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What is coaching and how is it different from therapy?

I recently embarked on a new journey toward becoming a Chartered Coaching Psychologist. Coaching psychology is a relatively new and exciting field. As I begin to unearth more about this fascinating topic, I want to share some of the key differences between coaching and therapy.

So, what is the major difference between coaching and therapy? And how does it differ from mentoring?

A mentor has specific skills and expertise which help mentees to grow and develop through advice, teaching and guidance. Coaching, like therapy, enables people to fulfil their potential by encouraging self-exploration and increasing awareness. However, coaching focuses on present and future goals and tends to be goal driven – the aim is to reach desirable outcomes through action plans. A good coach refrains from giving advice and works on the premise that people are their own best experts. Thus, the coach’s role is facilitative in the context of working with an individual or a system.

In contrast, a client tends to seek therapy because a therapist is an expert. Therapy can focus on the here and now but often explores the past in order to understand the present. Therapy tends to focus primarily on helping clients who present with diagnosed mental health problems, such as clinical depression.

Like therapy, coaching can be used to address a range of issues such as self-awareness, identity, work-related stress, communication, relationships, improving performance, health and wellbeing, transitions etc.

Both coaches and therapists use psychological theory, psychological models and empirical evidence to inform their approach. However, clients coming to therapy usually present with significant distress that is impacting their lives, whereas coaching is for people who may experience mild distress but are functioning well in their everyday life.

So, for example, a client coming to therapy might experience depressive symptoms and insomnia following divorce. They have been signed off work due to struggling with performing their duties. Conversely, a client coming to coaching may like to work on transitions following their divorce and adjustment. This client might have sadness associated with their loss and be worried about the future, but he/she is not experiencing significant distress or fulfilling diagnostic criteria for clinical depression.

One of the observations I have made is that there seems to be a difference in perception between coaching and therapy. Coaching undoubtedly carries less stigma compared to therapy, which is interesting because they both essentially entail asking for help. However, the meaning behind the request for help is different. Coming to therapy is often perceived as ‘not coping,’ and thus having negative connotations, whilst coaching is perceived as ‘wanting to improve self’, which has positive connotations. In addition, coaching is linked to striving and flourishing as an individual or an organisation, whereas therapy is perceived as ‘more serious’, often uncovering hidden emotional wounds and working with powerful defences. It does, of course, depend on the type of therapy you are seeking, as well as your therapist’s theoretical orientation and approach.

I would like to emphasise that coaching is not yet a regulated profession and therefore it might be helpful for you to be aware of the following:

  • Does a coach belong to a professional body such as Association for Coaching or International Society for Coaching Psychology?

  • Is your coach accredited and do they receive regular supervision?

  • Have they done any particular training that is accredited by the professional body?

  • And finally, do they offer a free chemistry session (usually a 15 or 30 minute meeting). In the chemistry session, you have an opportunity to ask questions and ascertain whether you think you would be able to work well with your chosen coach.

I remain excited at the prospect of learning more about this great topic. If you, or someone you know, is interested in exploring coaching, and you are not sure what approach would be more helpful for you, I would be happy to book a free 30 minute consultation for us to explore. I would also like to suggest a great podcast: “What should I look for in a coach? The Coaching Psychology Pod”, this podcast is available on Spotify and Apple podcasts.

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