There is a distinction between coaching and therapy, especially when the type of coaching being sought out deals with personal issues such as divorce, marriage, grief, loss, infidelity, starting over, or dating. Dr. Patrick Williams traveled the route of therapist turned coach years before I began the same journey. Back in 2003 in the International Journal of Coaching in Organizations he published the article, The Potential Perils of Personal Issues in Coaching; The Continuing Debate: Therapy or Coaching? What Every Coach MUST Know! In the article below we’ll go over six of the differences that Dr. Williams cited in his insightful article, as well as one other difference I have noticed in my own experience as a counselor turned coach.
Problems vs. Solutions
Therapy is a medical/clinical mode, and it relies on diagnosis pathology. What this means is that a client must be diagnosed with a problem, and the success or failure of the therapy is determined by the alleviation of symptoms.
Coaching is a learning/developmental model that focuses on attainable goals and possibilities. When you have a coaching session the coach helps the client identify what they want to have happen (i.e. the steps needed to be completed to achieve the goal), and the solution (i.e. actual goal attainment).
Dysfunction vs. Better Way
Therapy deals with identifiable dysfunctions in a person. In therapy a therapist identifies and labels what is wrong and treats the client based on restoring more functionality. If you go to a therapist and there is nothing wrong with you, then you can leave more frustrated or convinced that something needs to be fixed. Do you need to be fixed? Or would you rather learn a new skill that will help you right now be more resilient to change and future upsets?
Coaching deals with a healthy client desiring a better situation. As a coach I do not believe people are dysfunctional. Instead, I believe people are doing the best with what they know, and are seeking self-improvement and healthier relational dynamics. (Please note that some therapists believe this as well; and if you choose therapy over coaching, then seek out therapists that use Solution-Focused Brief Therapy over other forms of treatment).
Unleaded vs. Premium
In therapy the patient usually has difficulty functioning. Both small hiccups and big life changes cause patients to have a lot of trouble functioning with daily tasks. What this gets into is a person’s resiliency. Your level of resiliency is determined by the different things you can do to help you understand and bounce back from setbacks. Instead of doing stress-reducing activities, having hobbies, turning to a support network of friends and family—people who have difficulty functioning will turn to destructive behaviors to cope with the stress. For example, abusing drugs and alcohol, isolating oneself from family and friends, neglecting their hygiene, excessive eating or exercising, hurting oneself intentionally, or having difficulties maintaining steady employment.
Please note that if you’ve found out that your spouse was cheating on you or that you lost your job and decided to drink too much alcohol, sleep all weekend, or cry a lot—this does not mean you are a prime candidate for therapy. What it means is you are grieving from the initial shock. It is what you do right after the upset that will keep you functioning at or above misery, setback, heartache, and loss.
A coaching client desires to move to a higher and better level of functioning. Coaching clients seek answers and solutions to whatever is holding them back, or has them momentarily off kilter. In coaching the focus is on maintaining balance, time management, prioritizing, identifying and following through on goals, and enjoying life to the fullest.
Past vs. Future
Most types of therapy are about fixing the past.
Coaching is about understanding the past as a context and creating a future. This is where I particularly like using Dr. John Gray’s Mars/Venus relationship material, because it is solution-oriented. However, he also has a component with the Feeling Letter Exercise and guided meditations that allow people to release emotional baggage.
Healing vs. Desirable Future
Therapy deals mostly with a person’s past and trauma, and seeks healing
Coaching deals mostly with a person’s present and seeks to help design and act on behalf of a more desirable future.
“Why?” vs. “How?” & “What?”
Therapy asks WHY? In therapy people are looking for reasons behind why people said, felt, or did things in the past.
Coaching asks HOW? And WHAT? Asking WHY is avoided after identifying the initial pain, because coaching seeks to go for insight not creation of the initial problem. In coaching the focus is always on where to go from the here and now to where they’d like to go.
Therapy-Centered vs. Client-Centered
In therapy, a therapist chooses the type of therapy to use based on: (1) the philosophy of where they work, (2) on the popular therapy they learned while they were obtaining their masters or doctoral degrees, and (3) on which modalities they are familiar with that will help alleviate their client’s current symptoms.
When I have worn my counselor hat in the past I aligned with Solution-Focused Brief Therapy more so than other modalities, because it revolved around the client’s needs first, immediacy of relief for symptoms, and teaching the client how to solve similar dilemmas themselves for the next time. However, the part where I really see a distinction between coaching and therapy in my practice is the realm of client’s exploring their spirituality, finding balance, and enforcing boundaries.
I believe this is because in life coaching the coaches are genuinely interested in holistically focusing their clients so they can reach their absolute potential. Whereas with traditional therapy these topics of belief systems and mind-body-soul wellness are not always central in a client’s treatment plan.
And, if you’re not sure whether or not you are a good candidate for coaching; a good coach will refer you to a therapist if what you’re looking for is beyond the scope of their services. I’d recommend to start with coaching, because people do not need to be fixed. Nobody is perfect. And, we all need help sometimes learning and figuring out better ways to manage our time, to invest in our relationships, and to communicate with others so all of our needs and wants can be met.
Lyndsay Katauskas, MEd
Mars Venus Coaching
Corporate Media Relations