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Do You Need A Therapist Or A Coach? The Differences Between Therapy And Coaching And How To Know Which Professional You Should Choose.    This article describes 23 differences between coaches and therapists with regard to their training, background, focus and philosophy so you can decide which professional you need to hire to advance your goals. In addition, there are nine warning signals of how to tell if you may need a therapist, not a coach.    1425 words.
The Mental Game Coach, Peak Performance Playbook

Do You Need A Therapist Or A Coach?

The Differences Between Therapy And Coaching And
How To Know Which Professional You Should Choose

Bill Cole, MS, MA
Founder and CEO
William B. Cole Consultants
Silicon Valley, California

The primary focus of the disciplines of therapy and coaching differ dramatically from the very way they are defined. The definition of coaching from the Father of American Life Coaching at Coach University, Thomas Leonard: "Client and coach become a team, focusing on the client's goals and needs and accomplishing more than the client would alone." The definition of psychiatry, from Merriam-Webster: The branch of medicine that deals with mental, emotional, or behavioral disorders.

Which definition appeals more to you?

Your motivations for seeking assistance from a therapist or coach determine which one would be best suited for you. Each has a very specific world-view with which you want to align yourself.

I used to be a psychotherapist and now I am a coach. I was trained as a mental health professional and also as a professional coach. In addition to my coaching practice I train and certify coaches worldwide as President of the International Mental Game Coaching Association. I prefer the coaching model over the medical model, for my work. However, therapy is the correct choice if that is what you need. If you need a coach a therapist won't do. Each profession has capabilities the other does not have.

This article helps you see the differences between coaches and therapists with regard to their training, background, focus and philosophy so you can decide which professional you need to hire to advance your goals. In addition, I also include nine warning signals of how to tell if you may need a therapist, not a coach.

Commonalities Between Therapists and Coaches

Coaching and therapy share some common ways of working, including even some specific techniques and methodologies. There are many schools of thought, philosophies and approaches in the each of these worlds, and this article will purposely be slightly broad and sweeping in comparing therapy and coaching so you can see the main differences.

Here are some of the various coaching professionals you could hire:

  1. Peak Performance Coach
  2. Personal Coach
  3. Life Planning Coach
  4. Executive Coach
  5. Leadership Development Coach
  6. Career Coach
  7. Business Coach
  8. Entrepreneurial Coach
  9. Financial / Wealth Coach
  10. Health Coach

Here are some of the various therapy professionals you could hire:

  1. Psychiatrist
  2. Clinical Psychologist
  3. Psychotherapist
  4. Mental Health Counselor
  5. Marriage Family Therapist (MFT)
  6. Clinical Social Worker
  7. Professional Clinical Counselor

Both coaching and therapy professionals wear a wide range of hats as they work. Even though they may operate within a few primary modes, they should be able to seamlessly shift between these ways of being with their clients as a helping professional and change agent:

  1. Coach
  2. Teacher
  3. Facilitator
  4. Guide
  5. Consultant
  6. Counselor
  7. Process Expert
  8. Content Expert
  9. Analyst
  10. Orchestrator
  11. Catalyst
  12. Facilitator

Both therapists and coaches usually strive to create a client centered, collaborative partnership. They both form a trusting, respectful relationship that fosters deep listening and active communication.

They both believe that clients can best find their own unique solutions to issues, rather than having them come from someone else. Both use questions that raise personal awareness and increase personal insight.

Both therapists and coaches ascribe to high ethical and professional standards. Both place the needs of their clients first, above their own. Both operate on the principle of confidentiality. Both strive to practice only within the scope of their training and effectiveness, and know when to refer a client to another professional.

How Therapists and Coaches Differ

Keeping in mind that contrasting lists such as these can be overly sweeping, and not entirely explanatory of the subtleties that exist, here are some of the differences between coaching and therapy.

  1. COACHING is an educational, discovery-based process of human potential.
    THERAPY is based on the medical model that says people have psychiatric maladies that need to be repaired.

  2. COACHING focuses on self-exploration, self-knowledge, professional development, performance enhancement and better self-management.
    THERAPY seeks to heal emotional wounds.

  3. COACHING takes clients to the highest levels of performance and life satisfaction.
    THERAPY seeks to bring clients from a dysfunctional place to a healthy functioning level.

  4. COACHING rarely asks about your childhood or family life.
    THERAPY continuously explores early-childhood, family and relationship issues.

  5. COACHING uses the terms blockages and obstructions to denote what needs to be removed.
    THERAPY uses the term "pathology" to describe the "patient's" issues.

