What’s the difference, and which is most appropriate for you?

The topic of differences between Life Coaching and therapy is now well addressed by a wide variety of resources easily available online.   I will not reinvent that wheel here, beyond saying there are fundamental differences in education and professional training and in legal protection for confidentiality of communication between coach and client.

As a starting place for what others have to say on this topic, I would recommend, the International Coaching Federation, or ICF.  It is the oldest coaching association around, and provides independent certification that is usually considered the benchmark for the professional coaching industry.

You might also want to look at a somewhat dated (2011) but useful article from CBS news entitled “Top 10 professional life coaching myths” at   As you will see, the realm of “coaching” is still somewhat of a Wild West phenomenon, as the now professional fields of “psychology” and “counseling” once were.  This “unofficially professional” remains the status of “professional hypnosis”, for example.  Whether Life and Personal Coaching will stay at their current level,  like professional hypnosis, or eventually become taken over and regulated by state professional health agencies remains to be  seen.

If these links and or the present article do not answer your particular questions, please let me know and I will be happy to discuss them with you.  What follows are considerations specific to my particular Life Coaching  practice.

No Legal Protection With Coaching

At the most practical level of difference, anything even a “professional” coach of any sort does with a client is not legally protected or monitored for quality or for the potential of danger to the public.  Only licensure as a therapist ensures legally protected doctor/patient confidentiality, for example, and only licensed practitioners can be paid by insurance for their services.

There are now a large number of organizations claiming various levels of credibility for their own norms and criteria for certification and rules of ethics.  And none of these, including the ICF, hold any legal stature whatsoever.

You can count on my maintaining the same standards of confidentiality and protection of records that I maintained as a licensed Clinical Psychologist.  And do understand that, as with any coach, you have no recourse to any sort of legal protection for the privacy of our discussions or interactions.

The other most significant practical difference, were it ever to be of concern, has to do when things go badly with a coach.  There is no centralized agency or service that can do anything legally binding about complaints concerning a coach unless they have done something illegal.  With licensure, state Boards of whatever profession can prevent a person from legally continuing to practice whether they have done anything illegal or not, including imposing fines, suspending or revoking a license, and other directly punitive measures.

Level Of Client Health Is The Determining Factor

With regard to differences in what a coach or therapist actually do or how they do it, I find there is little fundamental difference, assuming both are well trained and appropriately skilled. The differences mostly have to do with differences in the level of healthy functioning in the clients with whom they work.  The less healthy the functioning, the less coaching is appropriate, and the more important it becomes that therapy is provided instead.

The trick, of course, is knowing the difference.  It’s a little bit like deciding when it’s ok to stick with homeopathic and other natural remedies, and when it’s time to see an MD.  In short, it’s a judgment call.

In my own coaching practice, I don’ attempt to determine whether a prospective client is appropriate for coaching as opposed to therapy until I know them well enough to have a reasonably informed opinion.  Because what may look or be healthy or unhealthy in one person may look or be exactly the opposite in another.

I will say that “how normal are they?” does apply, as long as we aren’t talking statistical norms.  Rather, it means that a person has a reasonably low level of ongoing or disruptive internal conflict with themselves about such things as sticking with a choice or decision, whether they are accepted by others, whether they are a good person, etc.

So perhaps a good rule of thumb is that if a person can adequately tolerate being challenged about their own imperfections and human foolishness, as well as tolerate these things in other people and in institutions they have to deal with or circumstances they have to face, then they are likely to be “healthy”.  This is true whether their lifestyle is Goth or that of a corporate  CEO.

When Coaching Is Not Appropriate

On the other hand, in cases of immediate extremes, such as being actively suicidal, just recently released from a psychiatric hospitalization, etc., the situation is more clear cut.   There ought to be at least an initial period of professional follow-up before considering coaching of any sort until it is clear that the person is adequately restabilized.  “Stabilized” simply means that the person exhibits adequate consistency and reasonable judgment in such areas as employment, self-care, lodging, social interactions, etc.

This is not to say that at some point, coaching might not become extremely useful.  Coaching can, in fact, be helpful in parallel with on-going therapy.  Whether it would be is entirely up to the individual and their therapist to determine.  I would of course want to discuss the situation were this to be proposed and would reserve the right to decline participation if I judged it inappropriate.

What Is Appropriate For My Own Practice Of Coaching

That said, it is probably true that my particular version of Life Coaching more closely parallels what is done in psychotherapy than many coaching practices.  For example, the generalization that coaches generally don’t ask questions about a client’s childhood strikes me as odd.

Guiding a person through making significant and enduring changes in their life is a complex, demanding and sensitive process regardless of whether it is done in the context of therapy or coaching.  What does not change in either context are the psychological realities, dynamics and internal processes involved in making a significant change, especially if that change is to be sustainable.

