Coaching VS Counseling : Which Do You Need?


I had difficulty writing this blog post. One problem I faced is that counseling, therapy, social work, psychology, and psychiatry are common knowledge. People have a mental image of mental health care that has seeped into our consciousness.

There is no societal agreed upon a mental image of life coaching, yet.

It seemed complicated to find the words I needed to compare and contrast the beauty I see in life coaching to a mental health care career I left behind. It’s puzzling because many, if not most, of the tools and techniques I know are helpful in both psychotherapy and coaching. On the outside looking in, coaching and psychotherapy seem the same. But they don’t feel the same. And board-certified professional life coaching is not the same.

My solution was typical of me. I went to Google Scholar and took notes on journal articles. There is much we can take from the writings of psychology. You can find the references I used below.

After a month of pondering, I understood. What people say makes it appear that these differences are black and white. Black and white can be helpful. These details tell us something. They leave out the emotions I experience as I work or try to talk about this.

For those of you who need black and white details, I’ve placed a chart created by Patrick Williams, Ph.D. (2003) at the end of this writing before my list of references.

The difference between coaching and counseling is in my starting place. The way I think about what I’m doing. If I was talking to you in person, I’d use my hands. With my left hand, I’d draw a circle and ask you to imagine that circle on the floor. I’d stand up and stand in our imaginary circle.

That circle is psychotherapy and all forms of mental health care. For decades as I worked in mental health care, I stood in that circle. In the psychotherapy field, we build on the explanations of pathology and disease. We look to healthy development as a goal. Getting better is the most frequent goal of behavioral healthcare

Despite my reverence for people, I thought about you from a place of defect and diagnosis. In this circle, you have a diagnosis of a behavioral health condition.

Therapists diagnose people from the DSM V with Schizophrenia, Depressive Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Anxiety Disorder, Trauma- and Stressor-Related Disorder, or one of a multitude of disorders that cause people tremendous pain. This diagnosis is the focus of your care.

Psychotherapy is a relationship where the therapist has more power than you. If you need someone to teach you how or tell you what to do, psychotherapy could be your path.

As counselors and therapists, we believe you need us to fix you. Even as I asked myself the question, “What can I do to help this person?”  I meant, “How can I fix them?” If you have a psychological problem that qualifies you for an official behavioral health diagnosis, psychotherapy is for you.

Then I’d make another imaginary circle with my right hand and ask you to imagine my right-hand circle on the floor. I’d stand in that circle. In this circle, you have no behavioral health condition. Problems in living, goals, and dreams for your future are the focus of your coaching.

There are no limits on your goals and dreams. There are as many goals and dreams as there are people in the world. Coaching can help you reach your goals and realize your dreams.

Ordinary people face problems. Sometimes they need help to overcome those problems. If you need a resource person or someone to hear you so you can hear yourself, coaching might well be your path.

You deal with relationships in every area of your life. Occasionally, there are troubles in those relationships. These are challenges like difficulties in your relationship with your partner. Parents and children sometimes have troubles getting along. Siblings fight and might need help to resolve their relationship.

The circumstances of life can cause problems. Individuals move from one circumstance to another in life and might need help to adjust. People stumble into problems while working toward their occupational and vocational goals. There are troubles that arise in schools with a change in requirements and standards. Other people often face difficulties with learning.

Others face painful life changes involving grief, loss, and trauma. These are NOT, by themselves, behavioral health problems. Instead, they sadly are an ordinary part of life. Sometimes you need help to walk through it.

The normal ebbs and flows of life can create problems. Life changes as we grow. Sometimes a lot. People might need support and encouragement to find their own unique creative way of overcoming those problems. Leaving home, getting married, starting school, or watching your children grow up and away are all examples of changes people face.

This right-hand circle is the place I work from as a life coach. This circle informs my thinking about you and how I’m trying to help you. As coaches, we believe you already have all the answers you need to grow into the life you desire.

In this space, I see the beauty in you and ask myself the question, “How can I help this person see that beauty themselves?”  I see you off your life path, and wonder, “How can I help you find your path?” Not my path for you. Your path for you. Coaching is a relationship where both client and coach are equal.

I’ve been ranting for years that we’ve psychologized our experience of being human. Instead of normal and natural feelings, we have pathological labels for normal experience. I want to say something like I’m sad when I feel sad, not that I’m depressed. If I’m afraid, I want to say I’m fearful, not I’m anxious.

Not every emotional pain in our lives deserves a negative label. Most often, what we need to is feel those feelings. In coaching, we look at healthy development as the normal progression of a person. You are where you are and you want to grow into somewhere else. That’s coaching.

I’ll conclude with a chart designed by Patrick Williams (2003) showing all those details I mentioned at the beginning of this writing.

Microsoft Word - Therapy.docx



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Hayden, C. J., & Whitworth, L. (1995). Distinctions between coaching and therapy. The Coaches Agenda, 1, 1-2.

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Patterson, J. (2008). Counseling vs. life coaching. Counseling Today, 5(6), 32-37.

Spinelli, E. (2010). Coaching and therapy: Similarities and divergences. Psychotherapy in Australia, 17(1), 52.

Williams, P. (2003). The potential perils of personal issues in coaching the continuing debate: Therapy or coaching? What every coach must know. International Journal of Coaching in Organizations, 2(2), 21-30.

Williams, P. (Nd). Coaching Vs. Psychotherapy The Great Debate. Choice Magazine; Volume 2, Issue 1.


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