How Does Coaching Differ from Therapy?

Michael Brennan, LCSW, MSW on Feb 17, 2023 in Treatment Orientation

"Should I consult with a coach or therapist? And by the way, what’s the difference?"

I’m both a coach and licensed therapist (LCSW), so let me take you behind the curtain.

Wait for it... Wait for it...

I regret to inform you that there’s limited consensus on the differences between a coach and a therapist. And during my search for answers, I talked with a lot of coaches and therapists.

You should also know that in my search for clarity, I found many coaches who seemed to be well-intentioned but a little overreaching and many therapists who seemed to be not only ill-informed about the role of coaches but also a touch territorial.

With that said, I hope this helps:

First, the legal answer: Therapists must have a master’s degree and a clinical license; therapy is overseen by state regulatory boards and informed by an established code of ethics; therapists conduct mental health assessments, provide diagnoses, and develop treatment plans; therapy is supported by insurance companies; therapists are mandated reporters; and therapists must maintain HIPPA compliance and confidentiality (in most cases).

The coaching industry, on the other hand, is still in its infancy. At this point, it remains very much a self-regulated industry that lacks the mandated training, oversight, and accountability found in therapy.* Essentially, anyone can call themselves a coach and practice as one. While this has resulted in a bit of a frontier mentality in the coaching field, I’ve also found it to be a dynamic industry driven by many creative, capable, and ethical individuals unencumbered by slow-rolling bureaucracies. I’m excited to be a part of the coaching industry.

In my opinion, the actual differences between coaching (especially transformational coaching) and therapy are quite nuanced. It’s generally accepted that coaching is more future-oriented, while therapy attempts to explore and heal past traumas and present strife. While I don’t entirely disagree with this description, I do think it a bit simplistic (perhaps only because I’m not so adept at delineating past from present from future; I find that life tends to happen simultaneously). But still, coaching and therapy are not synonymous for the reasons stated above.

In short, a responsible coach will know when to refer a client to a therapist, and a self-aware therapist will know when to suggest that a client meet with a coach.

But of course, not everyone always knows how to stay in their own lane.** Coaches sometimes try to play therapist (not always intentionally or with malicious intent), and therapists, well, they try to play lots of roles. So I always encourage clients to be their own best advocates. Do your own research! Ask hard questions! Demand clarification! And use your intuition and best judgement! You deserve the support you seek.

*Please note: Licensed therapists who also practice as coaches (as I am) must adhere to particular ethics and regulations mandated by the state in which they are licensed, such as: informed consent, client confidentiality and privacy, mandated reporting, dual relationships, and record-keeping.

**Obligatory disclaimer: Licensed therapists must keep their therapy practice separate from their coaching practice and vice versa. I do. A therapist can’t simultaneously provide therapy and coaching to a single client. As your coach, should you wish for therapy services, just mention it, and I will help guide you towards a suitable therapist.

Michael Brennan is a Clinical Social Worker in Las Vegas, NV.

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