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The Difference Between Life Coaching and Therapy
We get this question a lot in our coach training program. And it’s understandable why! Many new and aspiring coaches have questions about the differences between therapy and coaching.
As professionals, we want to stay in our lane. We also know that it’s potentially harmful to clients if a coach strays outside of our training, expertise, and scope of practice. Coaching ethics require us to have a clear understanding of the various helping modalities and where our work fits on that spectrum.
It’s also important for you to not be intimidated by this! The fear of “getting it wrong” and unintentionally crossing these boundaries will hold you back if you’re not confident in your ability to recognize the line.
The goal isn’t to inhibit your voice and impact as a coach.
Understanding these lines simply allows you to do your job better, which includes knowing when and how to refer a client out to another discipline if necessary.
Straight talk: coaches do not treat clients for mental health disorders. That’s the providence of a therapist or counselor. Coaching is co-created, future-oriented and outcomes based.
Now here’s the thing. Talking about a client’s feelings and fears isn’t “off limits.” You don’t need to call a coaching session to a screeching halt if a client brings in big emotions and relevant issues from their past. You just need to know how to hold that space properly.
Often, a client’s backstory and associated feelings are important to the coaching conversation. Lightly unpacking old beliefs, assumptions, and lessons from the past may be necessary in order to create an effective plan to achieve their dreams. What’s not OK is for a coach to conduct a therapeutic assessment in a session.
Ready for a little reassurance on this score? If you haven’t been trained as a therapist, you’re unlikely to “accidentally” conduct therapy in a session. Why? Because you don’t actually know how to do it!
Life coaches are not therapists.
Life coaching is a co-creative process that helps people translate insight into action, adding rocket fuel to the process of achieving their goals, aspirations, or dreams. Coaches primarily work with clients on issues related to their present life and forward. Together, coach and client define a future vision, and develop a tactical action plan to achieve the client's specific goals.
An effective life coach understands theories and models of change, and brings tools for self-inquiry, focus, and accountability to the table. The coach’s techniques are similar to a therapist’s in that they are research and evidence-based, and rooted in positive psychology. But these are nevertheless two distinct, albeit complementary modalities.
Here’s how a recent CNBC article described the coaching relationship:
“Life coaches work with functioning individuals who are looking to create a pathway to reaching set goals. Whether it is work, personal or family, coaches act as unbiased thinking partners and hold their clients accountable by typically having weekly or bi-weekly one-hour sessions.” - What is life coaching? CNBC, March 26, 2021
A therapist helps people explore and process the events and influences of their past, and how those experiences may be shaping behavior in the present. A trained mental health provider is also who you’d want to check in with if you are experiencing emotional or behavior challenges that interfere with your ability to function at your best.
Therapists are licensed to treat mental illnesses using psychotherapeutic methods, and help their clients achieve and maintain baseline mental health. Psychotherapy includes treatment of depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder, and other diagnosable conditions.
Counseling is similar to therapy in many ways, but is usually a shorter-term intervention. A counselor is someone you might turn to when there is a very specific issue that requires treatment. Counselors utilize psychotherapy methods, and typically work in schools, hospitals, addiction recovery programs, correctional facilities, mental health clinics, and social service agencies.
Social workers can also fill clinical roles. To become a social worker, a master’s degree and license is typically required. Many forms of social work are solutions-focused, which can be similar to coaching. However, social workers may also help to identify mental health disorders that are getting in the way of a person’s ability to flourish.
You’ll find many social workers in the trenches, doing important, life saving, and difficult work that can include house calls and rapid response in difficult or volatile situations.
Only licensed therapists, social workers, and counselors are qualified to determine and diagnose mental illnesses or provide mental health services.
Like coaching, there is no mental health treatment plan involved in a consulting relationship. Consultants are most often associated with business activities. They bring expertise in a specific knowledge base, provide guidance, and help shape strategy.
Unlike coaching, consulting is not a co-equal partnership. A consultant gives advice and tells the client what should be done. In contrast, coaching is inquiry based, and supports a client to identify their own strengths and solutions.
Mentorship can be either formal or informal. Mentoring is typically an unpaid relationship, often offered as a gift of goodwill on the part of the mentor. Mentorship is typically characterized by a personal investment on the part of the mentor in the growth and wellbeing of their mentee.
You’ll find mentors in a variety of contexts, including career mentors, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Girl Scouts, etc. In business, mentors often support the mentee in learning how to navigate an organization or their career.
A mentor “pours knowledge into” the mentee, whereas a life coach “pulls information out of” the client.
Can a coach serve in more than one of these roles?
According to International Coaching Federation standards, a life coach is required to clarify if they are “switching roles.” This is a best practice because it helps both coach and client to remain clear about the coaching process and relationship dynamics.
The ICF recognizes that coaches have legitimate, factual information to share. To that end, it is valid to offer education, resources, insights and tools if they are in service to your client. LIfe coaches simply need to ask permission and receive client consent before making a shift into consulting, mentoring, or teaching in a session.
Can a therapist be a life coach?
For life coaches who are also licensed therapists, the best practice is to keep these modalities separate. If you’re thinking about offering both therapy and coaching services, you’ll want to clearly delineate those offerings. You cannot treat and coach the same person - clients should stay on one side of the fence or the other.
Want more information on managing a dual practice? Check out our blog From Therapist to Life Coach: How to Make the Move Successfully.
Ready to Be A Coach?
One of our values at Lumia is that we dare to be different. Our life coaches ignore the expectations society tries to impose on them, and seek to live from their own truth instead. If you are ready to step into your power and you’d like some partners in the process, come check out Lumia Life Coach Training. Grounded in science, our ICF accredited program features authentic instructors, a robust curriculum, and business instruction to prepare you for liftoff.