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What’s the difference?

People often ask about the difference between therapy and coaching. A more useful question to ask would be “How are they similar”, to which the answer is.“..in many ways”. The differences tend to be more about coaches and therapists themselves, than about the skills or processes that each uses. A good therapist can certainly act as a coach, and an effective coach as a therapist.

Professionals being what they generally are (needing to establish their expertise as unique to them), many therapists will say that what they do is not coaching, and that a coach can’t ‘therap’. Coaches, for their part distance themselves from therapy by saying, among other things, that they are about looking forward; they work with the future whereas therapists work with the past. To be fair to therapy, not all forms look to the past. Traditional therapist, perhaps, but many also look forward as well. A coach, they say, works to help people improve on something; a therapist fixes what is broken, be it a spirit, an ego or a relationship.

While this past/future orientation is certainly one way of responding to the therapy vs coaching question, it is by no means so simple or clear cut. It is likely that – if the client thinks it useful or necessary – both past and future will feature in conversations with any competent practitioner, however they style themselves. Once again, any distinction between the two approaches will be more due to attitudes and beliefs of the therapist, than their chosen professional label.

Neither camp seems willing to blur the lines and accept that there is more in common than separates them. That’s often how it is with professionals; each wants to underline their expertise as unique to their domain.

Human potential

Coaching grew out of the human potential movement of the ’70s, which itself drew on insights provided by therapists and researchers finding new ways of doing things around the 1960s. They both came from the same cradle, which was therapy’s second wave, where therapists in the USA were moving away from the old past-oriented/medical model based on Freud’s work.

In practice coaching and therapy use the same set of skills but differ in focus. The main differences between the two tends to be in the practitioner; whereas therapists are trained in clinical matters, coaches more often drawn from business. In my case, when  trained in strategic therapy I was already a business consultant. I have run my workplace consultancy alongside my therapy practice to over 20 years.

The rise of coaching is also market driven. Coaching was originally aimed at the business world; companies seeking to enhance better performance were hardly likely to put their employees into therapy,  coaching was a nice means to a similar end (this goes for individuals too – some people don’t like the idea of doing ‘therapy’, but coaching is OK).

Therapy vs coaching

Brief therapy and coaching tend to be solution focused, and solution focused thinking values similarity, as well as difference. So perhaps we shouldn’t be placing two in competition (therapy versus coaching). They are similar but not the same. Coaching and therapy are different camps and each is keen to distinguish itself in its own way. From the client’s point of view the important thing is to work with someone you feel comfortable with and who puts your needs and interests ahead of any model or terminology.

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