What’s The Difference Between Therapy & Coaching? How To Find The Best Support For You

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What’s The Difference Between Therapy & Coaching? How To Find The Best Support For You

Coaching versus therapy: What's the best source of support for you? There are so many options but so little clarity on either one of these.

If you need mental or emotional support related to a personal or professional issue and you’re thinking about contacting a therapist or a coach, you’ll want to know the difference between them so you can make the best-informed decision.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of inconsistency.

RELATED: 5 Life-Changing Ways Having A Life Coach Is Different Than Having A Therapist

The information available on the internet from experts, organizations, and mental-health institutions are often incomplete and sometimes just wrong.

How do you wade through it all and get some clarity?

Here are 3 things you need to pay attention to when deciding between a life coach and a therapist.

1. Types of therapists and coaches.

When it comes to therapists, you’ll find plenty of variety. Some offer overlapping and often competing services — many who call themselves therapists.

You’ll also find psychiatrists, psychologists, psychotherapists, social workers, and counselors who may or may not self-identify as therapists. However, in most states require a license to use the designation of "therapist."

There are many types of coaches with varying types and levels of expertise, as well — inlcuding life, fitness, health, leadership, professional, career, and spiritual coaches. 

Life coaches generally more closely resemble therapists, provide many of the same services, and can often compete for a therapists’ clients. This is why it's sometimes a good idea to start with coaches.

What’s probably immediately obvious here is that service options are numerous and confusing. This only exacerbates the stress you may experience if you’re feeling insufficiently self-resourced and in need of help.

2. Differences in regulations and laws.


Of the professionals listed above, only those who are licensed by the state where they practice can call themselves therapists, psychotherapists, or social workers. By law, only psychiatrists can prescribe medication.

Therapists have an advanced degree — a Master's or Doctorate — typically in psychology and social work, respectively, and they are required to complete a supervised case-working practicum.

Without the fulfillment of the latter requirement, psychologists and psychiatrists cannot counsel clients or patients. 

In addition to the above training, social workers receive specialized training in how socio-economic factors contribute to their clients' circumstances and options, as well as how to help clients access mental-health services and institutions.

Therapists are usually concerned about the client’s relationship to self, loved ones, co-workers, friends, and society.

Similarly, counselors — especially health counselors — are licensed in most states. They generally hold the professional title "counselor," not "therapist."

Still, some unlicensed individuals use the title "counselor." You can always ask if a prospective counselor is licensed and what type of license they possess.

Logically, licensing requirements vary greatly across the different areas of specialization. These requirements and even titles will vary from state to state.

For example, a priest may not need much additional training to become a licensed counselor to provide spiritual, marital or other forms of guidance to his parishioners.

On the other hand, health counselors and social workers can have very similar education and training and often compete for the same clients.

Much like coaches, counselors tend to specialize in a service area: health, grief, weight loss, financial, or addiction.

It is not uncommon to find either working for — or in tandem with — a health provider, such as a hospital, clinic, public agency, or institution.

Furthermore, therapists may be trained in a specialization such as grief counseling and provide this service under either professional title, provided they have the appropriate license.

Coaches: Coaches are not regulated by a state or national entity and they have no nationally recognized licensing, registration or certification requirements and process.

The International Coach Federation (ICF) does certify individual coaches and some affiliated coaching schools, but it is not a recognized regulatory agent for the US or international field of coaching.

Coaches can and often are certified by the institutes that trained them.


Licensed service providers — therapists and counselors — are inclined to be covered by your insurance policy.

However, don’t assume this to be true. Look into it and make sure to review the fine print concerning under what circumstances you’ll be granted coverage and how much coverage you have.

This will give you an idea of how many sessions are permitted.


Licensed therapists and counselors are restricted to work only with clients who are physically located in the state and sometimes county where the license was issued.

While some therapists conduct sessions over the phone and via the internet, most continue to follow a more traditional in-person approach.

Being subject to state laws complicates and even prohibits access to clients outside their immediate jurisdiction in many cases.

In contrast, coaches often offer virtual sessions online or via telephone in addition to in-person sessions. In fact, the clientele of some coaches is nearly 100 percent virtual.

This gives the coach the option to serve clients all over the world. It also offers an attractive option to those clients who are unable to or are significantly inconvenienced by the commute to their practitioner’s office.

For some clients, the distance or physical separation affords them more anonymity, privacy, safety, independence, and ultimately control.


Therapists are required to keep notes or record their sessions. Many counselors and coaches also take notes and make recordings of sessions.

By law, therapists and counselors are required to protect their clients' written or recorded records. Licensing jurisdictions typically require that such records be kept under lock and key.

Furthering client confidentiality are national and state laws that protect "doctor-client" privileges, which are extended to licensed mental-health practitioners.

Coaches, on the other hand, are not subject to these regulations. However, they will typically adhere to a very similar code of ethics prescribed by licensing authorities.

RELATED: Why Seeking Therapy Isn't A Sign Of Weakness — It's A Sign Of Strength

3. Differences in service approaches.

It’s surprising how many stereotypes and opinions there are about what therapists and coaches do.

