How is Life Coaching Different from Therapy, Counseling, and Consulting?
In recent years, the popularity of mental health topics as well as self-actualization, increased. Many people want to discover and fulfill their full potential and achieve subjective well-being. Furthermore, various programs and services were developed in order to provide additional support for people who need it.
How to pick the right support for yourself? Broadly speaking, available support could be grouped into four main categories: psychotherapy, counseling, consulting, and coaching. Each of them has multiple advantages and could be more or less suitable for particular issues that you want to tackle.
What could be confusing for a potential client is the fact that there are not always clear differences between them. Even in literature, these terms are not always consistently used. However, usually is possible to distinguish them based on the education of the service provider and the goal of the intervention.
Below we describe each of these interventions shortly.
American Psychiatric Association defines psychotherapy as: "a way to help people with a wide variety of mental illnesses and emotional difficulties. Psychotherapy can help eliminate or control troubling symptoms so a person can function better and can increase well-being and healing."
Psychotherapists are experts in the domain of mental health (psychologists, psychiatrists, etc.) who undergo additional education and supervision. They usually work with the clinical population (i.e., people diagnosed with some mental health problem), but also they can work with the general population.
There are many different psychotherapeutic modalities (interestingly, some forms of psychotherapy are recognized in some and not in other countries). The most known types of psychotherapy are Cognitive-behavioral therapy, Psychodynamic therapy, Interpersonal therapy, and Play therapy. For more details, you can check American Psychiatric Association.
Similar to psychotherapy, counseling is provided by experts from the domain of mental health. Clients could come from the clinical or general population, and counselors provide them with support in dealing with particular situations and challenges.
Counseling could also occur in the business domain. Some authors (e.g., Stone, 2007) stated that it is not always a clear distinction between counseling and coaching in organizations. However, they see counseling as a unique process, more specifically as: "a nonpunitive disciplinary process, the most important step of which is one-on-one meetings with the problem employee in which your purpose is to get the employee to acknowledge the difference between actual performance and expected performance; identify the source of the problem; and develop an action plan to bring performance up to minimum expectations, if not higher" (Stone, 2007; pp.76).
Unlike psychotherapy which is always connected with mental health, coaching could happen in any domain. Some authors (e.g., Williams, 2004) emphasized that coaching is not focusing on what is damaged but rather on human potential. However, by empowering people and helping them to realize their abilities, coaching can also improve mental health and quality of life.
According to that, there is no certain education that one coach needs to complete (although there are some good programs).
For example, business coaching could be done by psychologists but also by managers, etc. Some authors (e.g., Grant & Cavanagh, 2018) stated that "most coaches are not trained, registered or licensed as mental health professionals." That's why coaching is typically done with a non-clinical population.
As we already said, coaching could occur in various domains of personal and professional life. Witherspoon and White (1996, cited in Grant, 2005) proposed three broad categories of coaching:
- Performance Coaching - focus on improving performance over some specific period.
- Skills coaching - emphasizes developing some particular skill. In some cases, it could be done over one or two sessions.
- Developmental coaching - focuses more on broader, intimate questions - in other words, it is "therapy for people who do not need therapy."
In practice, coaching is not necessarily fit only in one of the above-mentioned categories. For example, even if someone focuses on more developmental changes, that doesn't mean that during the process, they will not need to improve or develop some particular skills.
Consulting implies getting concrete and specific advice regarding some topic. Unlike the previously mentioned services, where participants need to be active during the process, here they could have a completely passive role and just apply the given advice or solution.
Above, we tried to shortly define each of mentioned interventions. It is evident overlapping between these services. In this article, we will focus on life coaching and how life coaching differs from psychotherapy, counseling, or consulting.
Life coaching is a form of coaching with an accent on improving quality of life and goal attainment in professional and personal life. Clients are from the non-clinical population (Grant, 2003). You can find more information about the characteristics of life coaching here.
Key Differences Between Life Coaching and Therapy
Although the topics that are covered in therapy and during life coaching might be similar or even the same, there are some important differences between life coaching and therapy.
First, coaching is more directive than psychotherapy. The goal of psychotherapy is not to provide you with a solution or "how to." The aim is to help you develop skills and awareness. The therapist will rarely share their own experience and usually not as an example of how something should be done. On the opposite, a coach will share their own experience and provide you with concrete steps on how you can also achieve similar results.
