What’s the Difference Between Therapy and Coaching?

As regular readers know, a significant number of our coaching students are psychologists, social workers or therapists expanding their service offering to coaching.

But what exactly is the difference?  It’s important to us in the industry to make this clear.  At GCI. we work intensively with therapists, many of whom are at the top of their game, and equally committed to becoming highly skilled coaches.  This gives us a wonderful opportunity to study that question.  We’ve partnered with our students to gain an acute understanding of what is different between therapy and coaching, as well as what is similar.

Here are some points we’ve discovered:

1.  Goal Orientation

  • The goal orientation is much stronger in coaching than in therapy and counselling.
  • It is common for individuals to present to counselling with an immediate desire to alleviate pain and anxiety. Therefore the relief of distress is the goal.  Depending upon the counselling approach, there may be little exploration of what the alternative or desired experience looks like at the outset.  Rather, that alternative state is something achieved as an outcome. It is a destination point, discovered over time under the guidance of the treating practitioner.
  • In long term psychotherapy, there is often a drive for greater awareness and personal growth.  This opens up exploration of the individual’s inner landscape, their motivations and desires.
  • While in therapy there may be a stated goal, in coaching it is typical to spend significantly more time unpacking and clarifying this goal.  The coach and coachee will determine measures of success and establish how to recognise when the goal is acheived.  The burden of responsibility for goal achievement is not left with the treating practitioner, but sits very clearly with the client.
  • In coaching, the client’s goal is the focal point which directs the conversation.  It guides the coach’s decisions about how to work with the client and what questions to ask.

2. The Client Is Capable

A core assumption in coaching is that the client is whole, capable and resourceful.  This creates many powerful differences in the role and approach of the practitioner.  The coach knows the client has a rich reservoir of tacit knowledge about their situation, as well as what they need to achieve their goal. The coach regards the client as the expert on their own life.  While this is consistent with a strengths-based approach to psychology, the emphasis on the client’s agency results in profound practice changes.

To operate within this paradigm the coach must be able to let go of any attachment to being the expert.

3.  Letting Go Of The Need To Know

Coaches often work with individuals on goals and issues that lie well outside the sphere of their therapeutic expertise.  You may work with a client who is launching a new business, who is negotiating a corporate take-over or endeavouring to change organisational culture.  These are things most therapists know nothing about.

This ability to work with clients independent of content expertise, expands a therapist’s potential client market. Once they learn to let go, doors begin to open for them.

We can do this as coaches because sense making and decision making lie with the client, not us. We merely guide their thinking through methods that are applicable without specific content knowledge.

Coaching requires a shift in mindset, most apparent in new coaches developing their skills.  Until they fully understand and internalize not needing to know, the coach can get in the way of the client’s process.  Numerous fact-finding questions, that do not extend the clients thinking, can take up session time and merely educate the coach about content they don’t need to understand.

It isn’t necessary for the coach to understand the content, and is in fact more helpful when they don’t because then they can focus solely on supporting the client’s processing skills.  In short, the coach’s job is to support the client to reach their goal, not to do the work for them.

Questions for Reflection

How familiar are you with that “not needing to know” state?

How do you feel differently about your role as a coach, versus therapist?

Interested in learning more about transitioning from Therapist to Coach?  Take a look at our upcoming Coach Trianing Intensive in Portland, Oregon.  We’d love to see you there!


The Drive to Become a Coach: A Personal Story

Lately Vicki and I have had requests to share more about how we entered the world of coaching. Here’s the path I took, and Vicki’s story will follow shortly.

My own trajectory into coaching began as an occupational therapist specialising in psychological injury in the workplace. You could say fate positioned me at the intersection of therapeutic and organisational life.

My role was to rehabilitate individuals who had suffered serious psychological injuries and support their return to work.

In that role I engaged regularly with the workplace, which helped me to develop a strong systems perspective. I viewed the individual in context. I reflected not only on their personal psychology, but assessed the demands of their role and their environment. I understood that the needs and pressures of the workforce had to be encompassed, as well as the needs of the individual, in order to achieve robust outcomes.

Looking for a Preventive Model

Whilst I gained great insight into these systems, I felt like a paramedic, always responding after a crisis. Though I knew I’d done some great work with individuals, it would have been ideal if my services were no longer needed.  So, I was drawn to a preventive approach, but my brief did not authorize me to address underpinning dynamics – such as poor leadership and management practices or excessive workloads – that so often resulted in injury.

It was my desire to get ahead of the game, to prevent crises before they happened, that ultimately led me to coaching. The path was initially unclear, but I followed its scent. We all have moments like this; a knowing that arises within us, that there must be a better way.

