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Frequently Asked Questions

How do therapy, counselling, and coaching differ?

Although much has been said about how coaching and therapy differ, they are related in representing two ends of the same continuum of professional services that promote desired changes. This continuum consists of therapy - counseling - consulting - coaching.

Therapy is a process that helps people overcome problems that have their roots in emotional scars, bad learning experiences, or neurological problems. Usually, the patient is struggling with one or more issues and does not have the personal resources to deal with them. Therapy fosters change through healing emotional scars, providing corrective learning experiences, or helping the patient to compensate for neurological issues.

Counseling is also a process that helps people overcome problems, but these problems tend to have their roots in circumstances. Patients usually have the personal resources to deal with them, but often lack some understanding, information, or perspective that would enable them to tackle the problems successfully. Counseling, then, might provide information, feedback, and encouragement to deal with the problem in the most effective manner.

Coaching is a process that helps people solve the puzzle of how best to maximize their potential and realize their dreams. Clients usually have the personal resources to effect desired changes, but may have trouble organizing and focusing their efforts, and maintaining a high level of motivation. Coaching, then, provides structure, feedback, and motivation to optimize effectiveness and consistency of effort.

And Finally, consulting usually involves providing assessments, opinions, and recommendations, to individuals, groups, or businesses. The purpose is to help the client make a decision or otherwise effect desired changes. Clients have the resources to make the changes, but seek professional input to enable them to make the best choices and to focus those resources in the best way. Consultations are sometimes one-time contacts and are almost always short-term contracts.

These four processes, then, form a continuum of personal services that help people make desired changes and promote well-being.

Shouldn't I be able to make changes, to set and reach my goals, without the use of a coach?

Yes! You can certainly make envision what you want, set goals, and work toward reaching them without a coach, but you're likely to have a much harder time doing it. The problem is, few of us, coaches included, can maintain the perspective, motivation and effective focus to achieve our personal best on our own. This is especially true when life gets hectic and stressful. Coaching can provide you with a fresh and objective perspective, help you maintain a high level of motivation, and ensure that your efforts are focused where they need to be and not wasted. With a coach, you're part of a team of two, working for you.

How long do I have to work with a coach?

You should only work with a coach for as long as you think it’s helping you, and that will largely depend upon the nature and extent of your original goals. For some people, this may mean as few as six sessions to help them get back on the right track. For others, working with a coach becomes a rewarding and valued part of their life and they choose to have ongoing contacts beyond realizing their original goals. It is up to you. An ethical coach, however, will only work with you as long as he or she believes you are benefiting from it.
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What Guarantee of Results Should I Expect?

The short answer is none. Unlike purchasing a car or repair service, when you contract for coaching, you are entering into a process. Within that process, you have the control and power to make your coaching work or not work, while your coach has no capacity or desire to exert that control over your life. The best a coach can do is provide a high quality, professional service and the rest is up to you to follow through with your planned actions. Some coaches do provide a guarantee of satisfaction with the service provided. Most often, an ethical coach will refund the cost of unused coaching sessions when a client wants to suspend the service because of dissatisfaction.
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I've tried and tried to set and reach goals in my life but I always seem to fall short. Do I need coaching or therapy?

A close examination of your experiences with trying to make life changes would be needed to know for certain, but here are some rough guidelines. As a rule, if someone has consistently used sound approaches to personal achievement and yet something always seems to prevent hoped for progress, then either the goals are wrong for that person or there may be some emotional or cognitive block getting in the way.

One of the benefits of working with a personal coach who is also a trained therapist is that your coach would be better equipped than most to help you figure out the problem and determine the best course of action to correct it.

Be aware, however, that coaching should never be confused with therapy (see next question). For legal and ethical reasons, coaching and therapy must be kept distinct and separate. Accordingly, if a coach does help a client determine that therapy is needed, he or she should suggest that the client seek this out. The coach, even if a professional therapist, should not attempt to provide that therapy.
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How do you know who is qualified to coach? How do I know he is/ she is any good?

First, the question of qualifications. So far, coaching is not a regulated profession. There have been efforts to establish an accreditation system through several of the Coach Training Services that have sprung up in the past decade or so, but there are no regulating bodies at the State or Provincial level and so standards of practice remain unchecked.

Checking into the qualifications of a prospective coach is a very good idea because, unfortunately, it is still a "buyer beware" situation. Hiring a "certified" coach is a safer bet than hiring someone with no qualifications at all. Keep in mind, however, that all being certified means at this state of the profession is that the coach has graduated from a training program. Most such training programs are completed on-line and can involve as few as 30 hours of training. Accordingly, most coaches who only have "coach certification" under their belt are not well grounded in human behavior and are probably not regulated in any way in their practice.

Some coaches are licensed psychologists and social workers who are well trained by accredited institutions and regulated by State or Provincial Licensing bodies. Hiring such a coach may be a safer bet yet because of the high standards of discipline and training involved. Also, most therapist-coaches practice with the same care and ethical guidelines that govern their clinical work.

On the other hand, coaching is a very specific approach to enhancing people's lives that not all psychologists or social workers would be inclined to use. Typically, therapists who hire themselves out as coaches do use coaching techniques but do check into this.

One important word of caution here: the term "therapist" is generic and in many jurisdictions it is not a protected title. This often means anyone can call him or her-self a therapist, much like anyone can call him or her-self a coach. If a coach advertises being a therapist and that is important to you, do check the credentials held.

As for who is a good coach, there is no guaranteed way to know this ahead of time but a couple of things to look for might help. First, inquire into his or her qualifications. High qualifications do not guarantee that someone is a good coach, but it is an important factor to consider.

Second, find out how long the coach has been practicing. Again, this is no guarantee, but someone who is well established might be expected to be more experienced and at least competent.

Third, finding a coach through word of mouth is a good bet. If a coach has helped a friend of yours, there is a reasonably good chance that he or she would be able to help you also. Do be careful of published testimonials, however, as these are not reliable and the ethics of having clients give testimonials is questionable.

Finally, talk to the coach directly. Most coaches offer free consultations or introductory sessions and these offer a great opportunity to get a feel for how you and your prospective coach interact. Is this someone you think you can come to accept advise from or receive corrective feedback from? Chemistry isn't everything, but it is important in coaching. Above all, if you feel pressured into signing up with a coach at any time, just exercise your assertive skills and hang up. You will be helping the profession establish a standard of practice and you may save yourself time and trouble.

What is the difference between coaching and mentoring?

As I see it, mentoring and coaching overlap, but there are a few differences worth noting. Mentoring usually involves an expert in a field cultivating or otherwise helping someone in the same field follow in similar footsteps, at least until that person finds his or her own path. In doing so, a mentor might do many of the same things a coach might do, but would tend to be fairly directive.

A coach, on the other hand, is more an expert on change, motivation management, the process of setting and reaching goals, etc. A coach may not lead a client like a mentor, but would act more like a colleague, a co-conspirator in the client’s success. A coach might not even have a high level of expertise in a client’s particular field and yet still be very effective. A simple way to distinguish them is that a mentor pulls, while a coach pushes.


Copyright © 2002,   G. S. Renfrey

G. Stephen Renfrey, Ph.D



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New! There are now a number of posted ARTICLES that are relevant to coaching, psychology, and holistic wellness. These will be growing in number and scope in the coming months as they are reformatted for the web. I invite you to check back from time to time to see if there is something of interest to you.


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Words of Wisdom:

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
-Henry David Thoreau