Coaching vs Therapy

If you want to jump off a bridge, call a therapist.  If you want to cross a bridge, call a coach.


People, including a lot of coaches and therapists, don’t really know what the differences are between coaching and therapy.  In my opinion, there are many reasons that there is so much confusion.  The main reason that I think there is so much confusion is because there is very little regulation on what coaching actually is and many untrained and uncertified coaches don’t necessarily appreciate or respect the boundaries of coaching.  In addition to that, therapy has changed dramatically in the past 20 years.  Therapy is rarely the “lie on the couch and tell me your feelings” experience that it once was stereotyped as.


So what is coaching and what is therapy?


The primary distinction between coaching and therapy used to be this imaginary line on the horizon called functionality.  Ten years ago, everything below the line (the land of disfunction) belonged in the realm of therapy and everything above the line (functionality) belonged to coaching.  So, clearly, depression and any diagnosable therapeutic conditions require a therapist.  Just as clearly, goal setting, visioning and self actualization was the work of a coach.  Another clear distinction was that therapy dealt with the past to the present and coaching only concerned itself with the present to the future.


Here’s what’s happened though…  Therapy has evolved into the realm of positive psychology and human development, which was previously exclusively the work of a coach.  And coaching has evolved into the realm of feelings and overcoming fears which dangerously treads on the boundaries of therapy.


Additionally, while therapy is highly regulated, coaching is not.  The International Coach Federation offers regulation, certifies coaches and accredits schools to train coaches in 11 Core Competencies with supervision.  But there are many, many people calling themselves coaches that have no training outside of their life or their professional experience.  So, now we have marketing coaches, business coaches, peak performance coaches, executive coaches, grief coaches, eating disorder coaches, and everything in between.  The business coaches don’t cause as much trouble in this conversation as the life and lifestyle coaches.  Most of the time business and executive coaches don’t offer coaching around feelings and personal issues that would overlap with therapy.  But grief coaches and eating disorder coaches are definitely dancing a fine line between coaching and therapy.  And most clients eventually ask their coach to work with them in some capacity in the realm of past hurts and unresolved issues that formed current belief systems.


An ironic distinction is that in order to identify a client with an eating disorder or depression or something like that, you actually need to be a therapist.  Coaches are unqualified to diagnose or treat anything.  Professional coaches have to be very clear about their boundaries and limitations and when to refer to a therapists.  Likewise, it is unprofessional and unethical for therapists to call themselves coaches unless they have been trained in coaching tools.


The bottom line for clients:

  • Work with the professional that you think you need.
  • Make sure that the professional you work with is certified or holds the proper credentials.


The bottom line for coaches:

  • Understand and know your professional boundaries.  You can find ICF’s Ethical Guidelines here.
  • If you aren’t already, get certified.
  • Develop professional relationships with other coaches and therapists and continue this conversation.
  • When in doubt, refer it out!

Want help crossing a bridge?  Set up a sample session with one of our certified coaches!

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