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June 23, 2010
by Peter MacKechnie

 I’ve been involved in a range of discussions as part of the research for my book on coaching and a number of key points have arisen. One of them is the difference between therapists and coaches. It’s clear that there are a wide range of views from people who align themselves with therapists and those to coaches, there are a few who claim to be both. However, I’d like a view from both sets of specialists as to why you think you are what you call yourselves. A couple of points to get the discussion going:


The range of definitions for both therapy and coaching is very wide. The lack of any one accepted definition makes it difficult to be explicit in what you do. This is an area that is being widely debated across both approaches and seems likely to continue. A flavor of the definitions available includes:


The treatment of mental or emotional problems by psychological means. Merriam Webster-Psychotherapy any form of treatment for psychological, emotional, or behavior disorders in which a trained person establishes a relationship with one or several patients for the purpose of modifying or removing existing symptoms and promoting personality growth.


Coaching was defined as a collaborative, solution-focused, result-orientated systematic process, used with normal, non-clinical populations, in which the coach facilitates the self-directed learning, personal growth and goal attainment of the coachee

systematic process, used with normal, non-clinical populations, in which the coach facilitates the self-directed learning, personal growth and goal attainment of the coachee

.Coaching is a collaborative process that facilitates the client’s ability to self-directed learning and growth, and is evidenced by sustained changes in self-understanding, self-concept, and behavior.


I feel there the main unstated difference between the two is that of ‘intention’. I suggest the following:


When does a tool become therapy or coaching? I’m thinking of the likes of CBT, NLP, modeling, hypnosis, etc. all of which are used in both fields. Both therapists and coaches have argued that whatever tool is used it is appropriate to them, a point I’d agree with (dependent on their level of proficiency). Is then the argument of appropriateness of the tools being discussed more to do with the area of ‘intention’ rather than specialization.

"If you never did you should. These things are fun and fun is good."

Dr. Seuss


The intention of the therapist is to heal, treat, fix, etc. problems (past/present) that the client has. The focus of their intention is based on a medical/treatment model in that a problem exists that is damaging, or restricting a person’s mental and/or physical health. Therefore they will work with the client/patient to fully explore the problem, identify the underlying cause and provide a medical, treatment based solution. This may, or may not include movement toward a future learning and development goal.


The intention of a coach is to identify the clients future based point of development, present position in relation to the area the client wants to develop, identify the gaps and enable the client to take the necessary action. This focus is on learning and development in that a problem does not, necessarily, have to exist for the client to want to develop. Work may, or may not include solving a pre-existing problem (this is dependent on the level of barrier it’s causing to the move toward the desired development goal).

Problem and Overlap

The issue of term ‘problem’ seems to sit in the overlap area on the continuum of therapy and coaching. At one end sits therapy dealing with, and concentrating on, the past/present problem. On the other end sits coaching with its focus on future solutions and development. Each specialization will work comprehensively with  any clients within their sphere. However, the overlap comes in the middle. Both therapist and coach can, and do deal with problems but how far along the line can each other go before the intention changes, and the role changes?