Coaching and therapy are two distinctly different approaches to helping people improve their lives.
Both share a common theme: helping people overcome challenges and achieve their full potential. And this makes both professions very similar in the minds of many people.
However, there are some key differences between coaching and therapy that make them unique.
If you’re going into coaching yourself, keep in mind that some of your clients may not understand the difference between a coach and a therapist (or counselor).
It’s important to understand the differences between coaching and therapy yourself, so that you can set the right expectations.
Coaching Vs. Therapy
First, let’s look at what “therapy” is.
In general, therapy is the process of meeting with a professional to discuss your problems and feelings in order to find solutions and improve your mental health.
There are many different types of therapy, but all share the same purpose: to help you feel better.
Now that we have a basic definition for therapy, let’s take a look at coaching.
Coaching is similar to therapy, in that it’s a process of meeting with a professional to discuss your problems and feelings. However, the goals of coaching and therapy are different.
Key Difference #1: Goals
Coaching typically focuses on helping you reach specific goals, such as getting a promotion at work, strengthening your relationships, improving your finances, or any number of other things. While therapy can also help you reach goals, its focus is more on analyzing the past and improving your overall mental health.
In other words, a therapist’s aim is generally to help you work through the past and improve your mental health, while a coach’s aim is to help you work through the present to reach specific goals.
Even though we’ve differentiated the goals of both professions, there’s still a lot of common ground between the two. Let’s look at another key difference.
Key Difference #2: Approach
The other main difference between coaching and therapy is that coaches and therapists want to help you improve your life, but they use different approaches to do so.
A coach is generally more concerned with the present, using the client’s “starting point” to help them move forward and flourish.
A therapist is more likely to focus on the past, using it to help the client understand how it has affected their present.
Coaches don’t ignore past traumas of their clients, but they typically avoid getting bogged down in the past, and try to steer their clients towards a productive future from where they are “right now.” They focus more on current behaviors and thought patterns, and how to change them to get the client to their desired goals.
Meanwhile, therapy/counseling will generally return to the past again and again to help explain how it has created the client’s current reality. When new events happen in the client’s life, they will usually be analyzed in the context of past events, traumas, and memories. This can help the client create a new understanding of themselves, and work through their past in a productive way.
However, therapy is typically more focused on the past than coaching, which focuses more on the present and future.
There are other differences, but they are less cut-and-dry. For instance, the timeframe of results in therapy can be very different from coaching. Coaching is typically more short-term, while therapy can last for years. But this isn’t always the case.
Again, both approaches can be extremely helpful, and in some cases can even have similar results. Both can be helpful in helping their clients develop greater resilience.
But they are decidedly different in how they approach improving a client’s life. Depending on the personal needs of a client, counseling/therapy or coaching may be more appropriate.
The Doctor and The Sherpa
A classic example of the difference is to imagine that you’re preparing to climb Mount Everest, and you have the option of bringing either an expert sherpa/mountain guide or a doctor with you.
If you’re physically ill, a sherpa won’t be much help on a mountain. You’ll need the doctor to help you recover and get healthy enough to make the climb.
But if you’re at a baseline of good health and need someone to help you plan the route, navigate obstacles as they come, and reach the top—the doctor won’t be quite as useful. In that case, you’ll want the sherpa.
Now, just for fun, let’s take the mountain climbing example, and imagine you can bring a therapist or a coach with you.
The therapist might spend a lot of time talking about your fear of heights, and how that’s impacting your ability to climb the mountain. They might help you work through your fear, and talk about how to deal with it when you’re on the mountain.
The coach, on the other hand, would be more focused on helping you develop a plan to actually climb the mountain. They would help you train physically and mentally, and give you the tools you need to succeed.
(Of course, both the coach and the therapist would be interested in helping you overcome your fear of heights and would want you to reach the top.)
Similarly, someone who wants to heal deep emotional wounds from their past may find more success in therapy than coaching.
On the other hand, someone who wants help reaching specific goals and achieving success, and isn’t as concerned with analyzing the past, may find more success with coaching.
When you look at coaching vs therapy, it’s important to understand the goals and approaches of each in order to decide which is right for you. This decision is a deeply personal one, but hopefully this guide has given you a better idea of the difference between coaching and therapy.
If you’re trying to figure out which one is best for you, it may be helpful to speak with a professional in each field to get a better sense of what they can offer.
If you’re considering becoming a coach or a therapist, it’s also important to understand the difference between the approaches used by both professions to make sure you’re headed in the right direction.