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By Su Orosa


Major Differences Between Counselling and Coaching

As a counsellor, I have often wondered where the distinction between counselling and coaching lies. At certain points in the process, I sometimes find myself tempted to work in a more solutions-focused way which would be the counselling version of coaching – a more directive approach to working with a client which would involve a letting go of working with perhaps more pressing and painful trauma-based experiences, for example, embarking on a more forward-focused and less emotionally demanding way of working. At this point in our working relationship, I might ask myself the following questions:

  • Is this the client’s agenda, or mine?
  • Is the client wandering off-topic as a way of avoiding painful work? And if so, how useful will it be to work in a more solutions-focused way when the more painful and pressing issues aren’t being looked at?

However, if the client has worked on the issues they originally came to counselling for and now wants to look at more practical areas of how to move forward with their lives, then I would be ethically bound to consider the following:

  • Am I competent enough to work in a more directive, solutions-focused way?
  • Do I want to work in a different way? If so, how does this impact on my identity as a counsellor; do I call myself a Coach? A solutions-focused practitioner?
  • Will this affect my insurance?
  • Do I need to re-contract with my client?
  • Do I refer the client to a coach?

So, rather than seamlessly flow into the realms of what I might consider a different way of working, I would need to stop and consider these issues.  And importantly, I would invite the client to consider whether they were ready to embark on what is arguably a new relationship: that of coach and client.

But how different are these two ways of working? Authors on the web define the differences in many different ways and whilst researching for this chapter, I often found myself disagreeing with some of the definitions; for example one table of differences I saw claimed that the function of the counsellor is that ‘The Therapist diagnoses, then provides professional expertise and guidelines to provide a path to healing’ – I never diagnose for the client; it would be more than my job was worth. I also don’t provide ‘guidelines’. The same author’s stance on the coach’s function however, is: ‘The Coach stands with the clients and helps him or her identify the challenges, then partners to turn challenges into victories, holding client accountable to reach desired goals.’ I would argue that that’s what counsellors do too – the client is always accountable to reach the desired goals as established by them and the counsellor stands by them through the process. However, challenges may or may not ‘turn into victories’; this would be where I would make a distinction. As counsellors, perhaps one of the most frustrating and even sad aspects of the work is that we may never know the ‘outcome’ of the therapy; we may be part of the start of the client’s personal development journey and we may only be able to plant seeds that may or may not blossom further down the line; we may be one of several counsellors the client may have worked with and so on. How can we gauge therefore the effectiveness of our interventions when there may be no tangible outcomes? Counselling outcomes might differ from coaching outcomes in that a client might just want to be feeling more in control of their lives generally, or they may want to look at childhood trauma so that they are not overwhelmed by anxiety and depression on a daily basis. However, we may also work with clients who want to be able to come to a decision about an aspect of their life, or may want support in becoming more assertive in order to do well at interviews. The range of work is vast and the lines between coaching and counselling are often blurred.

Where Counselling and Coaching Meet

The BACP (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy) launched a Coaching division in June 2010, demonstrating how popular coaching has become over the last two or more decades:

Coaches are trained to listen, to observe and to customize their approach to individual client needs. They seek to elicit solutions and strategies from the client; they believe the client is naturally creative and resourceful. The coach’s job is to provide support to enhance the skills, resources and creativity that the client already has.’

It seems that the underlying philosophy of coaching is very much in keeping with that of the Humanistic branch of counselling. Those of us who work to this model have a core belief that people have a ‘motivating force’ or ‘actualising tendency’.  This belief was fundamental to Carl Rogers, the founder of Humanistic counselling and psychotherapy. Rogers believed that given the right relational conditions, the individual would move towards self-fulfilment and growth (Rogers, 1967). Rogers stated that therapeutic growth would happen if the counsellor offered three (core) conditions: Empathy, Unconditional Positive Regard and Congruence. In simple terms, growth could occur if the counsellor was non-judgmental, empathic and real in the relationship. Much research on the topic of what works in counselling has shown that it is in fact the relationship between the counsellor and the client that will have more impact on therapeutic outcomes than any particular style of counselling that might be used. In other words, if the counsellor and client get on with each other well and the client genuinely values the client, then the therapy will be more effective than any ‘tools’ or interventions that might be used in the therapy. My guess is that for effective coaching to occur, that this would also be the case. If the coach doesn’t believe that the client already has their own resources that will enable change, then the coach will be tempted all too easily – as will the counsellor – to direct the client by giving them advice, telling them what to do and effectively do the work for the client; after all, the client doesn’t know how to, right?

The following diagram may be a useful way of visualising where counselling and coaching sit:

The continuum starts with the extremely vulnerable client in a state of psychosis who may be receiving lots of input from a variety of health professionals and may be on medication – right through to the ‘self-aware’ client who has worked through a variety of issues and has come to a point in which they feel stable enough to begin functioning in life. At this point, the client may decide to stop counselling or just dip in and out of it as and when necessary, if at all. Others may never go down the counselling route and instead, may decide they need coaching in order to tackle different types of problems, e.g. they may find it difficult to make a decision about an aspect of their life; they might want to be able to make healthier life-style choices or want to work through a work-based dilemma. These clients may be happier to work in a more cognitive and/or behavioural way, taking a more ‘solutions focused’, goal orientated approach to their issues. Ideally then, here, the client is freed up of any emotional disturbance which could sabotage any further growth; this client is motivated enough to begin to take action, will be open to constructive feedback from the coach, will want to work to deadlines that they themselves have set and will be willing to look at their limiting self-beliefs and want to work on these.

