Many people ask about the differences between counseling and life coaching. Since I am both a licensed psychotherapist and a certified life coach, my explanation may vary from others who are either a therapist or a coach.
The typical answer from those who are strictly life coaches is that therapists focus on the past while coaches focus on the future. Based on my experience as a therapist, there is much more happening in therapy than simply focusing on the past, especially for those of us who are also solution-focused and goal-oriented. It is important to remember that every client who seeks counseling is in charge of what they would like to address.
Similarities and Differences
Both counseling and coaching clients establish goals and identify the steps needed to achieve them. However, the information gathered differs, as do the goals. Therapists typically require a full history with information about early family life, history of losses, substance abuse, mental health treatment, medical concerns, etc. The client describes their reason for seeking treatment, which becomes the ‘presenting problem’ in counseling. A diagnostic assessment is made and, if applicable, a diagnosis is given. The type of therapy used depends on the therapist being seen.
A life coach collects some personal history, including mental health status. This helps to determine whether counseling would be a better option. The primary focus of a life coaching assessment is on what the client is hoping to achieve or to gain clarity on, either personally or professionally. In my practice, clients either receive counseling or coaching services. The reason for this is that counseling and coaching have separate codes of ethics and the methods used in each vary considerably. In terms of ethics, as a life coach (according to my training), I am not allowed to also provide psychotherapy for a coaching client. If counseling is needed, I am required to refer clients to a different therapist.
Counseling is generally longer-term than coaching, depending on the situation. It is not uncommon for clients to remain in therapy for at least one year, addressing a variety of issues as they arise. Life coaching clients typically start with 4-6 sessions, evaluate progress and either continue for a short time or complete the process.
Counseling Clients vs. Coaching Clients
Typical Counseling Client: Experiencing significant emotional pain due to difficult life event(s), relationships or mental health symptoms (depression, anxiety, etc.). Remains in counseling for help with managing symptoms, emotional support, strengthening coping skills, addressing longstanding issues (if needed) and establishing /maintaining healthy relationships.
Typical Coaching Client: Experiencing a lack of satisfaction or lack of clarity in one or more areas of life and would like to make some changes. Wants to feel more fulfilled and to live more in alignment with purpose and passion. Does not have significant emotional pain or symptoms that would signify an urgent need for counseling. May feel ‘stuck’ in a specific area of life and hopes to break through potential barriers to happiness.
Questions of ‘Why’ and ‘How’
In my practice, the question of ‘why’ rarely comes up in life coaching. Obstacles are identified, such as self-defeating beliefs, but the ‘why’ or ‘how’ the belief developed is not explored. Counseling typically delves into both the ‘why’ and the ‘how’, due to the potential pain associated with negative beliefs. Both feelings and beliefs are explored in counseling. Again, if a life coaching client identifies unresolved pain or discloses symptoms of depression, he or she is referred for counseling with a different psychotherapist.
So, this is how it works in my practice! It is certainly not an ‘all-inclusive’ description. However, my hope is that you now have a better understanding of the differences between counseling and life coaching. If you have any questions or if you would like to schedule a session, please feel free to contact me.
Jennifer Wagner, LCSW
Psychotherapist and Life Coach