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Life Coaching Questions

What’s The Difference Between Life Coaching & Counseling?

By Lisa Marie Bobby, PhD, LMFT, BCC

Because I am trained as both a therapist and a life coach, I get this question a lot. I started out in on the traditional path, first obtaining a Masters Degree in Counseling Psychology, and then a PhD in Counseling Psychology. And yet… I wanted more. I, like my clients, often felt frustrated with the limitations of traditional therapy. So then I became a Board Certified Life Coach. Now, I have the privilege of working with clients both in my office in Denver, and with online coaching clients all over the world.

Because of my background, and the fact that I provide both counseling and coaching, I understand the similarities and the differences. While coaching and counseling are the same in that both provide you with a helpful relationship with a person to support your wellness and growth, coaches and counselors can have significant differences in their training, their methods, and their goals. Furthermore, there are situations where well meaning life coaches can cause harm to people. [Listen to my “Online Coaching” Podcast]

It’s extremely important to educate yourself about both approaches so that you can choose the right person to help you on your journey of growth. I hope the following information helps you decide what’s best for you.

Difference Between Coaching and Counseling: Education

Education for Counselors

The biggest difference between most coaches and counselors is their educational requirements. For example, in Colorado, a licensed counselor or therapist (interchangeable terms for a mental health professional) is required to have a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology, Clinical Psychology, Educational Psychology or Social Work. Everyone on our team has at least one Master’s Degree and / or a Doctorate.

Licensed counselors have had education and training around many aspects of the human experience. They’ve had classes in human development, human sexuality, family systems, ethics, research, and a variety of counseling strategies. Furthermore, they have had many, many hours of supervised training around how to be effective as helpers.

Like all the experts on my team, I have spent years doing therapy on the shiny side of a one-way mirror, under the watchful gaze of my wise supervisors. After I graduated I spent several more years in “clinical supervision” meaning that I would discuss all my cases with a seasoned therapist to make sure that I was doing everything right, and thinking through every aspect of how to help my clients.

In addition to everything else, traditional therapists have education around common mental health issues like Depression, Anxiety, ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, etc.  They have also been exposed to research and best practices for facilitating personal growth and change.

Education for Coaches

In contrast, at least in the state of Colorado, any kind of coach — a Life Coach, Career Coach, Executive Coach or Relationship Coach is not required to have any training or education in coaching at all. Literally anyone can call themselves a “Life Coach” and go into business as such.

While many coaches do pursue some training or education around coaching (anything from reading a book on how to be a life coach to attending a weekend seminar to going through a coaching program) this is not a requirement.

For example, though I personally chose to go through a coach training program, pass a national exam, and get a Board Certified Coach credential (BCC) I didn’t have to do that. I could just have announced that I was a life coach, and it would have been so! Really!

So if you’re looking for a coach do be sure to make sure that they have had at least some basic training in coaching. Look for a “Certified Life Coach” or “Board Certified Coach” credential. Better yet, look for a qualified professional therapist who has done the work of obtaining a professional degree in counseling, and then pursued a life coaching credential.

That way you’ll get the best of both worlds – the education, training, and experience of a therapist, with the action oriented approach of a coach.

But there are MORE differences between counseling and coaching besides just the educational requirements: Objectives, Ethics, and Approach.

Difference Between Coaching and Counseling: Objectives

The objective of therapy:

Helping people address and resolve problems that make them feel bad emotionally, or are impairing their ability to function well. This can include healing from Anxiety, Depression, Mood Disorders, Trauma, issues with their family of origin, their relationships, ADHD, Addictions and many other common problems.

It’s understood that unless and until these problems are resolved it will be difficult for people to make significant changes in their lives. Once they are feeling stronger and more confident, then they can start taking action to change their circumstances.

The objective of coaching:

Helping people achieve their goals. The basic presumption of coaching is that coaching clients are in a good place mentally and emotionally, and ready to receive guidance and instruction on how to make changes that will help them achieve their goals. The work focuses on creating and maintaining motivation for change, exploring obstacles to change, and creating plans for change.

Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Actually this brings us to the biggest difference between counseling and coaching and — in my opinion — the biggest problem with life coaching.

Most life coaches (unless they have a background in traditional counseling) don’t know enough to know that the true obstacles to their client’s goals may be clinical issues such as depression, anxiety or ADHD.

Educated have been taught that it is unethical for them to attempt to work with people that they do not have the training or experience to help. (So, for example, I do not personally have any experience or specialized training in helping people with eating disorders. Ethically, I need to refer these clients to someone who does, and can help them).

