Distinctions: Coaching vs.Therapy


and The COACH

© Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, A.C.T., MCC, SCAC
Dr. Lee Smith,
CTP, MCC  ©1994, ’95, ’02, ’11, ’15

Obviously, the well-being of the client is the context for this discussion, and determining what kind of assistance is appropriate is an important question.


Because most coaches are not trained therapists and most therapists are not trained coaches.  

•  For potential clients:
 the question is, Which do I choose and how do I decide?

•  For helping professionals: the issue becomes when, what, and to which professional to refer.

• When ADD is part of the picture, (or any of the Executive Functioning** dysregulations), the differences between an ADD Coach and any other kind of coach becomes important as well.

**(Check out the Executive Functioning LinkList
jump to the one you are most interested in reading,
or read them ALL – opens in a new window/tab)

Beginning at the beginning

Let’s begin the process of differentiating therapy and coaching by focusing only on the items in common with all coaches, without regard to specialties.

At the end of this article are some links that will help you understand some key differences that only comprehensively-trained, brain-based ADD Coaches understand how to work with.  In a future article I will address the issue ADD Coaching differences more directly.

At first blush, therapy and coaching look more alike than they are, because it’s easy to see the similarities:

  • For both therapy and coaching, there is a practitioner/client relationship.
  • The focus of both is on the functioning of the client.
  • Both practitioners listen and reflect on what is said.
  • Both help with empowerment.
  • Both develop relationships with their clients that are central to the alliance.
  • Both accept clients at whatever level they are on and help them work to the next level.
  • Both take place in what the therapeutic community calls “the frame”:
    they occur at a specific time for a specific amount of money and have specific ground-rules.
  • And both place the responsibility for doing the work that’s developed together on the client.

The differences are easy to see too.

They are easily apparent to anyone looking for them who has experience with quality in both arenas.  Both technologies are useful, but Therapy and Coaching are different tools and different disciplines. It is not uncommon for a person to have both a therapist and a Coach, working in different areas of the client’s life, or on the same problem in two different ways.

The pdf document that can be downloaded at the end of this article contains a 2-column chart developed to outline some of the differences in eight key arenas: Domain, Clients, Approach, Relationship, Listening Focus, Time issues, Accountability, and Tools & Application.

Charting the Differences

The chart you can access by clicking the link below summarizes many of the differences between a traditional, dynamic model of therapy and comprehensive, whole-person coaching.

  • Other types of therapy, based on different models, are distinguished somewhat differently from coaching, and are as different from coaching as they are from each other.
  • And comprehensive, whole-person coaching differs from accountability/check-in coaching as well.

Not everyone is an appropriate candidate for coaching.

A coaching client must be ready, willing and able to take ongoing action: relatively emotionally stable, addiction-free, and invested in making changes that will alter their circumstances.

Click HERE for a downloadable ADD-ADHD/EFD Coachablity Index™
that will help you determine whether YOU are ready, willing and able.

Clients who are not Coach-appropriate are encouraged to find a therapist or a 12-step or other support group and to come back to coaching once they have done some focused work in “deeper” areas on which Coaching is not designed to work: a client’s underlying psychological issues are not an appropriate focus for coaching.

The relatively rapid growth characteristic of coaching is possible only because conflict resolution has already been handled.  Therapy is often a slower process because major psychological underpinnings are being carefully brought to light for examination and change.

There are times when a therapist might well refer to a coach, and there are times when a coach must refer to a therapist or addictions counselor.  There are also areas where the coach will want to refer to a therapist, especially when there seems to be a lack of willingness on the part of a client to take actions.

An effective coach must be aware of the issues that are handled well in the coaching arena and, most importantly, those that are not.  It is a breach of ethics to dabble in areas where we are not trained, however well-intended our efforts.  It becomes a legal matter when we deliver services we are not licensed to deliver, however well-trained we may be.

An effective therapist needs to differentiate between developmental issues and functional challenges, distinguishing areas where traditional therapy can be effective from those where lack of information, skills or resources create behavioral inconsistencies that can look a lot like resistance, blocks or conflicts.

