(In this three-part post we will explore similarities and differences between Coaching and Therapy, focusing on which needs are better served by one or the other. I identify nine important ways that Coaching and Therapy differ. Today we look at the first three.)

The Difference Between WANTING  or NEEDING Therapy or a Coach

People who are ready for life coaching generally have a pretty good idea of what’s holding them back. They just want accountability and support in mapping and following the strategy to move ahead positively.

Notice! I didn’t ask: “Do I need therapy or life coaching?” Here lies the first clue to finding the best answer to your question. If you spontaneously ask yourself if you need it, then your answer could very reasonably be either of the two options.  But if you are asking yourself what you want, then there is a very high likelihood that you will benefit more from coaching. If your starting point is one where you are already able to think about what you want, then you are less likely to be deeply mired in pain and confusion (common motivators for entering therapy), and more likely to be ready to move quickly toward goal achievement. You may feel stuck, but not so much so that you feel that you need a therapist to help you unlock some secret, unseen obstacle.

Many people use both coaching and therapy. I do! For me, therapy serves to explore certain personal challenges while my work with my coach is all about goal achievement. I have found great benefit in working with a therapist multiple times over the course of my life. It was never my plan, but looking back, I have used it in two-year increments, each time with a different therapist. First in my 20’s, then in my 40’s, again in my 50’s and now in my 60’s. I’m not sure why I skipped my 30’s – too busy, I guess! I’m also not sure why two years seems to be the length of these engagements. In retrospect, however, two years has allowed for some serious work, not avoiding important issues and then moving on without becoming too dependent on the therapy. The earlier experiences were helpful and were fairly traditional type therapy that I sought while in anguish about major life decisions.

The  Best of Both Worlds

More recently I am gravitating toward more coaching and I am thrilled with how this is working for me. About 90% of the work I do with my coach partner is focused on Life Coaching goals, obstacles and accountability. Five percent perhaps is conversation that would fall under the heading of traditional therapy which she is also qualified to handle, and another 5% is sharing thoughts, suggestions and information about our respective approaches to our work. Although there is an amount of overlap, I am keenly aware of when I am doing work with her as my Life Coach and when I am doing more traditional therapy work. I highly value both.

Is Self-Coaching an Option?

In my own coaching work with clients I am comfortable with suggesting individual and couples therapy when it is clearly indicated. This may involve continued work with me if appropriate or it may not. For those who find value in working with a coach, I suggest that they aspire to and see themselves on a path to Self-Coaching. The same cannot be suggested for therapy. The patient in therapy may reasonably wish to progress to the point of not needing therapy. However, it is not advisable to do “self-therapy”, even for the most expert, trained professional therapists. The nature of therapy, even though there are various modalities, is such that some distance is needed for it to be effective.

To use the medical terminology that is entrenched in therapy practice due to insurance regulations, it is unwise and frowned upon for a doctor to engage in “self-diagnosis”. There are therapy models which have more similarities with coaching, particularly those that are based on transformational concepts as opposed to the pathological models. Even those transformational models of therapy, however, differ from coaching in important ways. So for today’s post, here are the first three of the nine differences between coaching and therapy:

  • Coaching Does Not Use the DSM While Psychotherapy Does
  • Coaching is More “Goal-Oriented”
  • Coaching Doesn’t Use the Terminology of a Patient’s “Functioning”

So especially if you are in a place where you may want to choose just one of the two options for now, let’s look at these specific differences between coaching and therapy.

1.  Coaching Does Not Use the DSM While Psychotherapy Does 

Therapists routinely make a diagnosis whether they refer to the person as patient, client or in any other terminology. To make this diagnosis the official manual referred to is the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” or DSM. It is a valuable and necessary resource in the field and provides a basis for approval or denial of insurance claims as well as therapeutic approaches. Insurance payments make it possible for many people who need help to afford the treatment.

For several reasons, coaches have no need to use the DSM. Coaches are not trained in applying the DSM, nor are they qualified to use it. The DSM is inconsistent with the coaching approach because coaching does not diagnose. Coaching does not have need of the very formal and scientific labels in the Manual. It does not even have need of less formal labels because the coach does not tell the client “what is wrong”. The entire perspective of coaching is that the answers are within the client. There is no such thing as a pathology to be uncovered. That is not at all what the process is about. By asking helpful questions, challenging assumptions, being present and assisting with accountability, the coach helps the client to overcome obstacles whether they be internal or external.

2.  Coaching Is More “Goal-Oriented” 

It is the nature of coaching work that clients seek it out in order to make progress or to get “unstuck.” This “unstuck” word is one I like to use in coaching because so many of us can relate to it. We can be doing quite well in various aspects of our life, but we may find that “there is this one thing” that is not getting better. It’s “stuck”.

It may be that my life is reasonably satisfactory with regard to work and relationships, but I am very frustrated that I no longer am getting the amount of exercise that I feel I need. This is a typical motivation for people to come to coaching. They may choose to work with a trainer and that may be all that’s needed, or they may want to integrate the exercise with other challenges and other areas that could get squeezed – so a Life Coach may make more sense. The common thread is that the person wants to set goals, have interim steps and have the accountability that helps to carry it through.

Therapy may also deal with goals, but goals are not nearly as central to therapy as they are to coaching. A well-trained Life Coach or Executive Coach will be sure to start each session with a stated agenda, agreed longer term goals and will end the session with articulated “accountabilities”. A very satisfactory outcome of therapy may be something like feeling less anxious or having a better understanding of one’s parents. There may have even been some therapeutic goals discussed along those lines. These types of outcomes can be wonderfully helpful. They differ from coaching, however, in that coaching goals are usually much more concrete. They usually are specific enough to fit into that worn out but useful acronym of “S.M.A.R.T” meaning Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timed.

3.  Coaching Doesn’t Use the Terminology of a Patient’s “Functioning” 

It is common in therapeutic parlance to refer to patients as “low-functioning” or “high-functioning”. This terminology is common in work with Autism, Depression and other conditions. The functioning referred to usually has to do with how well the patient is able to manage his or her life in work, family or other situations in spite of the fact that they are diagnosed with some pathology.

This type of label is not consistent with coaching work because it can evoke a clinical or even a machine-like view of the person. In coaching we would not refer to how the client is “functioning” and more likely would simply consider how the person is living or working while exploring how the person wants to progress.

A purely clinical view of the person may have its place, of course, because it allows the clinician to refer to research and tested clinical approaches. It is just quite different from coaching and some individuals are even able to benefit from both clinical and coaching perspectives.

“Working with a Life Coach is a Partnership”

Life Coaching terminology focuses heavily on words like “obstacles”, “progress”, “roadmap” and “accountability”. This difference between coaching and therapy may appear to be mere semantics, but avoidance of this “functioning” label by coaches supports the client’s ability to be seen as an organic and dynamic individual who is “a work in progress” rather than a low or high functioning object. In this regard and in others, coaching always comes back to the foundation of the relationship, namely a partnership. This is best summed up in the definition offered by the most prestigious and largest coach certification entity, the International Coaching Federation (“ICF”) which states that coaching is a “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.”

(In the next post I will explore the next three of the nine differences between Coaching and Therapy)