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This is a common question from individuals trying to decide whether the life challenges they are experiencing are at the level of needing a coach or needing a therapist. There is a lot of overlap between both practices particularly if the therapist you are considering is trained in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Both CBT and coaching will consider what goals the person wants to accomplish. Both will use methods to help the individual understand what the blockages might be caused by, and determine strategies to help the individual change how they think about and perceive situations or topics in life.

Therapy is going to address mental health disorders…behaviors which meet the criteria for a diagnosed  disorder. Often these disorders have gotten to severe levels in a person’s life and are causing a significant disruption in their daily functioning. Because of this, therapy will focus on mental illness based on an intervention and medical model – what past and present events are creating the dysfunction. Coaching, on the other hand, will help individuals manage thoughts and behaviors before they create dysfunction. Coaches work from a prevention model – what strategies can be put in place before there are serious disruptions. Coaching focuses on the present and future, moving the individual closer to the life they want.

Once a person’s severe symptoms have reduced, it is not uncommon for individuals to switch from working with a therapist to working with a coach, or to work with both professionals simultaneously. A coach will support the individual to maintain their emotional and behavioral functioning, and work on the personal or professional goals that they could not focus on when their thoughts and behaviors got in the way.  In addition, for some people the idea of working with a “coach” versus a “therapist” has less of a stigma associated with it, allowing for the work to be done even more effectively without the cognitive block in the way.

Anyone can call themselves a coach so it is important to know what to look for to determine if the personal or executive coach is qualified to help support your needs and goals:

  1. Find someone who has training and experience in cognitive behavioral strategies. Ask them how long and what type of training they went through. Some coaches learned about cognitive behavioral approaches over a 2- to 4-year graduate program, with supervised experiences; others learn these strategies in a weekend course.
  2. Other coaches go through intensive training programs such as those through the International Coaching Federation (ICF) or the College of Executive Coaching (CEC). These programs are focused on training people to specialize in cognitive behavioral methods.

Now ask yourself:

  • Are my behaviors or emotions getting in the way of my daily life (therapy), or are they getting in the way of me achieving my goals (coaching)?
  • Are they at a level where intervention is necessary (therapy), or am I looking to ensure my thoughts and emotions stay under my control (coaching)?
  • Am I looking to get to a level of daily, functional behavior (therapy), or am I looking to get to a level of optimal functioning to achieve all the personal, academic and professional goals I’ve been thinking about for months or years (coaching)?

These questions can help determine what type of professional can be the most beneficial to support reaching your goals.