Coaching vs. Therapy: When does coaching cross the line?

coaching-vs-therapy1Coaching is a relatively new field and is undergoing an identity crisis as it seeks to define itself within the broad field of workplace learning, consulting, human resource management, career development and in many cases, psychotherapy.

One essential question that is often asked by those seeking coaching services or initiating a coaching practice is how does coaching differ from therapy?  Here is my take on the difference:

Coaching:  typically involves a short term relationship focused on performance improvement.  Appropriate clients are those who have achieved a certain level of success and are seeking to move forward by improving their skills, relationships, or knowledge.

Therapy:  According to the APA, therapy refers to treatment for psychological problems. Therapists and clients work together to understand problems and come up with plans for fixing them. The focus is generally on changing ineffective thoughts, emotions or behaviors.

What do you think of the definitions?  Can you add to them or provide examples of when coaching or therapy is the correct choice? How should coaches deal with this issue in their practice and when should they make a referral to a licensed psychologist?

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10 comments

  • I believe the definition for Coaching is very in line with the field’s purpose, however I am not sure the definition of Therapy is on point and may be misinterpreted as not concerning itself with the diverse types of therapy that professionals provide. In other words, the (Therapy) definition may be misconstrued coming from a negative outlook for categorizing the individual’s emotions, behaviors and thoughts as “ineffective”. A licensed therapist may find the definition contradictory to APA standards or this type of mindset harmful to the individual seeking help if the behavior is the only focus of the therapy and not the internal or external factors which lead to its occurrence.

    As per the definitions I think the choice between an individual choosing Coaching, or a type (approach) of Psychotherapy would be based on the outcome that the individual needs to achieve. Is the individual successful at work and is merely trying to extend that success further or into other fields? If so, I would recommend seeking a Coach to further those line of achievements. However if the individual is having issues with completing simple tasks at work or home, they have prolonged feelings of sadness or depression or even abusing illegal substances then I would recommend a licensed psychotherapist that can properly assist that individual.

    Enlisting a Coach or Therapist in the manner that is not prescribed can have a negative impact on the individual’s road to recovery or success. If a Coach was to meet an individual who exhibits some of the external signs I mentioned (depression, drug abuse) then it would be prudent to recommend a licensed psychologist to either the individual or their family and friends.

  • I think the definitions presented of coaching and therapy is very accurate. An example of coaching I can think of is an individual who is looking to increase the success in their career. An example of when therapy would be appropriate is when an individual is having feelings of sadness, depression or experienced a traumatic situation. This individual would be best working with a therapist to work thru those feelings and determine if medication should be incorporated into their treatment. I think coaches need to be able to identify the difference between helping a client work on developing their best self and when that client needs therapeutic help with a psychologist (thoughts of suicide, depression, etc).

  • Therapy frequently focuses on the past and generally assumes the client has a problem that needs solving; coaching focuses on the future and assumes the client is whole and has the innate wisdom and tools to have a wonderful life. I think the lines become blurred when coaches attempt to go into a client’s past and try to figure out why a person is behaving the way they are, and medically diagnose the client.

  • I was pleased to see this post. As we were progressing through our class in Executive Coaching, I began to ponder the possible overlaps I was seeing between coaching and therapy. My background in Psychology gives me a natural inclination to see the similarities but also the critical difference and I think those were well pointed out in this article. I wonder then, is there benefit to having a coach that is also a trained therapist? Might this cause some conflict of interest or even ethical dilemmas? I think a potential benefit of having skills in both is having the mechanism of knowing when it is time for a coachee to seek behavioral health counseling. I’m not sure if it is the coach’s place to be acting as a therapist or even commenting on their coachee’s mental health. They should be more singularly focused on improving skills relating to work performance especially because it is usually a short-term service in a sense. Therapy can be much more complex and illusive and is usually a long-term process. I think to a large degree we can all benefit from a combination of therapy and coaching. Yet coaching’s application is more limited in its scope to those whom have already achieved a level of success.

