Comparing Coaches and Counselors

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In recent years, Life Coaches have expanded the ranks of the helping professionals. However, the boundary between what is coaching and what is therapy lacks definition, for consumers and providers alike.

Counselors and Coaches Delineated

There are many objective differences between coaches and counselors, which I will detail in a moment. I’ll also speak from my own experience, both as a former client of two life coaches, and as both a provider and recipient of counseling.

The primary distinction between counselors and coaches is that counseling is a legally regulated profession in most jurisdictions, while coaching is not. This means that people calling themselves counselors are held to specific standards of training, professionalism and ethics, while coaches are largely unregulated. Many of the distinctions below result from the regulatory environment constraining counselors but not coaches.

Education is often a major distinction between counselors and coaches. Counselors are required to have at least a master’s degree, and many have doctorates. Masters’ and doctoral programs include internships of roughly a year or longer where student counselors’ work is carefully monitored and evaluated. Upon graduation, counselors in my state — Georgia — are issued an associate license, which allows them to practice only under the supervision of more experienced colleagues. In Georgia, getting from the first day of graduate school to full licensure takes a minimum of five-and-a-half years of study and supervised work experience.

Because coaching is not a licensed profession, there is no minimum standard for coach education. Anyone can call themselves a “coach” without running afoul of the law or risking any professional sanctions. Many organizations that provide coach training will sign off on a coach with only a few weekends of training, much of which can be done online. There is no guarantee that a coach has received any supervision from more advanced mentors.

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Coaches and counselors agree on one thing: coaching is not indicated for treating mental illnesses. In my own experience as a coaching client, this boundary was clearly outlined before our first session. I was informed that if I developed a mental illness while in coaching, I would need to have it treated elsewhere. This sounds like a good, solid boundary at first glance, however in practice, I have concerns.

Given that 26 percent of the adult population will suffer some form of diagnosable mental illness in a 12-month period, the chance of someone developing such a condition while in coaching is far from trivial. And when such illness emerges, often the last thing a client wants is to change providers. An ethical coach should refer out clients with mental illness, however coaches are not experts at recognizing and diagnosing mental disorder, so there is risk of missing the signs and symptoms. More practically, as a counselor, I have never received a referral from a coach, nor have I heard from any of my colleagues that they have received such a referral. Together, these facts leave me with the uneasy feeling that, knowingly or not, coaches are in fact working with the mentally ill.

The Changing Face of Certification

In the US, the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) has expanded its scope to include coaching. While the idea of certifying coaches serves to create national standards where before there were none, having the same professional organization certifying both coaches and counselors muddies the waters between these two distinct professions. Without clear guidance, it becomes increasingly hard for consumers to know if they should hire a coach, a counselor, or some other sort of helping professional.

What Coaches Say About Counselors

Aside from the objective facts about coaches and counselors, the two populations have distinct beliefs and cultures. What’s more, coaches often seek to differentiate themselves from counselors on these terms, and rightfully so. However, some of the differences I have heard badly mischaracterize the counseling process, and so I welcome the opportunity to speak for counselors as a counselor.

It has been said that counselors tell the client what to do, whereas coaches help clients find out what they want to achieve. While coaches may rightfully claim that they honor the goals of the client, this is no less true for counselors. Counselors are trained from day one to set goals with the client. We recognize that client-selected goals are the most motivating kind, and favor them accordingly.

Coaches have tried to position themselves as advocates for high-achieving clients while counselors focus on disorders and dysfunctions. While counselors are certainly competent to work with the mentally disturbed in a way that coaches are not, we do not, as a rule, confine ourselves to the treatment of the mentally ill. Indeed many high-functioning clients use therapy as a springboard to even greater levels of performance and emotional flourishing.

The counseling process has sometimes been characterized as long-term, painful, and past-focused, in contrast to coaching, which is quick and focused on positive future outcomes. There are certainly forms of counseling that are long-term and past-focussed, most obviously, traditional psychodynamic approaches. However the overwhelming majority of counselors do not practice this form of therapy, and the trend in counseling has been towards approaches that show rapid changes in behaviors going forward. Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) is among the most popular of these more nimble, forward-looking approaches.

Both coaching and counseling are evolving professions. I expect the borderline between what is a counseling issue and what is a coaching issue to shift over time. Yet both coaches and counselors owe it to their clients to accurately and correctly define their approaches and scope of practice.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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