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Executive Coaching versus Therapy

I started my career as a psychologist “treating patients” before becoming trained as an executive coach and shifting my practice to executive coaching and leadership consulting in early 2000.  In the early years, I also taught coaching skills to psychologists, most of whom also wanted to shift from providing therapy to coaching.  Thus, this topic is very near and dear to my heart.

So why is it so difficult to understand the differences between executive coaching and therapy?  Well, have you ever tried to explain executive coaching to someone? Ask 100 coaches to define executive coaching and you’ll get 100 different responses.  The same goes for therapy.  Ask 100 therapists to define therapy and you’ll get the same results. Why is this?  Even though personal coaching is relatively new compared to psychotherapy, both professions are continuing to evolve.  Psychology is moving away from the medical model of seeing someone as dysfunctional or ill and in need of treatment and moving more towards seeing the person as whole, creative and resourceful.

Executive coaches hold our clients as whole, creative, and resourceful, and they are …except for when they’re not.  Someone with Major Depressive Disorder or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder needs psychiatric intervention.  Could executive coaching help these individuals?  Absolutely, but coaching is not used to treat the disorder.  On the flip side, feelings don’t belong to therapy; they belong to the human experience.  Further, just because something might be “therapeutic” does not mean you are doing therapy.

So how do you know when the executive coach and client are slipping into therapy terrain?  Here are seven major differences between traditionalpsychotherapy and coaching:  (1) as executive coaches we don’t “treat” mental health disorders; (2) coaches are collaborators rather than experts (this is the most difficult adjustment I’ve witnessed with therapists transitioning into coaching); (3) therapists rely on psychological theory, etiology, and treatment plans for wisdom; as coaches, we look within the client for wisdom; (4) therapy often asks, “Why” and concerns itself with the client’s past; coaching often asks, “What” and concerns itself more with the present and future; (5) therapy seeks to fix unresolved issues; coaching seeks to help the client achieve greater fulfillment and success; (6) executive coaching focuses on the client’s whole life; traditional psychotherapy targets specific symptoms; and finally (7) traditional therapists withhold intuitive thoughts; coaches blurt intuitive thoughts.

-Dr. Jeff Kaplan

Dr. Jeff Kaplan is a business psychologist and executive coach who coaches executives and high potentials to lead with heart. Jeff helps leaders to work more collaboratively with others, recognizing that people are an organization’s greatest asset.