Second, coaching is usually shorter, focused on particular goals, and the results are almost immediate, while psychotherapy tends to last longer and go deeper (Ives, 2008).
Unlike some therapeutical modalities that pay great attention to the past, coaching is usually focused on the future and what could be done now to bring us closer to our goals.
Finally, psychotherapy usually works with psychopathology, while coaching is more focused on discovering human potential.
Key Differences Between Life Coaching and Counseling
Even though during counseling, you will receive some practical advice and more direction than in psychotherapy, counseling is still more passive than coaching. During counseling, we expect to get help in looking for solutions, but we do not expect our counselor to have exact answers. Sometimes even we don't have it. On the other hand life coach (or coach in general) is usually already at the place where we want to be. Therefore we ask and expect guidance.
Grant and Cavanagh (2018; pp.297) emphasized that the main difference is the fact that counseling focuses on "helping people regain functionality in their lives," while life coaching is "more about enhancing existing well-being."
However, the same authors also stated 25% to 50% of people interested in life coaching also are dealing with psychopathology, which makes the distinction between coaching and counseling (and psychotherapy) blurry.
Clients might choose life coaching instead of psychotherapy or counseling to avoid the stigma associated with mental health issues, but the responsibility of the coach is to properly estimate whether their skills and knowledge are sufficient for helping and, if not, to redirect the client to someone more equipped to deal with that particular type of problem.
Key Differences Between Life Coaching and Consulting
Consulting offers information about the exact solution for our problems, while during coaching, we are learning how to find it. Both of these approaches could be useful, and many of us will use both during our lifetime.
For example, if you are attending some important conference where you should be one of the speakers, you can get practical information from a consultant that could improve your speech (length, type of presentation, information about conference rooms, about the demographic of the public, how to dress up, etc.) or you can hire a coach who will help you improve your public speaking skills or self-confidence.
Some authors (e.g., Coutu & Kauffman, 2009) emphasize that typical for consulting but not coaching is:
- Providing answers
- Insisting on objectivity
- Focus on organizational performance
- Quantitative data
Factors to Consider When Choosing: Which Service Is Right for You?
So how to know what is the right choice for you? First of all, you should get familiar with the different available options. We mentioned therapy, coaching, counseling, and consulting. Knowing what the options are, you will be able to make informed decisions.
Second, based on what are your personal or professional goals, some of them will be more suitable. If you are not sure, you can always ask for additional information. The majority of experts will honestly say whether they are adequate for working with particular issues, and they might even recommend someone else who might have better results in that particular domain.
Talking with an expert with whom you are interested in working will have an additional benefit. You will be able to check whether you have a good connection with them. This is important in psychotherapy but also in coaching, counseling or even consulting. Skills and previous experience are important, but it is also necessary to like and trust the person whose services you are using.
Finally, be aware that it is also possible to start with one service and later realize that something else is more suitable. It could happen that after working with a consultant you can decide to hire a coach, or during coaching, you realize that you want to further process some topics on therapy.
There is no one correct way for professional and private growth. You should listen to yourself and find the process that works best for you.
Did you ever work with some of the experts? What did you try?
Coutu, D., Kauffman, C., Charan, R., Peterson, D. B., Maccoby, M., & Scoular, P. A. (2009). What can coaches do for you. Harvard business review, 87(1), 91-97.
Grant, A. M. (2003) The impact of life coaching on goal attainment, metacognition and mental health, Social Behavior and personality, 31(3), 253-264.
Grant, A. M. (2005). What is evidence-based executive, workplace and life coaching?. In Evidence-Based Coaching Volume 1: Theory, Research and Practice from the Behavioural Sciences (pp. 1-13). Bowen Hills, QLD: Australian Academic Press.
Grant, A. M., & Cavanagh, M. J. (2018). The solution-focused approach to coaching. The complete handbook of coaching, 35-51.
Ives, Y. (2008). What is' coaching'? An exploration of conflicting paradigms. International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching & Mentoring, 6(2).
Stone, F. (2007). Coaching, counseling and mentoring: how to choose and use the right technique to boost employee performance. (2nd ed.). Amacom.
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.