Unless you are considerably above even “normal” levels of high functioning, I believe it typically requires much more than simply finding a good cheerleader to guide your way through real change on the way to maximizing your potential.   I offer a more detailed explanation of these factors in the “Useful Notions” section of this website.

At the same time, it would be foolish to say that all types of changes that benefit from a “we just need to build on your existing strengths” model of coaching always involve a depth of “rootedness” outside of the coachee’s awareness.  And I do hold  that what we do or don’t do in life as human beings are driven first and foremost by our concerns for safety.

The Crucial Importance Of Safety

This is a subtle issue, because “safety” here does not mean whether someone has a gun to our head.  Much more profoundly, it involves our basic assumptions about Emotional safety.  This means that we can believe we already know enough about what is happening or will  happen and what we might or might not be able to do—both internally and interpersonally—to remain safe.

So safety can mean very different things to different people.  In some families, there can be “lots of yelling and arguing” that is legitimately a cultural pattern of unrestrained self-expression and not a guarantee of psychologically damaged children.   In this setting, “Safety” does not mean that no arguments occur or that no one raises their voice. On the other hand, for a person raised in an environment where “civility” and politeness are always expected at a minimum, even someone raising their voice, however slightly, can set off alarm bells of impending danger.

The point is that EVERYONE has built in radar specifically calibrated for the purpose of recognizing danger, whether in the form of simple unfamiliarity or overt threat.  And most importantly to the question of coaching versus therapy, this radar sits on top of a psychological foundation that can vary in its ability to withstand being shaken.

Shaking The Foundation Of Our Safety Radar

For real behavior change to occur, that foundation has to be shaken, at least to some degree.  If it did not, we would not need therapy or coaching to make the change.  For now, I will simply assert that this is the case, and that it explains why making real changes in human behavior can be such a dicey proposition.

The bottom line is that one cannot always predict how stable an individual’s psychological foundation is until the shaking has begun.  Unfortunately, this is generally true regardless of a person’s self-perception.  The reason for this is called “psychological defenses”.

More detail is probably needed to be convincing here, and briefly, our brains are designed first and foremost to protect us from pain and harm.  As physical safety becomes less a concern, safety from emotional pain and harm automatically become the priority for our brain’s protective radar.

The Hidden Trick In Our Radar’s Protection

Now, all this is fine and good.  Only there’s a  “trick” here.  Once danger (or anything even remotely like it) is detected, our psychological defenses automatically kick in.  The thing is, in order to work, these defenses must protect our conscious mind from registering emotional or psychological pain or discomfort even when it is there.

So the trick is, the conscious mind cannot know it is being protected from a perceived danger.  Because if it did, it would become aware of the discomfort that danger causes.  That is, not only does the built-in radar of our unconscious mind attempt to protect us from the perceived “danger” of making the very changes we consciously want to make.  It also keeps hidden from our conscious mind that we are being protected.

This necessary and essential characteristic of our emotional protection is often the source of severe to catastrophic mischief—ranging from family discord and divorce to war between nations.  It also helps explain why someone can absolutely deny they are doing something even in the face of everyone around them insisting that they are.

To acknowledge they were doing what they were accused of would be emotionally distressing.  And consciously, the person doesn’t (can’t) know this, because their unconscious mind is protecting them from the bad feelings that would follow if they did know.

For that person’s conscious mind, there has to be some other explanation for what’s happening.  So the person is left with insisting that they simply are not doing what everyone else says they are.  The real explanation (provided by the protective brain) is usually that the accusers are bad, wrong, and in extreme cases, need to be destroyed.

The Need For Recalibration Of Our Safety Radar

The importance of this in coaching versus therapy is that our adult brain’s radar stays calibrated pretty much exactly as it was calibrated by our experiences in childhood.  So our adult (emotional) radar has us unknowingly protecting ourselves in the present from what our brain said was dangerous when we were a child.  Meaning that the threat or danger our radar perceives in the present may be completely out of line with what is presently true.

It is this “miscalibration” which most often generates the problems that lead us to seek help in making change in the first place.  And it is not extreme to say that to recalibrate our basic sense of what is or is not safe is to challenge our fundamental (conscious) perception of reality.

When the radar’s foundation is solid enough, it can withstand the pressures and strains of recalibration, or better said, of reconstructing our conscious perception both of ourselves and of current reality.  And in the type of Life Coaching I do, those pressures can necessarily become quite daunting.  This is why my logo carries the words, “The Truth shall set you free.  And first, it shall piss you off.”

When The Radar’s Foundation Shakes Too Much

When the radar’s foundation begins to shake enough that it becomes unstable, a person’s built in sense of survival will usually have them attempt to withdraw from what is causing the shaking—that is, as they naturally see it, from their “pushy” Life Coach.  Yet they have hired that Coach precisely not to let them too easily withdraw from carrying through on making the changes they genuinely (consciously) want to make.