In fact — and in the interest of full disclosure — what is presented here is actually my opinion based on my practice, experience, and reading. Hopefully, it orients you to a few good questions to ask when searching for the practitioner who’s right for you.


The clients of coaches are referred to as "normal," meaning functioning at their full potential. Those who are temporarily or chronically compromised or dysfunctional will be customarily and appropriately referred to therapists.

Coaches don’t diagnose. In fact, they don’t need a diagnosis to initiate their work with clients because their coaching is not seen to be a treatment process.

Meanwhile, therapists start with a diagnosis, which some critics say pathologizes their clients.


Therapists, counselors, and coaches working with clients on mental and emotional issues aim to create a safe, objective, and supportive space.

How they do that can differ considerably. Therapists typically establish a hierarchical relationship with their patents and clients — they are the experts, they diagnose the problem, and they define the treatment plan.

In contrast, coaches meet their clients as peers and work alongside them encouraging and facilitating the clients’ own discovery of solutions and direction.

In fact, clients of coaches typically identify or sometimes receive homework to encourage them to independently take steps in an empowered way. Although less common, some therapists give homework as well.

Focus on the past or future

Coaches work with clients on their outlook, behaviors, goals, and blocks. They aim to support and facilitate change, transformation, and moving forward.

The past is relevant only in so much as the client wants to talk about it or explore its connection to the issue they seek to resolve.

Some people go so far as to claim that coaches are strictly future-oriented, but this is not the case.

Although the approaches of therapists vary greatly and many of them work directly on future goals, it is more often the realm of the psychotherapist to dig into a client’s past with an aim to identify root causes of the diagnosed or stated illness, problem, or dysfunction in order to alleviate or cure it.

Duration of relationship

Another common falsehood about coaching is that it is short-term and strictly goal-oriented.

While it is true that most coaches offer a package or a variety of packages comprised of a given number of sessions, many relationships extend over a year or more.

Generally, sessions are regularly scheduled but they can be intermittent as well.

In contrast, therapists will usually establish regular (typically weekly) sessions and the duration of the relationship is open-ended.

Giving advice

Psychotherapists and social workers are trained not to give direct advice. Some will cautiously offer advice in certain circumstances with certain clients (i.e., crisis situations).

Social workers often help clients solve practical problems through the identification resources and options but decisions are left to the client. A counselor may give advice depending on their specialization.

Similarly, most coaches do not advise, but it can depend on their specialization as well.

Tools and techniques

It’s very difficult to compare and contrast tools and techniques because there is a great deal of overlap.

In addition, an increasing number of therapists are adopting techniques more commonly and traditionally associated with coaches, thus blurring the distinctions between the two fields a bit more.

One of the more popular psychotherapy approaches that are most similar to coaching is Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) where therapists help their clients change thought patterns, emotional reactions, or reactivity and alter undesirable behaviors.

Some therapists claim that their work is more internal than that of coaches. Actually, many coaches work with the emotions and are skilled in techniques that tap into the body and subconscious.

In truth, the fields of practice are so diverse that generalizations aren’t very helpful or accurate.

To find the right support for you, take these 4 discovery steps.

1. Decide if you need help.

First and foremost, decide whether you need help with a diagnosable condition or whether you are interested in a diagnosis.

In either of these cases, consider a therapist.

2. Assess your issues.

Take a moment to assess whether you want to dig deep into a long-term personal issue and determine the underlying causes.

If yes, consider a therapist and verify any prospective practitioner who offers this type of service or approach.

If no, expand your search to include a counselor or coach.

3. Reflect on the problem.

Take another moment to reflect on whether you want to address a problem or intention oriented toward the future and moving forward.

If you do, again, consider a counselor or a coach. Some therapists could also be considered, depending on their approach and focus.

Look closely at each potential practitioner’s approach and techniques to see if they will support your goals.

4. Consider what type of relationship will work for you.

Do you need co-creation with a resourceful and supportive peer (coach), guidance from a well-informed source (counselor), or loosening the reins, and embracing an expert’s process (therapist)?

Whether you decide to see a therapist or coach, know as much as you can about whoever is on your shortlist.

Make sure that their training, specialization, and experience reflects who you are and what you need. If you know where a practitioner was trained, visit the school’s website and take a look at how they describe their approach and program.

Check out your prospective practitioner’s “about me” page to see if they have any additional training. Accumulating skills is a common strategy to better tailor services to specific client needs. Sometimes, it’s these extras that will resonate most with you and really make a difference. Do your research!

Once you’ve done your research, call and talk to each prospective practitioner. State your intentions and ask how they can support you. Ask questions, listen closely and pay attention to how you feel.

So in the question of coaching versus therapy, what type of approach appeals to you? What is it you want? This is the key!

RELATED: When It's OK To Take The Reins During A Counseling Session (& When To Let Your Therapist Know What's Not Working For You)

Patricia Bonnard, PhD, ACC is a certified International Coaching Federation (ICF) Leadership Coach and a certified Martha Beck Life Coach. For more information, visit her website.

This article was originally published at Reprinted with permission from the author.