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Gray Area Between Therapy and Coaching

A question I get asked a lot is, “What is the difference between coaching and therapy?”

A fellow coach and trainer put it this way: Therapy takes the client from dysfunctional to functional. Coaching takes a client from functional to optimal.

In some ways coaching and therapy are the same, in some ways that are similar, and in some ways they are completely different.

How are they the same:

Coaches and therapist both honor client confidentiality, ethical guidelines and professional standards. Their professional relationships involve active listening, asking questions, and empowering their clients to make decisions that are right for themselves.

How are they similar:

Therapists and coaches both ask a lot of questions during sessions and want to know what their client is thinking and feeling. However, the intention is a little different. Therapists aim to identify the root causes of why we behave the way we do. They may spend a lot of time exploring a client’s past. Coaching is much more focused on the future. Even when talking about a client’s past, a coach has the present and future in mind. For example, a client may be struggling to take action on their goal because they are afraid of trying something new. A coach may say, “Tell me about a time when you tried something new and it was really successful.” They will follow-up with, “how can you use those qualities and skills in this situation?”

How they are different:

The key distinction between therapy and coaching is when it comes to mental illness. Therapists are trained to diagnose and treat patients with psychological disorders and illnesses. Coaches are not.

While coaches can’t diagnose a mental condition, certified life coaches are trained to look for patterns and behaviors that indicated that coaching alone will not be effective for a client.

For someone who is temporarily experiencing symptoms of depression because of their current circumstances, coaching can be valuable in creating a path forward. This may be enough to overcome the depression.

For someone who is chronically or clinically depressed, coaching may seem helpful in the short term, but it will not cure the depression. The client may start moving forward, but when the coaching relationship ends and the accountability and support is removed, the old patterns will likely reinstate themselves.

A client has the option to work with both a coach and a therapist simultaneously. The therapist treats the illness, while the coach supports the client with goal-setting and accountability.

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