More and more people seem to be offering different types of coaching these days: ‘life coaching’, ‘relationship coaching’, ‘wealth coaching’, and ‘executive coaching’ are all available. The websites are often slick with young, glamorous looking coaches promising the outstanding success, achievement, wealth and happiness you deserve. Compare this with many people’s image of the grey cardigan clad counselor listening earnestly as you talk to her about your problems or the pipe smoking psychoanalyst in his wing back chair talking about your ‘id’ and asking about your toilet training and it is no surprise that many people are attracted to this seemingly new approach. But what are the real differences between therapy and coaching? In this post I’ll look at some of the distinctions that are commonly made and offer you some of my opinions.
Coaching and therapy mean different things
Firstly lets look at the roots of the words. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary the use of the word ‘coach’ to mean ‘instructor or trainer’ dates back to around 1830 when it was Oxford University slang for a tutor who carries (like a carriage) a student through an exam. The word ‘therapist’ goes back much further and comes from the Greek ‘therapeia’ meaning ‘curing, healing’.
Looking at these roots gives us a clue to a key difference between coaching and therapy: the coach acts as an external assistant to help the client move from A to B in life; the therapist supports the client’s natural healing processes in order to liberate energy that is currently being used to cope with illness and trauma.
Coaching tends to be more outward looking and outcome oriented, psychotherapy is more inward looking and process oriented
Coaches will generally ask you what your goals are and work with you to enable you to get them. These goals are generally in the real world and in the future. Most coaches will work with you to define goals that are SMART, that is to say that they are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time bounded (different people use different words for the letters but you get the idea). For a sports coach it could be to win a certain event or to set a new personal best; for a relationship coach it could be that you get a new partner; for an executive coach it could be to successfully complete a project or boost sales. Sometimes a coach will base their fees around some kind of guarantee that you will achieve the goals that you have set. Coaching aims to get you more of what you want.
Psychotherapists are often more interested in how it is to be you right now. Rather than focusing on specific external goals they will work with you to explore how you are creating the life that you have and where those patterns and motivations are coming from. Rather than aiming to change your life, therapy generally changes your relationship with life. On the outside not much may be changing but your experience of it could transform. In sports you may enjoy playing the game more; in relationships you may see more in your current partner or be more comfortable in your own company; in work you could find that the compulsive drive to succeed is replaced by a more balanced and relaxed attitude. Psychotherapy often results in you wanting different things.
Coaches are motivational, psychotherapists are exploratory
Many successful people are where they are today because they are good at kicking their own backsides and pulling themselves through life. While this strategy can work very well for a while, eventually the self that keeps getting kicked and pulled can get fed up and stops doing what she’s told. When this internal motivation strategy that worked so well starts to falter the person may be tempted to seek out a coach with a bigger boot or a stronger arm. The coach holds the coachee to account for his actions, checking that he has done what he said he would do, providing encouragement and chastisement accordingly (especially if the payment of the coaches fees are dependent on success). One way or another the coach helps the client to work hard and overcome or get around the blocks to success.
In comparison, the psychotherapist works with the client to explore those blocks to success, and to reveal how the client is blocking his own success. Why and how would a client block his own success? Psychotherapists look for hidden ‘secondary gains’ … the benefits of not getting what, on the surface, you want. Perhaps the client believes that the value of something is measured by how hard it was to get it? Perhaps struggling is familiar and comforting or supports a client’s belief around their own victimhood? Or perhaps success in this area of life would mean that another area would be neglected?
A psychotherapist may even get the client to explore the consequences of failing … a thought that may be a bit of a no go zone for many successful individuals.
Coaching works towards a desired future, psychotherapy discovers the influence of the past
A compulsion is a motivation that is driven by fear. One of the biggest problems experienced by successful and high achieving people is that they become dependent on that success for their sense of self. They are so motivated to succeed because they are terrified of failing.
Many of us have experienced trauma following what we (or others) have deemed failure. Some people were punished physically for their mistakes, some were publically humiliated for getting things wrong, others were simply terrified that failing would lead to the withdrawal of approval from parents, partners, or friends. All of that hurts; and is the kind of thing we would prefer to forget. But we don’t forget it – we often just cover it up with what these other people would judge as success. We may even internalize their punishments and ‘beat ourselves up’ when we fail. A psychotherapist will often work with you to reveal the pain of failure and to resolve things with the memories of the people who caused it in the first place.
The healing of wounds from the past can involve intense emotions. For a client to allow themselves to experience and work through these emotions they need to feel safe. To create safety the facilitator needs to be confident in their ability to stay present when the client is experiencing intense feelings and not to be distracted by their own unresolved issues resonating into awareness. Psychotherapy training is long and rigorous and designed to train therapists to handle strong emotions.
While coaches may have a lot of experience in their given field their coaching training may amount to just a few weeks. At best a coach can hope to recognize trauma when it is there and refer the client on to a therapist who can handle it; at worst they will unwittingly take their client into emotional areas that the coach is not equipped to handle.
Consequently it is prudent for most coaches to avoid the dark stuff from the past and focus on the client’s desired future. Creating strongly motivational goals and working back from them to deduce the actions that must be taken to achieve them does not require any delving into the past. However, if this desired goal is a reaction to a feared alternative future (including the fear of the unknown) today’s achievement simply procrastinates the facing of that fear. A coach may be giving the client exactly what he thinks he wants, but not what he would really benefit from – including the experience of failing and handling that failure.
Coaches encourage positivity, psychotherapists encourage acceptance
I was on a course with a life coach a few weeks ago and something started to push her buttons … tears welled up in her eyes and she quickly shook them off and composed herself. When the facilitator asked her why she was doing that she explained that she didn’t like being negative and tried to stay happy.
This is a perfect illustration of one of the biggest misunderstandings within the field, the idea that emotions like anger, sadness, fear, guilt, and pain in general are negative. They are not. They are positive. They are positive expressions of what is there.
‘Not bad’, ‘uncomfortable’, ‘not sure’, ‘can’t’, ‘not good enough’, and ‘nothing’ are all negative. They literally refer to something that is not there. It is a way of us not acknowledging what is there or, put another way, avoidance (literally putting into a void). Psychotherapists are indeed very interested in these negative places as this is where we don’t allow ourselves to go and where the healing is usually most needed. When I ask a client ‘How are you’ and they say ‘Uncomfortable’, I’ll say ‘And when you’re not comfortable, how are you?’ This recovers the positive. Quite often clients will describe sensations as being like an emotional black hole. This is the perfect description of a usually terrifying nothingness. The obvious (but short term) solution to a black hole is to try to avoid it or fill it in from the outside. Rather than coaching them to do this a psychotherapist will direct the client towards the unknown, into it, and out the other side. The client faces the thing that they were unconsciously avoiding, healing takes place, and the hole fills in from the inside.
Though coaches can often have a good degree of background in a particular field their training and experience of psychological change is often limited to a few weeks of training. This training often emphasizes the importance of orienting the client towards the future they want rather than dwelling on a past that didn’t work for them. If a coach is only comfortable or competent working with ‘positive’ goals in the future and avoids darker places within the client then this can cause their work to be superficial and short term. Their clients may well achieve that particular goal and get what they thought they wanted but they may not realize why they wanted it in the first place or why they are still not satisfied with the way things are.
Most psychotherapists have the training and experience to go into and transform the dark places they are less likely to take their client’s desires on face value. They know that desires often hide a fear (and vice versa). By working with clients to heal and transform from the inside out old compulsions fall away and clients realize what they really want out of life. Before long they are finding a new kind of inspired motivation that results in them doing and achieving because they are fulfilled rather than in order to become that way.