What is a life coach?

What is a Life Coach?

Coaches work with clients who have intentionally sought out their unique services. While an individual may go to an attorney for legal issues, or a doctor for medical issues, they choose a coach to actualize their potential in a variety of business, executive, and life situations.

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An executive may hire a coach to discuss leadership challenges and ideas; a working mother may hire a coach to help her balance her work and home responsibilities; a small business owner may hire a coach to help write a business plan and put it into motion. These individuals would be unlikely to hire an attorney, an accountant, or a therapist to make these changes, so a coach fills a distinct niche. Coaching does not apply to every situation and client and a great coach is very aware of when to refer a client to other professionals. As the coaching profession continues to evolve, it is particularly relevant to distinguish between coaching and counseling.

Recently in Colorado, the governing body over the field of counseling (the Department of Regulating Agencies – DORA), sent out cease and desist letters to coaches suspected of performing counseling with their clients. Coaches are required by their code of ethics (see ICF ethics) to be very clear that they are not providing therapy, are not qualified to provide therapy, and that coaching is not therapy.

As of late there has been a lot of discussion in coaching and counseling forums about the similarities and differences between the two fields. In most coaching programs, these differences are spelled out to a degree depending on the training program. The differences are typically not touched upon in counseling programs for the most part because they see themselves as entirely distinct. The most common distinction is that coaching works with the present and counseling delves into the past. In addition, therapy looks to uncover the why through a process of discovery and coaching focuses on the how through goal setting and action.

However, this very brief simplification does not go quite far enough. It is very important at times to look into a client’s past as a coach and the present and future goals when working as a counselor. To complicate things further, there are similarities between potential topics of therapy and coaching such as examining one’s motivation, resolving conflicts by looking at a client’s belief system, and modifying behaviors. Both coaches and counselors need to study the differences between the two because they are somewhat similar while being different at the same time.

Therapy and Coaching Defined

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), ‘psychotherapy is the informed and intentional application of clinical methods and interpersonal stances derived from established psychological principles for the purpose of assisting people to modify their behaviors, cognitions, emotions, and/or other personal characteristics in directions that the participants deem desirable.’ Psychotherapy typically follows a particular theory of intervention at regular intervals and at a specified time and place. Counselors and therapists are trained in a variety of treatment modalities, styles of intervention, and theoretical orientations, so the above definition is a broad overview of the field.

Because therapists are trained in a variety of treatment modalities, styles of intervention, and theoretical orientations, this definition is necessarily broad. The APA definition places the field of counseling under one umbrella so that they can be regulated by each state in order to protect the client, the therapist, and ensure that the therapist is in compliance with laws, ethics, and regulations.

The International Coach Federation (ICF) defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. Coaching honors the client as the expert in his/her life and work and believes that every client is creative, resourceful, and whole.” It further distinguishes coaching from therapy by stating that the work of coaching is generated by the client and supported by the coach.
In therapy, a client agrees to receiving therapy and the therapist takes an expert role which puts him/her in a position to have knowledge and information about the client’s condition or diagnosis that may steer the process and the relationship. Another key point by the ICF is that coaching produces specific and actionable goals, which is not always the case in therapy.

So what is coaching?

Coaches help a person uncover their own values, needs, and vision as personal reference points to facilitate forward movement to reach their goals. A coach’s role is to be an active listener, but they listen differently than a counselor. A coach listens to a client neutrally and with a sense of curiosity and wonder. In addition, the coach and client are deemed full and equal partners and the premise of coaching assumes the client will discover what he/she wants and needs to reach their goals. Unlike therapy, coaching does not have a set agenda or treatment plan to follow other than what is agreed upon in the initial coaching agreement.

The coach listens without judgment and does not assess the client’s emotional or mental state. Not that the coach doesn’t make note of these, but they are not the main topic of the conversation. The coach uses intuition or gut reactions to bring information to the client’s attention, and scientific evidence doesn’t usually come into play. The client is free to accept, modify or reject these observations, requests, or challenges. The coach helps the client identify their values, wants, goals, achievements, and plans. With the help of the coach, action steps are decided by the client. The coach will often challenge the client to think outside the box and move beyond what they believe is possible.

