect from a coaching interaction and when to look for something outside of coaching. If you have any related questions or doubt if your inquiry can be effectively addressed by coaching, feel free to reach out to me.