I often have the opportunity to talk about the difference between coaching and counseling with my students. Many coach students are in fact, already practicing counseling and psychotherapy and have decided they want to add coaching to their offerings.
But what is the difference?
When I became a coach several years ago, one of the most difficult tasks for me was truly understanding the difference between the two professions. They are distinct orientations, yet many say they are not. After all, when I took coaching courses for my own coach certification, I didn’t “learn” anything new. Many of the theories and techniques I had learned in graduate school.
Diagnosis vs Strengths
But the more I tried to migrate my coaching into my psychotherapy practice, the more muddled I became. And I began to realize the distinctions. In fact, I was already winding down my psychotherapy practice for other reasons. I just didn’t want to play in that sandbox anymore- the sandbox of insurance and diagnosis. I thought I had solved the problem by dropping off insurance panels. Eventually I just didn’t want to give a diagnosis that often left a person feeling labeled and did nothing to affirm their strengths.
My “ah-ha” moment came when I realized that I was pretending to practice coaching while maintaining my psychotherapy practice, relying on the influence of my counseling license for client referrals and continuing to network and be influenced by the counseling profession.
To solve the dilemma I became a coach. Full on. My professional identity morphed from psychotherapist to psychoteherapist utilizing coaching techniques, to psychotherapist and coach, and finally, coach- WELLNESS COACH. I am a wellness coach who has integrated alternative approaches such as energy healing, essential oils and intuitive readings into my practice. And all with a divine shift in language and purpose! I would have never found ease in integrating these other approaches into my psychotherapy practice.
Recently I clarified this distinction between coach and counselor for one of my students:
I worked with trauma survivors for years- my post graduate supervision focused on adult survivors of sexual abuse. Now that I am coaching I see that in my practice as a counselor/psychotherapist I always used tools that were not exclusive to counselors but used by coaches as well. In fact, many tools I used as a counselor were rooted in positive psychology.
The difference, particularly for licensed practitioners- is that we must absolutely separate our coaching endeavors from our counseling endeavors. We may on occasion, pull tools from the toolbox that a coach may use, but that is simply a technique- an intervention- while the primary contract with the client remains counseling. That means that a trauma client still working through the throes of trauma and historical events would not be a candidate for coaching services even from a licensed mental health practitioner (or said differently, ESPECIALLY from a licensed mental health practitioner). We have to pick one or the other. Likewise, if you are working with a client under a coaching contract, and you discover the core issues of trauma are present and remain unresolved, you are ethically obligated to refer that client. So be sure you have thoroughly assessed the client for the proper services before assigning the client to either coaching or counseling.
Another way to look at it is, if you are coaching you are not referring to disease, diagnosis, or any other words or use of medical model language. Words and conversation of optimal “wellness”- spiritual, mental, emotional and/or phsyical wellness are spoken. So you can ask yourself, “Will I be able to coach this client without resorting back to my counselor language? Can I stay above the wellness line?”
This is also a way to determine if your counseling client is ready to transition to coaching services with you.
We cannot conduct both coaching and counseling with the same client at the same time. We can transition a client as a step down from treatment to coaching, but it is a bit trickier to coach a client and then refer that same client to ourselves for treatment. That is why thorough assessment on the front end is paramount.
Ultimately, I had to choose. And I chose to be a coach.
Some people can wear both hats and keep distinctions between the two roles. They keep the two practices separate, with separate informed consents, even separate websites. But for me, I was no longer fed by my role as a psychotherapist. The field is entrenched in finding and fixing pathology and even if I flipped my own paradigm, I was constantly surrounded by rhetoric, continuing education and rules that did not serve me as a professional any longer. And that was hard to face. I invested a lot in my schooling and my professional identity and while I choose not to work directly within the profession any longer, I wouldn’t change my path. It is part of my life quilt. I do still hold a license because I teach continuing education on topics related to telemental health and clinical supervision.
What is your counselor-coach story?
Interested in becoming a health coach, integrating intuitive and alternative approaches? Find out more.
A version of this post was published in the December 2015 Employee Assistance Report, pp. 6-7 and again, August 2016 Employee Assistance Report, pp.7..