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Coaching vs Therapy

Coaching Vs Therapy: What are the differences?

While there is a lot of overlap between coaching and therapy, they are very distinct from each other in terms of their focus and what clients can get out of sessions. The main difference is therapy aims to resolve or reduce emotional and psychological distress and coaching focuses on enhancing performance. One of our psychotherapeutic counsellors, Ross Herron, discusses the differences between coaching and therapy, and the benefits of having a coach with a therapeutic background.

What clients want from coaching

Clients often seek coaching when they feel ‘stuck’ in some way. They may be stuck in a career or a life they don’t want. Or they feel they have reached a plateau and want to get to the next level, but they can’t figure out how to do it. Helping them move forward often involves going deeper. “Coaching is not just changing a lifestyle, it’s about digging deep and trying to find out what’s going with on with that client, what is blocking them, and what is stopping them from living the life they want,” says Ross.

Sometimes, clients don’t know what they want or need, particularly if they don’t fully understand the differences between coaching and therapy. That’s where having a coach with a therapeutic background can be helpful.

“I think a lot of people go for therapy when they should be going for coaching and vice versa. A lot of my coaching friends are executive coaches who don’t have a therapeutic background. They really struggle when a client starts to cry or they bring emotional content up in sessions. The line between coaching and therapy can get blurred and that’s why I think it’s really helpful to have a coach who understands where that line is,” says Ross.

Five years after completing his diploma in psychotherapeutic counselling, Ross attended university to study coaching. While he has found that adding the coaching element to his skills allows him to provide clients with practical solutions to their problems, sometimes he discovers early on that therapy is what they need.

“Understanding what someone needs at that time is really important because people want to get the right support for their issue. If I’m working with a client and we agree we are going to do coaching, then they end up requiring therapy, we pause the coaching and move into therapy. A coach without a therapeutic background wouldn’t necessarily know when to refer someone on, or who to refer them to,” adds Ross.

The differences between coaching and therapy

Coaching is always about increasing performance

One of the main differences between coaching and therapy is that the focus of coaching sessions is always on enhancing performance. Usually, someone will go for coaching when their lives are stable, things are going well, and they want to move to the next level. Even in situations where someone seeks help for a professional situation at work and there are emotions involved, emotions won’t be the focus. The focus will always be on how can coaching move them out of that situation and increase their performance. Ross likens it to the way a sports psychologist might work with a sportsperson.

“You’re going to be dealing with emotions at some point, but the focus is on how you can help the sportsperson to perform in the best way possible for them,” says Ross, “I saw a documentary recently about the snooker player Ronnie O’Sullivan. He is working with a psychologist because he has to have a good feeling when he is playing. If he doesn’t, he gets into this really negative mindset. The psychologist is helping him work on those emotional blockers and unhelpful patterns while coming up with strategies to get him out of that negative mindset.”

Coaching sessions have a more rigid structure

The first few coaching sessions are all about getting to understand the problem. Then the coach can plan and strategise. Every session is almost a mini entire coaching experience which is very much goal and process driven. With therapy, it’s possible to hold a structure but be more loose with it.

“In coaching sessions, I’ll ask the client if they have got what they needed from the session and how they know that they got what they needed. You still need to build a rapport and allow them to be heard, but if you find yourself slipping into conversation, you need to move the focus back. With therapy, it’s possible to meander around things a bit more,” says Ross.

The role of a coach is different from a therapist

One of the most fundamental differences between coaching and therapy is the role of the coach and the therapist. A therapist is there to walk alongside someone and a coach is there to help them think, plan, and strategise. Often people get stuck in patterns of behaviour which is linked to their past. While the therapist will focus on this, the coach acknowledges that but they won’t stay there. Their focus is restructuring and reframing these behaviours to improve performance.

What coaching and therapy have in common

Clients have to be engaged

For coaching or therapy to be effective, clients have to be engaged in sessions. Ross says he has seen people for coaching who have not really wanted to be there. “Sometimes people have been referred for coaching by their employer and they can see it as being remedial. They aren’t performing, so they are sent for a bit of coaching. It can occasionally be the same with counselling for occupational health. Some employees  feel they have to go through the motions to show their employer that they are doing something about the issue. That’s why it’s important to have that open dialogue from the start and ask people if they really want to be here,” says Ross. There’s then an education piece that our business team can undertake with the employer to make sure that the people who are referred are those that are keen to engage in therapy.  Fortunately, the vast majority of employers understand this, so we’re able to hit the ground running in therapy.

Coaching and therapy can be integrated

Ross uses EMDR with some coaching clients to help them overcome emotional blocks. “EMDR works well with coaching, especially when people are blocked or stuck because those feelings are often linked to past trauma,” he says. “I like to think of it like this; therapy deals with healing the past, counselling deals with present issues, and coaching solves future problems. But they all overlap in some sense.”

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