How the Roles of Life Coach and Therapist Differ

Life coaches and therapists have different missions when it comes to helping people change their lives.

March 19, 2021

two people at garden table with coffee talking
two people at garden table with coffee talking
sheila mickool

Written and Reported by Sheila Mickool
Contributing Writer

Life coaches and therapists both help people improve their lives, but in different ways. People seeking solutions to life, work, family, and relationship problems may seek out one or the other—or both simultaneously—at different times in their lives.

After completing a six-month coaching program years ago, psychologist and leadership coach Carol Kauffman, PhD, ABPP, PCC, said she realized that therapists focus on helping people heal, while life coaches focus on helping them reach goals.

Therapists help people heal, while life coaches help them reach their goals.

“It became clear to me that coaching is a completely unique approach to change, and training is crucial,” she says. As a psychologist specializing in peak performance training, Kauffman works with highly successful CEOs and their teams and is considered one of the top leadership coaches in the world. “I also realized I had always been a coach at heart, as my approach revolved around potential and strengths,” she says.

Coaches Focus on the Future, While Therapists Probe the Past

Since that “aha” moment, Kauffman has played a leading role in the coaching profession as founder and co-chair of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital in Boston, a Harvard Medical School affiliate. She’s also a faculty member at Harvard Medical School and her work is widely published.

Kauffman says therapists follow a person’s trail of tears, while coaches follow their trail of dreams.

In 2006, Kauffman’s groundbreaking article “Positive Psychology: The Science at the Heart of Coaching” was published as a chapter in a book on evidence-based coaching. She describes the difference between therapists and coaches this way:

“In essence, the clinician is trained to follow the trail of tears,” Kauffman says. Therapists search for signs of depression, anxiety, or emotional conflict and delve into the past. Coaches, on the other hand, “shift attention from what causes and drives pain to what energizes and pulls people forward. They follow the trail of dreams.”

4 Keys Ways that Coaching and Therapy Differ

two professionals talking at cafe table with snacks and coffee

An executive, life, and business coach, Catherine Wood, PCC, is the founder of Unbounded Potential, a coaching firm dedicated to helping rising star performers and women entrepreneurs. A former economist, Wood has led workshops and retreats around the world to help social change-makers create successful businesses.

“Knowing that clients are often confused about the differences between coaches and therapists, I address the question right upfront on my website in the FAQ section,” Wood says. She tells prospective clients that coaching is different from therapy in four ways:

1. Coaching focuses on the future and delves into the question: “How?” Therapy focuses on the past and tries to answer the question: “Why?” Coaching assumes you are whole and capable of leading a fabulous and happy life, says Wood. Therapy generally helps you heal from past harm or trauma.

2. Coaching explores what you want to create. Therapy explores what you want to fix. Coaching creates a safe space—free of judgment—for a client to identify what they most crave in life, while therapy focuses on fixing or eliminating a problem.

3. In coaching, the client and coach are partners. In therapy, the therapist is the expert. Coaching is based on the premise that you hold the answers and know what you want. A coach helps you identify your goals and how to achieve them. A therapist will determine what the problem is and support you in achieving catharsis.

4. A coach is catalytic, while a therapist is nurturing. Both are empathetic listeners, but a coach can be more direct, challenging you to test your comfort zone and using direct communication to help you get where you want to go. A therapist will likely be more patient and use indirect communication.

Like many accomplished coaches, Wood has her own coach. “It wasn’t easy, but eventually with the help of my own life coach, I took a stand for my dreams,” she says. “It meant taking some major risks, but today I can honestly say that I love my life.”

She says she continues to work with her coach on her own projects and goals so that she can consistently serve clients at a high level.

Basic Differences at a Glance

What They Do

Life Coach

Helps people by focusing on the future

Therapist

Helps people by focusing on the past

Duration of Client Engagement

Life Coach

Tends to be shorter term, three to 12 months

Therapist

Open-ended and varies widely, from months to years

Education

Life Coach

There are no educational mandates in any state, but completion of a certificate training program is highly recommended.

Therapist

A therapist can be a psychologist with a PhD or a master’s in psychology.

Licensure

Life Coach

None required in any state, but obtaining a coach credential is highly recommended.

Therapist

Licensing requirements vary by state and by job. Licensing requirements for clinical or counseling positions generally include graduation from an accredited school, certification, and a specified number of clinical hours.

Median Salary

Therapist

Therapists with a PhD:
$80,370
Therapists with a master’s, such as a marriage or family therapist:
$49,610

Privacy

Life Coach

Not legally obligated to follow HIPPA

Therapist

Legally required to follow HIPPA privacy rules

Source for salaries: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019

Coaches and Therapists Can Work Together

While many life coaches have clients who are seeing therapists or psychologists at the same time, some coaches and therapists prefer to work alone with clients.

Coaches and therapists who work together do so at the client’s request and when collaboration is in the client’s best interest.


carol kaufman

With professional insight from:
Carol Kauffman, PhD, ABPP, PCC
Founder of the Institute of Coaching

catherine wood

Catherine Wood
Founder of Unbounded Potential


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