Is Executive Coaching the Same As Therapy? 6 Key Reasons Why Coaching is Different to Therapy

executive coaching certificationBy Mark Buchan

Understanding where coaching ends and therapy begins

This boundary between coaching and therapy is extremely vague and subjective. In fact I would go so far as to say that they overlap significantly resulting in a set of similarities between coaching and therapy. This can prove to be somewhat confusing for helping professionals who try to explain those differences. It is true that coachees report that their coaching was very therapeutic but that does not mean that what they were receiving was therapy. So whilst there are many similarities between coaching and therapy I would like to concentrate on the differences in this article and then on the similarities in the next one.

Solution focused versus problem focused

The main difference in my experience of having practised as a coach and a therapist is that coaching tends to focus on the solution to problems rather than spending many hours trying to understand the problem. Therapy on the other hand is mainly about focussing on the problem, analysing and seeking an understanding the problem or just “being with” the problem. Therapy is also very useful for helping people to abstract a larger meaning for the problem.

Future versus past

Another difference between coaching and therapy could be that coaching deals with the accomplishment of future goals whereas therapy helps people to come to terms with painful events from the past. Of course this is a generalisation and a gross simplification. For instance some of these past painful events that a person experiences may get in the way of their ability to achieve their goals, so the coaching conversation will naturally reveal this “impediment”. It is then a question of whether the coach and coachee feel that it is appropriate to continue with the coaching while dealing with “baggage” from the past.

Remedial versus developmental

Therapy tends to be used in a remedial fashion helping clients deal with issues such as child abuse, bereavement or other events that have caused extreme trauma or depression within the client. Coaching on the other hand is mainly used as a learning and development tool to help clients achieve personal or business goals while deepening their awareness and understanding of themselves.

The Relationship: Top-dog/underdog vs egalitarian

Coaching works best when the coaching relationship is perceived as a peer-to-peer relationship, so all good coaches seek to establish this type of relationship. This is counter to many (but not all) forms of therapy where the therapist is considered the “top dog” or the expert while the client is the “under dog” or the patient.

Timing and frequency

A therapy session usually takes place every week (more often in the case of psychoanalytic) and lasts for 50 minutes, or a therapy hour as my wife would call it. The duration of therapy can last somewhere between 1 to five years. Conversely, coaching tends to be of shorter duration, but not always as is the case with executive coaching. Skills or performance coaching tend to have a short duration of maybe a few weeks to a few months. The frequency of coaching sessions again is variable with performance coaching taking place every week whereas developmental coaching often occurs once every 4 to 6 weeks. The typical length of a coaching session tends to be one to three hours.


This may sound ludicrous but the cost of quality therapy versus quality coaching is huge, with coaching being often four times more expensive than therapy. I say this is ludicrous because of the amount of regulation, training, assessments and supervision that a therapist has to comply with compared to that of a typical business coach.

In the follow-up article to this I will cover the similarities between coaching and therapy.

Mark Buchan is business coach who specialises in executive coaching (aka leadership coaching). Mark works with the senior and junior leaders in large and small organisations. Current and previous clients include Rolls Royce, British Telecom, Bombardier Transportation, Nokia, Credit Suisse and many others. You can find out more about Mark and the services he provides by going to his companies website

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===> Center for Executive Coaching educates and train executive coaches to get outstanding results for their clients


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