Coaching Vs Counselling

Are they really that different?

In order to consider the differences (and similarities) of coaching and counselling/therapy it is first important to understand what we actually mean by coaching? Often referred to as Life Coaching, or Personal Development Coaching, the International Coaching Federation define coaching as:

"Partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. The process of coaching often unlocks previously untapped sources of imagination, productivity and leadership."

And goes on to say:
"We all have goals we want to reach, challenges we’re striving to overcome and times when we feel stuck. Partnering with a coach can change your life, setting you on a path to greater personal and professional fulfilment."


Most coaching training will be very clear that coaching is not therapy, and they will cite specific differences in the approach. Andrea Blundell in a 2017 blog described what she feels are the main characteristics of both approaches:
"A ‘life coach‘ is someone who is trained to help you see clearly where you are today, then find ways to move forward towards your goals. They do not tell you what to do, they are a sounding board to help you discover what it is you want to do."

Whereas she describes counselling as:

"In general, a ‘counsellor’ is someone who creates a safe and supportive space for you to explore who you are and what you want in life. They help you identify and solve problems. They are a support system to help you gain the strength and clarity to cope and to move forward at last."


The two sound very similar in a number of ways however it should be recognised that there are some definite differences between the different approaches. In general terms the differences between coaching and counselling/therapy can be described as:

  • Coaching is action orientated whereas talking therapy is usually problem focused
  • Coaching helps you set and achieve goals whilst talking therapy helps you recognise and solve your problems in life.
  • A coach’s role is to frequently challenge thinking whereas a counsellor’s role is to use empathy and understanding (although they may gently challenge at times also).
  • Coaches focus on the present and the future and whilst counselling can also do this it can also focus on the past depending on the type of therapy.

Originally coaching grew out of the human potential movement of the ’70s, which itself drew on insights provided by therapists and researchers finding new ways of doing things around the 1960s and in practice both coaching and therapy draw on a similar set of skills.

Coaching was originally aimed at the business world; companies seeking to enhance better performance were hardly likely to put their employees into therapy, coaching was a nice means to a similar end (this goes for individuals too – some people don’t like the idea of doing ‘therapy’, but coaching is OK).

In his book ‘Solution Focused Therapy’ (2012) Bill O’Connell describes Brief Solution Focused Therapy (BSFT) as focusing on solutions, not problems. It aims to help clients achieve their preferred outcomes by evoking and co-constructing solutions to their problems.

So as you can see if you substitute ‘problems’ for ‘challenges’ in the above description you arrive at the definition of coaching.

Summing up

Both Brief Therapy and coaching tend to be solution focused, and solution focused thinking values similarity, as well as difference so the two should not be seen in competition (therapy versus coaching). They are similar but not the same. From the client’s point of view the important thing is to work with someone you feel comfortable with and who puts your needs and interests ahead of any model or terminology.

In my coaching practice I have found that whilst you may start along the road of a pure coaching relationship it can very often quickly require elements of counselling skills to help the client move forward and find the solutions they are looking for. Solution focused therapy and Coaching are intrinsically linked in many ways however the key is often what is most acceptable to the client.

Both coaches and therapists are required to search for the approach that best works for the client, and whilst it is clearly the case that each should know the limitations of their respective practice and expertise, rigidity of approach is often not in the best interest of the client. An approach combining elements of coaching and solution focused therapy can be an effective way of helping clients to achieve their identified outcomes successfully.


About the author

Andy Oldfield is a Registered Mental health Nurse with over 30 years’ experience working in the NHS in both clinical, managerial and executive roles. He is a qualified coach and has extensive experience of providing coaching, mentoring, clinical and managerial supervision. He now works as an independent consultant and coach.