Counseling vs Coaching: Five Differences To Consider

Counseling vs Coaching: Five Differences To Consider

Are you finding difficulty deciding whether to hire a counselor or a coach? The boundaries between coaching and counseling are not always clear, but making the right choice between one or the other can make a difference in whether you get your needs met or not.  Here are some of the distinctions I have found so far:

  1. Coaches work with their clients to reach specific life goals that enhance their growth in the absense of limiting emotional difficulties. For example a coach may help a client set a plan to change their lifestyle, improve their business, cultivate new relationships, etc. On the other hand, counselors work with people who have thinking, emotional difficulties, or ingrained behavioral problems due to past or recent wounds, trauma, or to a chemical imbalance. If you are experiencing stress caused by your lifestyle choices, a coach can help you best; but if you have anxiety caused by emotions and thoughts that emerge from how you see and interpret the world, a counselor will be a better choice for you.
  2. The goals coaches set up with their clients are measurable, and the result of the actions taken to reach those goals are mostly visible. For example, a man working on changing his career will set a series of small goals that advance him towards that change. His goals may include updating his resume to his new interests, talking to experts from the field he wants to work in, or asking potential employers what skills and traits they value the most in their employees. The goals counselors set up with their clients may not be as obvious to everyone because they are directed at changing internal emotional distress, destructive thoughts, and problem behaviors. Sometimes counselors rely on their client’s self-report to determine if there is actual improvement, and sometimes they need to use evaluation tools to determine the client’s level of progress.
  3. Coaches work to move a client forward towards reaching his or her goal. The main focus is on taking efective action . Meanwhile, the counselor explores the origin of problems, and looks at ways to develop new strategies to confront those problems. Counselors explore with their clients ways to reach life goals even in the face of apparent difficulties, emotional distress, and barriers in reaching them.
  4. Coaches are more personal and tend to disclose more of their own experience than counselors. Counselors disclose rarely, and only if they feel that such disclosure can greatly advance the client’s healing process.
  5. Coaches can only be and act like counselors when they have a Master’s degree and a Mental Health license in the state they are practicing. However, counselors that are also coaches need to clarify with their clients at the beginning of their sessions, if their relationship is one of coaching or one of counseling since different laws and ethics regulate counseling and coaching. For example, while coaches do not have country or state barriers to practice their discipline, and can comfortably coach via the phone or Skype, a counselor's practice is limited by geographical location, and in most cases are not allowed to counsel severely distressed clients on the phone or via the internet. Insurance companies often cover counseling but do not cover coaching.

Even these differences can be relative. Counseling can sometimes be a slower process than coaching, but this is not always the case. In my experience as a counselor, I have known some people who have solved their target problem in a couple of sessions, and others who have spent more than two years working in a more comprehensive plan addressing their past, present and future. Needless to say, people who feel depressed or anxious also want to improve themselves, grow, and move forward with their life.

Another issue that makes the distinction between the two modalities difficult is that there are psychological therapies, like those derived from Positive Psychology, Solution Focused Therapy and Brief Therapy which are widely used by coaches and counselors equally. Coaches always work in a collaborative relationship with their clients, and although most counselors also do so, their personal style varies in a range of possibilities , from positioning themselves as an expert to presenting themselves as equal with the client. For example Feminist Multicultural Counseling, a modality I often use in my work, can resemble coaching in that it promotes a relationship of equals between counselors and clients, are against diagnosing or pathologizing them, and have a more positive attitude towards counselor self-disclosure than traditional counselors. 

In spite of the blurry limits between coaching and counseling, I hope those five points mentioned above help you clarify what type of service suits you the best.

Eva Malia is a licensed mental health counselor and coach. Eva works with clients in her private practice in Providence, RI or online via Skype. To schedule a time to talk with Ms. Malia, fill out her inquiry form.