  • This is a very important issue to address! I agree that coaching is used to increase performance. It usually involves people who are already successful at a certain role and need help in other areas to make them more polished or ready for a new role.

    Therapy, on the other hand, usually addresses some sort of negative experience or poor performance.

    I think that in my role as a sports coach, I have to serve as both a traditional coach (aiming to help improve performance) and a “therapist” (addressing identified problems that could potentially derail the overall well being and/or performance). The skills of both overlap, but are drastically different at the same time.

  • There is an important difference between coaching and therapy. Both endeavors have a shared goal of working towards positive outcomes. However, the expertise required for each is unique as they are dealing with different aspects of human behavior and have very different journeys towards overarching goals.

    In terms of the definitions provided, I don’t like the framework of therapy treating “psychological problems” as this type of support isn’t always about problems. People engage in therapy to improve their lives, not simply to deal with issues. Some people engage in maintenance therapy because it’s a wise investment in their health and well being. In terms of coaching, the definition states that “appropriate” clients have already achieved a certain amount of success. I also think this framework is limiting. Some coaches work with people who lack very basic skills and exposure to professional environments. Not all coaches require certain benchmarks are hit before taking on clients.

    When a coach starts to feel as though the territory they are entering would be better suited for a therapist, it is in their clients, and their own best interest to recommend a shift in their engagement. Doing so will be important for the longterm progress the initial engagement set out to achieve.

  • This is also of great interest to me.

    The need to differentiate between therapy and coaching in how we describe and execute our work is essential. I appreciate Cavanagh’s description of therapy vs. coaching. Therapy “seeks to comfort the afflicted” whereas coaching seeks to “afflict the comfortable.”

    As a coach this resonates with me as the professional work being done together is about disrupting habits or patterns that have not proven useful in work (or life!). I am drawn to conversations and coaching that can facilitate new awareness and change in habitual routines of thought.

    I also think the short-term professional problem/challenge/need focus of coaching is important. Yes, as we explore the professional needs brought to coaching there may well be some times when we need to refer out to a mental health provider; a well thought out and clear contract for coaching will delineate the how and when of that referral process and I would discuss it openly and honestly with a coaching client.

    Simply enough, I would say something like “this is proving to be a bigger and deeper issue/barrier than what I can work with you to address. As we agreed on in the beginning of our coaching work, we agreed to focus on shifts in your workplace awareness, behaviors and skills, this seems to have roots in some bigger patterns in your past that a mental health provider could help you untangle and work on more effectively. We can continue with coaching in tandem with this if you would like.”

  • Greetings,
    I agree that coaching is focusing on the actions associated with the future and improving your performance and capabilities and therapy is focusing on the past and how to deal with the issues of the past. There is a very fine line between coaching and therapy. In my impressions it is because many coaching models are derived from theories used in counseling or therapy. On the surface they appear to be interchangeable. In my opinion, counseling looks to the past and tries to heal those wounds and coaching looks to the future to improve future outcomes. When it is clear that the past needs to be the focus, I would recommend that the client be referred to a licensed psychologist.

  • I would add time to the element of timeframe. Therapy’s problems would often be focused in the past and Coaching would be enabling future performance. This would provide a guide on when you might recommend a client choose an alternate form of engagement.

  • This is a topic that really interests me. The primary goal of coaching is to help the client see things from a different perspective that allows them to move forward toward making necessary adjustments in behaviors to improve an outcome. It seems to me that there is little difference between coaching and therapy up to this point. The primary differences are the scope, duration of the engagement, and possibly treatment for physical issues that may be driving faulty thinking. Therapy may also include clinical diagnosis of potentially treatable psychological illness that may require medication.

    Knowing when the line is being crossed is important. Therapists are licensed for a reason. That does not mean that there are not coaches out there that would be a better therapist. Or conversely, that some licensed therapists out there might be better suited to limiting themselves to coaching.

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