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The Difference Between Coaching and Therapy


“What is the difference between coaching and therapy?” I get this question a lot when I’m meeting individuals and leading courses with the Co-Active Training Institute , helping individuals to get clear about the kind of professional and personal support they need at a critical life juncture.

Many of the successful professionals I work with are supported by both therapists and coaches, employing each for a different reason. And there are many commonalities between the two practices. For example, depending on the type of therapist or coach, both therapy and coaching can focus on addressing behavior changes and evoking awareness shifts that power transformation. Both therapy and coaching can feel exploratory and open-ended, driven by powerful questions and a client’s self-guided discovery of their feelings and experiences.

However, there are several key differentiators that can help you distinguish when you might hire one versus the other. Some of the key differences, in my view, are as follows:

Therapists Are Trained to Help with Serious Mental Health Issues

If you are facing issues around addiction, trauma, chronic depression or anxiety, or other mental health challenges, or have suicidal thoughts, therapy is for you. Coaches are not trained to respond professionally to this set of issues, and while some coaches have personal experience or specializations, on the whole coaches are instructed to refer out these clients to a trained psychologist.

Coaching Is Primarily Concerned with the Present and Future, Not the Past

Unlike forms of psychotherapy, coaching primarily believes in looking at the here and now and, according to Co-Active coaching, believes that the human getting coached is already naturally creative, resourceful, and whole. Of course, coaching also leverages the present state and feelings to power new awareness that effects change, but it does not generally dig deeply into the past events to inform future steps.

You Have Homework from Every Coaching Session, and You Set Goals for the Coaching Engagement

Again, some therapists work with goal setting and homework, but Co-Active coaches build a strong system for accountability with their clients, designing specific follow-up and work for the clients between sessions. They also help their clients set goals for the coaching engagement, being clear with clients about what success looks like for the length of the coaching relationship.

Coaching Is Not Meant to Go on Forever

Coaching is the rocket fuel that propels change and shift in the client’s life and is not meant to continue indefinitely. When the goals are achieved from a coaching engagement, the coach brings the work to a close purposefully and intentionally with the client.

The Coach Boldly Holds up a Mirror to the Client

The coach’s role is an active one: in addition to asking questions, acknowledging what is going on for the client, and listening deeply, the coach is also boldly there to interrupt, mirror, reflect, and call the client forth to help them design actions that break the barriers to their own transformation.

Coaches Are Credentialed, Therapists Are Licensed

Therapists have rigorous standards for training, supervision, and practice, as governed by state or other jurisdictional licensing boards; coaches are credentialed by the International Coaching Federation (ICF), which oversees standards for ethics, quality, exams, and ongoing professional training and ensures coaches have been trained by an accredited coaching school that mandates supervision and mentoring. Through courses at the Co-Active Training Institute, you can receive a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach (CPCC) credential and pursue certification to become certified by the ICF for example, as an Associate, Professional, or Master Certified Coach (ACC, PCC or MCC).

Do You Need a Coach or a Therapist?

If you’re thinking of embarking on a period of personal growth and transformation, I hope these guidelines will help you as you decide what support will be most effective for you. Both therapy and coaching can be incredibly valuable: I have personally benefitted many times in my life from working with talented therapists and coaches in turn. Of course, your experience will depend on your chemistry or fit with a certain therapist or coach, as well as your level of investment and openness to the process. But whichever you choose, I wish you deep, meaningful, and helpful transformation and applaud you for taking this courageous step.

Gia Storms Photo
Written By

Gia Storms

Gia Storms specializes in developing leaders, transforming teams and bringing meaning and purpose to the workplace. As executive coach, she brings energy, courage and  ferocity developed after 15 years working in politics and business. Prior to becoming a coach, Gia was the Chief Communications Officer at the Hammer Museum at UCLA and VP of Communications at the Times Square Alliance in New York. Today, she facilitates trainings across the U.S., teaches coaching for  the Co-Active Training Institute, works within major corporations like Microsoft and Google and writes a regularly on leadership. Originally from Seattle, Gia is a graduate of the University of Santa Monica’s Spiritual Psychology Program and Barnard College and lives in Los Angeles.

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