In the coming to life of the self-care movement, we mustn’t forget how important professional help is. We can find solace, change and personal growth in a myriad of ways that we implement ourselves but equally knowing when to turn to a professional for support is just as important. And yet a question I know many of us have is who do I turn to? What type of help do I need? Which person, service or course is the right one for me?
There are a myriad of service offerings out there to support us, but the two I want to cover here are coaching and counselling because they’re the two I’m asked about the most. The difference between them and knowing which one is right for us, namely.
It’s a common question with good reason – it’s not always clear cut and you’ll get a slightly different answer depending on who you ask and their experience, knowledge, training and beliefs too.
So, with that caveat, here’s how I describe the difference between counselling and coaching, and then how to choose which is right for you.
Counselling helps you to process and understand what’s been happening for you that got you to where you are today – your past to your present. It will help you understand why you think, feel and react in certain ways and potentially give you insight into the way you make decisions that are both positive and less positive for you. Broadly speaking, it focuses more on the past than the future.
Coaching is a process that helps you to see where you are in the present, and how you can move forward into the person you would like to be – how you can live, think, feel and react in the future. It focuses on the place (emotionally, physically or both) that you want to get to and, importantly, how you’re going to get there. Broadly then, it covers the future more than the past.
Imagine a barometer going from past, to present, to future. Counselling usually occupies the space from past to present, coaching usually occupies the space from present to future – see diagram:
Another major difference between counselling and coaching is the training involved to be one or the other and what the professional calls themself once trained. Counsellor is a protected terms and to be one you must have completed a registered course. which means you know the person has a specific level of qualification. Coaching, on the other hand, isn’t protected, which means anyone can call themselves a coach.
This is both great and problematic.
For coaching, it means that it doesn’t restrict the people who might not be able to afford fancy courses but were absolutely born to support others – you know that person; you’ll either be them or have exactly that person in your peer or colleague group in mind.
However it can mean anyone can call themselves a coach without having had the training or guidance to be able to support people well. This is neither good for them nor their client, because knowing how to listen, respond and guide people well, especially under stressful or traumatic circumstances, needs to be done with great care.
A great thing to be aware of though is this: where qualified and trained, some counsellors will use coaching techniques and some coaches use counselling (or similar therapy) techniques, thereby opening up the range of areas they can work with you in your life.
As consumers, or people going through stuff, we don’t necessarily know which parts of our lives we want to explore until we’re actually IN them, hence making it hard to know whether to work with a counsellor or coach until we’re committed to working with them.
But a great counsellor and a great coach will guide you in what’s right for you. They should always offer space to talk before working with them, so you can ask them questions about how they will support you through the change or experience you’re dealing with.
So which is right for you? Here’s a really brief guide:
If you’d like to / need to work through feelings and thoughts from your past that are overwhelming and are causing you to cope with life with difficulty, it may be that seeing a counsellor is most appropriate.
If you’d like to / need to figure out direction, decisions, thoughts, feelings and emotions that might be holding you back from what you want in your future, it may be that coaching is right.
For both I say ‘may’ because a good coach and counsellor will tell you the minute you talk with them – and if they’ve got the skills, experience and qualifications for both, then all the better.
Only it’s not just skills, experience and qualifications – a key ingredient is rapport. Ask yourself – how you feel about the person you’d like to get support from? Do you like and trust them? Do you feel they’ll ask you the questions you really need right now? How will they hold a space for you in what you’re going through?
Of course, I say this assuming you’re able to choose, which if you’ve been given a referral through your GP or similar (for counselling that is – coaching is yet to make it’s way more formally into the medical profession, but we’re trying!), you probably have less choice than if you’re paying privately. However, rapport is a vital ingredient to any change work and can’t be ignored, especially if you’re investing time and money into the person and process.
Of course there are many more support services, and I haven’t covered even the different types of counsellors you’ll find, nor the different types of coaches (executive, life, health, and on), nor the different language used in support services (psychology, therapy, personal development etc). But this hopefully provides some clarity nonetheless.