Understanding How to Distinguish Between Coaching and Therapy

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, medical endeavor (and thus involves insurance companies, which coaching does not), therapy tends to be about repairing the hurt one has come to know from previous years of loss and trauma, or current life challenges.

Coaching may address these issues but is more focused on strategies for achievement, and that can involve both personal and professional success. It’s true that business coaches deal in psychology. I am a psychologist. 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.

I’ve often heard coaches compared to lighthouses. 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.

That’s what coaches do. We don’t determine your goals. You do. But we help you determine 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.

There are times in coaching when issues come up that require the attention of a licensed 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 a recent interview in which I discussed all this with Michelle Cohl: