On coaching vs. therapy

I’m a coach, and I’m often asked: “How is coaching different from therapy?”  

It’s a good question, especially because coaching is a newer profession than therapy, and less familiar to many people. In order to begin to answer it, though, I have to ask a different question:

How are you defining “therapy” and “coaching”?

There are a wide range of approaches in both therapy and coaching. An art therapist is not the same as a somatic therapist is not the same as a Jungian psychotherapist. Similarly, a writing coach is not the same as a financial coach is not the same as an Integral coach.

As a result of this, coaching and therapy can be extremely different (e.g., there might be very little overlap between a business coach and an art therapist). Or they may have many similarities. To be honest…

The modality of the practitioner likely matters more than therapist vs. coach.

I’ve been in therapy, and worked with a range of coaches. The first coach I ever worked with was an Integral Coach, whose work really changed my life. Several years later, I worked with a therapist who worked across a range of methodologies. While there were some important differences — which I’ll discuss below — there were more similarities, and I had a positive experience with both.

On the other hand, I briefly worked with a business coach, and that experience was extremely different from either my Integral Coaching or therapy experiences. I’d also imagine that if you worked with a Cooking Coach, for example, it would also be quite different from therapy.

For the rest of this essay, I’ll be talking about the differences between some generalized definition of “therapy” (more on that below) and Integral Coaching. Integral Coaching form of coaching I am most familiar with — I’m a trained Integral Coach, and I’ve worked with several Integral Coaches.

Please remember that there are as many different types of therapy and coaching as there are practitioners, so for everything I say about therapy or coaching, there will be many exceptions. It’s nearly impossible to generalize across such large fields without simplifying, and I am, of course, making this analysis based on my personal experience and conversations with others. However, I think it can be useful for some people to understand some broad differences, so I’ll share how I best understand those differences.

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Here are some of the big differences between coaching and therapy that I have noticed (again, with some important caveats at the bottom of this post):

1. Therapists are uniquely qualified to help people with psychological disorders or who are healing from serious trauma.
For example, if you suffer – or think you may be suffering — from schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, or are healing from childhood sexual abuse, a therapist will have the best training to support you. Coaches simply aren’t trained to work with people these types of challenges. 

2. Coaches only work with people who are functioning or highly functioning in the world.
When we’re mostly “functioning” in the world, that means that we’re paying our bills, showing up to work, and mostly meeting our commitments to others. Or maybe we’re even highly functioning — other people, from the outside, might think that we’re really “together” or successful or happy.

But even if we’re functioning or highly functioning, we may still have a nagging that something isn’t right in our lives. Maybe we’re feeling stuck or lost, or maybe we keep putting off taking action towards what we want.  Maybe we’re having some big feelings — like sadness or anxiety — and we’re not sure what to do with them. 

Just because we’re functioning or highly functioning doesn’t mean we don’t have personal work to do. Coaches can be a great fit for people in this situation.

 

3. Coaches may expect more engagement from you.
Past clients have told me that they’ve been in therapy before, and felt like they showed up every session and shared about their feelings or their past. The therapist was often a compassionate listener, but the patient didn’t necessarily feel like they “changed.”

In my experience, my work with coaches has generally felt more active or potent than therapy. Part of that is because coaches expect more of you. You’ll be doing work in between sessions — which could include reading books or articles, watching videos, trying out new practices, or doing journaling to reflect on a key question that has come up.

When clients do work in between sessions, they have new observations about themselves, which makes future coaching sessions more productive. They also experiment with behaving differently in the world — for example, trying new actions to be more confident at work, or trying new techniques to resolve conflict better in relationships. In my experience, when you act differently and have new observations about yourself, you will change much faster than simply by talking for forty-five minutes or an hour once a week.

And, of course, some coaching clients don’t have the time or energy to do work in between sessions. That’s okay too — the coach would start by helping them make space in their lives. If they don’t have time for coaching homework, it’s probably a sign that they’re stressed, overwhelmed, or need some more free time, anyway.  

4. Coaches may be more explicit about your development path
In the first few sessions of a coaching engagement, we would work together to explicitly define: (1) the skills you will develop, and (2) how the world will feel to you, as a result of our work together. We write down that development plan, and check in with it throughout the coaching program.

That means that two months later, for example, we can notice which categories you’ve made progress on, and which need more attention. That document also helps us know when you’re done with coaching — when we realize that you’ve make significant progress in each of the major categories, it’s time to wrap up the coaching engagement.

5. Coaches may be more engaged with you.
Some clients have told me that their past therapists mostly listened, and preferred not to share their observations or ideas even when the patient asked their opinion. (Again, this is not true of all therapists; see below.)

