Differences in Coaching & Counseling Approaches

June 15, 2022 by Britt Fulmer

by Britt Fulmer & Lauren Gombas

Coaching and counseling have long been compared to one another, with many people using them interchangeably. This confusion is understandable, as both professions fall into the category of helping disciplines with overlap in skills such as active listening, problem-solving, empathy, and powerful questions. This confusion can sometimes be more palatable with health and wellness coaching and counseling, as health and wellness coaches aim to support a client’s health journey which often overlaps with counseling initiatives.  

For clients and practitioners, knowing the difference between coaching and counseling provides credibility, makes it easier to follow legal guidelines and can empower the client to select the professional that can best help them with their goals.

Differences in Coaching & Counseling Approaches

Coaching Definition 

Although separate from mentorship, coaching came out of the concept of a character named Mentor in Odysseus and the mentorship of up-and-coming athletes in Ancient Greece. After mentorship transformed into athletic coaching in England in the 1830s, it was added to the dictionary as a form of academic tutoring. Later, as it established itself as a distinct profession in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, it expanded into what we know of as coaching today. 

CTEDU defines life coaching as “a professional relationship between a client and a coach designed to help the client increase self-awareness, generate learning, and identify and accomplish meaningful goals.” 

The order of the definition is important. Before meaningful goals can be identified, let alone pursued, clients should focus on becoming more self-aware and learning more deeply about who they are and what they want. It’s the coach’s job to hold up a mirror and ask the client to identify what they see, then follow up with powerful questions to help the client make meaning of their reflection. 

Another way to think of coaching is like being on a road trip. The client is the driver and the coach is sitting in the passenger seat. It’s the coach’s job to have the map/GPS ready and have a few snacks and some water available (and by no means does the coach ever take a nap, no matter how long the road trip). In this sense, the coach provides support to the client, but never makes any decisions or provides any advice about where to turn, how fast to go, or whether or not there will be pit stops along the way. The coach’s job is to simply ask questions that will help the client choose the route that will serve them best in getting to their final destination.

Counseling Definition

The competition between the Soviet Union and the US during the space race brought with it the perceived need to filter young people into science and technology fields. To accomplish this, the government worked toward placing counselors in high schools, allowing counseling to emerge as a unique profession. Previously, those working in psychology were required to obtain a doctoral degree, but the need for counselors encouraged the government to adjust the requirements for certain types of counseling. This enabled more people to enter the counseling field. 

Counseling still requires more training than coaching, and some states require a license and a master's degree. In addition, counselors hold more authority over the direction of sessions and aim to navigate behaviors and mental health concerns.

Whereas coaching relies on the client’s insights and intuition to establish goals and drive action, counseling is a more collaborative effort. Counseling sessions focus primarily on identifying solutions to emotional and mental health problems and concerns. That said, there is some overlap with coaching in that counselors are also equipped to help clients improve communication, self-esteem, and self-awareness. 

Coaching vs. Counseling

Although both use positive psychology to help their clients, a client might be better suited to work with one type of professional over another. 

Key Differences

It’s no secret that counseling and coaching share a lot of similarities. They both focus on helping clients reach goals, improve confidence, and develop action plans to sustainably maintain motivation and progress. However, there are a number of key differences between the two professions: 

  1. Approach. 

Just about any tool used in the coaching industry has ties to positive psychology. One key difference between counseling and coaching is in the way the tool is used by each professional. When a counselor uses a positive psychology tool, their focus is on assessing how the client responds and providing feedback on the response. When a coach uses a positive psychology tool, their focus is on asking questions that lead the client to do their own response assessment. 

For example, after a client finishes their Wheel of Life, a counselor will assess the client’s response and provide guidance and feedback about their assessment. They may encourage the client to focus on the lower-rated areas of the wheel and help them build strategies for addressing those areas. A coach, on the other hand, will remain curious and ask the client questions to help them further assess their own Wheel of Life. The coach never offers feedback or guidance, but continues to ask powerful questions to enable the client to develop their own insights and derive their own action steps. 

2. Past vs. Present/Future 

While counselors have the ability to cover topics from a client’s past, present, and future, they most generally dig into problems of the past. This is because problems of the past are largely tied to mental health concerns, which tend to be a large majority of the topics covered by counselors. 

Conversely, coaches never dive into problems of the past. Though it’s possible for past-based problems to emerge, a coach should avoid digging into the past and instead keep their focus on present and future-based discussions. 

3. Mental Health Concerns 

This is the most obvious difference between the two professions. Coaches are unable to diagnose or treat mental health concerns. If a mental health concern emerges during a coaching session, coaches should refer to a mental health professional. 

The Ideal Client for Counseling/Coaching

The most important thing to note is that any client can see both a counselor and a client at the same time. If a coach refers a client for a mental health concern, it is still possible for the coach to continue sessions so long as their focus is not on addressing the mental health concern. 

However, if a client is struggling from severe psychological distress and is unable to do the work required in a coaching program, it may be best for the client to begin with counseling sessions before beginning work with a coach. For example, someone struggling with severe panic attacks that interfere with daily life activities should see a counselor first. On the other hand, someone with generalized anxiety will likely flourish working with both a coach and a counselor. 

Coaches should refer clients who show signs of distress, including but not limited to:

  • Self-harm or harming others (Coaches should call the suicide prevention hotline if their clients mentions self harm)
  • Mental health symptoms that greatly interfere with their daily life
  • Mentions of or a fixation on past trauma

To summarize, both counseling and coaching are helping professions that use positive psychology to help clients achieve goals. Coaching works best for clients who are free from mental health concerns or present with only mild mental health symptoms. Additionally, if a client is currently making progress with a therapist to address mental health, a coach may also be helpful. Coaches should refer clients to counselors when a client's needs are outside the scope of coaching.

Overall, both counseling and coaching can help clients improve their lives, and knowing the difference can be beneficial for the credibility of both professions. Individuals and entities are responsible for doing ongoing research, following legal guidelines, following confidentiality regulations, and knowing when to refer. 

*The examples mentioned in this article are for educational purposes only and do not replace legal advice. 

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