90% of coaching occurs by telephone or Skype, which makes coaching a unique experience. Because coaching holds both persons in equal status, coaches can exchange their services for an equal service if they choose, which is not something a therapist may do because of the possibility of having undue influence over the client in that relationship.

Counseling vs. Life Coaching

A therapist’s role with a client is to do an assessment, come up with a diagnosis using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, and then treat the mental illness or disorder. Once therapy begins, counselors continually assess a client’s symptoms and reactions to determine if the client is reaching their treatment goals. Training in psychology and counseling is based on the medical model which treats mental disorders in the same way as a broken arm, i.e. there is thought to be a physical cause.
Supporters of the medical model consequently consider symptoms to be outward signs of the inner physical disorder and believe that if symptoms are grouped together and classified into a ‘syndrome,’ the true cause can eventually be discovered and appropriate physical treatment administered. Once diagnosed, there are specific treatment recommendations that are considered most effective.

Active listening to a client, much like coaching, is a large part of what therapists do, but in the context of therapy, the goal of listening is to uncover why the person does what they do and help them achieve insight into their underlying motivations.

Counselors, Psychologists, and Social Workers cannot ethically practice outside the scope of their training. They are bound by their ethics to refer individuals to other professionals if they do not have the experience or training to deal with a particular disorder or client.

The goal of counseling is to help a person get back to a “normal” level of functioning and relieve the symptoms of their problem. All treatment must be medically necessary and reimbursement by insurance requires that one must justify ongoing treatment to receive payment. If there is no diagnosable condition, there is no need to continue to provide treatment.

The vast majority of counseling takes place in an office or clinic and in person. However, the advent of modern technology may be leading therapy to take place over the phone and by Skype (much like coaching). In most states, counselors are mandated reporters of child abuse, abuse of the disabled, or elder abuse and must be report those situations to the proper entities.

Confidentiality and Record Keeping

Many coaches do not keep detailed records of their client interactions, or, if they do, the records often consist solely of the client preparation forms or other client self-reports of progress. Although confidentiality is important to coaching clients, there is no legal or ethical mandate from the field.
In contrast, counselors are required to keep treatment records of their clients. In counseling, a confidentiality agreement is signed and agreed to by all parties at the beginning of treatment that all information will be kept in confidence. Only under subpoena or client permission can information be released to a third party. In addition, all information in regard to clients must be kept in a secure location.

Coaching Regulations

Currently coaching is not regulated at a state level. Any person can hold a title of coach, whether they have one hour or hundreds of hours of training. Although coaching standards and ethics are promoted by credentialing organizations and training programs, they are not enforced. Individuals working toward certification do not have to meet time constraints on their training and may practice for years before being certified. Unlike the world of therapy and counseling, coaching certification happens in levels according to experience as a coach and mastery of higher level skills. Look at the International Coach Federation website for more information about current requirements, as they are subject to change.

Credentialing Therapy Regulations

National organizations in the field of counseling set ethical guidelines, test for knowledge, provide continuing education, and lobby for therapists at a national level, but they do not govern the individual practitioner. Counselors, Psychologists, and everyone in the mental health field have to be licensed in the state they practice and are regulated by that individual state. Each state has similar requirements, but may require different amounts of training and supervision.
Some therapists may also be a member of a national organization that has its own requirements for membership, ethics, and continuing education requirements. NBCC Ethics


Ethics in counseling and coaching are different for the most part, because the clientele are different, but many of the ethical considerations are similar. In both fields, there are no sexual relationships between the professional (coach/counselor) and the client. Confidentiality is an expectation and any conflict of interests should to be addressed expediently. In general, counselors and psychologists are expected to hold stricter standards and those standards are more carefully defined. Another major difference is that therapists cannot barter for services and cannot take gifts from clients, which is not true of coaching.

Interest in Coaching Among Therapists

Counselors and Psychologists are beginning to look into the world and training of coaching. The coaching approach is more positive – focusing on a client’s strengths vs their weaknesses. In addition, the process tends to be more solution-focused and a quicker process as a whole. Ultimately, coaching takes a person from where they are to where they want to be, but the past and problems are not the primary focus. The benefit to being a therapist and a coach is that the past is important. Therapists have that added training to help a person look back into their history to find out why they ended up where they ended up.