Maria Shea, MA
Licensed Professional Counselor​
Maria Shea
Awaken Counseling & Coaching Services
Counseling versus Coaching
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More detail about each of these points:

1. Examination of the ‘Past’ vs. Present Focused.

Professional counselors are trained to construct life histories of their clients as a means of coming to a clearer understanding of today’s context, i.e., how did the present circumstances of the client come into being? Life coaches spend much less energy on this inquiry, preferring to accept today’s circumstances as ‘given,’ a place from which to move on.

2. Developmental Issues vs. Goals and Objectives.

Professional counselors are trained in normal human growth and development, with an emphasis on looking at the quality of specific developmental tasks of living that their clients have traversed. Life coaches, again are much less focused on developmental issues, and instead look at the “here and now” so that specific goals and objectives can be formulated.

3. Importance of Emotions vs. Practical/Common Sense.

Professional counselors are keen to uncover the ‘affective domain’ of their clients; they place particular importance in the effects of unresolved or poorly resolved ‘affective states’ left over from complicated developmental stages or incomplete life transitions. Professional counselors see feelings as windows into the ‘inner world’ of their clients. Life coaches are generally not trained in, and are less interested in ‘inner world’ conflicts, preferring instead to help their coachees formulate practical, common sense strategies to move beyond their current life ’state’ and find new direction. Life coaches are not blind to emotion, rather they are less inclined to pursue them, and to attach importance to them as issues of necessary interest.

4. Understanding/Insight vs. Motivation/Solutions.

Professional counselors work therapeutically so their clients can gain a firmer grasp of the various forces (both strengths and blockers) that have already, and continue to shape their clients’ lives. Life coaches are drawn to work with their coachees searching for specific solutions so they can achieve whatever higher levels of personal life and career performance their coachees choose.

5. Emphasis on Relationships vs. Focus on Individual.

Professional counselors are quite deliberate in seeing their clients well-being flowing from and intertwined with a network of relationships, all the way from the most casual to the most intimate. Counselors spend considerable time in investigating the interaction patterns of their clients within the context of their developmental past. It is common practice for professional counselors to invite spouses, or other significant others, into the counseling arena at strategic point(s). Some life coaches, especially ‘relationship coaches,’ are primarily focused on improving relationship interaction patterns, particularly in primary relationships. Most life coaches however are much more focused on motivating their coachees to move to higher levels of career advancement and personal fulfillment, preferring to work almost exclusively with the specific concerns of the individual right in front of them.

6. Internal vs. External.

Professional counselors are interested in the ‘inner life’ of their clients, i.e., their personality functioning: client attitudes, perception, thinking patterns, affective experiences, decision making, and behaviors. Life coaches are generally more interested in how their clients are functioning in their external environment; the emphasis is decidedly on actions (external) rather than on the other more internal functions of the personality.

7. Patient – Client Interactions vs. Collegial – Coachee Interactions.

Professional counselors maintain a more or less “professional” relationship with their clients. In such a relationship there is something of ‘professional detachment,’ and perhaps, among some, a relationship power imbalance. These ‘professional qualities’ of relationship are generally absent in the coaching relationship, which may take on a more “shoulder-to-shoulder,’ collegial, and/or “we’re in this thing together,” quality to the relationship.

8. Diagnosis vs. Life/Career Path & Strengths.

Professional counselors, because they are considered ‘therapists,’ are necessarily trained in and consequently focused on “what’s wrong here?” Professional counselors commonly seek to formulate a diagnosis. Professional counselors are generally, but certainly not always, reimbursed by third-party payers who demand diagnoses. This fact of practice generally forces professional counselors to render diagnoses from DSM-IV-TR, the recognized tome of mental wellness (or illness). Professional counselors who are not financially dependent on third-party payers may not feel the same press to render diagnoses. However, diagnoses are not simply synthetic administrative or academic requirements, they are therapeutically necessary given the fact that different therapeutic strategies are coupled with specific diagnoses. Life coaches are generally not encumbered, or facilitated by the same diagnostic requirement. Life coaches look at personal strengths (and weaknesses) that will foster achieving specific life and/or career goals; a diagnosis is simply not required because therapy is not the primary or even implied a goal of the coach-coachee relationship.

9. Flexibility of Practice vs. Limits of Practice.

Professional counselors, because of their breadth and depth of training, are free to move among and between various foci of interaction with their clients. For example, a professional counselor can work with a client with an initial goal of helping with career direction, but when and if the counselor sees that some underlying familial or developmental blocks are ‘at work’ in the client that may be preventing career advancement, that counselor has the freedom, given her/him professional training and perspective, to address these ‘internal’ barriers. The professional counselor has the freedom to move between simple ‘guidance’ into ‘therapy’ with the same client perhaps even in the same session. Life coaches are trained to remain focused on the specific problem presented; certainly coaches can undercover other personal issues that impinge upon that coachee’s stated goals, but if these “other personal issues” require a deeper therapeutic perspective and understanding, then the life coach is required to refer her/his coachee to a professional counselor, or other ‘mental health’ professional.

10. An Established Profession vs. An Emerging Profession.

For an endeavor to become a profession it must pass some rather stringent societal ‘tests.’ A profession needs to have, 1) a solid, and generally lengthy history of endeavor; 2) a ‘body of knowledge’ that is unique to that endeavor; 3) a well established training community, generally evidenced by graduate level school, colleges, and universities specifically and uniquely focused on specialized training, research, and professional development; 4) a vibrant and evolving literature; 5) a unified presence in the culture, i.e., a unique professional and earned identity; 6) clearly defined avenues of entrance; and, 7) have achieved certification status by a referenced certification body, as well has have attained licensure status from the legal entities (federal and/or state). Life coaching is clearly moving in these directions. It took professional counseling almost 100 years to achieve the status of “a profession” in our culture. Professional counseling emerged from the old paradigm of ’school guidance’ (remember the old guidance counselor in your high school) and slowly, sometimes painfully, advanced into its current professional form. It is still evolving and will hopefully continue its evolutionary trek. I expect that life coaching will follow a similar advancement route, perhaps re-crafting itself several times before it emerges as a fully shaped profession. I suspect that life coaching will advance to professional status in a much shorter time that did professional counseling. The natural evolution of an emerging profession does take time, effort, and cooperation among the various ‘factions’ in the emerging profession. Coaching is certainly speeding toward these professional goals.

These ten distinctions are not somewhere ‘chiseled in stone;’ but offered as a guideline.
By Richard P. Johnson, Ph.D.

While both professional counseling and life coaching are considered “helping endeavors,” there are differences between the two. 

Following is a list of  ten elements that help distinguish between these two very deserving, and hopefully cooperative helping endeavors. This list is not an exhaustive one, but is only representative of some of the differences between professional counseling and life coaching.

Professional Counseling

1. Examination of the ‘past’
2. Developmental issues
3. Importance of emotions
4. Understanding/Insight
5. Emphasis on relationships
6. Internal
7. Patient – Client interactions
8. Diagnosis
9. Flexibility of practice
10. An Established Profession


Life Coaching
1. Present focused
2. Goals and objectives
3. Practical/common sense
4. Motivation/solutions & strategies
5. Focus on individual
6. External
7. Collegial – Client interactions
8. Life/career path & Strengths
9. Limits of practice
10. An Emerging Profession