Coaching and Therapy – What’s the Difference?

The other day I was asked to explain the difference between coaching and therapy, so thought it would be a useful topic for the blog. As I personally don’t think the answer is as simple as it might first appear …

As a coach I am accredited by the International Coach Federation as a Professional Certified Coach, to gain that accreditation I was required to have undergone approved coaching training, completed a certain number of paid client hours, passed an exam, been championed by others certified in the profession and supplied a tape of a coaching session giving evidence that I am able to adhere to the principles and practises of coaching laid down by the ICF. (Providing the tape was the most challenging part of the process because real life coaching rarely ticks all the examiners boxes!)

As part of retaining our accreditation as a coach we must complete CPD and make clear in our coaching contracts that we are not offering “therapy” in other words coaching is not “therapy without a licence”. This is why I believe that coaches have come up with some stock phrases to describe just how coaching and therapy differ, which are: –

• Coaching works with the future; therapy works with the past
• Coaches work to make healthy clients healthier; therapists work with people who are unwell
• Coaching is time-limited with specific desired behavioural outcomes: therapy is open-ended with understanding as its primary goal
• Coaches partner with the client as equals; therapy involves an “expert and patient” relationship

For me personally one of the biggest difference I have experienced is the stance coaches take towards clients so the client can view themselves as “creative, resourceful and whole” and therefore capable of coming to their own solutions.

As opposed to a therapeutic model where the client may see themselves as in some way “broken” or in need of “fixing”. I am not saying that this is in any way the intention of therapists to view the client in this way, rather it is an outcome of the stigma that society often views seeing a therapist.

In addition a recent research paper by a PhD student states that: –

Coaching is a cross-disciplinary methodology, and that no single industry or professional group owns it (Grant, 2008). Bachkirova, Cox and Clutterbuck (2010) comment on the array of definitions and the assumptions and theories that lie behind them and they argue that these definitions are not distinct enough to differentiate coaching from other “talking professions” such as counselling, psychotherapy, mentoring and even training.

There are also many and varying definitions of what coaching actually is: –

Someone from outside an organization who uses psychological skills to help a person develop into a more effective leader. These skills are applied to specific present-moment work problems in a way that enables this person to incorporate them into his or her permanent management or leadership experience (Peltier, 2001)

Coaching is the art of facilitating the development, learning and enhanced performance of another (Hill, 2007)

So the lines between coaching and therapy do seem to be much more blurred than at first appear, complicated by one’s own personal development journey as one progresses through time working as a coach.

Back 15+ years ago when I first trained as a coach, my coaching methodology was limited to what I had just been taught and consisted of some rather mechanical manoeuvres. Such as the GROW model or asking a client to give a feeling a colour or a number out of 10. These techniques can help but both client and coach will soon tire of them.

Over the years I’ve added on other training in: – NLP, Enneagram Practioner Parts I & II, CRR Relationship Systems Coaching, Mindfulness, 10 years as a Diamond Approach student, Systemic Constellations and latterly 3 years Voice Dialogue training, all of these trainings have inevitably significantly informed my coaching methodology.

• So yes I do work with the future, but also for example will work with clients to identify past triggering event which are creating the fight or flight response e.g. to public speaking. Having identified the trigger we can then work with NLP and other techniques to change the automatic response.
• Yes most coaching clients are functioning OK in the world but on occasions I have worked with clients who have suffered a burn-out experience and are off work and need help rebuilding confidence and resilience before re-joining the workforce.
• Yes most coaching assignment are time-limited to just 5 or 6 sessions but I have also worked with one client for 6 years, a small business owner who used my services as a sounding board for their ideas.

Other similarities I see between coaching and therapy are they both to varying extents: –

• Create a safe space for clients to explore sensitive material
• Are practised by people who are skilled listeners
• Work to bring information from the unconscious mind into conscious awareness
• Explore limiting beliefs
• Work with reducing the impact of attacks from the inner critic
• Pace the exploration at a rate the client can manage
• Encourage the client to create new supportive life practises
• Practise presence to be in the moment with the client
• Utilise intuition to pick up non-verbal signals from the client

In addition, whilst coaching is supposedly non-directive, I like many, have adapted my approach to coaching to also involve an element of teaching new models and new practises. This is especially needed in employer sponsored coaching where certain performance targets have been set as part of the specific desired behaviour outcomes and clients may not have the necessary knowledge needed to create their own solutions.

As the coaching profession has matured along with those of us who work in it, many methodologies have transferred over from the therapeutic world as Practioners have moved over from one discipline to the other bringing with them their knowledge. So it is now not unusual now to find Cognitive Behaviour, Psychodynamic or, Gestalt Coaches.

Therefore the primary difference between coaching and therapy has to be who the clients are and the current situations they bring to coaching.

Recent research on the efficacy of coaching states that what really matters most is the relationship between the coach and client, it is essential that there is sufficient chemistry between the pair to create safe, supportive space for them to work together and significantly it is much less about the methodology.

To book a Taster Session to test out chemistry and coaching methodology, please go to the book section of the website.

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