Coaching vs Psychotherapy

Dr. William K. Larkin

Therapy 5If there is a problem that has a mental illness diagnosis that directly fits the categories that define a mental illness issue, then go to a therapist.

That therapist should diagnosis on the basis of set categories and criteria supposedly backed by research. The problem is that the APA manages to name just about every problem as some kind of issue with a diagnosis that can be found or pieced together, largely for insurance purposes.

Coaching is not therapy, therapy is not coaching. What is the difference? Therapy treats problems that have an identifiable diagnosis with a name.Therapy 2

Coaching works very differently. It does not make a diagnosis using anything like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual V (DSM V).

Coaching is also not about a problem.

If someone presents you with a problem and you work at solving the problem, remind yourself that good coaching is grounded in an educational model, not a mental illness model. We are so “problem-oriented” and “tell me what’s wrong” brainwashed that we think that “problem-solving” is the way to go. “Facing reality” is most often not facing the real realities at all. Problems are symptoms, and they are rarely core issues.

Allowing 3Nor does facing the “problem” head-on usually ever create lasting solutions or skills at problem-solving.  What is the larger context of what is working from which the problem is an exception? How do you strengthen or, in many cases, rebuild that broader context of living life or producing results? We can tell you and we can teach you how to do this.

Coaching is about what works, and is about spending as little time as possible on what doesn’t work. If there is an issue that needs to be talked through, dwelt upon, traced to its etiology, understood, resolved and let-go, you probably need a therapist. If you need to dig up a bag full of negative feelings, work through projections, and resolve a lot of anger, start with a therapist.

Coaching approaches it differently. First of all, problems are rarely ever solved from a negative place. We know that you have to get to a more positive level of personal experience to do effective problem-solving. What about emergencies, you ask? That’s a perfect example of not having time to do a lot of delving but act on the best strategies and solutions possible, and usually experts, more efficiently free of negative feelings, handle emergencies. Our best, most competent and capable self springs into action and we handle them.Zig Zagging

In coaching, a person may start with a problem, but it needs to be put aside until at least two things happen. The person learns how to stay in an UpSpiral while doing problem solving, and they need to know what their real scientifically tested strengths are.

Then they need to learn about the state of “flow:” how do you let go and not think about problems and just focus and let yourself engage in activities or work in a way that you are “one with the music?” It is from this state of flow or non-engagement with a problem that the larger sphere of which the problem is a sign begins to emerge and to dawn on us. From there we move to goals. What are your goals?

If you are an executive coach, working with organizations, you might be thinking that when they come to you, they want solutions, they want a more direct, head-on approach.  Never mind what they want. They are not hiring you to continue to do what they want. They are hiring you to define a strategy from which they can be productive and successful, both personally and as a leader. If finding a “straight-forward,” singular pill of a solution worked, they would already have found it and wouldn’t be calling you.

Strengths SpinningWe look at the initial problem from two places. After you know your real strengths, which ones are you using to address what seems to be a problem? (probably none of them.)

The next place from which we look at the “problem” is after a person has identified their goals or the goals of their organization.

Then we ask, “how does this big whopper problem that you think deserves all kinds of attention fit into these goals?” Usually not very well, it’s just sapping energy. We move on to meaning making and vision, either personal or corporate. We come to identify it clearly. Where does the problem fit then? By this time, the problem is usually forgotten or it has found it’s own solution, and resolved itself in the process of these changing perceptions.

We waste enormous amounts of time trying to solve problems that give little or no lasting satisfaction or success to our real meaning-making systems because we have not identified what they are.

The next phase is the almost magic-like experience of the resources that show up to support an intact set of goals and vision that gives meaning and purpose.

The problem we started with is a diversion, it’s fool’s gold and the most important thing it tells you is where the “gold” is NOT.Fool's Gold

If you are a coach and these things aren’t happening in your practice, look at your training.  Were you trained to “problem-solve?” If you’re a client and these things don’t seem to be happening in your experience, find a new coach.

Coaching does the same thing a good athletic coach does with a tennis player. That coach does not focus on the problem, he/she focuses on the solution, “the how-to.” It is never, never a single fix to a single problem, or this person or corporation would have already solved it and they would not have sought out a coach.

For example, Michael Phelps, the Olympic swimmer got a coach to help get a little faster. The coach told Michael that he had to learn a whole new approach to swimming, to his strokes. Of course Michael balked, but the coach won and so did this historic swimmer, because this coach could look at the broader pictures of solutions.

Therapy 3Coaching is no different. There are definite steps and they start with what works, not with what does not. A good way to tell if you have a good coach is if they allow you to keep focused on the problem or, instead, if there is always movement toward a way of greater living or performance.

Coaching is about the “how to,” not digging up and “understanding” the “not how-too.” A coach who is a “wanna be” therapist is outside of his/her scope of practice. Likewise a therapist, who makes a diagnosis of every day normal problems and calls it “generalized anxiety” is unethical and risks his/her license or a lawsuit.Coaching Skills

There are as many coaches with little or no research-based training as there are therapists who thumb through the DSM V to find something that will fit their need to be reimbursed, but there are also some very good ones, grounded in research, who understand how the brain works, and how neuroplasticity changes the brain for good, better, and best in both individuals and organizations.





About the author

Dr. William K. Larkin
  • MissTowner

    What I love about coaching is that i t’s positively focused . W e as people love to wallow in our miseries and stay stuck. It’s a comfortable place because it’s what we are used to. With coaching, the “problem” is shelved, and the focus is on what works and how to attain the goal in mind. Once we know our strengths, we become happier, and then we can stay happy by staying in the upspiral!

  • This blog article clearly explains the differences between coaching and psychotherapy, as well as what excites me about the optimistic, strength-based, forward motion of coaching.

  • joseph967

    I’m looking forward to becoming a coach, because I will be building my clients up by focusing on there strengths and teach them how to stay positive.

  • I givi this definition in my web page:
    In relation to psychology, the Coaching process is situated between the present and the future, not by going back into episodes of the past which could be the cause of psychological traumas of the individual, but by extracting all the individual’s potential and leaning on his own resources to allow him to attain his objectives in a concrete period of time.

  • Kathleen Burkhalter

    I personally think that coaching will solve a multitude of issues that were previously handled by therapy. In my experience, therapy spends too much time going over the past. From my positive psych studies I know that rumination is bad for a brain. Moving toward a goal or planning or thinking about it gives a “lift” of hope. With coaching one can always move toward the light, move toward the goal. Every day is a new chance to rewire the brain. From my personal experience as a NeuroPositive practitioner, coaching gives immediate tools to improve life from the start.

  • Swanstar98

    I so appreciate that coaching is not about a problem. Dr. Larkin’s statement, “good coaching is
    grounded in an educational model, not a mental illness model” is key. With a mental illness model being applied to everyday problems, come labels that reinforce limitations, problems, and being
    stuck. On the other hand as the Dr. Fredrickson’s research shows, positive emotions, “broaden and build” our experiences in life. In the coaching model of teaching people about what this research supports, this invites people to broaden and build upon their ability to feel good, using tools such as the Emotion Gym, UpSpiral, and focusing on their personal strengths.

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