People engage in personal development for different reasons. Sometimes the journey starts with a desire to overcome challenges. Other times there is a focus on reaching goals. For some, it’s about getting in touch with the self in a deeper way. Regardless of what brings a person to want to invest in their unique journey of development, often we turn to experts to guide the way. In seeking out support, it’s not uncommon to look at therapy and coaching and wonder: Which one is right for me?
Let’s start with some definitions as a potential source of clarity:
- Coaching: We went to the International Coach Federation for a definition because the ICF is the body that accredits coaches. They define coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” [link]
- Therapy: We consulted the American Psychological Association for a definition, as the APA is the leading membership organization for psychologists. They define psychotherapy as “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.” [link]
Those definitions are a little academic, but they do highlight some overlaps and some differences. Further time spent on your search engine of choice will show that there is NOT a clear answer to the question of ‘which one is right for me’. That is in part because there are so.many.different.types. of therapy and coaching that it can be difficult to draw a clear circle around each one to delineate where one ends and the other begins. This is further complicated because many things feel therapeutic or healing — a peaceful walk, meditating, a call with a friend, a coaching conversation — and something feeling therapeutic doesn’t make it therapy.
We (the Topknot team) understood that coaching and therapy don’t exist as either-or options, and we wanted to dig in to understand more about the relationship between the two, so we took our questions to Christina McFadden. Christina is a leadership coach, facilitator, and educator of MBA students and coaches. She is the CEO of Blue Door Partners, which is a Latina owned and run company. Christina is also coach to two members of the Topknot team (Claire and Brook).
What follows are the questions we brought to Christina, along with her thoughts:
How do you think about the relationship between therapy and coaching?
Coaching and therapy are different options that people choose for human connection, healing, inspiration, and growth. Beyond that, there are many different forms of both coaching and therapy. If we look at a Venn Diagram of coaching and therapy, depending on the type, there’s somewhere between a tiny bit of overlap to a lot of overlap.
The ICF has a broad metaphor that can help explain the high level relationship between the two.
“… a coach is like an athletic trainer while a therapist is like a medical doctor specializing in sports medicine. Both draw from a shared body of knowledge that includes anatomy, kinesiology, nutrition, and the like. The trainer works from the assumption that the athlete is essentially sound in body and is focused on improving fitness and performance. The trainer will refer the athlete to the team doctor if there is reason to believe he or she has an injury. Similarly, coaches and therapists work with the same material but with different skill sets and to different ends…” [link]
Remember coaching and therapy overlap so this doesn’t hold in every situation, but in this analogy, the coach is here to help the client do more and go further, while the therapist is focused on understanding and treating underlying health needs. Just as an athlete might work with both a trainer and a doctor, many clients who work with coaches also work with therapists. Of course the one specific area that they are different is that coaches don’t work in a matrix of diagnosis, while many therapists do.
Given that there is so much overlap between the two, what kinds of things can a client expect to likely get out of both coaching and therapy?
Both a therapist and a coach are in the relationship entirely for the sake of the client. Both practitioners work to build trust and rapport, and you can expect both to open up the lines of communication.
Both therapists and coaches are a voice that accepts the client as she is. This means creating space for the client to show up, and to be honest and open. Meanwhile, the coach or the therapist is an ongoing source of confidence that change is possible for the client. This depends on that trust, rapport, and communication that I described earlier.
Both of these fields are deeply rooted in human emotions. This can trip people up sometimes when they start working with a coach — having (hard) emotions is incredibly human, but in our society they are often not welcome in certain spaces. Both of these fields are based on supporting the client in navigating and understanding what is behind emotion.
If someone is looking to make a change, but doesn’t know where to start, what do you suggest they keep in mind?
First, it’s important to acknowledge the reality that cost can be a barrier to accessing both coaching and therapy. Don’t forget to investigate avenues for financial support like employer-sponsored coaching, insurance-subsidized therapy, and low(er) cost app-enabled options. Another thing to consider is that some coaches and therapists often offer a free initial conversation to understand what you’re looking for and whether they are in a good position to support. This can be a helpful way to get a sense of if it’s going to be the right investment for you.
Beyond that, coaching is generally a good place to start if you want support in making a life change. Therapy creates a space to explore yourself with the help of a professional who is able to uplift and support your mental health. Note that certified coaches are also trained to refer clients to therapists as needed, and therapists can refer clients to a coach as needed.
There are many possible paths forward, and what’s important is that you’re open to seeking out the type of support that suits your needs, and meets you where you are.