  6. COACHING focuses more on the present and future.
    THERAPY focuses more on the past and present.

  7. COACHING advances the client's potential.
    THERAPY "cures" the patient.

  8. COACHING is used by people who already are succeeding, but who want to succeed even more and at a faster rate.
    THERAPY is used by people whose lives are not working.

  9. COACHING focuses more on thoughts and behavior and how the client acts and thinks about things.
    THERAPY focuses more on emotions and how the client feels about things.

  10. COACHING comes out of the human potential movement and the performance world.
    THERAPY has its roots in the medical model.

  11. COACHING focuses on solving problems in the now.
    THERAPY explores the historical roots of problems.

  12. COACHING works with the client's conscious mind.
    THERAPY focuses on bringing the patient's unconscious mind into awareness.

  13. COACHING focuses on creating the future.
    THERAPY seeks to heal the past.

  14. COACHING seeks to bring more power, control and joy to the client.
    THERAPY seeks to remove the client's pain.

  15. COACHING assumes a co-equal partnership between coach and client.
    THERAPY assumes the therapist to be more of the expert, and in control.

  16. COACHING has strategies and objectives.
    THERAPY has a treatment plan.

  17. COACHING asks "What is next?"
    THERAPY asks "Why"?

  18. COACHING helps clients design their lives.
    THERAPY resolves issues.

  19. COACHING takes an active, energetic approach.
    THERAPY takes a more passive, reflective, background approach.

  20. COACHING focuses on what is possible.
    THERAPY focuses on what is the problem.

  21. COACHING is goal-oriented, solution-focused and results and action-oriented.
    THERAPY mainly seeks to increase patient insight, yet some therapists are solution-focused.

  22. COACHING may also utilize feedback from bosses, peers and subordinates.
    THERAPY usually involves only the patient and therapist.

  23. COACHING takes the client from where they are and helps them move forward.
    THERAPY examines unfinished emotional business from all stages of life.

You can see that coaching essentially assumes that the client is OK, and is full of potential, whereas therapy assumes the client is "sick" or "dysfunctional" and seeks to heal them so they function "normally".

Nine Signs That You May Need A Therapist, Not A Coach

One major way to help you decide if you need a coach vs. a therapist is how you view what motivates you to engage one of these professionals. Do you mainly seek to resolve something you sense is wrong so you can become a more normally functioning person? If so, you probably need a therapist. On the other hand, if you feel OK or fine, but instead want to improve or enhance something or add capabilities and functionalities, then a coach is probably a better choice. Here are nine warning signals that tell you a therapist is more suitable for your needs at this time.

  1. You spend lots of time in each coaching session ventilating about negative emotions and stressful situations in your life.

  2. You tend to be rather emotionally brittle and easily set off.

  3. You become defensive or overly sensitive to constructive criticism.

  4. You have fears or phobias that seem extreme and resistant to change.

  5. You can't seem to make progress on your issues and keep coming back to the same themes that keep you stuck.

  6. You avoid talking about certain issues, out of fear, embarrassment or shame, or poor attentional control.

  7. Your coach expresses frustration that you won't properly do homework, follow-through or speak openly about certain issues.

  8. You believe you have depression, severe anxiety, or addiction issues.

  9. You have a strong personal reaction to your coach, negative or positive, which gets in the way of the working relationship.

I said at the outset that this article would have some striking overgeneralizations, for the purpose of illustrating the main differences between coaching and therapy. In this short article it is not ideal to characterize both professions in such stark contrast. But now I think you have a clearer picture in your mind of the ways each profession views the world, their clients, and the process and preferred outcomes of their work.

I encourage you to do more reading and thinking about these differences so you can make an informed decision about the best professional who can help you reach your goals in life.

Copyright © Bill Cole, MS, MA. All rights reserved.

Bill Cole, MS, MA, a leading authority on peak performance, mental toughness and coaching, is founder and CEO of William B. Cole Consultants, a consulting firm that helps organizations and professionals achieve more success in business, life and sports. He is also the Founder and President of the International Mental Game Coaching Association (www.mentalgamecoaching.com), an organization dedicated to advancing the research, development, professionalism and growth of mental game coaching worldwide. He is a multiple Hall-Of-Fame honoree as an athlete, coach and school alumnus, an award-winning scholar-athlete, published book author and articles author, and has coached at the highest levels of major-league pro sports, big-time college athletics and corporate America. For a free, extensive article archive, or for questions and comments visit him at www.MentalGameCoach.com.

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