Coaching is a relatively new professional field. Life coaching and executive coaching, for example, were largely unheard of before 1980s. Even though the roots of coaching are far deeper, it is relatively new as an organized profession. In spite of its newness as a profession, coaching is growing rapidly. Today, there are dozens of commercial training programs for coaches graduating thousands of new coaches each year. The term “life coach” generates a list of 2,274 entries on the Amazon web site. Clearly, coaching is emerging as a significant professional and service opportunity.
Psychotherapy is a well-established and diverse field. Formal versions of psychotherapy extend back to at least the late 19th century and generic counseling interventions that resemble therapy are as old as civilization. Today there are an enormous number of schools of therapy and various approaches to psychotherapy. These include psychoanalytic approaches, existential approaches, humanistic approaches, counseling psychology approaches, behavioral approaches, cognitive behavioral approaches, ego psychology-based approaches, spiritual approaches, and so on. It is not difficult to generate a list of literally hundreds of different versions of psychotherapy.
While psychotherapy draws on a large and very base of experience and research and is supported by a significant installed base of academic training centers as well as legal and licensing structures that help the define it, the definition of coaching is somewhat softer. A common discussion point in efforts to define coaching and its boundaries centers on the relationship between coaching and psychotherapy. Coaches want to be clear that coaching and therapy are very distinct. For example, on the ICA Forum, I frequently see statements like:
- Therapy is about the past and coaching is about the future
- Therapy is about fixing dysfunction and coaching is about improving functioning
- Coaching empowers the client to find their own solutions; therapy tries to solve the problem for the client
- Coaching is about wellness, therapy is about illness
Personally, I find that these kinds of generalizations are both untrue and that they obscure the significant overlap between coaching and psychotherapy. For example, it is clear that coaching strategies and frameworks draw heavily from psychotherapy. Coach training programs commonly include therapy-like training topics including cognitive behavioral treatment, emotional intelligence, motivational interviewing, stages of change, visualization, planning and implementing behavioral change, and positive psychology interventions. In fact, there are whole coach training programs built around the tenants of positive psychology and Martin Seligman, self-proclaimed father of positive psychology, has argued that positive psychology provides an great framework for the work done by coaches.
During my eight months in ICA, I have thought deeply about this issue and have frequently contributed my thoughts about it on the Forum. This paper is not intended to be a scholarly treatise on the difference between coaching and therapy. Instead, this is a more personal paper with a goal of summarizing the current state of my thinking about the topic and creating a base for further discussion with my colleagues and for the continuing evolution of my own thoughts.
Specifically, this paper will the do three things. First, it will define coaching and therapy. Second, it will deconstruct the definitions of coaching and therapy and determine which elements of each definition are common to both coaching and therapy and which are unique. Finally, the paper will respectfully discuss their similarities as well as their differences and offer perspective on the implications of this analysis for the future of coaching practice and regulation.
Definition of Coaching
In order to assess the relationship between coaching and therapy, it is first important to define coaching. Coaching emerged in the 1990s as a “new” approach to supporting positive change in individuals and to helping them to achieve goals related to career, relationships, school, spirituality, and personal life. During the past 20 years, the field of coaching has expanded rapidly and there are now robust professional associations of coaches that are attempting to further define coaching and bring a degree of standardization to coach training, competencies, and practice. The International Coaching Federation (ICF) is emerging as the standard for coaching and ICF has developed an increasingly strong framework for the profession. This framework includes a statement of coaching competencies, a code of ethics for coaches, and a multi-level, voluntary certification framework for recognizing varied levels of training and experience of coaches. Given the increased importance of ICF as the arbiter of coaching practice, it seems that the ICF definition of coaching is the best available definition. Coaching is defined by ICF as:
Partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential, which is particularly important in today’s uncertain and complex environment. Coaches honor the client as the expert in his or her life and work and believe every client is creative, resourceful and whole. Standing on this foundation, the coach’s responsibility is to:
- Discover clarify and align what the client wants to achieve
- Encourage client self-discovery
- Elicit client generated solutions and strategies
- Hold the client responsible and accountable
This process helps clients dramatically improve your outlook on work and life, while improving their leadership skills and unlocking their potential.
At the core of this definition is a vision of coaching as a process that starts with and emerges from by the client. The coach plays a critical role as a facilitator for this client process. The client is seen as the expert in the engagement and the coach is seen as a support in drawing out the assumed client expertise. Skillful facilitation on the part of the coach helps the client to define their own goals, develop plans to meet these goals, and implement strategies that make the plans real. Client empowerment and coach modesty are both highly valued in the process. In a pure coaching approach, the coach is required to add little of no content to the interaction. The process depends wholly on content emerging from the client. In summary, coaching is a process that facilitates the client’s own capacity to define their situation and goals, create a plan to improve their own situation, and implement the plan.
Definition of Psychotherapy
Contrary to the emerging practice of coaching, psychotherapy is a well-established and diverse practice that consists of a broad range of specific intervention modalities. There are references to psychotherapeutic interventions in ancient Greek classics but the origins of modern therapy can be traced to the English psychiatrist Walter Cooper Dendy won first introduced the term “psycho-therapeia” in 1853. Psychotherapy is widely used and respected. It is a core part of training in medicine, psychology, social work, nursing, and counseling, and other professional disciplines. Representatives of these professional disciplines are traditionally educated in university settings, licensed by governmental authorities, and represented by a large and diverse group of professional and discipline specific trade associations.
While there are many definitions of psychotherapy, most risk some level of discipline specific bias. Wikipedia provides a very good general and consensus definition of psychotherapy.
“Psychotherapy can be seen as an interpersonal invitation offered by (often trained and regulated) psychotherapists to aid clients in reaching their full potential or to cope better with problems of life. Psychotherapists usually receive remuneration in some form in return for their time and skills. This is one way in which the relationship can be distinguished from an altruistic offer of assistance.
Psychotherapists and counselors are often required to create a therapeutic environment referred to as the frame, which is characterized by a free yet secure climate that enables the client to open up. The degree to which client feels related to the therapist may well depend on the methods and approaches used by the therapist or counselor.