Coaches who have had formal coach training are taught that it is inappropriate for them to attempt to help anyone who is struggling emotionally, or dealing with depression, anxiety, mood disorders, or other recognized mental health problems. However, as we discussed, most life coaches do not have any education and so have not been exposed to this idea. Furthermore, even certified coaches have had zero education around how to identify depression, anxiety, etc and often miss it when it’s right in front of them.

This is a major issue when people simply reach out for help, and an uneducated coach may spend many months attempting life coaching strategies (Increasing motivation! Outlining action steps!) with a person who really, genuinely needs the services of a trained professional counselor in order to get better. It is a huge waste of time and money.

Difference Between Coaching and Counseling: Ethics & Boundaries

Counselors are required to maintain very strict ethical guidelines around the way they handle professional boundaries and confidential information with their clients. Because there is not any regulation or educational requirements for life coaches, ethical standards for coaches are highly variable.

Furthermore, coaches are not beholden to the same guidelines around client confidentiality or professional boundaries. So for example, your mother’s best friend could be your life coach and meet with you in a coffee shop to talk about achieving your career goals, and then give your mom a casual update about how you were doing — that’s completely fine.

However an ethical therapist would 1) Never agree to work with someone so closely connected to them personally, 2) Never meet with you in such a public setting where you would risk someone else seeing you or overhearing your conversation or 3) Never reveal a word to anyone, without your explicit written consent, about what you discussed.

Scary True Story: My colleague, a psychologist, disclosed to me that she was in a coffee shop and at the next table was a very upset woman sitting with a coach of some kind. My friend could hear every word, and the woman was very clearly describing and experiencing symptoms of Major Depressive Disorder.

The coach was in way over her head, but clearly either didn’t know (or feel that it was necessary) to halt the meeting and provide this poor woman with a referral to a qualified mental health professional who could help her. This put the client at risk for — best case — months or years of continued pain and suffering, or, worst case, at risk of becoming increasinly hopeless, despondent and unwell to the point of considering suicide. (Depression is a potentially fatal disease).

In my opinion, this is the biggest problem with coaching: hurting, vulnerable people who need help are not aware of the lack of educational requirements or regulation around the coaching profession. And in their ignorance, they are reaching out for help to people who often don’t even know enough to know that they are not qualified to provide it.

Difference Between Coaching and Counseling: The Approach

At this point you may be thinking that I am “anti” when it comes to coaching. Nothing could be further from the truth. I myself am very proud to be a Board Certified Coach.  This is because a coaching model provides help and positive outcomes to people for whom traditional therapy fails. (Read: Why traditional therapy doesn’t work).  There are very real limitations to traditional therapy, particularly for high-functioning, action oriented people.

For example, conventionally therapists and counselors are explicitly taught to not give anyone specific advice, but rather to help their clients find their own answers to problems. This is especially true with “non-directive” forms of therapy, like Interpersonal Therapy, Psychodynamic Therapy, and Client Centered Therapy. The net result for many people is that traditional therapy feels like “just talking about their past” without translating to real-world changes.

However, this is not true for all forms of therapy. In fact, what counseling research shows is that more active models of therapy tend to be more effective at producing positive outcomes for people. That is why we at Growing Self exclusively practice evidence based forms of therapy. “Directive” forms of therapy include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Gestalt Therapy, Emotinally Focused Couples Therapy, Solution-Focused Therapy, and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, and others. These approaches do offer people concrete strategies for growth and change.

But many people I speak with for whom conventional therapy has not worked out largely attribute it to their frustration with not getting “feedback” or helpful guidance in solving problems and making improvements. That’s why they seek out a coach, is in hope that they would get a partner who would offer actual guidance and ideas on how and where to make changes.

In contrast with counselors, coaches will make recommendations, and help you brainstorm solutions and strategies for changing things in your life. Ideally, a coach would be tentative with this, and not push their ideas on you if they don’t fit. An ethical therapist or coach will always make sure that the solutions they are proposing are congruent with the client’s belief system, circumstances, and personality. But people seeking help are often looking for real-world guidance. With coaching, they get it.

In addition to giving you very direct feedback about what your problems are and what you need to do to fix them, coaches will also often offer a structured plan of action. This often includes “homework assignments” of various kinds that help you practice new skills and strategies outside of your sessions. Provided that your coach has the education and experience to know what will help you, this clear instruction and specific assignments can be extraordinarily helpful. Having a roadmap for change, as well as a supportive accountability can make all the difference if you are genuinely ready to make changes.

