7 Reasons Coaching And Therapy Are More Alike Than You Think (The Definitive Guide)

There isn’t a question in coaching that provokes more polarization and intractability than, ‘What is the difference between coaching and therapy?’

More often than not, it’s asked by some innocent coaching newbie who ’s completely unaware of the maelstrom they are unleashing onto a usually civilized message board.

I have long held the opinion that coaching and therapy have far more commonalities than there are differences.

Both require rapport building, skilled question asking and an ability to listen deeply.

And both aim to get the client from where they are to where they want to be.

Alas, some coaching purists don’t like to hear that and prefer to believe coaching is something distinct.

In believing that they cling on to ideas/memes that seem to make sense on the surface and without further examination – but wither under rigorous investigation.

I have pondered writing an article on the topic for months, if not years, but have shied away because I don’t have any experience as a therapist – so it may seem slanted.

Then I was introduced to the work of Jeff Riggenbach.

As you will understand as you read through the post, Jeff absolutely does have that experience and can talk with credibility and gravitas on the subject.

I rarely take guest posts on Coach The Life Coach, but when I do they are really, really good.

I’d love your thoughts in the comments. Have you fallen for any of the easy explanations Jeff dissects (I know I have in the past) and do you still disagree?

Now it’s over to Jeff.


7 Reasons Coaching And Therapy Are More Alike Than You May Think?

Having trained over 15,000 practitioners of various disciplines in all 50 United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, I can tell you that there are some pretty strong opinions about coaching vs therapy worldwide.

Mind you, there are hundreds of thousands of people worldwide who also still believe that the world is flat.

There is little correlation between the certainty with which you believe something and it being true.

I recently conducted informal social media and email-based surveys of approximately 100 coaches and 100 therapists.

I wanted to get their perceptions about the differences between coaching and therapy.

The responses were astonishing.

Approximately 99% of coaches essentially said: “Coaching is drastically different than therapy” 

Many offered emphatic “No’s” when asked if they were the same, but gave no explanation.

One sarcastic respondent retorted with: “Isn’t a lion the same thing as a cheetah”?

Yet another replied by saying: “If you just knew how to use Google you could tell how different the two really were.”

And a final contributor said: “You mean that therapy that makes people psycho?”

Some (although not as many), of the therapists’ responses, were just as snarky.

“Are you talking about those people with inferiority complexes who weren’t intelligent and motivated enough to actually get a degree” quipped one psychologist.

My research also produced this response:

“This mythic narrative ( that coaching is significantly different) aims to insulate a profession in its infancy from claims that it’s really doing therapy without a license. It seeks to protect egos and wallets of coaches…”

Digging below the dismissiveness to the content of those who offered thoughtful opinions revealed that both sides appear to have some significant misconceptions.

So, let’s take a look at seven incorrect claims coaches make when they insist that therapy and coaching are different.

Hold on to your hats because I’m probably going to shatter some paradigms and piss a few people off – but that’s why we have a comment field, so you can dive in and voice your opinion!

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1. Past vs Present

This was by far the most common response I received by coaches regarding their perceptions of the difference.

Variations of: “Therapy is about resolving past trauma and wounds – Coaching focuses on the present and is about moving forward.”

The reality is that there are many types of psychotherapy, and this criticism is largely only true of those who practice from a psychodynamic perspective.

Surveys have shown that about 15% – 20% of licensed behavioral health professionals now endorse these as orientations they draw from.

The overwhelming majority now focus on the “here and now” and help clients move forward.

On the flip side, a quick Facebook search yielded almost 500 coaches claiming to be experts in “transformation and healing from past trauma” of one kind or another.


2. High Functioning vs Low Functioning

This was also a common response.

Some variation of: “Coaches help high functioning people get better while therapists help sick people get less sick.”

It is likely true that higher functioning people are more likely to seek coaching.

Although, that may be because higher functioning people have more of a stigma associated with therapy.

And/or it may also suggest that only higher functioning people can afford coaching because it is generally much more expensive and rarely, if ever, covered by insurance.

However, someone who has panic disorder (a “sick” person with a “mental disorder”) may be just as interested in hiring, say, a weight loss coach as someone who is “higher functioning” and overweight. 

In 20 years of clinical practice, I worked with many higher functioning folks who came in with goals of facing fears, losing weight, or dealing with problematic relationships.

watch in sand

3. Short-Term vs Long Term

The third piece of feedback I received was that coaching is short-term, while therapy is long-term in nature and often requires years to complete.

Even before managed care hit the US and the average length of outpatient treatment became 10 sessions, I was reading books in graduate school by Bill O’Hanlon (In Search of Solutions), Steve De Shazer ( Patterns In Brief Therapy) and many others published in the late 70’s and early 80’s.

Aaron Beck pioneered Cognitive Behavior Therapy in 1960, which scoffed at the psychoanalytic notion that examination of the past was a necessary ingredient of therapy.

So again, although there are exceptions, these past/future, short-term/long term claims by coaches have been largely untrue for the better part of 50 years.

helping hand

4. Empowerment vs Advice

In my research, I also got a lot of responses like: “Coaches empower clients to solve their own problems. Therapy gives guidance and direction.”

