Coaching & Therapy


People often ask me what is the difference between coaching and therapy. Much is made of the differences, usually by one side seeking to disparage the other side. Therapists claim that coaching – which is three decades old and largely unregulated – lacks the rigor and substance of psychotherapy and is little better than snake oil. Meanwhile, coaches argue that therapy is backward-looking, inefficient, and pathologizing. But these self-serving critiques do neither side justice. Both disciplines have their place in helping people to lead happier, more fulfilling lives.

Choosing one (or both) path depends on what you seek from the relationship.

First, some similarities:

*Both coaching and therapy are talk-based approaches.
*Clients in both arenas often initiate therapy or coaching because they are dissatisfied with the status quo.
*Both often deal with emotional content.

Now, some differences:

*Therapy is a diagnostic model, based on treating dysfunction or mental illness. Therapists diagnose and treat. Coaching is a wellness model, centered on helping the client find fulfillment.
*Therapy seeks to understand why client is the way he or she is. Coaching focuses on who the client wants to be.
*The role of therapist as expert can create a hierarchical relationship. Coach and client are peers.
*Therapy focuses on healing and understanding. Coaching focuses on growing and realizing potential.
*Therapist works mostly with internal issues. Coach works mostly with external issues.
*Therapists are trained to work with and treat people with mental illnesses. Coaches are trained to work with functioning clients.
*Therapy is oriented toward working with problems and generating insight. Coaching is geared toward finding solutions and generating action.
*Accountability and homework in between sessions is essential. Accountability is less common in therapy.

I acknowledge that the differences I outline above are generalizations that do not always hold. Psycohologist Michael Bader believes that the differences are greatly exaggerated, and perhaps he is right. Nonetheless, the distinctions I outlined above do offer some insight into the modes and biases of each, and may help potential clients in choosing one approach or the other. And here’s one difference worth noting: Coaches refer clients to therapists when appropriate. Therapists seldom refer to coaches.