What is the difference between a life coach and a counselor?

While life coaching focuses on the future, counseling focuses on the past, the present, and the future. As a counselor, you help your patients overcome these difficulties so that they can find freedom. Coaching advocates say they provide a different service that helps clients achieve their goals for the future and create a new path in life. They say counselors spend more time examining the past, seeking solutions to emotional concerns, and seeking the diagnosis required by insurance companies.

Coaches suggest that the relationships they establish with clients are also more collegial in nature. Coaches and clients work in a less structured environment as a team instead of establishing a “doctor-patient relationship”. Unlike counseling or therapy, coaching assumes a basic level of emotional well-being and focuses on the present and on co-creating the future. Williams fully agrees that coaches should stay away from certain areas and promptly refer clients to the appropriate mental health professional.

For example, a book consultant won't necessarily tell you how to consult an agent or how to publish a book (although some may also offer this type of specific help). Edward Colozzi, an expert in professional development and author of the book Creating Careers with Confidence, says that, although coaching has its limitations, its practice dates back to times in many cultures when spiritual leaders, shamans, mentors, or others in the community offered informal guidance. Like Williams, he believes that coaches have a unique role to play as helping professionals, as they work primarily with people who are generally healthy but still in need of support. Counselors create a safe and supportive space to discover where in your life you are and at what point in your life you cannot break free.

Counseling Today contacted several professionals whose counseling experiences have influenced their perspectives on coaching (or vice versa). Ethical life coaches know that life coaching is not therapy and they refer clients who need therapy to a therapist. The fact that a licensing board does not require them to do so does not mean that life coaches do not choose to receive education or training or to respect ethical standards in the way they practice. This means that therapists are required to meet strict rules to practice therapy, while life coaches are not required to meet any standards at all.

There are many types of therapy, various forms of counseling, and a wide range of talented coaches. Another difference? Progress is often slow and painful in counseling, but it's usually “fast” and usually enjoyable in training, according to Williams. And, if a life coach says they're certified, you can check their certification the same way you would check a therapist's license. Lynn Mitchell, a business executive and management consultant for almost 20 years, is pursuing a master's degree in counseling in Chicago, but she wants to be a life coach.

Working with a coach who has completed the required education, training, and standards that a therapist, master's, or doctorate level would have helps clients feel confident that they are in good hands.