The Difference between Coaching and Counselling

The Difference between Coaching and Counselling

Coaching and Counselling are different ways in helping to improve someone’s life. In both, the facilitator either coach or counselor is highly effective in communicating and especially in listening. But for a client to choose what serves him best, he will need to know the differences? Let us have a closer look to the definitions of coaching and counseling before diving deeper into important  distinctions between the two of them.

Coaching is well known in sport. Any successful sportsperson or sports team usually works with a coach to achieve a better performance. True to the motto: What is working in sport can work where else, coaching became more and more popular in the business world and in personal development over the years. While a dictionary refers to a coach as “private tutor; instructor of athletic team etc.” [1], the International Coach Federation (ICF) defines professional coaching more precise as: “… an ongoing professional relationship that help people produce extra ordinary results in their lives, careers, businesses, or organizations. …”[2] A person who is working with a coach is often called a coachee or a client.

Counselling on the other side gives advise to resolve a problem as described in the dictionary: “… give advise to (person) professionally on social problems …” [3].  Usually there is a need of guidance through either a difficult time for example a break up, or a job loss; or issues like anxieties or addictions. Counselling is often referred to as therapy or psychotherapy and to be able to offer this service, the therapist must fulfil academic requirements. Beside a general counsellor or a psychotherapist there are others who offer counselling as for example family therapists, feminist counsellors, social worker, psychologists and psychoanalysts. Someone who receives counselling is  called a client or a patient

Differences between coaching and counselling are not only found in definitions, they will also show up while having a closer look into the idea, the relationship with a client, as well as the skill set a coach or counsellor will need to possess and eventually the way a client will start seeing improvement in his life. But we will also be surprised in how close coaching and counselling can be.

The idea of coaching takes us back into the sports world where Richard Carbon MP, UK Minister for Sport points out, that Coaches “… are the people who motivate, encourage and inspire.”[4]     Lance Armstrong, a famous cycler fought cancer successfully and returned to the sport. He almost gave up, but with the help of his coach and friend Chris Carmichael he got back to the top and won six more Tour de France titles. [5] Roger Federer, one of the best tennis players in the world took on coach Roche and claimed: “I like the way I’m playing right now. If he can improve just a few things in my game, that will be good.” [6] These are just two of many examples of the importance of coaching in sport. Nowadays it can be found in almost all areas as in businesses, career development, personal life and many other special fields. A testimonial for Executive Business Coach Irene Leonard rounds up the benefits of coaching: “I found the coaching process … helped me to explore, determine, and actualize many personal and professional commitments. I strongly recommend coaching – especially for people eager to evolve to a higher level of personal and professional satisfaction.”[7] In summary the idea of coaching is to achieve a better performance or more satisfaction. A coach empowers the coachee to embark onto a journey from a present state and keeps the coachee going until he reaches his defined goal.

For some people however counselling might be the better choice. Especially for people suffering from anxieties, depression and other emotional conflicts that result in health issues. Therefore a client may need to have support in becoming well again. Instead of taking drugs, a counsellor can provide a confidence and safe environment to his client in order to talk through the problem. UK counsellor Christine Wells Dip.Hum. describes counselling at her webpage as: “talking confidentially to a trained professional about your difficulties, past or present, in a safe, non-judgemental, private and supportive environment.”[8]  It becomes clear that a counsellor helps people who have to resolve an issue that has become a drawback in their lives. This is also stated in a testimonial of Reach Counselling: “… effective techniques and exercises that help you to deal with the problems you are facing. These techniques and exercises allow you to move on with your life with confidence, enthusiasm and excitement for what the future holds.”[9] The idea of counselling is to help the client to overcome or work through a present conflict caused by a past event.

But how does a client work with either a coach or a counsellor? Lets discover the coaching relationship first. Since every individual is unique in his personality, circumstances as well as having unique values, belief systems and behaviors, so is every coaching relationship different in itself. And even the dynamic within that matchless relationship can change in every session. While asking powerful questions and listening attentively, the coach helps to discover the resources within the client who sets the agenda. The exploration defines the present and sets out for a goal to reach at a certain time in future. The coaching relationship is focused on the client who holds ownership to all conclusions and decisions made in the session and is therefore an empowering relationship for change.

