Have you ever wondered what the difference is between counseling and coaching? If you said yes, you’re certainly not alone! There is so much cross-over between these two helping fields, in fact, that if you ask 20 different counselors and coaches, you’ll likely get 50 different answers! Many say that counseling focuses on the past, while coaching focuses on the future.  Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. Both industries have a wide range of approaches, which vary by the individual as well as the industry!

First, let’s look at how they’re similar. Both fields help people improve their quality of life, and work with a combination of the client’s thoughts, feelings, actions and results. While some counselors are future-focused and use positive psychology as a means of moving the client forward, coaching should never be rooted in the past.  There may be times a coach helps a client see how their past has affected them, this is typically a brief part of coaching and used for the purpose of moving the client to the future they are wanting to create.

Consider the support any professional athlete will have over the course of his (or her!) career. The role of his coach helps him “up his game” by offering a perspective from the sidelines that the player can’t see from the field.  He’ll offer tools and exercises that will also help improve his game. There will be times though, where a coach will blow the whistle and call in medical professionals. That coach knows that a player can cause harm if playing on an injury, and also won’t be able to apply the coach’s tools until the injury is healed.

My job as a certified life coach is much the same. I help people who are functioning in their life to take their life to a new level-through tools, questions and mindset work so they can create change in their life, reach goals, and better understand how to maximize their thinking to impact the results in their life.

If you’re trying to choose between coach or counselor, these “Red flags” (although not an exhaustive list) reflect that counseling is the way to go:

  • Unable to function/meet basic needs (Eating, sleeping, getting/keeping a job, performing parental duties, etc.)
  • Thoughts of suicide, or harming self or others
  • Active abuse, crisis, or trauma
  • Trouble regulating your emotions~ they’re interfering with your every-day life
  • Unprocessed trauma or feeling “stuck” in the past
  • Addictions/Substance abuse/Disordered eating
  • Bizarre thought patterns/hallucinations/delusions

Coaching, on the other hand, is better suited for those who are doing well mentally, but are ready and wanting to function at their highest level, or reach specific (non-therapeutic) goals.

  • Start your own buisness
  • Increase your income
  • Improved time mangement
  • Increase your confidence
  • Increase productivity

Medical Insurance

Coaching is not billable to insurance. However, it should be noted that the things you would see a coach for would also not be covered by insurance even if the work were being done with a counselor, as insurance companies require that a diagnosis be given in order to reimburse for services, and also require that the treatment be medically necessary.

Regulated Industry

An important difference to note between these sister-industries is their age and governing bodies. Counseling began in the 1800s with the famous Sigmund Freud. It’s a regulated industry, meaning that counselors are required to be licensed by the state they reside in, can only counsel those who live in that state, and must follow all laws and regulating bodies. This includes completing an extensive masters degree program as well as ongoing continuing education in the field.

Coaching, on the other hand, has only existed for approximately 30 years, (growing in the last 10) and is not a regulated industry.  This means that literally anyone can call themselves a life coach. It is for this reason that I say “not all coaches are created alike.”  I encourage clients to do their homework to understand what qualifies someone before partnering with them.

A good fit is necessary for results!

With both of these fields, it’s imperative that the client feels comfortable with the service provider, and is able to vulnerable & open about their current situation and experiences. As stated earlier, there are no “clear-cut” definitions for counseling or coaching, so the person’s theory and approach will have a large bearing on outcomes.  Some counselors have a “coaching edge” and some coaches (like myself) are also licensed counselors.

What can heal can also delay growth

While the following is yet another generalized difference between coach and counselor,  it’s worth assessing when selecting who you’ll work with. Counselors are heavily trained in skills which reflect validation and empathy.  While this is certainly helpful for many clients (especially those with a trauma history), it can be a barrier for those who are functioning and trying to get to the next “level”.

This may come as a surprise.  (After all, shouldn’t we all be empathetic and validating?) Imagine you know how to swim, hate water, and are stuck in a pool. If I jump in with you, I am able to validate your experience. “I understand. This is terrible.”  Unfortunately while this helps you feel “normal” in your feelings and reaction, it also keeps you stuck in the pool! (“I knew I was right. This IS terrible.”) The validation actually prevents change in this case.

As a coach, I’m more likely to show kindness from the pool deck, offering you a fresh perspective. “Is it really true that pools are awful? What might make it more enjoyable in there? Look around you. What do you see that could help you?” (That ladder that’s within reach perhaps? ; )  This enables you to gain fresh perspective and to help yourself, so you’ll be able to do so again and again in new situations.

This silly example also reinforces the earlier analogy. Disliking the water is one thing, but the drowning man needs a lifeguard (counselor); not a coach!

A final note

It’s not either-or

Just because a player has an injury, doesn’t mean he’s out for the season! While there are certainly instances where he may need to “pause” his work on the field with his coach, it’s not inevitable. A person can have both a counselor and a coach to fully support them. The important thing is to have clear goals for each role, and open communication between all parties. A player can work on visualizing plays with his coach, and healing a torn rotator cuff with his physical therapist. Letting both know the full game plan increases the odds of the long-term win.  Both fields are equally valuable while serving two different purposes.

Looking for even more information? Check out this recent podcast, where I joined Brooke Castillo (founder of the Life Coach School), a psychiatrist, social worker, and two other therapists  to discuss this in detail. If you’d like a consultation to determine if coaching or counseling is best for you, I’d be glad to assist.

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