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?

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, in order to support the transition from therapist to coach.

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’s what we’ve discovered:

1.  Goal Orientation

The goal orientation is much stronger in coaching than in therapy and counselling.

In coaching it is typical to spend significantly more time unpacking and clarifying the client’s goal upfront.  The coach and coachee will determine measures of success and establish how to recognise when the goal is achieved.  The burden of responsibility for goal achievement is not left with the treating practitioner, but sits very clearly with the client.

It is common for individuals to present to counseling with an immediate desire to alleviate pain and anxiety. Therefore the relief of distress is the implicit goal.  Depending upon the counseling approach, there may be limited exploration of what the alternative or desired experience looks like at the outset.  The client may simply be too anxious or distressed for this. Rather, the preferred state or destination, may be discovered over time under the guidance of the treating practitioner.

In long term psychotherapy, the focus is often on personal growth and self awareness. Psychotherapy elicits exploration of the individual’s inner landscape, their motivations and desires. Often increased awareness is considered to be enough. In coaching, however, there is usually more of a focus on the behavioural changes that insight and awareness will bring, and the tangible outcomes that will ensue in the client’s life and world.

Whilst both disciplines want to achieve outcomes, in coaching the client’s goal is the focal point which directs the conversation.  Our ethical guidelines state that a client’s stated goals should be a key determinant of how to work with each client: what questions to ask, what interventions to make.

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 or need to guide or educate the client.

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 endeavoring to change organisational culture.  These are things most therapists know little about.

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

We can do this as coaches because sense-making and decision-making lies 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. Until new coaches 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 it is in fact more helpful when they don’t because then they can focus solely on supporting the client’s information processing (or reflection), decision-making, relationship and action-taking skills.  In short, the coach’s job is to support the client to reach their goal, not to do the work for them.

If you are interested in expanding your client base, by adding coaching to your skillset, please check out our internationally accredited coach training programs.

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?

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