Coaching vs. Therapy

This article was originally published in January 2019, in the WorldWide Coaching Magazine.

Emotions and tears can be uncomfortable to share with another person. However, coaches and therapists realize and accept both as healthy aspects of being human. If a coach ever cowers or reacts unfavorably to your emotions, don’t blame it on coaching. Simply ask yourself if this coach is the right fit for you. And, if you well up with emotions when talking to your coach, don’t think that you’re asking them to be your therapist.
While there is a distinction between therapy and coaching, there are similarities as well. Sometimes it can be challenging to know just who you need to talk with about the various aspects of your life. That’s where this article comes into play.
I recently had the pleasure of discussing the differences and commonalities between coaching and
therapy with Nicole Lovejoy, a local therapist and colleague to whom I refer clients. Here are the
highlight from this conversation with Lyn T. Christian, MCC. and Nicole Lovejoy, LCSW.:

What is therapy?
Nicole characterizes therapy as the psychological treatment of mental disorders such as depression and anxiety. It addresses patterns of disabling symptoms or behaviors that prevent a client from a functional life. A therapist makes a clinical assessment of these symptoms or behaviors, and then a formal diagnosis is determined. Based on the specific diagnosis, a treatment plan is instituted to heal or correct past trauma. Nicole feels that for therapy to be successful, it must follow the medical model of evaluation, diagnosis, plus a treatment plan.

What is coaching?
I would say that coaching is, as Tony Robbins puts it, “ . . . a unique service designed to help ambitious achievers meet the outcomes that will bring them success and fulfillment.” This doesn’t mean there isn’t hard work to be done regarding emotional wellbeing. It just means clients move from “Ok” to exceptional. I typically specialize in coaching individuals who are re-inventing their career or working identity, people who are recalibrating their leadership skills, or people who are rebooting their lives. This process aligns closely with the therapeutic model with a few exceptions. While coaching helps people strategize for forward moving growth, it’s not designed to address past psychological pain or trauma.

How are therapy and coaching different?
Nicole maintains that therapy is primarily focused on diagnosing and treating an individual. Typically this occurs through talk therapy but can involve other techniques such as hypnotherapy or E.M.D.R. Often a therapist’s work involves looking at the underling causes of chronic disorders or distress that create cycles of self-destructive behavior.
Coaching, on the other hand, is a means for creating a safe and productive growth space. People who want partnership team up with a coach as a strategic thinker, a game changer, a challenger, facilitator and an advocate. The end in mind is typically to get where you want to go faster, more skillfully and more elegantly than without the support of a coach. A therapist is also ethically bound to hold very tight boundaries around the therapeutic space. It is unethical for a therapist to develop any type of friendship outside of the therapeutic relationship. This is designed for safety and structure in the therapeutic process. In contrast, coaches are not held to the same restrictions as therapists. However, coaches adhere to a code of ethical and professional boundaries. This helps center coaching around life-strategies that challenge, stretch, reframe, redirect and refocus an individual toward higher potential.

How are therapy and coaching similar?
Generally speaking, Nicole says her work focuses on helping clients overcoming fears and challenges which might be holding them back from having a more fulfilling life. The same can be said for coaches. Therapy and coaching are both empathetic environments of support where clients are stretched and nudged toward self-awareness and progress. Therapy and coaching are similar in other ways too. They both are:

 Governed by a code or ethics and confidentiality
 Create accountability through homework (home play) or self-work assignments
 Develop a team of supporters, working toward progress.
 Assess clients for a good fit to therapy or coaching specialties.

Sometimes, coaching has been considered the missing link in the area of self-help. It sort of fits in the space between DIY self-help books and therapy.

When could a client benefit from therapy?
I would state that coaching vs. therapy might not be the best way to describe our work. I like to think of the situation as coaching and therapy. We are on parallel tracks toward client success. In truth, I’ll often encourage clients to work concurrently with a therapist, or take a sabbatical leave from coaching to address issues best managed with therapy.
I’ve learned that coaching and therapy aren’t at odds. However, during the coaching process, there are sometimes clear indications that the emotional support of a therapist is needed. The first indication is if a client seems “stuck” or unable to move forward. This looks like consistent, persistent patterns (behaviors, conversations, activities) that keep the client from making steady progress. For example, if fear is a persistent aspect of a client’s life and it consistently holds them back, they must seek help outside of coaching.

Other indicators include clients struggling with active addiction, depression, anxiety, panic disorder, or P.T.S.D. Particularly urgent are signs a client may be experiencing suicidal thoughts. I have gathered a few resources that every coach should have:

 Mark Goulston has worked in the field of psychiatry for 20 years and has developed an excellent 8-part series called Why People Kill Themselves. Take the time to watch it.
 Coaches should also take an Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (A.S.I.S.T.).
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is also a wonderful resource.

What should a support team look like?
Nicole suggests looking at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a theory that supports the idea of getting the most basic level of needs met before an individual can strongly desire or has the ability to focus on betterment. She and I both agree the best outcomes happen when clients have a team of people that collaborate and support them in their forward moving growth. This might mean a coach and a therapist working in tandem, but it could also include physicians, other clinicians, or social workers.
A coach can often be the first step in developing this individual team of supporters. When referring clients, coaches should maintain a list of local practitioners that are trained and licensed as well as making sure they are a good fit. Here are a few ways to get started:

 Utilize to find bios and local therapist with certain specialties or directly to Nicoles page here.
 Network therapist in your own community.
 Resource therapists you’ve used personally.
 Check with insurance providers for an In-Network Providers list.
 Suggest clients interview a prospective therapist