(This is the third in a series of three posts on differences between Life Coaching and Therapy examining when each can be helpful. I have identified nine distinctions and here we explore the last three. CLICK HERE for Part 1 and CLICK HERE for Part 2).

Life Coaching Generally Asks Permission to Explore Sensitive Areas

In this area the differences between Life Coaching and therapy are subtle and slight but worthy of note. In therapy there should be an assumption that sensitive areas will be delved into. A good therapist may regularly ask permission to ask about sensitive areas but need not do so because there is more of an assumption and understanding that therapy can actually be ineffective if the patient is holding back. For the Life Coach everything is potentially on the table as possible topics for discussion, but it is up to the client to determine the subject matter.

Life Coaches are trained to always ask permission to ask about sensitive areas and Life Coaches and clients understand that great progress can be made toward achieving goals while setting aside areas that are not being worked on in the Coaching, or may even be worked on separately in therapy. If permission is given to go into a sensitive area, Life Coaching work can be deeply emotional and cathartic at times. Breakthrough progress toward achieving a goal in an area where the client had been feeling stuck can be incredibly liberating and can lead to wondrous elation and celebration. The asking for permission, however, works as a safety feature for the client who can keep private that which is chosen and can disclose that which he or she wishes to work on.

This understanding has worked well for me as a client in Life Coaching and as a patient in therapy. I have told my Coach at times that there were relationship challenges that were causing some distress, but that I preferred to keep working on my business goals. I could have changed directions and spent time with my Coach on the relationship topic and it may have been helpful, but I was happy with my decision. I chose to do the relationship work with a combination of Self-Coaching and seeking advice of trusted family and friends. This approach could happen in therapy but would be very unlikely.

Therapy Can be More Focused on the Past

Therapy, of course, has many approaches and some approaches such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) do focus heavily on the present. I have worked with therapists who generally take the CBT approach, but at my initiative we also spent considerable time talking about my childhood, traumas, family dynamics etc. This made the therapy and the work on current challenges even more effective and valuable for me. In Coaching, that hearkening back to the past is mostly unheard of. It may be helpful if the Coaching client has done some therapy work and has insight into why patterns have emerged, but it is not necessary for goal achievement.

The Life Coach’s questions are about aspirations, obstacles, positive strategies and recalibrations – all in the present. The Life Coach may sometimes challenge the client about beliefs and assumptions but will not ask the client to go back and examine how those beliefs were arrived at. The challenge would be along the lines of “How are these assumptions and beliefs working for you now?” and “is it perhaps time to reexamine and adjust?”

Coaches are Trained to Not Give Advice

A good therapist may give little or no advice. If a therapist gives advice too often it may contribute to making the patient dependent on the therapy. We have seen dramatizations in films or in real life where an individual says something like “I’ll have to ask my therapist” before knowing what to do. Although too much advice from a therapist is not a good thing, it is not inappropriate for a therapist to give advice. Sound advice given appropriately by the therapist can be invaluable, especially with major life decisions. I once was ready to quit a high-level job in dramatic fashion, telling my new boss what he could do with it. My therapist talked me down and I was glad he did. He gave me advice to slow down and be methodical and it turned out much better for me as I left amicably after a longer period with a helpful package. So good advice from a therapist who knows you can be quite a good thing!

A Life Coach, however, would never give such advice. A Life Coach may be able to help a client like me navigate a similar situation by asking helpful and challenging questions, but giving advice is actually out of bounds. It may seem like a mere difference in semantics, but there is a qualitative difference and the avoidance of giving advice also helps to avoid making the client dependent on the Coach. The foundational principle is that the client has the answers and has the qualities to make good decisions.

For me, Life Coaching always has the express purpose of moving the client toward Self-Coaching. This is not merely a byproduct or unstated goal. It is a takeaway that the client can reasonably hope for if the requisite time and effort is invested. The predictable steps and routine involved in coaching are repeatable unlike most forms of therapy which are by nature more circuitous. Using again the athletic metaphor, once the athlete/client has practiced the actions and gotten more familiar with the expected obstacles, the external Coach is needed less and less.

Mike Callahan is a Life Coach based on Long Island, New York


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