The Difference between Coaching and Psychotherapy: What You Need to Know

Hello! Thanks for taking the time to read this brief article. It’s essential to see these differences to make an informed decision about which route to take.

The other day, a close friend and I looked at why some people see a psychotherapist while others look for a coach. She’s a well-known psychologist who has been practicing psychotherapy with trauma victims. Since she knows I’m an ICF Master Certified Coach (MCC) and a Ph.D. psychologist, she asked my opinion about why people chose coaching versus psychotherapy. This is what I came up with:

  • When you choose psychotherapy, you’re experiencing grief, physical or emotional trauma, depression, anxiety, or difficulty coping with an unexpected crisis. Picture the people in Lahaina, Maui, who have recently lost homes, possessions, and, most of all, relationships.  Psychotherapy can help them discover new ways of coping with a world that has gone, to put it in the voice of a recent fire victim: “totally upside-down.”
  • If you’re experiencing sadness or confusion, you might want to have someone “in charge.” Someone who can listen for the underlying issues and demonstrate that they understand what you’re saying while offering points to consider. 
  • You may need time to process your feelings, including expressions of grief such as sorrow, anger, and guilt – the natural consequences of loss or the threat of loss.
  • You might see that you and a partner need therapy to resolve patterns of behavior that get in the way of a successful and/or loving relationship. 
  • In psychotherapy, it’s not uncommon for people to see their therapist as all-knowing and wise. It’s entirely natural for this to happen. 
  • Finally, psychotherapy aims to heal the emotional effects of complex life events. This goal is accomplished through insight and understanding why certain events have significantly affected your life. 

On the other hand, coaching aims to support you to achieve your most important personal or professional goals. 

To give you a bit about how I became an ICF Master Certified Coach: I was attracted to the concept of coaching about 30 years ago when it was still in its infancy. At that time, we had voice, drama, and sports coaches. Few people knew about something called life, personal, or executive coaching.

I was curious because, as a licensed clinical psychologist, I’d been seeing what we then called “patients” for about fifteen years. At the end of a successful therapy, some asked me:

“Now that we’ve handled my doubts and fears stemming from childhood, how can I get the most out of the remainder of my life?

Can you help me with that?”

I was stymied. I hadn’t been taught how to support people to create the life they would love to live. While I tried my best, I knew a lot was missing in my professional skills. 

Then I heard about something called “coaching.” I began attending transformational seminars from well-respected seminar leaders who “coached” participants to clear away all internal stopping points to create the life they would love to live. I was hooked! I spent all available time (and funds) to attend these seminars, watching what they did to provide people with personal breakthroughs.

After trying some of the methods I’d seen, I created a particular approach to coaching. Three decades later, I have others who lead intensive seminars that train coaches in the methodology I developed over the years.  

I’ve discovered that this is why people hire a coach:

  • You have goals, dreams, or a vision for how you’d love to live.
  • Coaching gives you specific strategies for going beyond where you’ve stopped yourself in the past as you move forward.
  • Since a coach sees themselves in partnership with you, they can empower you to find your own answers. There’s no interpretation of your behavior, dream analysis, or diagnosis.
  • Instead, your coach attempts to skillfully question you in a way that supports you to observe rather than analyze your thoughts and feelings, so that you can decide whether to focus on them or shift the focus of your attention to thoughts worth thinking.
  • At the beginning of each session, your coach will ask what specific results you want to accomplish by the end of the session.  This keeps you on track as you move through the inevitable obstacles that come up whenever you bring your goals from the idea stage into physical reality.
  • You will typically have a contract that specifies the number of sessions, appointment times, fee, and cost for sessions missed without notification. Unlike typical psychotherapy, you can renegotiate the contract if you’d like to continue past the stated sessions.

A coach supports you in writing a book, opening a business, designing your next “life” after leaving or retiring from a former job, or anything else that warms your heart and nourishes your spirit.

These distinctions between psychotherapy and coaching will provide you with a guide in discovering what you need at any point in your life. In this article, I chose the word psychotherapy to cover all aspects of counseling, such as Marriage and Family Counseling (MFT) and Licensed Clinical Social work (LCSW). Sometimes, you may discover you could use therapy while seeing a coach simultaneously. What’s most important is that you see the choices available to you.

Until next time!

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