Again, this depends on the type of treatment. There are a variety of therapy approaches.

While it is true that some are more directive in nature, others take a “one-down” approach, assume the client has everything within them necessary to solve their own problems, and offer no actual advice.

It is also true that there are different types of coaching.

Many of these DO give directives. Cognitive-Behavioral Coaching (Neenan, 2002, Dryden, 2012) for instance, represents a coaching approach that includes a heavy dose of problem-solving and generating solutions.


5. Problems vs Goals

There is some overlap in these critiques and I have already touched on this one some in previous points.

Many people seek therapy with a stated desire to achieve goals.

And, conversely, many coaches will speak of helping you “get past roadblocks to success.”

Uh, roadblocks is coach-ese for problems.

The reality is that both do both.

what's the difference between coaching and therapy.

6. Behavior change vs Intrapsychic change

Here’s an interesting one I got several times: “Coaching focuses on behavior change with measurable results. Therapy focuses on matters of the unconscious mind.” 

First of all, I can guarantee you I heard the term “intrapsychic” 10 times less in my five years of graduate school that I did my first week hanging in coaching circles.

Deepak (Chopra) disciples, (Thurman ) Fleet Followers, not to mention all kinds of strange energy healers were just a few among the many talking to me about these abstract ideas.

I had one prospective client on a sales call tell me my “aura was leaking” and he did not know if he could work with someone who was “in need of such profound metaphysical and intrapsychic change.”

I didn’t know anything about this.

I had been operating in the psychotherapy world for 20 years where we were required to complete treatment plans on every patient we worked with identifying clearly defined, behavioral, measurable, objective goals.

Otherwise, insurance companies would take money back from our facilities during audits.

tools for coaching

7. Skill-Based v Deeper Work

The final of the seven opinions is this: “Coaching is more skills-based – therapy delves much deeper.”

First of all, this one even angered many coaches who challenged the notion that they were incapable of doing “deep work.”

On the flip side of the coin, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, and many other forms of psychotherapy have skills training components to their treatment protocols.

Having said all of this… I believe there are some noteworthy distinctions between coaching and therapy. 

So don’t get me wrong. I believe in coaching. I believe there is a place for both.

If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be a coach.

I coach people to achieve their own personal goals and I help therapists, coaches, and alternative practitioners to incorporate CBT techniques into the work they already do.

But the reality is that a lot of coaching goes on in therapy and a lot of therapy techniques are used in coaching.

Another reality is that people have the right to seek help with change in their lives from whoever they choose to.

I believe that in many cases and for a variety of reasons, coaches can offer this assistance more effectively than therapists.

So, in reality even if not in theory, there is considerable overlap regardless of arbitrary definitions that have been made up attempting to distinguish the two – even if they can be accessed by the almighty Google!

My desire is simply that coaches develop a better sense of the actual differences, and that the can articulate them clearly and accurately to others.

Authors Bio

Jeff Riggenbach, PhD, has over twenty years of experience using CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), written 3 best-selling books and has trained over 15,000 people in how to use practical CBT tools to improve the quality of their lives

He now teaches coaches these tools so that they can help their clients have greater more permanent breakthroughs and speaks on the topic all over the world.

You can read more about Jeff by clicking here and visiting his site.



  1. Deanna

    As both an LCSW and studying to be a health coach,I do see similarities. Both draw on Motivational Interviewing and my coaching school states that we don’t address deficits but strengths. I much rather coach than do therapy however which is why I’m trying to do a career change! I was taught that therapy does more directing actually and coaching does guiding. I can see that especially in Managed Care.

    I also understand that the client needs to be in a good place in their life to take on coaching. If let’s say, substance abuse is going on they really need to be in the therapy. Coaching and therapy can also be done side by side especially if the client has psychiatric diagnosis.

    • Tim Brownson

      I do think it’s possible for clients to work with a coach as they are going through therapy – as long that is, that the therapist knows this and the coach doesn’t get involved in that side of things. I have done this a number of times.

  2. Once again, Tim what an interesting series of questions. I know from the Coaching Diplomas that I have done that these questions about difference between Coaching and therapy are front and centre of any Pro Active Coaching institutions basically saying that “near between shall we meet”. I can hear the typical responses of Coaches on the subject covered in your article. My reality as a practicing coach are that my clients have come across therapy practices and are well aware of therapy I have to Coach them from where they are at to where they want to go. There are coaching techniques like CBT and NLP that draw upon existing behaviours routed in the past, that allow the Client deal with issues and beliefs held in the past and can be changed so that a different perspective can be reached. My own practice is to keep the Client focused on their goals and their completion. That is where I draw the line for me. That is why a chemistry check really helps me decide if the Client is a suitable candidate for my style.

    • Tim Brownson

      Exactly Maurice. I for one happen to think you’re taking the correct approach. We just have to let everything else fall by the wayside.

  3. This kind of article and discussion are exactly what I’m looking for at the moment.
    I’m scheduled to begin a coach training program in December, and while I’m confident that the school I chose is a good one, it also feels like there are so many schools and methods that offer valid perspectives for how to be truly helpful to a client. I’ll keep an eye on this blog, thanks for the food for thought.

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