I like to believe that my own style of fulfilling the contract not to let the client off the hook is to help clients “corral” themselves into not withdrawing.  And I do this not by “confronting” them.  I do it by not allowing them to psychologically get “around” me or around the specific words I am saying, regardless of what they may hear or believe I am saying.

“Corralling” Rather Than Confronting

That is, my role as a Life Coach (as it was as a psychotherapist) is not to decide what choices or decisions a client “has” to make.  My job is to ensure as much as possible that whatever choices and decisions they do make are fully Conscious ones and not simply a function of reactions set off by miscalibrated radar.  The point is to ensure that the person is responding to what they perceive, and not just reacting to it.

For example, I often find myself helping a client recognize a previously unrecognized contradiction between their stated perception of what is happening in a problem situation and what Real Thinking would say about what is actually happening.  I never insist that the person believe or agree with what I am saying.

I only require that they can demonstrate having accurately heard the words I spoke and they are doing Real Thinking about those words and what they signify according to the dictionary–not just according to how they feel.  The conclusions and decisions the person comes to under those circumstances are their own, and I will support the person’s making them, whether I agree with them or not.

Always Room To Consider and Reflect

In other words, there is always room to consider and reflect on what I may be suggesting before deciding whether to act on it.  And if that reflection concludes enough times that I am off base, then working with me as your Life Coach is something you can honorably say should stop.

The ultimate point is that in the process I just described, considerable internal pressure can develop about whether or not you consciously choose to agree with or follow what I am offering.  There is usually a great deal of ambivalence about making such a choice once the basis of what is at stake—i.e., what can be the equivalent of emotional survival–is clear.

Necessary Ambivalence

When the “radar’s” foundation is adequate, a person can usually push through this ambivalence despite their discomfort.  On the other hand, some clients can feel literally trapped between what their emotions tell them and what (in their experience) The Almighty Coach is telling them.  This can especially be true in the case of adult clients with a history of abuse.

This is because one of the inevitable consequences of having been victimized as a child is developing into an adult who has literally NO sense of power to do ANYTHING to protect themselves from a perceived authority figure.  It literally may not occur to them that they even have a choice about whether to comply.

Without relief from an intolerable conflict between fleeing and complying, a person can begin to experience disruption in their ability to carry on as usual in their daily lives.  If the radar’s very foundation is at stake, therapy becomes more appropriate than coaching.

What Does Therapy Do That Coaching Can’t?

As research has demonstrated, the primary “change/healing agent” in therapy, regardless of the type of therapy utilized, is the relationship between the therapist and the patient.  Certainly the level and professional of therapists versus coaches is usually significant.  But much more importantly, when the radar’s foundation needs repair, then everything I said above about Safety becomes THE essential necessity.  The only thing that will encourage and allow patients to be as open and honest with their therapist as is needed is that this relationship be sanctioned as “privileged” by the laws and norms of society at large.  Only such a “consensually based” protection for doctor/patient confidentiality is adequate to develop the deep, intense and often long term relationship required for repair and healing.

Given that no such protection exists for the coach/client relationship, coaching cannot provide what is required for doing therapy.

My Professional Accountability

Regardless of the client’s history or experience in the process of coaching, I hold myself professionally accountable for monitoring and  communicating to an existing or potential client any indications that therapy might be more appropriate than coaching.

This remains true even if the coaching relationship has already become well established.  What I would want you to understand that you can count on is that I would ALWAYS discuss any such situation thoroughly with you before drawing any conclusions or making any definitive recommendations.

In closing, below is a list of what I believe are useful indicators that coaching is not adequate or is not appropriate.  I encourage you to consider these as part of your determining what is most appropriate for you.

And again, please let me know if I can address any remaining questions.

Here are nine warning signals that tell you a therapist is more suitable for your needs at this time.

  1. You spend lots of time in each coaching session ventilating about negative emotions and stressful situations in your life.
  2. You tend to be rather emotionally brittle and easily set off.
  3. You become defensive or overly sensitive to constructive criticism.
  4. You have fears or phobias that seem extreme and resistant to change.
  5. You can’t seem to make progress on your issues and keep coming back to the same themes that keep you stuck.
  6. You avoid talking about certain issues, out of fear, embarrassment or shame, or poor attentional control.
  7. Your coach expresses frustration that you won’t properly do homework, follow-through or speak openly about certain issues.
  8. You believe you have depression, severe anxiety, or addiction issues.
  9. You have a strong personal reaction to your coach, negative or positive, which gets in the way of the working relationship.

By Bill Cole, MS, MA, 

Founder and CEO
William B. Cole Consultants
Silicon Valley, California