How does coaching differ from counseling or therapy?

This question requires a longer answer than most as there is a lot that could be said.  First, let me acknowledge that there are aspects of coaching and therapy that are, indeed, similar.  For example, you will talk one-to-one with your coach, often exploring issues you are facing in significant detail, issues which can be very personal and private, just as in therapy.

Similarly, some issues you are facing will have emotional components. Imagine an athlete who is faced with a formidable opponent, or who has just failed to perform as hoped in a key competition.  Feelings will be up, right?  In coaching, we don't hide from emotions for fear that we'll be doing therapy.  We handle your feelings for what they are… natural human expressions in response to events occurring in your life (See related questions.).  The easiest way to describe the process is that we give permission for your emotions to be present, and we witness them when they are present.  But we dwell there only as long as needed to empower you to move into thoughtful planning and action, just as an athletic coach would witness an athlete's feelings before moving on to, "What now?"

The main differences are focus and intention.  Our focus is not on emotional pain or disordered thinking, but rather on where you are in this moment and where you wish to be in the future.  Our intention is not on relieving unhappiness (though that can happen spontaneously when someone moves into action around an important issue), but in clarifying and moving your personal agenda forward.

What if I have issues that would benefit from mental health services?

As a former therapist, I am alert to issues and conditions which would be better served by therapeutic modalities.  However, at the outset of a coaching relationship it is not always an obvious determination.  Some people approach coaching after multiple "unsuccessful" therapeutic relationships; yet, they find that coaching does for them what therapy didn't. Others are currently in therapy or receive psychiatric care (medication for bipolar disorder comes to mind) when they begin coaching.  As it isn't an either/or situation, they may continue or vary their use of both coaching and therapy as it makes sense.  In my experience, coaching supports the client to get the most from whatever mental health services they may need, but it can be difficult to sustain energy for both modalities concurrent and expensive to

For other folks who enter coaching, it becomes clear over time that there are crucial issues which must be addressed first on a therapeutic level (depression, in particular), or there are underlying issues which repeatedly undermine their progress, and we end up feeling like we're going in circles.  As mentioned above, for some, it can be advantageous to be coached while also receiving mental health services.  But for those for whom it became clear over time, it is more likely that terminating coaching or suspending it for a time would be most advantageous. 

How do I choose a coach?

  • Start by finding a coach who is certified by the International Coach Federation at a PCC or MCC level.  It's not a guarantee, but it shows that the coach has been trained, has had adequate supervision, has had a minimum number of hours of direct coaching experience,  is staying current in the world of coaching, and agrees to abide by ethical guidelines.  Go to the page on the ICF website dedicated to information for coaching clients.  There is a FAQ page, addressing many of the same questions I have been answering here.  And there is a "Find a Coach" service, in which you can search for prospective coaches by entering a wide range of criteria.  If you wish, you can also request that coaches reply to your query directly… but be careful of how many "RFP's" you allow.
  • If you have a specific concern or issue, consider hiring a coach who is likely to be fluent with that area.  While coaches are trained to ask great questions and support you on your path, it is a benefit if your coach has already considered and dealt with the specific issues and environments you are likely to be facing.  I have coached people in many different professions and on many different issues and I believe they would tell you that they have benefited a great deal.  Yet, the fact that I am fairly intimate with the requirements, typical pitfalls, and idiosyncracies of the academic world means, for example, that I am attuned you are likely to need to address, even if you don't bring them up.  So you are more likely to do so in a timely and successful manner.
  • Try out your prospective coach!
    • Don't assume credentials are the be all and end all.  Some radically wonderful coaches are fairly new to the field.  Some "old-timers" are just mediocre.
    • Some do fantastic work with certain kinds of clients or issues, but are not as good with others.  You won't know this until you have a good conversation.  Does this coach connect with you?  Understand you?  Do you feel "heard?"  If you have difficulty communicating verbally, is the coach patient?  Do you get the feeling or believe that the coach can support you well?
    • This may sound trivial, but I'll say it anyway.  Do you like the person's voice?
    • It is fine for a coach to "ask you for the business" or "claim you" as someone they want to work with.  It is exciting to feel such a good connection.  But if you feel pushed into making a decision, take the time to try another coach… or just say "No, thanks."
  • Try out several coaches, but not more than three… four tops.  After three, you lose track of the voice, the sense of connection, and what it was that had you thinking that this person would be there for you throughout the whole journey.
  • Take notes.  Among the important notes:
    • What was my experience?
    • Can I trust this person, whom I'll only meet on the phone, to be there, to hold confidentiality?
    • Were there any "gems" or new perspectives I want to remember?
    • How much will it cost?  What if I must miss a session?
    • Is this person flexible enough for my needs and personality?
  • Be sure you can afford the fee for the time it will likely take to achieve, or get a good headstart on achieving, your goals.  From a coach's perspective, it is quite frustrating to get a month into working with a client only to hear that there's no more money available to continue.  Oy!  It's not just about losing money, though there is a lot of up-front time and energy that comes with getting a new client moving forward.  For me, it's about losing a connection with someone with whom I have formed a caring relationship.  In these cases, I usually know that continued coaching would be really useful, so we start to try to figure this money piece out.  But it's never easy.  For the client, it's likely you have some habits that need changing if you're going to be successful over the long term.  That takes a while, as you can well imagine.  And it's worth it.  So choose a coach who can live with what you can pay, even if it means you don't get that coach you saw on Oprah.
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