For those of you who are new to the coaching game, you may be wondering how it differs from therapy. Surely if you have done ‘the work’ with a psychologist, then you are all analysed out and do not need the services of a life coach? Or perhaps you feel as if you are not interested in digging deep into the emotional scars of your childhood. This is not what coaching is about.
The fact of the matter is, while coaching has a similar flavour to counselling, it is actually vastly different. Patrick Williams, a psychologist for many many years who moved into the coaching profession in 1990, helped to found the Institute for Life Coach Training in 1998. He said, “Therapy is about uncovering and recovering, while coaching is about discovering.”
When someone goes to therapy the aim is to take someone who is dysfunctional, either emotionally or mentally, and help them become functional again. The process of doing this involves discussing the past and and figuring out what triggers cause them to behave in a certain way in their present lives. Let’s work through a fictional case study in more detail:
James has never had a successful relationship and decides to go to therapy. He discusses the fact that his mother had a drinking problem when he was a child. James realises that he is typically attracted to women who drink too much. He has been recreating the situation that he grew up witnessing because it is familiar. As the saying goes, rather the devil you know than the devil you don’t. He realises that he has feelings of hostility towards women which have been affecting his relationships for as long as he can remember. The therapist then guides James through a process of exploring his feelings and letting go of his anger towards his mother. This process takes a couple years and by the end of it, James’s dysfunctional choices are no longer an issue. He has made peace with the past and is changing the present as a result. He is in a new relationship with a woman he can trust. His choices would now be described as functional.
In this example, James is able to change the choices he makes and might have been unable to do so had he not gone to therapy. This highlights how therapy can be of great benefit.
Now, to continue the example, let’s imagine it is a couple years down the line and James has decided he wants to change careers. He has been working in an office as an admin assistant and finds himself bored and unstimulated. The problem is, he does not know what new career path he would like to pursue. Can he go to his therapist and discuss his options? Absolutely. Will the therapist be able to help him figure out his true passion? Likely.
So why see a life coach instead?
The process of therapy was a long and difficult journey for James. His therapist knows everything about him, including all the details of his emotional baggage. When he goes to therapy, he associates his sessions with strong emotions and hard work. Now that he is searching for a new passion that will excite him, he struggles to bring a new energy to the therapy sessions. Perhaps his therapist is still interested in looking to the past but James feels he has closed the book on the past. He would now like to look to the future. He feels stuck in a cycle of analysis and self-reflection.
James decides to book a session with a life coach. During the session, the coach asks James questions about his current life. What excites him and brings him joy? What are his values? When does he feel like he is performing at his best? What makes him feel proud of himself? He does a lot of thinking out loud and through answering the questions he discovers that he values education. He discovers he is a patient person. He tells the story of when he had to train the new guy at work and how proud he felt when the new guy was able to use their computer system after only a day. When he describes the feeling of being helpful to another person it’s as if a light bulb goes off in his head. He realises that he would now like to pursue a career in training and development.
He uses his next coaching session to brainstorm ideas and develops a plan of action to realise his goal. He asks his boss if he can start training all the new staff. He signs up for an online course on training and development. Before he knows it, his boss asks him if he can do other kinds of training workshops too. They negotiate a new position within the company. James is now the training and development manager. He has never been happier and finally feels fulfilled at work.
There is nothing that the life coach did that a good therapist is not able to do. However the fresh energy and positive nature of the session is what triggered the ‘aha’ moment for James. He was able to look at his values and feelings in the present day and use them to make a plan for the future. The only time he looked backwards was to find an example of when he felt proud at work. Never once did he feel as if the life coach was trying to ‘box’ him into a diagnosis. Never once did he have to discuss the emotional baggage that had weighed him down for so many years. The sessions were exciting, dynamic, positive and creative. This new approach was just what he needed.
This example, while simplified for the purpose of this article, illustrates the difference between therapy and coaching. Had James come for coaching before his years of therapy, he might not have been emotionally functional enough to look to the future. He would likely still be stuck in the past and it would have been almost impossible for him to have any meaningful results from the sessions.
Does this mean that one has to go to therapy before coming to a life coach? Of course not. Many people choose never to unpack their ‘stuff’. And they are able to lead fully functional lives. It 100% depends on the person. The important point to remember is that in order to get the most out of coaching, one needs to be emotionally and mentally functional and willing to make changes.
To sum up, counselling (therapy) involves looking at what is wrong and fixing your problems. Coaching involves looking at what is right and exploring your possibilities. So whether you have already done the work with a therapist, or have never been to therapy but are ready to make changes in your life, coaching could be the right tool to help you achieve your goals.