Coaching v therapy

What is the difference between coaching and psychotherapy?

The cliché that coaching focuses on the present and future while therapy focuses on the past isn’t just a cliché but also a myth, as there are forms of therapy that don’t dwell on the past, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), and forms of coaching that allow for deeper self-examination.

In a previous article, I described existential coaching as the ultimate grey area between coaching and therapy. This blurred border seems to make not a few people uneasy, as therapists often look down on coaching and, at the same time, feel threatened by it.

Some coaches, too, like to believe there is a definite boundary between the two areas. But in fact, there is a big crossover.

Schools across the world offer training in therapeutic coaching, which blends the two approaches, and a growing number of therapists and psychologists are choosing to train as coaches.

The main objection therapists have towards coaching seems to be regarding the length of the training. In order to qualify, they need to have completed many more hours of practice.

Coaches are aware of this disparity and, because of it, can suffer from impostor syndrome, at least at the beginning of their career. But anyone going through a career change can experience self-doubt. Professional training in any field is very useful, as it provides the tools with which to work, but ultimately, you always learn ‘on the job’.

Another wrong assumption often made about coaching is that it is more ‘directive’ than therapy. In reality, the opposite is true. In training, coaches are told ad nauseam they mustn’t express personal opinion or offer advice.

In essence, coaching and therapy have more in common than what sets them apart: they both provide a non-judgmental space for self-reflection and require the helping professional to be highly self-aware and fully present to their client. They also share the aim of rendering clients more resilient and helping them move forward in life by identifying what is holding them back.

In short, they both want people to be happier!

The most significant difference between the two professions is that coaches are not trained to work with mental health issues such as psychoses or personality disorders. Thus, therapy can involve recovery from a state of dysfunction to one of being functional; whereas coaching is more about helping healthy individuals achieve their full potential.

However, not all therapy clients are ill; many functioning people seek the help of therapists and psychologists. At the same time, coaching clients aren’t always completely healthy.

As Mark Twain stated:

“Let us consider that we are all partially insane. It will explain us to one another; it will unriddle many riddles.”

Psychotherapists and psychologists choose to train in coaching often as a result of feeling frustrated with the limitations of traditional psychology – which, for example, tends to overlook the mind-body connection.

Besides, many firms nowadays are more likely to hire a coach than a therapist because, when dealing with functioning people, coaching is widely perceived as being more effective at generating paradigm shifts and transformation.

While coaching as we know it will hopefully never replace therapy altogether, it is a much-needed evolutionary step in the helping professions – and in future, like it or not, the boundary between the two areas is likely to become more and more blurred.

Nico DN • Coaching