What is the Difference Between Life Coaching and Counseling?


With life coaching being a relatively new field, many people have become confused about the differences between life coaching and traditional counseling.  Here are some of the differences between the two services:

  • Life coaching is goal-oriented, while counseling is diagnosis-focused.  Life coaches work in a partnership with clients to help them learn strategies and take steps toward their own goals.  Coaching always works toward a specific outcome, which is determined by the client.  Some clients choose to set new goals to work toward, once their previous goals have been met, but the process is always undergone with the desired outcome in mind.  Counseling is based on the treatment of mental illnesses, which are diagnosed through the DSM.  The process is on treating and managing the condition and may be more open-ended in regards to length.
  • Life coaching is focused on teaching and learning, while counseling is focused on exploration and self-understanding.  The most significant difference between a life coach and a counselor is that a life coach will give clients advice and teach specific strategies that clients can use to achieve their goals.  A counselor will ask questions and facilitate discussion in order to help the client arrive at their own answers and understanding.  The emphasis of coaching is action, while the emphasis of counseling is understanding.
  • Life coaching involves a teacher-student relationship, while counseling involves a doctor-patient relationship. The life coach/client relationship is a collaboration among equals, where one person is teaching skills to the other.  As such, life coaches may disclose information about their personal lives and experiences, if it will help to establish rapport or better illustrate a point they are trying to explain.  Some clients may choose to stay in touch with former life coaches, once they have concluded coaching, and it is permissible for life coaches to work with friends, relatives, or people with whom they have a relationship, outside of the coaching setting.  Counselors tend to not disclose personal information and are prohibited from retaining any relationship with their clients outside of the therapeutic setting.
  • Life coaching focuses on the present and future, while counseling focuses on the past.  Life coaching is focused on changing present circumstances in order to meet future goals.  While the past may be discussed in coaching sessions, it is always discussed with the purpose of changing the way in which the client's interpretation of the past in affecting their present situation.  Counseling is focused on exploring the past, with the goals and healing and understanding past wounds and trauma.
  • Life coaching teaches strategies that all people can benefit from learning, which counseling aims to fix what is "wrong."  Life coaching is designed for people who are working to improve their lives and relationships, rather than for people who are seeking treatment for an illness.  A life coach will teach clients strategies that will be beneficial for all people, while a counselor will focus treatment on fixing a specific mental health diagnosis.  Counseling helps the client to "survive" and make their life work, which life coaching helps clients whose lives are already working to take it a step further and thrive.
  • Life coaching focuses on thoughts and behavior, while counseling focuses on emotions.  Life coaching works toward concrete, measurable solutions, so the focus is always on the measurable.  Emotions are regarded as cues to examine thoughts and behavior, rather than being something to examine for their own purpose.  Counseling focuses and identifying, processing, and healing emotions, both from the past and the present.
  • Life coaching focuses on solutions, which counseling focuses on clarifying the problem.  Since life coaching is based on the client's goals, it is not as concerned with labeling or exploring the problem, as it is with teaching strategies and brainstorming solutions.  Counseling aims to help the client understand the problem and underlying issues and focuses on helping the client to explore these in greater depth.

Is Life Coaching Appropriate for People Who Are Already in Counseling?


Absolutely!  While it is necessary to work with a licensed counselor or therapist in order to gain a diagnosis and receive treatment for a mental health condition, working with a life coach can be beneficial both during and after the completion of therapy.

  • Life coaching can help  with the "so what?" after gaining insight in therapy.  Counseling will often help you to gain understanding and clarification of their issues and thought tendencies.  Coaching can then help you to learn strategies that can help you to change these tendencies.
  • Life coaching can help you practice and implement skills learned in therapies such as CBT and DBT.  Some therapeutic modalities do teach strategies, and coaching can help you to make these strategies work in your daily life.  A life coach can help hold you accountable for using the strategies and help you find ways to use them that work the best for you.
  • Life coaching can help you to learn coping skills.  While therapy will help you to work on the issues that are underlying a mental illness, life coaching can help you develop strategies for coping on a day-to-day basis.  

Communication is Key


Life coaching and counseling are not in competition with each other, as both serve to meet different needs.  For that reason, it is important to let your counselor/therapist know if you intend to begin life coaching, and let your life coach know if you are currently working with a counselor/therapist (or if you have in the past).  A life coach can help support the work you are doing in therapy, and a therapist can help you discuss any feelings or new issues you experience as you begin life coaching.  The more you keep the lines of communication open, then better your experience will be in both settings.