The Love, Happiness
& Success Podcast

Finding a Healthy Balance: Coachy Counselors

At Growing Self Counseling and Life Coaching we strive to find an ideal balance between the two professions and two approaches.

I think of our team as being “coachy counselors” meaning that they are, first and foremost, highly educated, experienced mental health professionals who are able to help you on many different levels. They are also practitioners of effective, action-oriented, and positive approaches that help you get results. This can be through therapy, or through solution focused coaching, depending on your needs.

You might start with us in a place of pain or fragility, and through meaningful growth work in therapy eventually feel ready to make positive changes in your life. Then you continue moving forward into coaching, with a supportive partner to help you stay motivated, accountable to yourself, and able to help you identify real solutions.

Or, you might originally approach us for coaching and learn that the obstacles holding you back are linked to deeper things that are better addressed by therapy. That is okay too.

Educational requirements: Everyone on my team has at least a Master’s Degree or Doctorate in a counseling related field, and a background in traditional counseling. (With the exception of our Executive and Career Coaching specialist Hilary Romanoff. She has two Master’s Degrees, one in business administration and the other in career development, as well as a board certified coaching credential – which makes her the most qualified career and executive coach on our team!)

Ethics and boundaries: We all maintain strict ethical standards around boundaries, and confidentiality. If we determine that your problems would be better served by a different type of practitioner we will refer you elsewhere.

Our approach is tailored to you: Because of our experience, education, and multiple areas of expertise we are always able to meet you exactly where you are, and give you the right help at the right time.

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is trained as a Psychologist, a Marriage and Family Therapist, and is a Board Certified Life Coach. She is the Founder of Growing Self Counseling and Life Coaching in Denver, Colorado.

Dr. Bobby is the host of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast, and the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love.”

Personal Growth Experts

Effective Therapy • Life Coaching • Relationship Coaching • Executive Coaching • Career Coaching • Dating Coaching

We have specialized education and training, and years of experience in helping people achieve their personal and professional goals. We use only evidence based strategies that have been proven by research to help you get clarity and direction, have better relationships, feel happier, and design your ideal life.

Marlene Silva Rosabal, M.A., LMFTI

Marlene Silva Rosabal, M.A., LMFTI

Marriage Counselor, Premarital Counselor, Relationship Coach, Therapist, Life Coach, Career Coach

Marlene has a warm, compassionate style and over ten years of experience in helping people find clarity, direction and new strategies that allow them to move forward fearlessly. Whether you want to overcome self-limiting patterns, heal from traumatic life experiences, or feel more confident, happy and effective in your day-to-day life, she can help you. If you're looking to repair your relationship, Marlene has a special talent for helping couples get back on the same page and rediscover their love for each other through positive, effective, solution-focused strategies. Best yet, Marlene is bilingual and able to serve you as both an English and Spanish speaking life coach.

Teena Evert, M.A., LPC, LMFT, LAC

Teena Evert, M.A., LPC, LMFT, LAC

Marriage Counselor, Premarital Counselor, Relationship Coach, Life Coach, Therapist

Teena has years of experience as a "change agent" in the lives of her clients. She specializes in solution focused counseling and coaching with both individuals looking to have more fulfilling lives, and couples wanting communicate more effectively, find new solutions to old problems, repair their strong bond, rebuild trust after affairs, and create wholehearted, empowering relationships with both self and others.

Brenda Fahn, MA, LMFT

Brenda Fahn, MA, LMFT

Marriage Counselor, Premarital Counselor, Relationship Coach, Dating Coach, Life Coach, Therapist

Brenda Fahn specializes in helping couples create healthy, happy relationships, and helping her individual clients create balanced, joyful and meaningful lives. She is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, with a positive, direct style and over fifteen years of experience. She teaches our "Lifetime of Love" premarital / relationship class.

Kathleen Stutts, M.Ed., NCC, LPCC

Kathleen Stutts, M.Ed., NCC, LPCC

Therapist, Life Coach, Marriage Counselor, Dating Coach

Kathleen is a compassionate Therapist, Life Coach, Marriage Counselor and Dating Coach with a warm, gentle style that will help you feel comfortable, respected, and understood. She uses thoughtful, evidence based strategies like cognitive behavioral therapy and the Gottman Method to help her clients make positive changes in both their lives and their relationships, even when obstacles had seemed overwhelming previously.

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