Life Coaches, Don’t Jeopardize Your Credibility

By: Dr. Patrick Williams, MCC, BCC

There are only a few questions posed to a life coach that can make or break their credibility with prospective clients and referral sources.  “What is the difference between coaching and counseling?”  Well, the answer can make or break your credibility.

Coaching is the hottest trend to hit the self-improvement scene in the last several years.  Yet, despite all the hoopla and excitement generated by coaching triumphs, a behind the scenes debate continues to plague the coaching profession, referral sources and those who would benefit from life coaching.  Simply stated, the question lingers, is it coaching – or merely a new-fangled therapy in disguise?

Coaching can look like therapy because of their commonalities. They both seek to support the individual. They both are delivered in much the same way, through regular “face-to-face” or phone sessions. They also both work to take a person from the place they are now, to a place they want to be.  Many of the techniques and principles discovered in years of psychological research and application are useful in coaching. Masterful coaches do utilize skill sets from solution-oriented therapy approaches, cognitive and behavioral psychology, and positive psychology. But that does not make coaching the same as psychotherapy. Many therapists have become coaches, bringing their rich and valuable training to the coaching profession. But this transition is difficult at times, because therapy and coaching are different. 

Therapy is vital for those with presenting psychological problems – what we call pathology, and coaches need to become aware of these symptoms in order to make an appropriate referral.  Likewise, life coaches can solidify their practices by developing reciprocal referral relationships with counselors.  Coaching is for those who are healthy and already typically self-motivated.  Both fields have their place and should not be confused.  For some therapy patients, coaching can be an additional benefit, but coaching assumes the healing and well-being of its clients is a given.  A therapist may add coaching skills to his or her practice, but a coach never engages in therapy.  A coach is trained to detect any need for therapy and there are guidelines for when to refer a coaching client to a therapist or counselor.  These concepts are emphasized in the new Board Certified Coach (BCC) credential.  Many coaches are adopting the BCC certification to highlight this difference between coaching and therapy - and as a mark of coaching credibility.

Clients and referral sources want to know that life coaches are competent and part of that competency includes the knowledge of your practice within professional limitations.  If a life coach cannot distinguish the differences between coaching and counseling or interferes with the role of needed therapy, the coach may be raising alarms for the prospective client and referral source.

As you construct the answer to this credibility question carefully consider the background of your audience.  It may be beneficial to start with their paradigm, affirm the usefulness of therapy for certain audiences and highlight how coaching adds to the helping continuum.  The prospective client or referral source will likely use what they already know about counseling to judge what they hear about coaching.  It also may also serve as a litmus test for your professional credibility. 

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