Monday, September 20, 2010

Coaching Versus Therapy

(posted on a listserve for psychotherapists, as a contribution to a discussion about the differences between coaching and therapy):

As I've read, with interest, the dialog about coaching vs. therapy, it seems to me that the distinction, at least in my practice, has to do with the coach-client and therapist-client contract. I don't mean a written contract, but the mutual understanding about what we're doing and why.

Some of my coaching clients are in therapy when they come for coaching, so I can say things like, "This is what you need to do to take a step toward achieving your goal. If you have feelings that interfere with your taking this step, you can talk with your therapist about them." Other coaching clients have come for help making a career change, or for doing what they're doing better--for example, improving employee selection and retention procedures, improving relationships with colleagues at work, or coping with a difficult supervisor. The coaching contract is action-oriented, goal-focused, and not about a mental health or emotional problem. Feelings are a part of it but not the main part, and if they begin to become the main part, that begins to look like therapy to me. The action agenda can certainly be modified to take emotional issues into account; for example, a very anxious client who wants help with job-seeking skills, including modifying her expressions of anxiety in job interviews, may need to move more slowly than an executive with a successful career history now ready for a job change. If I help her learn to relax, it's so she can pass a job interview; not primarily to help her be less anxious 24/7, although it may have that effect.

Now, I don't know about the overlap between the kind of coaching I'm describing and the "life coaching" I've seen advertised on the web--"You, too, can become a life coach, get rich, help everybody..."--which is much more like the old-fashioned mix of self-improvement and hucksterism that is so quintessentially American. I suppose that the people who are really better at life coaching will eventually develop referral networks based on their competence, like therapists--or any other professionals--tend to do; and "caveat emptor" will be the rule for clients. For that matter, to the extent that "life coaching" really is about improving one's life in general, I'm not sure that mental health professionals, as a group, have the advantage over any other professional group on being prepared to be good at that.

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