Establishing Key Differences between Coaching and Counselling

Establishing Key Differences between Coaching and Counselling. By Aoife Harrington (MSc, BA Psych, Reg. Psychol PsSI)

Although coaching and counselling represent relatively recent additions to the range of human service professions, both have undergone significant growth and development over the last few decades. In fact it has been reported that coaching is now the second-fastest growing profession in the world, rivaled only by information technology (Williams, 2008) while the uptake of counselling has also seen a sharp rise, particularly in western industrialised societies (McLeod, 2003). Much confusion exists, however, amongst the general public, and indeed professionals alike, as to what the difference is between coaching and counselling – with many people treating them as one and the same.

According to the International Coaching Federation (ICF), coaching can be defined as ‘an ongoing partnership that helps clients produce fulfilling results in their personal and professional lives’. It represents a form of personalised, supported learning undertaken for the accomplishment of goals in a chosen area of focus, be that professional or personal (Goldberg, 1999). In the coaching relationship, the coach partners the client in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximise their potential. Although it can take many forms, counselling can be broadly defined as a highly skilled intervention focused on helping individuals address underlying psychological problems. Counselling is, therefore, a therapeutic relationship between counselor and client and although it can be viewed as a helping behaviour or a repertoire of interventions it is, most fundamentally, a psychological process (McLeod, 2003).

Part of the reason for the blurring of boundaries between coaching and counselling is because – as disciplines or helping professions – they share many similar qualities. Both are based on a client/practitioner model and, for the most part, are conducted by skilled practitioners. There is also an overlap in terms of their basic philosophies – with both coaching and (many) counselling initiatives embracing the client as the centre of the process and the masters of their own destinies. Both focus on the needs and goals of the client, emphasise the importance of rapport building and active listening and often use goal setting and action planning techniques. Moreover, the core skills employed by the coach and the counsellor are in many cases the same, with emphasis placed on the fostering of trust, respect, openness and confidentiality. In terms of outcomes, counselling and coaching can often result in similar behaviour change or adaptation of behaviour and can help clients to foster a greater understanding or awareness of their underlying thoughts, cognition and emotional reactions in a given situation.

Despite such similarities, however, there are a number of key aspects of coaching that differentiate it from counselling.

–          To begin, the nature of the client/practitioner relationship tends to be different in counselling, as there is a greater power differential. Specifically, the relationship is much more defined in counselling with the therapist typically taking charge of the counselling session, diagnosing the client’s situation and then providing professional expertise and guidelines to map out a path to healing. By contrast, there is more of an equal partnership in coaching.

–          In line with the power differential discussed above, the level of expertise associated with coaching and counselling tends to differ.  Specifically, clients typically come to counselling with a problem and the counsellor is seen as an expert who will attempt to remedy this problem. Coaching is not about what the coach delivers, however, but what the client creates and, therefore, coaches are not seen as experts, but rather as guides and resource providers.

–          Following on from this, the skills set, training and experience of counsellors tends to differ – and often exceed – that of coaches, due to the nature of the issues under discussion and resolution. As counselling often leads to deep and intense emotional experiences, it demands skillful guidance from an experienced practitioner. The need to study complex theories of human behaviour, however, is less important for coaches simply because coaching is more concerned with process than actual content.

–          Another key differentiating factor is the reactive nature of counselling, typically focusing on the resolution of problems, particularly those of an emotional or interpersonal nature. By contrast, coaching is much more proactive and thus tends not to be about solving problems, although, in the process, issues under consideration may become resolved in a way that restores balance to the client’s life.

–          Although both coaching and counselling are goal driven, how goals are actually formed and the role on the coach in goal setting tends to be quite different in coaching. Specifically, the goals of coaching are formulated and determined solely by the client. The coach’s role in establishing goals is to help the client stay focused on working towards those goals (making sure they are achievable, realistic, measurable and linked to a specific time frame). In order to achieve this, coaches must ask key questions of the client in order to gather information, build and maintain the relationship, inspire them to think clearly and creatively and, most critically, to make requests and initiate action.

–          Another key differential in terms of coaching versus counselling is the degree to which the focus is on the past versus the present/future. Coaching primarily focuses on a person’s present, in order to help them create actionable strategies for achieving specific goals in their life while counselling tends to be primarily concerned with exploring past events or issue. While the past may be discussed on occasion in coaching, it is typically only addressed in the context of discovering what is blocking the client from moving forward in their current and future roles and in the context of goal attainment.

–          One final area for consideration is that the boundaries tend to be somewhat different in coaching compared to counselling/therapeutic relationships, with coaching allowing for greater flexibility. Specifically, there tends to be more scope in how and when coaching is delivered, for example, coaching can take place in a variety of locations and often utilizes various media of communication, including email and teleconference facilities. Counselling on the other hand typically takes place in the same location (often a counsellor’s room’s) on a regular basis, with little scope for deviation.

In summary, although both coaching and counselling are person-centered, holistic approaches that are primarily concerned with meeting the needs of the client, in a safe and structured environment – a number of key differences set them apart. In brief, coaching is a future-orientated, strengths based, proactive, challenging, non-judgmental process whereby the coach partners the client in a journey of self-discovery. The process is fundamentally important in coaching, often more so than outcomes, and it is the client’s responsibility to set the agenda and goals for coaching, with the coach monitoring progress and holding the client accountable. By contrast, counselling is a remedial, directive, therapeutic, retrospective intervention and is orientated to the clients past experiences and the resolution of problems. Importantly, what will be crucial for both disciplines going forward will be to educate people on the merit and utility of both coaching and counselling, and most fundamentally, to create a better understanding of when and in what context each will be most appropriately employed.


Goldberg, M.C. (1999). Expert question asking: The engine of successful coaching. The   Manchester Review; University of Manchester.

McLeod, J. (2003). An introduction to counselling, 3rd edition. McGraw-Hill, Open University Press London.

Williams, R. (2008). Executive coaching: The secret weapon for high impact leadership. National Post. Vancouver, CA.



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Aoife Harrington is a Consultant at DavittCorporatePartners – Corporate Psychologists