While therapists need not be licensed to work with systems development, that is an area in which comprehensively-trained coaches are trained specifically.  Especially when there are a number of developmental issues to handle, a therapist might well consider the benefits of referring the systems issues to a coach.

A relationship where “one hand washes the other” allows clients to proceed with power, and excellent results can be expected from a partnership where both professionals understand the coach/therapy distinction and help the client/patient to make best use of the services of either.

It has been said that the primary goal of therapy is to move a person from dysfunctional to functional, while the primary goal of coaching is to accompany a person on the journey from functional to extraordinary.

An analogy I find useful is that of a house with a leaky basement:

  • Restoration must be accomplished before the basement can become a really great recreation room.
  • The leaks must be located and repaired and the major water damage cleaned up before the basement can be restored.
  • Coaching doesn’t come into play until last-stage restoration work is behind you.
  • Your Coach helps you design your rec-room to be perfect for your lifestyle.

Then, once it’s ready, your Coach can help you plan the celebration!

Download the rest of this article in pdf format, charting the differences by domain, by clicking this dark gray link:

© 1994…2015, all rights reserved
Check bottom of Home/New to find out the “sharing rules”

Many more ADD-ADHD Articles on this site:

Articles in the ADD Coaching series
(all onsite articles will open in THIS window– use your browser’s BACK button to come back here)

Articles in the ADD Concepts series:

Articles in the Differential Diagnosis series:

Articles in the ADD Overview series:

Related Articles Elsewhere on the Web:
(offsite links open in a new window/tab)

About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

10 Responses to Distinctions: Coaching vs.Therapy

  1. Sageleaf says:

    Great thoughts and writing here. 🙂 Hello again! You know…it was fun reading about the differences between therapists and coaches. I’ve thought a time or two about becoming a life coach and then I always end up thinking that I shouldn’t because I didn’t have a therapist background. But reading this kind of gives me a new interest in it. Perhaps some day. I’m still a little burnt out from grad school a few years ago.

    And I worked on the comments thingie over at my blog. Turns out I think it’s my “theme.” But that’s a whole bigger can of worms that I’m not quite ready to tackle at the moment. lol. Maybe after the holidays. 🙂

    In any case, great to see you again. Glad Christy mentioned you over at her blog. I hope you’re having a great holiday season! Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Cynthia – and I’m sorry to read that your theme is giving you fits. Sounds like a good plan to tackle it in the New Year.

      I don’t like the term “life coach” and avoid its use, primarily because there are now SO many lousy trainings that “certify” their coaches using that term. I hope that if you do choose to pursue coaching as a career path, you will take the time to find a GOOD training organization – and I personally suggest looking for some “brain-based” content.

      I mean REALLY – does ANYBODY truly believe that *anybody* can teach the information, much less the skills needed for practically ANY profession in a single weekend or two? ONE particular idiot claims he has “certified” thousands of therapists as “life coaches” in that manner!

      I have a word for that: FRAUD. Unfortunately, it is fraud perpetrated upon an unsuspecting public and is threatening the credibility of the entire field.

      Send ME $500 or more and I will be happy to “certify” you as a Hogwarts Witch, too, but it will NEVER change the fact that your spells fall flat and you can’t really fly – 🙂

      Even worse however (and more difficult to spot), are the trainings that don’t turn out decent coaches. Even legitimate certifications have a tough time agreeing on what skills make up an acceptable level of which skills – or how, exactly, to measure them.

      It’s certainly NOT a problem confined to coaching! I’m sure that almost any of us could easily come up with a list of sub-standard helping professionals — from therapists to social workers to nurses and doctors — but since coaching is MY field, substandard services make me the angriest there.

      Stepping off my soapbox now. Have a great Holiday Season!


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  3. Christy B says:

    Hi Madelyn, I hope you are enjoying a restful birthday 🙂 May this year be wonderful for you! And no rush to reply to me (it’s not a “should” as you would say). This wasn’t homework to read the link but instead a wonderful way to broaden my knowledge base. I delight in learning! I think you hit the nail on the head when you wrote that coaching requires that the client wants to be part of the process and does have a lot of power in the process. Often therapy and coaching are words used interchangeably, yet while they do have similar attributes they are quite different.

