The question of how coaching and therapy differ is a common one and the answer can be complicated and is not universal to all types of coaching and therapy.

There are many frameworks for therapy and you may have heard of some like psychoanalytic or psychodynamic, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), humanistic, Jungian, family systems, emotionally focused therapy (EFT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR), play-based therapy and more, and these forms vary in their approaches and methods. Similarly, the field of coaching includes many models as well. You may be familiar with some forms of coaching like life coaching, addiction and recovery, leadership, health and well-being, academic, ADHD, lifestyle medicine, and executive coaching, and within these modalities, there are varying approaches and guiding frameworks. Because of this, two therapists or two coaches may be more different in what they offer than a given therapist and coach may be different from each other. To further complicate things, some therapists are certified coaches and some coaches are licensed therapists. All that to say that the reason you may be confused is because the answer is confusing! Here are some typical differences between the two. Please note that this list represents a generalization that does not apply in all circumstances:

  • Past-Present versus Present-Future Orientation: Therapy tends to focus more on the roots of things...i.e, the past, traumas, adverse childhood experiences, attachments styles, family of origin issues and the thought patterns that are created out of all of these experiences and get in our way of mental well-being, whereas coaching tends to focus more on the future and what a person wishes they were doing, where and why there are gaps between present behaviors and future hopes and goals, what is getting in the way of growth and flourishing and keeping someone in a stuck or confused position, what strengths and successes may be leveraged to make changes or progress toward flourishing. This is not to say that coaching does not delve into the past---however, the past is used to inform choices for the present and future more than to sort out or resolve it. For example, Dr. Haesun Moon of the University of Toronto and Harvard/McLean's Institute of Coaching, describes an important distinction in coaching between a client's "resourced past" and "troubled past". Her Dialogic Orientation Quadrant (DOQ) further differentiates between a client's "preferred future" and "dreaded future"--part of the coach's work is to support clients as they identify these parts of themselves and work to build their "preferred future" by, in part, harvesting from their "resourceful past".

  • Coaching is underpinned by a client's vision for where they want to go and who they want to be in the future.

  • Depending on the type of coaching offered (and the coach's training), a coach may pull from other therapeutic models. The neuroflourish framework incorporates elements of Motivational Interviewing, Appreciate Inquiry, CBT, mind/brain/health/learning science, and tenets of positive psychology, among other evidence-based modalities.

  • Therapy tends to last longer--it is not unusual for traditional psychodynamic therapy, for example, to last for several years. A coach may work with a client to unravel some challenges, support them as they move "onward and upward", and no longer be needed once the client has worked through the process and achieved the desired goals/changes. Some clients may return in the future to work on a different issue, revisit and revise a previous set of goals, or because life circumstances have shifted and they feel that their coach can provide a helpful sounding board/perspective or guide.

  • Therapists are licensed by state and coaches are certified by various governing bodies (usually based on specialty, etc.).

  • Therapists typically meet face-to-face and in person for sessions, though this has evolved through the COVID-19 Pandemic. Coaches more often meet via video conference, or even over the phone, to accommodate professional demands, life schedules, and time differences.

  • Therapists, depending on type of licensure and training, may be more likely to work with and diagnose clients struggling with mental health disorders or challenges. Though many coaches are trained to spot issues of mental health or substance use disorders, when these things come up, the coach will refer the client to the appropriate mental health specialist, or collaborate with a client's therapist in support of their health and well-being.

  • It is not unusual for a person to work with both a therapist and a coach as these parallel processes can often compliment each other in service to the client's growth and improved well-being.