With the understanding I now have as a coach, I see my commitment to the goal drew me forward into unfamiliar territory. Having travelled that path myself, I have a deep confidence that when an individual lets go and follows their deepest knowing or instinct, the information, support and resources they need will show up. I knew I could be having a greater impact and over time this proved itself to be true.

My journey saw me drawing on my knowledge of personal development to teach in leadership development programs. Through my clients I learned more and more about the challenges they faced. I developed an ear for the different patterns underlying common organisational challenges, diverse ways to respond and the consequences. These were skills I had learned in my early training as a therapist, and they transferred to this new field. I was also fortunate to work with some great Action Learning pioneers, on methods of enquiry that tap individuals’ tacit knowledge.

Supporting the Client to be Their Own Expert

However, it was when I discovered coaching that I truly learned to work beyond the limits of my own expertise. In coaching, I learned to resist the compulsion to be an expert. I learned to collaborate with my clients and facilitate their own enquiry.

Coaching opened new doors. These days as I coach executive teams in strategic planning and decision making contexts, coach individuals and groups embroiled in conflicts and pursue my fascination with leadership development, I am grateful for these expanded horizons.

I know I am supporting the creation of healthy workplace cultures, using my skills to their fullest.   As a bonus for myself, I also get to travel much more as a coach.  Since a lot of sessions can be done online, I can now do my work from the beach!


What is the vision that draws you into unfamiliar territory?

What do you sense even before it has taken form?

The DNA of Organisations

Edgar Schein, author of the ground-breaking text Organisational Culture and Leadership is fondly known as the grandfather of organisational development. Over the years Schein has begun to think and speak in terms of the DNA of an organisation, or its cultural genome.

Schein argues that we can’t simply transplant notions of how to improve culture from one setting to another. Instead we need to engage deeply with the inherent nature of the organisation. Not only do we need to know the organization’s structure, but also how it works psychologically and relationally. Coaches and consultants need to understand the process of an organisation.

Schein’s view makes absolute sense to process-oriented coaches. Our art is to engage with leaders in the midst of their transformational journey. We know it is fundamental to coaching effectiveness that we find out a leader’s mental models and uncover what is taken for granted within the organization.

Schein asks, “What are the things that, when we try to change cultures, turn out to be huge barriers?”

The Organization’s Growing Edge

As process-oriented coaches and organisational development practitioners we think of this as a great point of potential and growth. We call it the edge. This is a place where many leaders and teams may falter, but process-oriented coaches are like rock climbers highly adept at scaling the edge.

The edge is where our coaches come alive. They are skilled at exploringe edges from every angle; from within the moment when a leader is gripped by fear or from the mindful distance that offers a new perspective and insight. We climb with our clients, helping them gain new insights, as they prepare their organisation to cross into new and uncharted territory.

It is through the exploration of edges and other dynamic phenomena that the unique DNA of an organisation is revealed.

Yet edges are easily missed. Avoiding what is over the edge is so much part of an organization’s culture, people are usually unaware the edge is even there. In their efforts to maintain the status quo, leaders and teams tend to avoid edges, in favour of better known behavior.

A coach’s skill lies in their capacity to recognize and work with edges. We must catch the typical signs, such as sudden changes of topic, deflecting humor, nervous laughter, or just plain drawing a blank.

Despite their well-practiced avoidance strategies, we must hold our clients at this point of growth and enquiry. At the edge there will be resistance, in one of its many forms.

In our forthcoming Coaching with the E1ME2RGE3 Model and GCI Coaching Roadmap programs we will explore these ideas in greater depth. but for now let me ask you …

  • What are the common edges you encounter in working with clients on cultural change initiatives?
  • What have you discovered as unique to different organisations?
  • How do you hold these moments of discovery and potential?

What Lens are You Looking Through?

Have you ever considered your origins and the way they’ve influenced your approach to life and your work?

I began my professional life as an Occupational Therapist, so when I connected this morning with a group of OTs who have all become coaches it was like coming home. We spoke a language we all immediately recognised.

Eventually the conversation came around to something OTs are famous for, problem solving. My colleagues work in a range of contexts: executive coaching, business development, health care delivery and designing new models of service delivery. They all recognise the benefits of their “can do” attitude, whatever setting they find themselves in.

My own training no doubt enhanced the pragmatic approach I’d developed growing up on a farm. Working then with people who were taking up their roles in life after having major accidents or strokes taught me about unimaginable change and resilience. For OTs nothing is impossible; challenges are merely a provocation to go in search of solutions.

While this problem solving capacity is a real asset, it also has its limitations. Problem solving is a lens, but like all lenses, it operates at a specific focal length.

A problem solving mindset comes with certain assumptions….most obviously that life experiences are problems to be managed, rather than simply experienced or perhaps viewed with curiosity.