    Great post, and I will share it now across my social media networks. I’ll also include it in my Friday roundup post as I feel it deserves a wider audience. Hugs, birthday gal xo


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  5. ericb85 says:

    One lens that for me distinguishes the therapeutic approach (at its best) is a focus on *identifying and healing injury*, however such injury might be described. Most (all?) of us who show up in a therapist’s office are surely there because something or other hurts us, so badly that we don’t know how else to deal with it.


    • Your comments are certainly true – yet many ADD/EFDers are in the kind of pain that will only heal with an ADD coaching approach, yet wind up in therapy (or with a “vanilla” coach who is clue-free about the needs of those with EFDs). Identifying & healing injury will be necessary, of course, but until each person understands what s/he needs to do INSTEAD, life is likely to be like picking a scab – wounds never really heal.

      See If the shoe doesn’t fit, don’t blame the foot! for another way to explain this.

      Thanks for taking time to read and ring in.


  6. This is a timely article. As the number of coaches grow, distinguishing between coaches and therapy is very important. I teach leadership in a graduate school of social work so some students have often wondered whether I was teaching therapy. I explain that I am not a clinician and that I am speaking from a coaching rather than therapy orientation. What makes it more confusing is that some of what we as coaches do may be experienced as “therapeutic,” even though we did not “do therapy.”

    As a side note, your chart describes therapy as being based in a medical model. Do you think that is as true in recent years as in the past? I’m thinking it’s less so, but this is just speculation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is difficult to describe either modality concretely, especially succinctly, because all of our terms are tethered to older denotations (ex., “theraputic”). Plus, distinguishing one field from the other is like attempting to hit a moving target — from both fields. As with books in emerging fields (leadership, perhaps?), by the time you get the darned thing in the hands of the public, its already time for an update!

      I do believe that any time one is coming from a mental “health” model, we are, ultimately, based in the medical tradition – even when a particular practitioner is not thinking “meds” for dis-ease or dis-order. The cognitive therapists, not so much – though most are trained to recognize, if not work with, a spectrum of DSM traits. We humans do tend to see what we look for, and belief perseverance can’t help but impact how things proceed, technique-wise. Even the newer term, “Wellness Model” implies the contrast from its opposite.

      When the Mac was born, unlike the PC, it did not build on “what came before” (meaning CPM to DOS to Windows) — so it was free to set off in directions uncolored by older code. Still, bits and bites and binary machine language dynamics were constants in both operating systems. So I can well imagine a similar conversation, along with its difficulties, if either OS were to try to distinguish itself from the other to an individual who was not more than a little familiar with both.

      The important thing, I believe, is to be in the conversation, as well as for coaches to understand clearly that there are some areas they simply MUST refer to therapy. NOW, recognizing referral-indicative behavioral nuance? I don’t know how any coach training would go about it, without making training as a therapist a pre-req!


    • Belated reply, Jean re: “medical model” That’s a more charge-neutral way of saying that therapists, similar to doctors, tend to “pathologize.” The sports model assumes that the individual does, in fact, want to do well and that there are pragmatic reasons for falling below one’s potential that can be “coached” upward.

      In my experience, the briefer the therapy model, the more “pragmatic” the come-from, but the type the general public thinks about when they think “therapy” does seem to come from a point of view of going to a professional to diagnose then “fix” what’s “broken.”

      Coaches see what they do as adding velocity to what’s already there vs. putting things in place that are, in effect, “missing” or “broken.” Even ADD Coaches, who coach Executive Functioning dysragulations, focus on “working with” or “working around” (i.e., working “differently”) more than making the dysfunctional functional – whether neurological or behavioral.

      Not ALL therapists pathologize – some work in a very coach-like, pragmatic fashion (Kathleen Nadeau, for example – and many of the behaviorists), so I do agree that this article, in an attempt to help distinguish the two fields from one another, paints in broad strokes. I’m not sure how to “fix” that (lol), without making the article and so long and “parenthetical” that no one would read the darned thing!

      Thanks for your comment!


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