Session Logo
Business Coaching vs. Therapy: What Are the Key Differences?

Business Coaching vs. Therapy: What Are the Key Differences?

Significant 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.

Dr. Barbara Grelling |

Many people are unclear about the difference between coaching and therapy. This makes sense because there is a definite overlap in the role of a coach and a therapist. In fact, some licensed therapists also provide coaching. Both psychotherapists and coaches utilize their knowledge of human behavior, motivation and behavioral change to help clients achieve their goals and increase their personal wellbeing. Both can involve asking questions, setting goals, offering tools, assigning homework, building on strengths, and empowering the client. However, there are some key differences that it helps to be aware of so that coaching does not become confused with therapy.

In the coaching world, the lines between personal and professional development can become blurred, leaving both client and coach in a problematic situation. Coaches may find themselves dealing with clients who want help with mental health issues, leading to a boundary problem in the working relationship. It’s critical for coaches to understand the difference between coaching and therapy, so that the client receives the best care. A good coach will know when to recommend that a client seek therapy (either instead of or in addition to coaching). In this article I will explore some key differences between the two situations:

Mental Health Professionals Versus Coaches - what are the main differences?

1. Different Credentials and Training

One of the most important distinguishing factors between psychotherapists (psychologists, counselors, clinical social workers) and coaches is that psychotherapists are trained to help people who are facing mental illnesses, and coaches are not. In order to become a licensed mental health professional, the individual must first earn a master’s degree, a Ph.D. or a Psy.D. and then become licensed by a professional licensing board. A master’s degree usually takes five years to complete, followed by at least three additional years for a doctoral degree. Becoming licensed requires the individual to meet rigorous standards of training and supervision, to pass exams, as well as meet continuing education requirements. All of this is regulated by governmental licensing boards.

On the other hand, anyone can call themselves a coach. Use of the title is not restricted by law. Therefore it is helpful to know what to look for in a coach in order to find a skilled professional and avoid working with an under-qualified coach. It is best to look for a coach with a legitimate certification, such as an official credential from the International Coaching Federation (ICF). It is important that a professional coach be able to do the following things:

  • Structure and explain the coaching process for you.
  • Possess attentive listening skills – they hear what you do and don’t say.
  • Maintain confidentiality
  • Demonstrate empathy and high-level emotional intelligence – they can read emotive indicators and body language (even in virtual settings).
  • Ask evocative relevant questions.
  • Open your mind to new possibilities and perspectives.
  • Help you identify, understand, appreciate, and apply your own as well as the strengths of others.
  • Support and motivate you (when you need it) and helps you to appropriately evaluate your strengths and weaknesses
  • Hold you accountable - to promises, values, and strengths as well as limitations.
  • Maintain the balance between challenging, supporting, provoking, and motivating you.
  • Reliably keep appointments.

2. Topics covered

Another primary difference between therapy and business coaching is the content that is covered during meetings between the professional and the client. Mental health professionals treat mental health problems; such as anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder. Therapy is considered a health care service and it is primarily focused on diagnosing and treating mental disorders to alleviate symptoms and develop strategies to successfully cope with life’s challenges. Therapists can also help individuals who are not struggling with a mental illness, but who do want help in navigating relationships, overcoming past traumas, coping with grief or want to increase their overall wellbeing. In therapy, clients often gain insights and are taught practical skills. This therapeutic help can relate to their work life, but can also relate to their friendships, their family or any other aspect of their lives. In the context of the confidential therapeutic relationship, the content of the therapeutic discussions concerns the client’s very personal feelings, thoughts and experiences.This creates emotional vulnerability for the client due to the imbalance in power (because the therapist does not share details from their own personal life). Therapists are trained in ethical guidelines and are then held to rigorous standards, which are governed by licensing boards and determined by law.

Unlike therapists, business coaches aim to avoid too much of a power differential in the relationship.They bring business knowledge and expertise, and ask questions to instill confidence, help clients think for themselves, and to 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). Rather than focusing on treating symptoms or improving overall happiness, business coaches help their clients to develop strategies to reach client-identified goals of enhanced performance and satisfaction. They tend to be focused on organizational and workplace issues such as elevating performance and achieving career and organizational goals. They are generally not focusing on satisfaction in areas outside of the workplace.

Professional coaching has also been shown 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 that you are wanting therapy rather than coaching. If you are meeting with a therapist, but find yourself wanting more help in building skills to navigate your professional life, you might want to consider working with a business coach. Choosing the appropriate professional to work with you will help you be more successful in achieving your goals, whether they are professional or personal.

3. Time Spent Dealing with the Past Versus the Present Moment and the Future

Therapy sometimes focuses on past 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 plan of resolving past issues and identifying ways that they may be contributing to current patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving.

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

To be clear, a coach may sometimes ask questions about the past and a therapist will sometimes focus on the future. For example, a coach might help identify barriers for success by helping the client understand how holding on to mindsets from the past hinders them in reaching their future goals. And the therapist may help clients identify and visualize goals for the future. Thus, this is not a rigid difference but a slightly different emphasis that can differentiate the two.

Signs that Coaching May Be Becoming Too Much Like Therapy

If you’re a business coach, you may have had a time when coaching started to feel more like therapy with a client 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 report feelings of depression, anxiety or any other disorder? Does it seem to be interfering with their functioning? Is it preventing them from receiving optimal coaching?
  • Does your client have difficulty concentrating on tasks, and seem 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, if they are in need of therapy, getting treatment can allow them to benefit more fully from coaching. The best way to provide quality coaching is to maintain good boundaries, address it with your client when you start to notice this conflict, and offer an appropriate recommendation that the client seek mental health counseling when needed. By clearly differentiating business challenges from mental health challenges, you can offer your client the best services possible.


I hope you have learned more about the difference between business coaching and therapy and that this proves to be beneficial to your work. If you want to learn more about business coaching with highly-qualified and carefully vetted business coaches, I encourage you to reach out to Session to learn more.

Enjoyed the article?

Related content

6 Benefits of Online Coaching

Meet the Author

Dr. Barbara Grelling

Dr. Barbara Grelling

PhD, Clinical Psychologist

Dr. Barbara Grelling, PhD, has been working as a clinical psychologist for over twenty-five years. She worked for fourteen years for Kaiser Permanente, the largest HMO in the United States. Dr. Grelling has run her own private practice for nineteen years and has helped many adults, in a wide variety of settings, build skills, improve relationships and achieve their personal and professional goals.

Ready to get started?Put your learnings to work.