Unpack the problem before trying to solve it

At the Global Coaching Institute we think a little differently about the challenges clients sometimes bring to coaching.   As I’ve written previously, events that initially seem like disturbances can be a valuable stimulus for our growth.  Restlessness prompts us to think about what’s important to us in life and to look further afield for new career prospects.   The inability to win support for an idea can signal that we’re missing something important.  Even body symptoms and illness can tell us its time to readjust our lifestyle. When caught early enough these cues prove invaluable.  That’s why we welcome and become curious about them.

Rather than trying to immediately solve personal and organisational challenges it’s important to unpack them and to fully understand the feedback and meaning they hold for us.

Einstein famously said you cannot solve problems with the same thinking that created them. Yet that’s exactly what we are doing when we jump into a problem solving mindset without getting upstream of an issue to understand what causes and contributes to it.  But more often than not the immediate and presenting problem is not the core issue.

In conversations with leaders I notice that they too can fall into this trap. They sometimes think about the challenges facing their organisations in ways that are immediate and reactionary.  When they do this, it’s a little like trying to drive a car with your nose pressed up against the windscreen.  They miss the bigger picture.  Having a strategic perspective that is a hallmark of effective leadership.

Coaches too risk getting bogged down in detail and adopting a problem oriented perspective.  When training people to become coaches I encourage them to ask questions from the perspective of someone in a helicopter.  Anyone who has worked with me will recognise the terms:

  • Hover above the issue.
  • Don’t get caught in the detail.
  • Look for the patterns.
  • Understand the landscape.
  • Map the territory.
  • Avoid getting caught in the mud.

Step back before you respond
When we take a few moments to step back before we respond, we can discover the core issue or even the benefits of the situation we find ourselves in.  And then, if problem solving is required we can apply these skills knowing we are tackling the real problem, not just the the surface issue that presents itself.

Of course all professions lend themselves to a particular way of viewing the world.  Surgeons develop precision, insurers learn to analyse risk, marketers learn how to differentiate themselves and their products, sales people learn to turn relationship into a sale.

My colleagues this morning had learnt the value of a coaching mindset. It allows them to explore issues from a strategic perspective. They have an ability to adjust the lens through which they view the world.

Questions to ask yourself

  • What mindsets and paradigms did your early training cultivate in you?
  • What are the strengths and potential limitations of your professional practice?
  • How have you buillt on and extended your initial skillset?

Thriving In Disruptive Environments

We are living in an era of disruption, in which rapid technological change demands a radical rethink of the ways we do business and how we live our lives. Most leaders know that even their best-made plans are good for only as long as it takes the ink on these documents to dry.

A key indicator of our effectiveness as leaders lies not only in how we manage our vision and strategy, but in how we deal with unexpected developments – both those that we welcome and those that are confronting. Leaders who are able to deal with the curveballs life throws their way are usually better equipped when it comes to the big shifts.  They are more agile.

Are you open to new opportunities and able to harness the potential within unexpected events? Are you an early adopter or do you regard the rapidly changing environment merely as a nuisance?  I’m capable of both reactions.  

Even Visions Can Be Disruptive

Disruptions come in many forms. Some of them excite and inspire us.  Your organisational vision can propel you to a new future. Yet no matter how great your initial enthusiasm for this vision, achieving it inevitably means new challenges that will demand you learn as you go.

Ash Maurya, the author of Running Lean, reports that while most start-ups fail, 66% of those that succeed take a radical change of direction at some point. Taking a deep breath, they rethink and overhaul their initial product design. More often than not, their initial ideas – the place where it all began, had been precious to them.

Last year my colleague Vicki Henricks and I worked with business mentors who supported us in our launch of the Global Coaching Institute. They were masters in harnessing the potential within disruptive environments.  It was quite a journey.  Every program, every premise, every assumption we held dear was laid out before us, so we could take a fresh look. It’s an exciting and rigorous process that surfaced every thread of attachment that tied me to the workshops and resources I’d played a role in writing.

It took committed team work to get through the seemingly relentless process of testing and challenging our ideas. More than once I questioned why we were putting ourselves through it. The answer? Because we knew deep down that start-ups and mature businesses that can’t face up to radically revamping their favoured assumptions and practices, put their enterprises at risk. We teach this to coaches and business leaders. This was our opportunity to walk the talk.

What sustained us? A willingness – albeit delayed and reluctant on occasions – to open up to the disruption. 

Vicki and I both hold a fundamental commitment to growth.  We know that means going beyond what we currently know or have experienced and that this can bring discomfort.  We were also able to be patient with each other and to give each other a nudge when it was needed.


So how do you deal with disruption? 

What’s your attitude to it?  

What influences your attitude?  When do you shut down and when do you open up?

What works for you?