Coaching vs Therapy: What's the Right Modality For Me?

On a recent consultation call with a potential client, I was asked to describe the difference between coaching and therapy. The client, an artist in her early 30s, struggles with anxiety and had been in therapy at various intervals over the past 10 years in an effort to alleviate her symptoms. She described her frustration on our call, saying therapy had armed her with information as to why she experiences anxiety, but not how to turn this knowledge into action. She longed to embody her hard-earned self-awareness, and create reliable results she could measure and feel. Could coaching help? How is coaching different from therapy?

I believe coaching and therapy diverge in three fundamental ways: 1) the provider’s scope of knowledge, 2) the structure of the client/provider relationship, and 3) the degree of focus on the client’s past, present and future.

In the therapeutic model, clients are under the care of a licensed therapist, trained to diagnose and treat mental illness, trauma, depression, anxiety disorders, and other mental health issues that may be seriously impacting the client’s life. Typically, therapy is client-directed. The therapist serves a predominantly analytical role during sessions, noting ways their client’s life history informs their current mental health picture.

Coaches are trained to help clients achieve objectives like defining personal values and life direction, improving relationships, and shoring up skills such as leadership, resilience, and the avoidance of thinking traps. Coaches partner actively with clients, helping them articulate goals and identify obstacles, bridging the gap between the client’s present moment and envisioned future. The coach also holds the client accountable to their desired outcomes, offering informed assessments when appropriate. Depending on objectives and client commitment, the coaching engagement can be shorter in duration than therapy, or be called upon during moments of particular challenge, stasis, or transition.

In my practice, I work with several clients who are simultaneously engaged in therapy and coaching. This is extremely beneficial, as the two modalities dovetail beautifully, provided the client is clear as to the scope of both and the role of each provider. In these cases, it’s important for the coach and therapist to be in communication regarding the client’s progress, especially if trauma or mental health issues are present. This scenario also illuminates the differences between the two, as it relates to training, licensure, and regulations concerning client privacy. Unlike therapy, coaching is not usually covered by health insurance, nor is it required by law to be HIPPA compliant—although coaches can choose to adopt HIPAA-compliant policies as a way of demonstrating dedication to PHI security, as I do in my own practice.

Finally, while therapists are licensed by a state governing board, most coaches are certified by an Accredited Coach Training Program (ACTP). Each program may have a unique methodology or area of specialization–for example, I’m trained as a somatic coach–but all accredited programs must meet the standards set by the International Coach Federation (ICF), the governing board of professional coaching and coaching certification programs. Upon completing an ACTP program, coaches can elect to earn personal ICF certification, a designation which ensures the coach is adhering to best practices, and has logged a commensurate number of coaching hours.

Now that you understand the differences, what’s the best modality for you to pursue right now? For those deciding between the two, ask yourself whether you agree with these statements:

I have:

  • Insight into my goals and challenges

  • Interest in actively partnering with someone to help support my growth

  • Willingness to dedicate myself to practice in between sessions

  • Desire to take action and move toward an envisioned future

  • Desire to do more than review past issues

  • No current evidence of debilitating depression, anxiety, trauma, or psychiatric disorders

  • No current substance abuse disorders, or behavioral addictions

  • No current destructive impulses, including suicidality, self-harm, or homicidality

    If you identify with most of the statements above, coaching could be a great fit, and I’d encourage you to set up a consultation to talk further about your needs.

Did I get to the heart of the coaching/therapy dichotomy? Did I miss something? Be sure to comment, and let me know if you’ve engaged in one or both! I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions about the ways in which therapy and coaching contrast–or overlap.