Should you see a coach or a therapist?

As someone who works in supporting and managing change, I work with several wonderful people to support my own development and performance.  Some are advisors (they help me think through business decisions), and one is a business coach (he helps me think through how my own state impacts my business).  The other is harder to define.

Kathleen Milligan works with EFT, hypnosis, NLP and some Kathleen Milligan magic to help her clients reach inside and find what they need to behave differently.  Usually, she identifies herself as a therapist.  Usually, I call her my coach - maybe to avoid the therapy label, but mostly so that people will understand that I get tangible, practical results from my sessions with her.  Let's look at the assumptions that sit underneath the words to see what new information we can find about choosing a coach or therapist.

What is a coach?
The International Coaching Federation (ICF) "defines coaching as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential."

Dictionaries lag behind practice: they still mostly identify coaches as people who train others for athletic or academic performance.

What is a therapist?
Trying to find a concise, comprehensive and accurate definition of psychotherapy is a fool's errand.  There is no such thing.  There are common elements among many different definitions: the idea that therapists apply a model or methodology to solve psychological problems; the idea that people who need therapy are irrational, stuck or unhappy; the idea that therapists treat disorders.

So. . . a therapist is someone you see because you have a problem and a coach is someone you see because you have a goal.  If you know what you want - find a coach.  If you know what you don't want - find a therapist.

Except that - as a coach, you will often find that the thing that people need to move toward their goal is to revisit and reframe old patterns.  That sounds suspiciously like therapy.  And as a therapist, you find that the shortest route to healing is often to identify a goal compelling enough to motivate healing.

People are complicated.  In my own set of assumptions, Kathleen crosses the line between coaching and therapy when she takes me underneath what I know to be a problem and allows me to revisit a deeper, unhappy motivation that shifts because of her presence and with the support of her techniques.  When we discover hurts or problems, we address them together and that feels therapeutic.

At other times, Kathleen helps me access the focus and resources I need to move toward a goal that I want.  That feels like coaching: I know it works because I see tangible progress towards the goal or I switch direction to a goal that feels stronger and more compelling.

Both coaching and therapy are relationships - and relationships often exist over time.  If you are looking for a one-session fix to a problem, then it will probably be clear whether you need a therapist or a coach. If you are looking for a longer term relationship with someone whose methods and perspective can alternately support you and push you, then you will need to think carefully about the coach or therapist you choose.

I'm lucky - Kathleen is very good in both roles. As a therapist, she solves problems by uncovering resourcefulness and strength in her clients. As a coach, she is an acute observer with an incredibly accurate BS detector - she knows when I am congruent about my goals and plans and she calls me on it when I'm not.  So, whatever the label, I am always glad I invested in a session with her.

Yes, I am a very good change agent. That's exactly why I know when the perspective, presence and skills of someone else will move me forward faster than I could move alone.  I am lucky and I have also used all my skills to identify the support people who offer what I need to live and work better.


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