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What’s the difference between coaching and counselling?

Features, Our work

March 16, 2023

On face value, a coaching session and a counselling session can seem very similar.

However, the processes and goals of coaching and counselling are very different. And, for executive coaches like us, it’s critical that we understand the boundaries between the two; particularly when to stop coaching and recommend counselling as a more appropriate way forward.

In this article we explore the similarities and differences between counselling and coaching.  Both are highly complex and deeply-researched skills and approaches; subjects of theses, academic research and regulated qualification pathways. This article will give you a useful summary of some key points.

Coaching vs counselling

Similarities between coaching and counselling

“Both coaching and counselling give you time to reflect in a safe environment.”

People work with a coach or counsellor for the same reason – there is something in their life that they want to change. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they have a clear outcome in mind, sometimes the goal is to simply feel better, or work out what the goal should be.

A safe environment

Both coaching and counselling provide a safe and confidential space for you to explore your work and/or personal life. It’s important that you feel comfortable with your coach or counsellor, and willing to open up to them.

Your counsellor or coach will start with some initial questions or prompts, to explore your core beliefs, self-awareness, relationships and current situation.

Time to reflect

Whether with a counsellor or coach, this is your time to reflect and perhaps let off steam. In our busy lives we often struggle to make time to take a step back and consider where we are and what we want to change. Coaching or counselling gives you this period of reflection, after which it can be easier to move forwards.

Good counsellors and coaches will hold back from giving you their opinion or trying to lead you to a particular solution. Instead, they will guide you to reach your own conclusions.

By reflecting your words back to you, they can bring clarity to your situation and help you accept what has gone before and what is unchangeable moving forwards.

Differences between coaching and counselling

“Counselling is about healing, coaching is about action.”

How coaching is different

Coaching is about action and change. It’s focused on the future and developing the individual, particularly in terms of self-awareness, to help them reach an identified goal.

These goals are usually defined in terms of specific, measurable improvements in your working or personal life. Your coach will guide you to set challenging goals for yourself, and hold you accountable for achieving them.

The coaches themselves will have had different training to counsellors, with a focus on self-development and learning.

Key to coaching is ensuring that the coachee has the underlying mental (and, to some extent, physical) resilience to take actions and make change. Coaching won’t help you to break patterns of destructive thought or emotionally deal with experiences in your past which may be holding you back. When a coach identifies that such blockages exist, they should recommend counselling or psychotherapy as a first step.

Having said that, your coach might work to explore your beliefs, to find out if any of them are ‘limiting’ your progress and how you might find a new, more helpful perspective to allow you to move forward. But they will only do this in the context of how you have practically dealt with – or not dealt with – similar situations.

Similarly, coaching needs to stay on topic. For example, if we’re coaching an executive in a business context, then it isn’t appropriate for us to start discussing their marriage issues – especially when neither coach nor client can detect a causal link between the issues

How counselling is different

Counselling, on the other hand, takes a more clinical approach, and is solely focused on healing and mental resilience. It helps you to deal more positively with experiences from your past and how they are impacting your life now.

Often, much of your time with a counsellor is spent understanding where you’ve come from and supporting you to resolve any trauma or stumbling blocks from your past. (Though some types of counselling are more future-focussed).

Unlike coaching, no topics are off-limits (unless you choose them to be). Your conversations will naturally meander and delve more deeply into your emotional layers.

The counsellor will reflect back what you’ve told them, and that process in itself can be highly cathartic. Any goals identified in counselling will usually be centred on internal changes for the individual, to help them heal and move forward. Although some counselling styles, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) might encourage you to set more tangible goals.

As well as a counselling qualification, counsellors will usually have additional accreditations demonstrating their specialism in particular styles of counselling (such as CBT or Gestalt therapy) and/or topics (eg family, trauma or addiction).

Other types of coaching

We have, naturally, focused on executive coaching in this article. However, mention should be made of other types of coaching and how these relate to counselling.

Life coaching

Life coaching supports personal and career development for an individual. Unlike executive coaching, it focuses solely on the coachee, not the wider organisational context.

By its nature life coaching will explore more of the coachees personal life and, therefore, tackle topics considered off limits to executive coaches. However, it is still not a replacement for counselling and life coaches are ethically bound to ensure that the people they coach have the emotional resources and resilience to benefit from the process.

Psychodynamic coaching

This, to some extent, bridges the gap between coaching and counselling. It explores the individual’s emotions and unconscious psychological processes in more depth.

Coaches often seek training in psychodynamic approaches to enable them to provide a more emotionally aware style of coaching, however, it is not a replacement for counselling.

A real life example

The Head of Change in a large UK transport organisation came to us for executive coaching because they felt that they lacked the confidence and self-belief required for such a demanding role.

In their words, our objective was to help them rediscover their “mojo”.

In our first session we were careful to ensure that we fully understood the person we were speaking to and their personal levels of resilience. Coaching can be a challenging process, and we have a duty to ensure that our coachee is mentally prepared for the journey.

The executive was able to use the sessions to let off steam and take time out to reflect on their situation. This helped to crystalise the problems they were experiencing – turning them into tangible barriers to overcome, rather than a general feeling of malaise.

Simply bringing this clarity to the situation was at the crux of the solution. This enabled our executive to identify and to make the changes that were needed, with renewed confidence and self-belief.

With this client we were positive that they had the underlying resilience to take action and make changes. However, this isn’t always the case, and it’s the responsibility of a coach to identify coachees where counselling might be a more suitable first step.

Find coaching or counselling services

Discover more about our executive coaching services and review our code of ethics, which guides us throughout our coaching and other learning programmes.

If you feel that counselling is the right path for you, then we recommend visiting the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy website for further information and a list of counsellors in your area.

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