4 Differences Between Therapy and Life Coaching

So what is life coaching exactly? And how is it different from therapy or counseling?

These are great questions because the life coaching industry has grown substantially over the years, and continues to grow.

With so many different types of life coaches (and with varying levels of education and experience), it can be difficult to know where to start if you are interested in life coaching. Or if you are unsure whether or not you might find more benefit from a therapist or counseling program.

In this article, I highlight a brief history of how life coaching emerged as a unique industry. And then I’ll touch on four key differences between therapy/counseling and the life coaching industry today.

A Brief History of Life Coaching

Life coaching first grew out of the practice of sports coaching in the 1960s. Books such as Timothy Galloway’s book, The Inner Game of Tennis, highlighted that coaching principles can benefit people that are not necessarily athletes.

In the 1970s, Werner Erhard’s self-empowerment workshops built on this idea of personal growth and wellness. Thomas Leonard then drew from Erhard’s work in his role as a financial planner.

When Leonard advised his clients, he noticed that many were emotionally stable but  in need of some guidance in areas such goal-setting and life organization. Leonard began to call his system of coaching, “life-planning.” He was instrumental in founding the Coaching University and the International Coach Federation.

Therapy vs Life Coaching

There is a variety of theories, methods, and tools that underlie both therapy and life coaching.

There is also considerable diversity among the professionals who provide the coaching or counseling services to their clients and patients.

That said, when making a decision on whether or not to hire a life coach, it is important to understand how a life coach is distinct and different from a therapist.

Here are four key differences to keep in mind.

1. The Training is Different

The training for counselors and therapists is rooted in the medical model. Many have specialized post-secondary training in psychology, social work, and/or psychotherapy. Therapists are able to diagnose mental health challenges and offer prescriptive advice. Therapists and counselors offer important and specialized services for mental and emotional trauma.

The training of life coaches is rooted in a wellness orientation. This means that clients are understood as functional, whole beings who are wanting to take their life to the next level.

Life coaches have various levels of certification, training, and experience. Some life coaches draw primarily from personal and/or professional experience, while others are certified through internationally recognized coaching organizations after completing a specific scope of coursework and coaching practicum hours.

For example, the iNLP Center offers certified life coach training programs through their online learning platform, which includes live virtual training sessions and support from certified professional trainers, as well as full accreditation and professional memberships. Find out more about their life coaching certification and accreditation programs here.

What makes me unique as a life coach is I have a Master’s degree in conflict resolution, where I’ve studied problem-solving and interpersonal relationships intensively and have had intense training in practical skills such as concentrated listening, asking open-ended questions, and reframing perspectives.

2. The Focus is Different

Both coaching and therapy helps clients build emotional insight. However,  therapy is specialized in mental health diagnoses and helping clients process past experiences and trauma.

Life coaches are focused on building skills and providing practical solutions to a client’s current challenge. Often, coaches have a specific area, or niche, they specialize in such as health and wellness, business, or communication. For example, my area of expertise is helping clients meet goals in the areas of careers and relationships.

3. The Tools Can Vary

Coaches prioritize future action to meet a client’s needs. This involves helping individuals get ‘unstuck’ in the present day. Most coaches guide their clients to set goals for each session, and follow up with these goals with corresponding homework, such as mindfulness exercises and thought journals.

Certain therapy, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), also uses present-focused tools; however, they tend to dig deeper into past experiences and traumas.

4. The Process is Different

There is a variety of processes used in both life coaching and therapy. Both therapists and life coaches generally set aside sessions anywhere between 60-90 minutes) for dialogue and conversation.

Therapists primarily offer in-person sessions, whereas life coaches use various mediums. For instance, coaches conduct sessions in-person, over the phone, and online (which is currently rising in popularity).

While both counselors and coaches offer support and guidance, coaching places particular emphasis on accountability. For this reason, coaching sessions often address a particular challenge or goal. It is a common practice to have sessions bundled into a ‘package.’ Packages will have corresponding homework assignments over a specific time-frame so that coaching outcomes can be measured.

In my coaching practice I currently offer two packages where 90 minute sessions are bundled into a 3 month time-frame.

Both Therapy and Life Coaching Have Advantages

Counseling and coaching can augment each other very well as they have different, but often complementary, areas of focus.

As a coach, I have had several clients who have shared they’ve found it helpful to receive both coaching and counselling concurrently.

The most successful outcomes in life coaching are when clients are understood as the ‘experts’ of their own lives.

The role of a life coach is not to be an advice-giver but a guide. This means clients decide for themselves what tools and solutions will work best for them.

My training in conflict resolution has equipped me with tools, such as asking open-ended questions, that help me get to the underlying root of beliefs, perspectives, and behaviours. I then pass on these tools to my clients so that they can successfully manage their own internal and external conflict.

As a life coach, my specialty is helping people-pleasers and perfectionists get unstuck so they accomplish important career and relationship goals with less self-judgment and more courage and peace.

Email me privately through the ‘Connect’ page to learn more about how my coaching services can help you!