Many articles that attempt to distinguish coaching from therapy come up with these differentiators:
- Therapy focuses on the past, coaching on the future.
- Therapy is long-term, coaching attempts short term results.
- Therapists provide a diagnosis, whereas coaches don’t.
Simplicity is desirable. But I believe a more nuanced approach is required to explore the differences between coaching and therapy.
Simply drawing a line between working short and long-term is flawed since many forms of therapy are geared towards clients’ desire to achieve short-term progress. The length of therapy depends on the individual, the challenges they are facing and their therapy goals.
I have found that I often work on a therapy-coaching continuum. This must, of course, be seen in the context of typical clients I work with, people with a good degree of stability in at least some areas of their lives. Moving along this continuum with a more fluid approach needs a therapeutic qualification as a solid foundation. In this article, I will share my observations on shifting along the continuum and in my roles as a therapist and a coach.
First things first: when coaching isn’t an appropriate choice
There are factors that should steer us away from a coaching approach: coaching, with or without a therapeutic qualification and the related experience, is inappropriate for anyone who is experiencing a mental health crisis or doesn’t have the capacity to self-regulate and safely navigate strong emotions. Coaching is also unsuitable if the coaching conversation could bring up strong emotions and stir memories or behaviours in a client that put their or others’ safety at risk and require therapeutic support.
When considering a coaching approach, I ensure that it is the client’s preference, that they have the capacity to work in this way, including self-regulation skills, stability and functioning in most areas of life and that their challenges are suitable to a coaching approach.
Trauma in coaching
The presence or absence of trauma is not a suitable or sufficient differentiator. Coaching can provide appropriate support when traumatic experiences have occurred, but it isn’t suitable if a client expresses the processing of trauma as their goal or requires support to resolve trauma-generating life settings. While data is limited, the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare states that 57 to 75% of Australians will experience a potentially traumatic event in their lives. With trauma being so widespread in the population, we can expect to see the effects of living with trauma in many coaching relationships.
Many challenges clients seek coaching for might have been shaped by traumatic experiences: perfectionism, difficulty to assert boundaries, procrastination and issues with keeping to deadlines or routines, feeling stuck, problems with self-esteem or decision making, relationship patterns or typical responses to stressful events can all be related to trauma, in particular attachment or developmental trauma. Equally it is risky to use someone’s visible success in life, their ability to portray confidence and competence, their capability for high performance or stress resistance as an indicator that they haven’t been impacted by trauma. It’s worth mentioning that chronic stress, including chronic workplace stress, can also result in trauma.
Shifting from coaching into therapy
As a Masters-qualified art therapist with ongoing professional development in the field of trauma, I have the skills to shift a coaching relationship into more therapeutic territory. This needs to be done in a fully transparent way. It means noticing the emerging information, naming the perceived change and asking the client for consent and agreement to make this shift. Traumatic memories are not necessarily held as cognitive or mental memories. Instead, trauma is held in the body. Noticing the presence and influence of trauma requires additional skills beyond asking the right questions and active listening.
Another essential aspect when considering work on the therapy-coaching continuum is that the coach/ therapist works within a strong code of ethics. In my private practice, I work as a registered art therapist. Regardless of whether I take a therapy approach or work on the therapy-coaching continuum, my work adheres to ANZACATA’s code of ethics, I’m required to have regular supervision and ongoing professional development to keep my knowledge and skills current.
How my approach applies to coaching and therapy
My collaborative and client-centric approach aligns well with the philosophy of coaching. I work emergently; how the work evolves is driven by my client’s needs and goals regardless of where we are on the therapy-coaching continuum. The quality of the relationship and the level of trust we develop over time is another essential ingredient in my coaching and therapeutic work.
My sessions are always a place for learning and broadening our understanding of how life shapes us. A lot of the information and frameworks I offer in sessions are informed by neuroscience, the response of our nervous systems, and understanding emotional and behavioural patterns; as such they are relevant for both coaching and therapy clients.
The role of the past, future and present
To bring lasting change, coaching and therapy must honour the past and how it has shaped us. That’s why I don’t support the view that therapy works with the past and coaching looks into the future. For me, therapy that concerns itself only with the past brings up associations of a never-ending string of Woody Allen-esque psychoanalysis sessions. This has little to do with many contemporary forms of therapy.
People seek therapy or coaching to live a more fulfilling life. For most of us, understanding our stories and having them witnessed is the first step in shaping such a life. Boththerapy and coaching inspire the client to imagine new possibilities, alternative ways of being, to experiment with new aspects of their identity or different behaviours. Imagination is a powerful resource which takes our view into the future.
And let’s not forget the present! Resilience is our ability to stay present with strong emotions, in the face of adversity, uncertainty and pain. Keeping a client grounded in the present is crucial for a fruitful session during which insights and learning are possible. Strengthening resilience to steer through times of stress and turbulence is a positive outcome for coaching and therapy alike. Trauma-informed coaching offers the benefits of coaching to people who experience some dysregulation but don’t seek therapeutic work. A skilled, trauma-informed coach will have the experience to support them in staying present and regulating their nervous system response. However, a client who regularly experiences dysregulation does require solid therapeutic support.
What might feel different when we work with a coaching approach
When a client wants to work with a coaching approach, goals might move more into focus and the accountability offered by a coaching relationship is experienced as supportive. The overarching coaching goal might get broken down into smaller steps and a detailed plan for achieving them. This can include agreed timelines or email coaching in-between sessions.
Among my coaching clients, I’ve also observed a greater desire and capacity to engage in reflective work in-between sessions. They are comfortable to move at a faster pace, and reflective invitations between sessions can accelerate progress. As an art therapist and coach, the work between sessions often contains the creative aspect of our work, especially when working online.
Being directive or sharing personal experiences is always a delicate balance for any therapist or coach. Research has shown that appropriate and skilful self-disclosure can be beneficial and support progress. But therapists and coaches must be intentional and aware of how self-disclosure impacts on the relationship. When I work in a coaching capacity, I might be more directive, offer an opinion or assessment of a situation. Equally, I might share theory or supporting techniques in a different way than in a therapeutic relationship.
What is right for me?
The intention of this article is to provide some guidance on which approach might be right for you. It helps you ask the right questions in a discovery call with me. It can, of course, inform your choice with any other therapist or coach you might consider working with.
The starting point should be your preference in light of what you want to work on. You will know how you respond to stress, whether your life and relationships feel pretty stable or whether you experience frequent situations of feeling out of control.
My practice is built on a therapeutic qualification and experience in a range of settings including clinical ones. My previous experience in corporate settings and leadership roles helps me understand the context that is suitable for a coaching approach and my work at Sensemaking Space has shown that it is possible to blend the two ways of working within a client relationship.
It’s not always clear cut whether coaching or therapy is the best approach. That’s why I value working on the therapy-coaching-continuum with some flexibility and being able to hold both roles in a responsible, safe and ethical manner. As in every other area of my practice, being transparent about my observations and where I believe we are on the continuum is critical to building trusting relationships.
The best way to get further clarity is a conversation as it is impossible to cover all nuances in one post. If you want to explore your needs and goals, and which approach might work best for you don’t hesitate to book a free-of-charge discovery call with me and we can dive in further.
As a side note, at the beginning of this article I mentioned that some people differentiate between therapy and coaching based on whether clients receive a diagnosis or not. It’s important to stress that a mental health diagnosis can only be given by a qualified medical practitioner, i.e., a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist; less complex diagnoses might be provided by a GP, at least as an initial step to develop a treatment plan. Coaches, counsellors and also art therapists are not qualified to provide a diagnosis.
Find out more about my work at Sensemaking Space