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Therapist vs coach: What’s the difference?

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One of the most common questions I get asked is “so what’s the difference between what you do as a coach and what a therapist does?” So I thought I’d break down the key differences and similarities for you.

Let’s start with some definitions:

  • Therapists (aka counsellors or psychotherapists) are healthcare professionals who diagnose and resolve problematic beliefs, behaviours, feelings and physical responses that often focus on past trauma. They focus on resolving past issues and creating happier and more stable futures for their clients. 

  • Coaches are trained to help you see where you are today and empower you to take control of your life and take action to steer it forwards. They help you to clarify clear and concrete goals, identify obstacles and problematic behaviours in order to create action plans to achieve desired results. 

Depending on what challenges you face and what you want to focus on, you may choose to engage with either a therapist or coach, or both at the same time. Both coaching and therapy are tools for self-development and both provide perspective and support outside of your immediate circle which can be incredibly powerful in helping you to change your life for the better.

Some of the other main similarities include:

  • Both work to enable clients to make positive changes and create a life you feel better about
  • Both create an environment of trust, non-judgment and support
  • Both help to identify what is holding you back, your core beliefs and changing perspectives
  • Both use techniques that focus on good listening and asking you good questions 
  • Both help you move forward in your work, relationships and home life
  • Both encourage self-discovery and want you to find your own answers that work for you

Below I have highlighted five key differences between these two roles:

1. WHY vs HOW

One of the key differences in the approach between therapists and coaches is that therapists focus on “why” certain behaviour patterns occur, by analysing the past as a tool for understanding the present. Coaches, however, tend to focus on the “how” to work towards a goal, identifying current problematic behaviours and limiting beliefs so the client can work to modify them moving forwards.

2. MENTAL ILLNESS

Although not everyone that works with a therapist has a mental illness, people tend to seek therapists for a clinical-based approach to treating psychological issues. Therapists are trained specifically to help people facing mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, PTSD and OCD. Where coaches can recognise if it is an old core belief that is holding you back in life, therapists are also trained to recognise if it is a mental health disorder.

3. ACTION vs COPING ORIENTED

Another key difference is around the GOALS of a therapy vs coaching session.

Therapy helps clients explore and understand their subconscious and unconscious mind and sessions often start open-ended and there is not always an actionable goal. Goals may include emotional processing, depression management, anxiety management, and how to handle grief. What you get out of sessions is likely to be based around having a deeper understanding of your emotions, triggers, boundaries and mental health.

The goal of coaching is to help you get “unstuck” and is much more focussed on action and results with success measured by specific behavioural outcomes. Sessions may start open-ended but will end up with a more narrow focus. Coaches will help you set SMART goals, provide accountability and celebrate your wins.

4. SHORT vs LONG TERM

Working with a coach is usually a short-term engagement ranging between one month to one year, often with a fixed time frame and end date, encouraging the client to make progress and moving away from old habits and recurring obstacles. The coach will provide tools to help the client move from one phase to the next, eventually making considerable progress towards a clarified goal. 

Therapy, on the other hand, may be a longer-term engagement with no specific end date to allow time to uncover the root causes of distress.

5. ACCREDITATION

There are many paths to becoming a therapist, but all therapists undergo years of school and training, including obtaining a minimum of a master’s degree and acquiring clinical experience under the supervision of a licensed mental health professional.

For coaches there is no specific or minimum requirements to become a coach but there are a few major certifying and credentialing bodies in the coaching industry including ICF (International Coaching Federation), EMCC (European Mentoring and Coaching Council), CCE (Centre for Credentialing & Education), and UK Health Coaches Association (UKHCA). If you are seeking a coach, find out what certification they have done as well as seek testimonials from previous clients.

SUMMARY

If you are undecided about whether a therapist or coach is the best course of action for you, a therapist may be more appropriate if you feel emotionally unstable, need support navigating difficult emotions, want to heal from past trauma, want to learn strategies to cope with triggers or overcome deep-rooted issues from your past.

On the other hand, seeing a coach may be more appropriate for you if you are fully functional and resourceful but are feeling stuck in areas of your life. Although you can identify goals you want to achieve, you need a professional to lay out the options and provide support and accountability to help you reach them.

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