Coaching vs Psychotherapy: The Definitive Guide

by | Apr 16, 2017 | Nurse Coaching

Let me start by saying while that the coaching vs psychotherapy debate has been covered extensively in various texts, yet still remains a point of debate between traditional therapists and those in the coaching world.

Although many therapists are now incorporating coaching modalities into their sessions with clients, or have switched almost entirely over to being coaches, there are some very important delineations that must be made in order to create clarity around the subject for the public, coaches, and those we serve.

Additionally, while coaching is still in its’ relative infancy, it is important to understand what distinguishes it so that it may continue to blossom as an independent profession that has its’ own guidelines, modalities, frameworks, and overseeing body.

Just as nursing and psychology experienced growing pains during their inception, similarly, coaching is going through many of those shifts.

Psychological Roots

While coaching seems to have exploded in popularity and public recognition in recent years, it is founded in psychology and philosophy. The theories and strategies that comprise it can be dated back to the Greeks. Socrates is quoted saying, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Once the basic human needs of food, shelter, clothing, etc. are fulfilled, one is able to shift their attention towards actualizing their potential, fulfillment, and spiritual connectedness.

There have been many great psychological theorists and philosophers that have contributed greatly to their fields. Many of theses theories and ideas have greatly impacted the field of coaching. Naming all of them isn’t my goal here, but if you are interested have a read of the intro to “Becoming a Professional Life Coach” by Williams and Melendez.

Positive Psychology: Coaching’s Cousin

From solution based therapy to reflection and ontological approaches, the list is expansive. However, one of the most marked shifts in modern psychology occurred during a speech in 1998, by Martin E. P. Seligman (President of the American Psychological Association). He is famed for having coined the term “Positive Psychology.”

He stated, “…psychology has moved too far away from it’s original roots, which were to make the lives of all people more fulfilling and productive, and too much toward the important, but not all-important, area of curing mental illness.”

He went on to say a whole bunch of awesome stuff about helping clients build optimism, happiness, and satisfaction. Take some time and read up on this guy. Anyways, let’s get down to why we are here…

coaching vs psychotherapy
Coaching vs Psychotherapy

The Handbook of Positive Psychology states “… we must bring the building of strength to the forefront in the treatment and prevention of mental illness” (p.3). Bam! The emphasis remains on pathology and prevention.

Coaching: goal setting, actualizing potential, taking action, improving performance, enhancing their quality of life, and functioning at their highest capacity.

Therapy: Aims to solve past pain and tends to be retrospective. It is based off of the premise that there is a problem to be fixed.

Past Vs. Present/Future

Coaching: takes place in the present and, while we often create visions of an ideal future, we bring those visions into the present moment and use them as a place to come from, not a place to get to.

Therapy: Most often focuses on past wounds and and interpreting the way someone is showing up in the world based upon something that happened in their past.

Client Characteristics

A good coach needs to recognize when a client should be referred to a therapist. Specifically, when the client is demonstrating symptoms of deep depression, suicide, alcohol or drug addiction, flat affect, etc.

Coaching – Built on the premise that the client is fully whole and totally alive. Tend to be higher functioning, action oriented and ready to change their lives for the better. Not dependent on their provider to be the expert.

Therapy – Clients need to deal with past issues in order to be able to function in the world. Mood may be a leading concern, and heavy amounts of emotional baggage tend to be better dealt with by a trained therapist.

Provider Characteristics

Coach: Partner who co-creates the relationship. Since coaching carries less taboo than therapy, it is often appropriate for clients and coaches to have dual relationships. The coach is not the expert and does not give advice or try to ‘fix’ their clients. They do not give advice or make interventions.

Therapist: Are in the expert role, provide diagnoses and interventions based upon them. A dual relationship is strictly forbidden.

Process Differences

Coaching : Less formal, less structured. The coach is able to share more other intuitions, feelings, and observations. Able to challenge the client and is given permission to speak their truth at all times.

Therapy: Tends to be less definition and the client is encouraged to ramble while connections between present problems and past difficulties are created.

coaching vs psychotherapy
Putting It All Together

Alright, while that covers most of the major differences between coaching and therapy, its’ important to recognize that this list s not exhaustive, nor is it meant to create a rift between our professions. It is simply a way that allows us coaches to stay within our framework so that we can powerfully serve our clients without crossing ethical or professional boundaries.

A good coach can help their clients achieve unprecedented levels of happiness, fulfillment, success, strength,  and resilience. They can help their clients create those tiny shifts that will radically change their world so that they may become the architect of their dreams. They remind their clients that they are in charge of their life and the process.

A great therapist can bring their clients up from the depths of despair and confusion into a world of higher functioning and far less overwhelm. They help their clients learn to be in charge of their lives.

These two fields are surely complementary. A client can work with a therapist to resolve past wounds while working with a coach to be actionable and take the small steps required to build the future they desire.

Therapy teaches coaches to be patient; change does not happen overnight. It reminds us that there are physiological roots to some problems.

Coaching keeps us privy to the power of human potential, our limitless capacity for insight and our profound ability to change, grow, and challenge our limiting beliefs.
In the end, both fields are about empowering our clients to grow and become stronger.

Now I know this won’t put the coaching vs psychotherapy debate to bed, but I hope it at least gives you a beginning framework! 


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