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!

GCI