While the goal of coaching is for you to develop the capacity to observe yourself and change on your own, as a coach, I am typically a bit more involved. Many of us have blind spots about ourselves that we can’t see — so as a coach, I would compassionately share with my clients what I notice about them, that they may not be able to see about themselves. Especially in the first half of the coaching engagement, I would also recommend the actions, reflections, or changes that I think might make sense of them to take next.

Of course, the goal of coaching for the client to be develop the skills to change independently of a coach. But I think that one of the great advantages of working with a coach — instead of trying to change on your own — is that the coach can notice things about you that you can’t notice about yourself. So I am actively, but compassionately, engaged in sharing that with you (and, in my experience, this is a satisfying experience for a client. I’m not harsh or unkind — typically, sharing my observations is a helpful thing for a client).  

6.  Coaching may be shorter than therapy.
To be clear, this is a generalization, but multiple coaching clients told me that they were in therapy for a year or more — sometimes even multiple years.

It would be very uncommon that a coaching engagement would go on for longer than a year. When this has happened, it is typically because the client has achieved their goals (see #4), but wanted to work on some new things together. The average length of my coaching engagements tend to be six months.

7.  The roots of the professions are different.
Therapy’s roots are in the medical field. One of the major guiding forces of the field is and has been the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which classifies mental disorders. Typically, if therapists want to be paid through insurance companies, they must assess their patients has having one of the mental disorders listed in the DSM — even though they might not share that diagnosis with the patient. Of course, not all therapists prefer to think of their patient in terms of the “mental disorders” they have, but the roots of the field do follow this path, and this is why only therapists are qualified to support folks who struggle with mental disorders like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

Modern coaching has a number of different origins, but one major origin is sports coaches (more on sports and coaching here). As a result, there is a history of working with people who are already competent — and sometimes quite highly functioning — and helping them reach the next level. There is less of an interest, in the history of the field, in thinking about disorders, and more of an interest in just figuring out what is blocking functioning people and helping them grow.

8. Coaches often work over video conference.
This is increasingly common for therapists as well, but therapists can often only work with people over video conference who are in the same state as them. As a coach, I can work with clients all around the world — and have! (I’ve had clients on five continents so far!)

I’ve also personally worked with several coaches of my own — coaches need their own coaches! — who lived in different states or countries than me. At first, I was a bit hesitant — can working with a coach over video conference be as effective as meeting in-person? I found that I had extremely powerful experiences working with those coaches. Of course, I’d always prefer to meet in-person when possible, but since they lived far away from me, I never would have been able to work with them if not over video conference.

As a coach myself, approximately half of my clients are over video conference — and I highly recommend it as an option if there’s not a coach you’d like to work with nearby.

 

I hope this is a helpful comparison. I wanted to make two important caveats, however:

1. The differences between therapy and coaching depend a lot on how you define “therapy” and “coaching.”

I mentioned this above, but it’s worth repeating here: there are many, many types of therapists and coaches out there. As a result, coaching and therapy can be extremely different — there might be very little overlap between a business coach and an art therapist, for example. Or they may have many similarities.

 So this comparison is really between a generalized definition of “therapy” (which is a huge field!) and Integral Coaching, because that’s the form of coaching I am most familiar with. I’m a trained Integral Coach (more on that here), and I’ve worked with several Integral Coaches.   

Much more important than whether you’re working with a coach or a therapist is the fit with the practitioner themselves. Do you feel comfortable sharing intimate things? Do you feel heard? Do the ideas they share with you resonate?

 

2. I’m a coach.

I’ll acknowledge that I may be biased since I’m a coach myself. But, I’ve also strived to be as factual as possible. I chose to become a coach, though I considered becoming a therapist for a long time, because I mostly wanted to work with functioning and highly-functioning people, and because I had such powerful experiences with coaches myself.

But I still believe that therapy can be a fantastic resource. For certain types of people — such as those struggling with serious mental disorders or who need to heal from serious trauma — therapy is truly the best, and only, option. And for those who are functioning or highly-functioning, it’s possible for you to see either a coach or a therapist — I have had positive experiences with both. It will simply depend on the experience you’re looking for.

Above all, I hope that if you’re struggling, or even if you just feel like you’d like some support, you’ll seek it out. Working with professional coaches or therapists have been extremely useful to me, and I recommend it highly.

If you’re curious about working with me, here’s more about my approach, and here’s how you can schedule a short, free call to hear more about coaching, ask any questions you have, and see if it might be a good fit for you. I’d love to hear from you!