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What's the Difference Between a Therapist and a Coach?

Updated: Dec 21, 2020

Is it just me or does it feel like there are ads for coaching everywhere lately?

Do you ever wonder what the difference is between therapy and coaching?

This is a hot button topic in my field, and I’m going to try and treat it as honestly and even-handedly as I can.

Full disclosure: I am a licensed psychotherapist, not a coach, so definite professional bias there.

I also believe it’s possible to be both a therapist and a coach, which is becoming increasingly common, although not usually for one client at the same time. There are times where I refer to and collaborate with coaches, for specific people and instances.

The distinctions I describe in this post are based on US terminology.

Now: The definitional difference between a therapist and a coach basically comes down to training.

A (legal) therapist is someone who has gone to an accredited university, and earned at least a masters degree, and in many cases a doctorate, in one of the courses of study that teaches mental health for the purpose of practice, most commonly: psychology, psychiatry, social work, mental health counseling, and marriage and family therapy.

After earning the degree, we then needed to further qualify with hours practiced in the field under supervision, and a licensure exam, including training in ethical standards. We are also required to keep up with ongoing research by regularly earning CE (continuing education) credits.

These educational and experiential qualifications are there to be sure that someone who is identifying as a therapist has achieved a certain level of training, knowledge, and practice. The curricula of these academic programs are based on research and evidence-based scrutiny and literature.

This does not guarantee talent, intelligence, character, or effectiveness- it only proves that we fulfilled academic and professional prerequisites. In many states, there is a legislative body, an office of the professions, that establishes regulations and accountability to promote ethical and competent practice.

A coach, on the other hand, does not have specific, objective, or legislated standards of education, experience, or accountability. There are some organizations and certifications that offer training and titling, but they are private, independent, and subjective.

Some coaches have spent years training under other successful coaches and/ or acquiring practical knowledge, and others who may have just taken a six month course, or read some books. To my knowledge, there is no legal requirement necessary in order to call yourself a coach. Some might say this is unscrupulous but I don’t see it that way. In a free market, a person can say: “I’ll try and help you out for x dollars an hour, or per group call,” and it’s the consumer’s job to do the research to see if the service provider is a worthwhile investment. No individual or industry has a monopoly on helping or consulting.

Because there is a clinical, diagnostic element to therapy, it’s sometimes covered by insurance to some extent, and mental health resources are often offered publicly. Coaching is not.

Some coaches like to say:

“Therapists focus on problems; coaches focus on solutions.”

That sounds cute and convincing. But it’s not really accurate. Well, most of the time.

Therapists are trained to assess, diagnose, and develop a treatment plan to achieve therapeutic goals, while coaches tend to focus on immediate behavioral steps and goals. But the fact that therapists understand pathology and standard of care, doesn’t mean we are less focused on outcomes. There are hundreds of different modalities of therapy. Some deal with the past more than others, and some clients want to deal with the past more than others. But many therapists will focus on future goals, either because that’s their approach or because that’s the client’s wish. There is actually a therapeutic approach called: Solution-Focused Therapy.

There are some very talented, inspiring coaches, who have been known to help their clients overcome obstacles and achieve great things. There are some mediocre coaches, who preach formulaic platitudes and cliches pulled off the internet. There are also some unscrupulous coaches, who promote themselves as clinicians, or make grandiose promises of false hope with little ability to produce.

Likewise: there are some very talented and effective therapists, who have been known to help clients overcome obstacles and achieve great things. There are some mediocre therapists, who got through the schooling but don’t understand their clients’ needs well enough to be effective. There are also some unscrupulous therapists, who practice unethically or incompetently, to the detriment of their clients.

Both therapists and coaches offer services at a wide range of price points. Therapists can be covered or supplemented by some insurances while coaching is not. But both can be quite affordable, moderately priced, and astronomically expensive, as private services. Again: it’s up to the client/ consumer to research and determine compatibility.

For clinical issues and disorders, the standard of care is psychotherapy from a licensed practitioner. That does not guarantee that it will definitely work with any given clinician; just that it’s the starting point of eligibility. It also doesn’t mean that someone won’t feel helped by a coach; just that there is no background or data to indicate efficacy of their services.

(“Healers” fall into the same professional category as coaches, when contrasted with therapists. They may be very charismatic, talented, helpful, or completely useless- there’s little way to know, so clientele generally relies on reputation and anecdotal references.)

Coaching can be great for inspiration, motivation, and accountability. It can be a useful service for someone who is not seeking treatment for a clinical pathology, and who would like advice, information, or consulting in a particular area of practical experience.

A business coach, for example, can be a valuable guide when a new entrepreneur wants mentorship from someone more established in the field.

A health coach can be terrific for someone who wants to safely train for a triathlon.

A dating coach can offer support and practical advice to a stable, otherwise capable individual navigating the protocols, propriety, and etiquette of dating. (As an example: You might text your dating coach asking for a quick vote on which outfit to wear or which restaurant to choose; you probably wouldn’t do that with a therapist.)

Even general life coaching can be helpful to someone who wants support while learning or strengthening skills like productivity, time management, habit building, or professional growth. Therapists can help with these pursuits as well, but these are specific contexts where coaching could be helpful.

Another important distinction is that the coaching industry is built on a business model, while therapy is generally considered a clinical service, more comparable to health care. This means that coaching is often offered as a luxury service, with packages, bonuses, and online community networking, while therapy is often viewed as a mental health necessity, with confidentiality, professional boundaries, and focus on the individual case treatment rather than template approach. Both coaches and therapists sometimes expand their work by writing, lecturing, podcasting or offering online programs.

Bottom line is: there are wonderful coaches and awful ones, wonderful therapists and awful ones, and everything in between for both. Therapists have more mandatory training and legal recourse than coaches, but that doesn’t guarantee anything beyond that.

When seeking help, do you due diligence, to be sure you’re comfortable with the professional you select. Regardless of credentials or reputation, trust your own gut too- if you don’t like the feel you get from someone, you’re entitled to switch or opt out. In the end, you are the client and the service is there to meet your needs.

If you’re working with a helping professional or considering it, you might find this helpful

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