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Business Coaching Versus Therapy: What Are the Key Differences?

Business Coaching Versus Therapy: What Are the Key Differences?

Many differences exist between coaching and therapy, yet often, the two practices are confused. We explore the key differences in this piece. Read more below to discover how to differentiate between each one, and find out which may be the best fit for you.

Pernille Brun | August 31st, 2022

A lot of ambiguity exists in the coaching world. Often, the lines between personal and professional development become blurred, leaving both client and coach in a precarious situation. Coaches may find themselves dealing with clients who want help with mental health issues, leading to a lack of clarity in the working relationship. It’s critical to differentiate between coaching and therapy so that the client receives the best care in both situations. In this article we will explore some key differences  between the two areas:

Mental Health Professionals Versus Coaches - What Are the Main Differences?

Different Credentials and Training Expertise

One of the most important distinguishing factors between psychotherapists and coaches is that psychotherapists are trained to help people who are facing mental illnesses, and coaches are not. In fact, the title “Therapist” is in most countries a protected title - at least when it comes to Clinical Psychologists practicing therapy. In a number of countries, it takes approximately five to eight years after receiving a bachelor’s degree to obtain a Ph.D. in psychology. A master’s degree usually takes five years to complete, followed by an additional four to six years for a doctoral degree.

On the other hand, anyone can call themselves a coach. To avoid working with an underqualified (or even unqualified) coach, look for coaches with a legitimate certification, such as an official credential from the ICF. Other important coaching qualities include:

  • Attentive listening skills – they hear what you do and don’t say.
  • Empathy and high-level emotional intelligence – they can read emotive indicators and body language even virtually.
  • Asks deep, evocative, relevant questions.
  • Opens your mind to new possibilities and perspectives.
  • Helps you identify, understand, appreciate, and apply your own as well as the strengths of others and how these can compensate for your weaknesses.
  • Supports and motivates you (when you need it) and brings you back to reality if your self-confidence becomes overinflated.
  • Holds you accountable - to promises, values, and strengths as well as limitations.
  • Maintains the balance between challenging, supporting, provoking, and motivating you.
  • Keeps appointments.
  • Keeps things confidential.
  • Structures and explains the coaching process for you.

Topics Covered

Another primary difference between therapy and coaching is the different topics that each practice covers. Mental health professionals such as psychologists, psychotherapists, and counselors treat mental illness; including disorders such as ADHD, OCD, PTSD, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, etc. Mental health professionals can also help individuals who may not necessarily be struggling with a mental health disorder, but want some help in their lives, in navigating relationships, and dealing with past traumas or issues. Mental health professionals can also provide clients with practical tools such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

On the other hand, coaches instill confidence to help clients think for themselves, find creative solutions and answers to problems.

“ICF defines coaching as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” (Check out ICF's website for more information on Coaching vs. Therapy)

Professional coaching has also been proven to enhance the following professional skills:

  • Communication, listening, and empathy.
  • Investor pitching and negotiation.
  • Team growth, engagement, and development.
  • Time management, prioritization, and problem-solving.
  • Positive habit-building.
  • Decision making.
  • Strategy development and execution.

If you find yourself in a coaching relationship, reflect on what you spend time talking about. Do you talk about topics covering your mental health, your ability to navigate relationships and/or issues regarding your private life? Or do you mainly spend time on professional issues, such as communication skills at work, strategic decision-making and/or how to grow as a professional? If you are primarily talking about private life matters - then it might be more like therapy (or life coaching).

Time Spent Dealing with the Past Versus the Present Moment

“The primary difference between a therapist and a coach is that therapists tend to focus more on the past or present while coaches tend to focus more on the present and the future”- Lynn Catalano

Therapy and mental health counselling may focus on past traumas and issues to help the client change self-destructive habits, repair and improve relationships and work through painful feelings. In therapy sessions it is normal to discuss and analyze the past, with the hope of resolving past issues and identifying patterns that may hold the client back.

On the other hand, business coaching generally focuses on the present moment and future outcomes. For example, a business coach can help the client to achieve long-term career goals, and help them execute on yearly progression growth. To achieve this, the coach needs to assess where the client currently is at, and plan out the next steps to achieve success.

However, a coach may sometimes ask questions about the past or a therapist will sometimes focus on the future. For example, a coach might help identify barriers for success by helping the client understand how hanging on to mindsets from the past hinders them in reaching their future goals. And the therapist may also ask questions about the future, and help identify and visualize a wanted future.

Mental Health Warning Signs to Watch Out For When Coaching

If you’re a business coach, you may have experienced slipping into the ‘’red zone’’ with a client who may be experiencing mental health struggles. If this sounds familiar, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you feel like your client’s therapist rather than their coach?
  • Does your client exhibit symptoms of depression, anxiety, OCD, or any other disorder? And if so, is this preventing them from receiving optimal coaching?
  • Does your client have difficulty concentrating on tasks, and seems preoccupied with worries?
  • Does your client lean on you for emotional support?
  • Do they come to you with their personal problems, and ask you for solutions?

Remember, a business coaching client can be dealing with mental health issues, and this should not prevent them from undergoing coaching. In fact, so many people deal with mental health issues today, that it would be rare to find a client base with zero mental health issues. However, it’s critical that lines are not blurred, and that the client seeks out a psychologist or counsellor to deal with their mental health concerns. By distinctly differentiating business problems/challenges and mental health problems/challenges, you can offer your client the best services possible. Point them elsewhere if you think they need to primarily focus on their mental health.


I hope you have enjoyed discovering more about the difference between coaching and therapy, and find it beneficial in order to assess whether the conversation is more of therapy than coaching or vice versa. If you want to learn more about business coaching with highly-qualified and carefully vetted business coaches, we encourage you to reach out to learn more.

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Meet the Author

Pernille Brun

Pernille Brun

Professional Business Coach, CEO and Co-Founder, Session

Experienced Strategic Advisor, Business Consultant, Executive Coach, Facilitator, Board Member, and Speaker. Author of four books on organizational life and leadership, including "Strengths-Based Leadership Handbook" and "On the Move - lessons for the Future from Nordic Leaders".

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