Confused about whether to see a therapist or a coach? There are quite a few overlaps in both coaching and counseling. In fact, many counselors also practice coaching with their clients. So what are the distinctions? It depends on who you ask. With my background in psychology, I tend to go with the APA’s distinction, so I’ll summarize that for you here.
Overlap: Let’s start with some similarities. Both counseling and coaching aim to help people, and many coaches use the same theoretical framework as therapists. For example, I have a PhD in HDFS (which is often called developmental psychology). I align myself with various developmental theorists, depending on what age group is the primary focus (e.g., Piaget, Vygotsky, Erikson) and what approach might work best (e.g., cognitive, behaviorist, humanistic). I also have a certification in family life education, so there are many family theories that I work within, as well. Both coaching and counseling expect clients to hold themselves accountable for change and work one on one with them, via theoretical frameworks, to support the process.
But there are some distinctions between the two. These differences vary depending on the type of coaching or counseling, but in general, the following distinctions can be found.
- Coaches tend to focus on the present and future when they work with clients. Sometimes clients examine their past, but it is mostly to look at old habits, beliefs, or behaviors that impede present or future progress.
- Coaches do not diagnose. Clients do not come to coaches for help with a diagnosis or trauma. They seek coaching because they feel stuck and overwhelmed in a particular area of their life. Coaches help clients lead their clients in active discovery to help them tap into their potential and remove barriers to change, but it is not based upon diagnosing an illness or the effects of trauma.
- Coaches focus on practical goals. They are focused on helping clients to achieve the next level of growth. Most coaching clients have an identifiable goal that they want to achieve and are looking to coaches to help hold them accountable and to break the goals up into manageable steps, so that they no longer feel overwhelmed.
- Coaches maintain a healthy level of confidentiality with their clients’ stories, but the boundaries between coaches and clients are not as strict as the boundaries between therapist and clients. Coaches often meet their clients in public spaces (e.g., coffee shops), and coaches can have multiple relationships with clients (e.g., coworker, friend, running partner). Coaching clients do not typically come to their coaches with sensitive issues, so the boundaries can remain more flexible.
- Therapists often look at a client’s past, present, and future, but the goal of that exploration is to help the client to heal.
- Therapists, depending on the type, are licensed to diagnose and treat a client during and after a crisis or trauma. Although they sometimes work with clients who need coaching, they are also trained to work with individuals who are healing from abuse, addiction, or clinical levels of mental illness, such as depression or anxiety. A client often goes to a therapist for intervention with an issue that is interfering with their daily functioning.
- There are strict guidelines and boundaries between therapists and clients. Therapists rarely meet in public spaces, and they are bound to a strict client/therapist relationship. They do not form a friendship or other relationship with a client outside of the therapist office. These boundaries prevent transference and other ethical issues when working with sensitive issues.
Hopefully this helps break down the distinction and can help you choose the appropriate path toward the help you need. If you feel that you are a good candidate for coaching, take the coaching quiz on my homepage and sign up for a free discovery session with me. We can find out if coaching is the right fit for you!