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Even Coaches Need Clarity : Coaching vs Counseling

Updated: Jun 15, 2022

In the field of mental health, there is a lot of confusion around life coaching compared to counseling. I made this post to help clarify.

Just a heads up - I was full on school mode Annie when I wrote this so there's even citations available at the bottom.

What is coaching?

Coaching is a whole-person, client-centered approach. The practice of coaching is future-oriented with solution-focused methods. Solution- focused methods emphasize less focus on the program and instead only put energy into discovering what works for the client. Coaches help their clients focus on what they want, and on creating desired outcomes specifically catered to the clients wants. To be successful, coaches must apply positive psychology. Coaching is a multidisciplinary multi-theory synthesis and application of applied behavioral change. Coaching has been described as “high-level leadership” (Holliday, 2001). Clients appropriate for coaching are people who are not in pursuit of basic human needs (such as food and shelter) and begin to pay attention to higher needs, such as self –actualization, fulfillment and spiritual connection. Another population of people appropriate for coaching are future oriented individuals and people in life transitions (Menendez & Williams, 2015).

What is counseling?

Counseling is a professional relationship that empowers diverse individuals, families, and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education and career goals (Hodges, 2015) Examples of different types of counseling are; art therapy, music therapy, dance therapy, play therapy. Other examples include individual counseling, couple and family counseling, group counseling, adventure-based counseling (ex: in the wilderness, challenge courses). In counseling, a therapist listens to people talk about their personal problems; these could range from difficult family relationships to drugs and alcohol abuse to recovering from a traumatic experience (Institute for Career, 2005).

What are the similarities?

There are many similarities between coaching and counseling. For example, both fields work with a population of people in life transitions (Menendez & Williams, 2015). Both fields communicate openly, directly, and honestly (Coaching, counseling & mentoring). Both coaching and counseling are relationships based on trust (Summerfield, 2002). A skill set needed in both fields is being able to practice active listening when working with a client. The learning of new skills and behaviors happens in both coaching and counseling, allowing the client from. Both professions probe and question when working with a client, allowing the client to reflect and learn from (work towards fixing). Both employ the skills to use open questions, a comfort with silence, active listening and reflective questioning, often from years of experience and opportunities to practice patience. Coaches and counselors are expected to ask the tough, self-analytical questions (Coaching, counseling & mentoring) to their clients, allowing the client to become self-aware.

What are the differences?

Although coaching and counseling are similar in many ways, there are specific distinctions as well. For example, counseling is an ongoing process for development, and coaching is a means of addressing specific performance problems (Coaching, counseling & mentoring), with a predetermined relationship timeline. Coaching sees people in terms of potential, not their past performance (Boyle, 2004), which is why the field is future focused. Coaching helps unlock a person’s potential to maximize their own performance, by helping them learn what is right to them rather than telling them what to do, such as in counseling. Another huge distinction is that coaching begins with goals, while counseling begins with problems. Coaching is not counseling or therapy, the topics of doubt and fear are “unhelpful thinking” in coaching, and “obstacles to a person’s goals”, while topics of doubt and fear are examined in counseling. Counselors are licenses professionals trained to treat clients, coaches do not need to be licensed to practice (Coaching, counseling & mentoring). Organizations recognized in the field include International Coach Federation for coaching, and American Counseling Association for counseling.


Boyle, D. (2004). Coaching for recovery: A key mental health skill. A Life in the Day, 8(1), 23-27. Retrieved from

Coaching, counseling & mentoring: how to choose & use the right technique to boost employee performance. (2007). Retrieved from

FAQs about coaching . (2018). Retrieved March 4, 2018, from

Hodges, S. (2012). 101 careers in counseling. Retrieved from

Hodges, S. P. L. A. (2015). The counseling practicum and internship manual, second edition: a resource for graduate counseling students. Retrieved from

Holliday, M. (2001). Coaching, Mentoring, and Managing: A Coach Guidebook. Franklin Lakes, NJ: Career Press.

Institute for Career, R. (2005). A Career in Counseling: Guidance Counselors, Vocational Counselors, Personal Counselors: Professional Counselors Are in Great Demand to Help People Make Critical Life Decisions and Deal with Personal Problems. [Chicago, Ill.]: Institute for Career Research.

Kenworthy, J. (2013). Whats better today?: how to grow and learn into the leader you can be. Singapore: Trafford Publishing.

Summerfield, J. (2002). Walking the thin line: Coaching or counselling? Training Journal, , 36. Retrieved from

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