Trust and empathy belong to the intimate counselling relationship that remains private and confidential. Similar to a coaching relationship, the focus is on the client, who is equally unique.   While a coachee wants to move forward, a counsellor’s patient is still hanging on a past event. He seeks counselling for objectivity and advise. The counsellor will also listen attentively and ask questions to encourage clients in expressing their thoughts and feelings. After discovering reasons for certain reactions or conflicts, the counsellor may offer a variety of choices or help the clients evaluate certain behaviors and eventually “… enable clients to make their own choices and decisions to action.[10] 

As we start to spot some parallels between coaching and counselling, we will find more similarities while talking about required skills that coach and counsellor need to have.  Since both professionals will have to listen in order to discover further or in case of the counsellor to offer advise, the skill of listening is crucial. Curiosity is another important skill that feeds the powerful questions to reach a deeper level of the person’s belief system or certain behaviors. Self awareness, self management and intuition are skills that are not replaceable either. The skills mentioned so far are equally important for a coach and a counsellor, but there are some special skills we need to know of.

In the book Co-Active Coaching, one skill described in particular is “Forward and Deepen”. While the client chooses coaching to experience an action and a learning in order to reach a goal or a higher performance, the coach will make sure that this action is moving the client forward and that the learning is deepened. To possess this skill a coach must be able to stay authentic, build a strong client connection,  have courage to challenge the client, and to create accountability. Also a coach needs to be able to structure the session, set goals and request action. How about a counsellor, what special skills does he need to have?

First of all academic requirements must have been met to offer counselling to a client. While studying the subject for several years, problem solving, stress management, dealing with aggressions are just a few of the topics. [11] Once a practitioner,  a counsellor must have the ability to assess the cause of an emotional state or problem. Also he must be able to master the techniques that enable the client to resolve the conflict.

It becomes obvious that there are some important differences as well as some similarities between coaching and counselling. Let us summarize what we were looking at above.

Initially we looked at the definitions. While coaching has been defined as a professional relationship that helps the client achieving special results or performances, counselling has been described as a relationship in which a counsellor offers advise for a social problem. However the idea of counselling and the counselling relationship clarifies that counselling approaches an issue that hinders a person to move forward in life. Not so coaching. The idea of coaching is to leave past events behind and focus on the present and the clients interest to reach a set goal within a set timeframe. Coaches and counsellors need to have the same basic skills, but there are some special skills for coaches as there are for counsellors. Therefore a coach should not step into the role of a counsellor and neither should the counsellor step into the role of a coach.

Although there are many similarities and some overlapping areas in coaching and counselling, there is a necessity to stress the distinction between these two. Counselling deals with the past event a person can not overcome himself. So before a person is able to move on into the future he will find support with a counsellor. Whereas coaching kicks in when people are ready to move forward and feel they need a coach to have them challenged in defining and fulfilling their goals. Either in overcoming a problem or achieving a set goal, the outcome would be an improvement in the client’s life whether he chooses a coach or a counsellor.

By Sandy Seeber, May 2011 


[1] Book: The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 6th edition, p.190

[2] Book: Co-Active Coaching, p.290

[3] Book: The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 6th edition, p.232




[7] Christine Foster, Attorney. Foster Law Office;





Other References:


About sandyseeber

Sandy Seeber left behind all that she knew, travelled around the world and found her key to happiness. Sandy envisions a world full of happy, healthy, and wealthy people. Through her creative writing in particular she aims to make a difference in the world by taking her readers onto a journey of an unforgettable experience. In summer 2013, Sandy has published her first novel titled 'The perspective of things - An unusual friendship' for children and adults in German. Today she is living and working in Dublin, Ireland.
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2 Responses to The Difference between Coaching and Counselling

  1. Pingback: Distinctions: Coaching vs.Therapy « ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  2. Linked this post as “related content” to one on my ADD/EF-focused blog — distinguishing key differences between therapy and coaching, following up on a discussion in the Links for Shrinks Group on LinkedIn.

    Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, SCAC, MCC – (blogging at ADDandSoMuchMore and ADDerWorld – dot com!)


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