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Coaching vs. Therapy: What’s the Difference? The Ultimate Guide to Deciding Between Coaching or Therapy

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Coaching, Therapy, Decision Guide

You’re looking to improve yourself. You’re ready to feel more confident and in control of your life, and career. You’re ready to step into your full potential as a leader in your organization. And you’re looking for help dealing with the professional challenges you’re facing – from confidence to communication, and beyond.

Congratulations! That’s a big step.

To get you there, you need to find the right type of professional who can help you on your journey. So you might find yourself wondering, “Do I need a coach or a therapist?”

I’ve worked both as a coach and a therapist, and know the strengths and weaknesses of both disciplines. This guide will help you figure out which one is right for you.

Coaching vs. Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy (“talk therapy”) or counseling is an effective means of diagnosing and treating psychological disorders. A disorder is any ongoing, unmanaged mental health problem that causes you significant distress and compromises your daily functioning at work, life, or in your relationships. Psychotherapy tends to focus on healing issues related to childhood and your family of origin, as well as addressing trauma.

Coaching, on the other hand, is for individuals who are mentally healthy and fully functioning. It’s not focused on pathologizing but instead is designed to increase your level of performance through goal-setting and problem-solving. Coaching, while grounded in evidence-based psychology and human behavior methods is more focused on helping you optimize your potential by identifying blind spots, filling skill gaps, and moving past internal or external roadblocks.

The International Coach Federation (ICF) use this analogy:

“A coach is like an athletic trainer while a therapist is like a medical doctor specializing in sports medicine. Both draw from a shared body of knowledge that includes anatomy, kinesiology, nutrition, and the like. The trainer works from the assumption that the athlete is essentially sound in body and is focused on improving fitness and performance. The trainer will refer the athlete to the team doctor if there is reason to believe he or she has an injury. Similarly, coaches and therapists work with the same material but with different skill sets and to different ends.”

5 Differences Between Coaching vs. Psychotherapy

A major misconception about coaching is that it’s psychotherapy in disguise. In reality, coaching is distinct from therapy in a few key ways.

1. Coaching is concerned with the future

The underlying philosophy of coaching is that you are already whole and you already have everything you need to succeed. You may just need help getting out of your own way. That’s why my job as a coach is to ask you powerful questions and serve as a sounding board to guide you towards your own inner resources.

Coaching primarily focuses on the present and moving into the future whereas therapy emphasizes and dwells on the past. As a coach, I do explore my client’s background, but only so far as it’s in service of understanding how it influences their current beliefs and actions and promotes their growth.

2. Coaching is focused on action-taking 

A good coach will help you create a vision for what is possible and will work with you to formulate a plan to get there. This isn’t true for therapy. While a therapist may set treatment goals, your sessions will be focused on reflection, healing and understanding emotional pain. At most you can expect some interesting insights, but don’t expect too many actionable takeaways.

Coaching, however, gives you practical, real-world solutions. It helps you develop a new level of self-awareness but also bridges the gap to answer the question, “Okay, now what do I do about it now?!”. I ensure my clients walk away from each session with tangible steps and concrete tools, tactics, and strategies to implement.

3. Coaching is specialized

If you’re looking for help to grow as a leader, seek out a coach. Therapists do not have training in professional- or career- development matters. A skilled executive or leadership coach can help you address the challenges of leading a team or growing a company (including confidence, presence, influence, interpersonal skills, team effectiveness, time management, and much more).

You’ll want to look for a coach who has credentials and experience working with someone like you. For example, this is why I specifically serve leaders who considered themselves to be sensitive high-achievers, or who I call Sensitive Strivers.

4. Coaching is time-limited 

Research shows that therapy typically takes 20 sessions to begin working for 50% of people. Many people stay in psychotherapy for years.

Coaching tends to get results much faster because it’s more intentional, purposeful, and directive. Some of my clients even say that they see an immediate transformation after the first session. My average coaching relationship is 6 to 9 month, which is typical according to the ICF.

5. Coaching comes with partnership and accountability

By training, therapists often keep their distance. Most therapists rarely offer support outside of the counseling session, while a coach is “in it” with you. For example, I offer my clients:

  • Email access in between sessions for additional accountability and support
  • Proactive check-ins to assess their progress 
  • Document review and extensive feedback on outlines for difficult conversations, performance reviews, project plans and more 

Should I Get a Therapist or a Coach?

That answer is personal for everyone, but here are some guidelines to help you decide what’s best for you:

Psychotherapy is best if…

  • You are interested in healing issues from childhood 
  • You have experienced trauma
  • You have a diagnosable mental health condition such as depression, anxiety, or ADHD 
  • You are primarily looking for insight, understanding, or resolution of pervasive emotional issues 

Coaching is best if…

  • You are high-functioning and basically healthy
  • You want to focus on goals and results
  • You want to address leadership, management, or other professional challenges
  • You value accountability and hands-on support

Can You Do Therapy and Coaching At The Same Time?

Yes! In fact, I recommend it if time and resources allow. Coaching and psychotherapy serve different purposes, but are highly complementary.

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Hi, I'm Melody

I help smart, sensitive high-achievers overcome insecurity and overwhelm so they can thrive in the workplace.

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