The difference between coaching and therapy

April 23, 2006

I am very regularly asked about the differences between coaching and therapy. I frequently read marketing blurb that suggests that therapy focuses on the “past” and coaching on the “future”; that therapy is about “resolving issues” and coaching is about “improvement”. Therapy is also accused of not offering “tools” for action thereby distinguishing it from its coaching cousin.
The similarities between both are important to note:

  • All individuals who work with a coach or a therapist are interested in a “better” future
  • Therapy and Coaching offer skills and possibilities for that future – the methodologies employed are different
  • The quality of the relationship is the essential mechanism by which change is effected
  • Self awareness on the part of the coach and therapist is essential for successful work with clients
  • Unconditional positive regard, empathy and a person-centred approach are key to both approaches

While I apply psychodynamic thinking to my coaching relationships the key difference is about the permission sought to inquire into a client’s personal story and how that information is worked with in the coaching relationship. There are times when it is helpful to know more about family of origin – it may help to understand a dynamic being played out in organisational contexts. But unless a coach is trained to work with this material they run the risk of opening up emotional responses that may be difficult to contain. It’s also essential to know when to refer a coaching client to a therapist. Very often this is when a repeating pattern of unhelpful behaviour, rooted in unresolved personal relationships in the past, is unhelpful in the present.
Clients are not referred (self or other) to a coach because of an academic difficulty – it’s generally a behavioural one and as such a coach needs to meet a client in all their humanity.
As a therapist and a coach I bring distinctive skills to the client relationship that are based on my psychodynamic training and which allow me to:

  • Meet a client in an authentic person-to-person encounter.
  • Process my own feelings in the coaching relationship and to use them as constructive interventions.
  • Spot a client who may need a therapeutic relationship and to refer on appropriately.
  • Translate psychodynamic insights into powerful work related interventions that impact on work performance and behaviour.

Coaching asks defining questions about which behaviours, skills and strategies have assisted the executive reach this level of success and which have hindered that progress. The context that is created for asking those questions is the defining difference between coaching and therapy.

3 People reacted on this

  1. I recently heard a person quite well known in the field of organizational analysis/executive coaching say that one of the differences between coaching and psychoanalysis (as he practices them) is that while in the former one works with the clients on things amenable to insight alone, in the other one hones in on deeper unconscious processes. So, with a coaching client he would be likely to ask a question like “What are your thoughts on why that interaction went the way that it did?” With an analytic patient, by contrast, he would stay away from such questions, seeing them as more likely to mobilize conscious processes than unconscious. Since I see questions like that as quite useful interventions in some circumstances with an analytic patient, I was unconvinced by the distinction as he drew it. I’d be curious to hear your response to his thinking. (Thank you by the way for your recent post ‘psychoa.’ I wonder if telling people you are a “coach” is less frightening as cocktail party banter.)

  2. I agree with you Psychoa because I think the point of both processes is insight and as a therapeutic relationship develops then I think more material is present to the client to consider (i.e. brought to consciousness). I find those kinds of questions very useful in bringing insight to consciousness and I would also use those kinds of questions in a coaching relationship because many times a client knows the answer and doesn’t know that they know.
    I think the therapist’s counter transference and motivation in asking the question is probably the more interesting one to consider in both relationships!
    (I’ve given up on therapist and coach and am now frightening people by saying I’m a consultant LOL)

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