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How to Distinguish Between Coaching and Therapy (+Video)

by Melanie Gallo, PhD

Updated June 12, 2023

Years ago when I first started my coaching practice, I often used the tagline “No couch. No therapy. Just psychology-based solutions for your career and your business”. I had a great deal of respect for both of our professions so I wanted to make the expectations clear right out of the gate.

This was important to me because part of the training for professional coaches is understanding how to distinguish between what we do and therapy (also referred to as psychotherapy or counseling). On the surface there are clearly some similarities. We both work through issues with clients. We both try to get to the bottom of problems and obstacles. We both challenge our clients to identify areas for improvement.

But coaching and therapy are not the same, and it’s useful to identify how and why.

Apart from the fact that therapy is more of a clinical approach, therapy tends to be about repairing the hurt one has come to know from previous years of loss and trauma, or current life challenges. Therapy is about healing.

Coaching may address these issues but is more focused on developing strategies for achievement, and that can involve both personal and professional success. It’s true that a coach like myself who has worked in business psychology and behavioral health, coaches from a psychological approach. But I am not a therapist. I apply my understanding of psychology to help people overcome obstacles and struggles so they can apply practical steps toward achieving the goals they have set for themselves.

Another way to understand the coach/client relationship is to see your coach as a lighthouse and you are the ship. If you’re trying to find your way home, the lighthouse doesn’t tell you where home is. But it illuminates your way to get there, and sometimes that includes helping you to see obstacles in your way as well as new passages you may not have noticed before.

That’s what coaches do. We don’t determine your goals. You do. But we help you discover how to achieve them. Then we help you formulate a plan of action to get there, and stick right by your side as an accountability partner along the journey.

I will say that there are times in coaching when issues come up that require the attention of a clinically trained therapist or counselor. Part of my training is to recognize those situations and make the referral when that’s in the client’s best interests, particularly when their challenges interfere with their daily functioning.

That keeps coaching focused on helping you develop action plans to achieve your goals. Here’s an interview from my business psychology days in which I discussed all of this with Michelle Cohl.

UPDATE: I mentioned in the video that coaches do not involve insurance. Since the time of the video, more insurance companies are now using behavioral health and other types of coaches as an added level of support.

If you are ready to get started, check out my Coach2GO digital coaching for WorkLifeJoy.

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