So where might counselling and coaching meet? Perhaps the client is keen to work on more practical issues whilst at the same time looking at underlying factors about themselves and how they experience the world; in this case, the client would be looking at current and future aspects of their life through the lens of their past.

The following case study is an example of how a client might be in counselling and may want some coaching-style work integrated into the therapy:

Case study 1 [names have been changed for anonymity]

John had been coming to see me for around a year. He spent much therapy time describing his past to me in great detail, or as he put it, ‘painting a picture for you, starting with the details around the edges.’ As John is an artist, this was a fitting metaphor. I was interested to know about his need to repeatedly go over his past whilst only briefly staying with issues he would bring in about the present. He often said that reflecting on the past in this way helped him to have an understanding of who he was today. It helped him to offload all the difficulties he’d had as a child so that he could reframe his present and make more sense of it. Eventually, John was in a place in which he was more self-accepting and more able to look at present issues – his life made more sense to him and he was ready to face his future.  John sometimes set himself goals without prompting from me and became more self-directing and positive about his future.

When John wanted to set himself goals, some of my interventions were more in keeping with coaching, for example, helping him to establish SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time bound) goals; but I wouldn’t call myself a coach. Herein lies the distinction for me: were I to be working with coaching interventions at each session and for the duration of the session then I would be moving away from my role as counsellor and I would feel ethically bound to re-contract with my client should I wish to work in this way. However, where there seems to be a blending of styles and ways of working then I might describe myself as working ‘integratively’, i.e. integrating different ways of working – but always in a person-centred way – always holding the client at the centre of the work and trusting in their agency. In this way, John was able to look at his present and future but at the same time, when blocks and challenges arose, he could engage in looking more deeply at his process, applying this purposefully to his current issues.

So can this work the other way around? Can a coach also counsel?  Ideally the coach uses counselling skills and ways of being in the same way a counsellor does; offering the core conditions as mentioned earlier and using listening skills as a way of reflecting back the client’s thoughts, beliefs, emotions and behaviours. However, I believe that this is where the similarities end. As with the counsellor, so too does the coach need to be aware of the limitations of their role and when it is therefore ethical to refer a client on to a counsellor.

When to Refer a Client

The following case study offers an example of when a counsellor might refer a client on to a coach:

Case study 2

Maria came to counselling as she had very low self-esteem and lacked confidence. She found it hard to make decisions about her life and her anxiety and depression were getting in the way of her moving forward – something she longed to do. Through looking at her past, her triggers and her limiting self-beliefs that no longer served her, she was able to gradually begin to regain a sense of self, reclaiming parts of herself that had got lost beneath her anxiety and depression. She began to believe in herself and to feel empowered, realising that she had rights just like everyone else. From this place she was then better able to look at her future in a way that was more likely to be successful. Had she been persuaded to do this before she was ready, I would have been setting her up to fail, therefore adding to her sense of low self-worth. After facilitating her goal setting and seeing how much she was moving on in her life, I mentioned to her that I felt we were moving into the realms of coaching and that perhaps she might want to consider ending counselling and having some coaching with a coach.

Some counsellors argue that they are already skilled at coaching due to their training. I agree with this but only up to a point. A coach ideally won’t be tempted to try to counsel a client and their boundaries will be such that the focus will be solely on movement forwards rather than backwards. The work will be focused in a skilled way that I as a counsellor may not be familiar with. There is a danger that the counsellor may think themselves to be all things to all clients; something which could lead to complacency and arrogance.

So when is it clear that a coaching client needs a counsellor and not a coach?

Here is a list of things to look out for:
The client:

  • continually talks about their past
  • is over-emotional
  • doesn’t act on established goals
  • spends much of the time in the session offloading about stressful situations
  • becomes defensive/over-sensitive when receiving constructive feedback
  • struggles to maintain psychological contact with the coach
  • seems to be resistant to change
  • seems stuck on recurring issues and challenges
  • is embarrassed about talking about certain relevant issues
  • seems depressed, severely anxious or has addiction issues
  • has a strong personal reaction to the coach which inhibits the working relationship
  • sabotages themselves – they avoid ‘success’

These are a few examples of when the coach might consider referring a client on. It is important, however, that the coach knows how to sensitively and respectfully pass a client on without compromising the relationship or unwittingly contributing to any sense of rejection or abandonment, bearing in mind the client’s possible vulnerability.  It is important that the client does not feel judged or rejected to such a point where they are put off from contacting any professional support at all. It’s a good idea to offer them a list of services which they might find useful. Whilst it isn’t the coach’s responsibility to contact any other agencies for the client, it is simply respectful that if the coach thinks they can’t work with the client, the client’s dignity is respected at all times. In keeping with this, it is the client’s choice as to whether or not they decide to contact a counsellor or another service.

Further considerations – if you’re a counsellor or a coach who is seeking to refer a client:

Do some research into what styles of counselling and coaching are out there; if you have a referral list as part of your tool kit, you’ll want to make sure that the list is a considered one, e.g.

Has the counsellor/coach been recommended to you? And if so, you’ll still need to ask them questions about how they work and what their underlying philosophy of how people function matches your ethical values and morals.

Are they a member of a professional body, e.g. The BACP, The UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), The Association for Coaching (AC), or the International Coaching Association (EMCC).

If you’re a counsellor and you wish to do some coaching, get some training in coaching specifically, with a reputable coaching company.

If you’re a coach and you’d like to also become a counsellor, look up local colleges that offer counselling courses; perhaps you want to hone your counselling skills and you may therefore only want basic skills training.


I’ve reviewed counselling and coaching from my perspective, that of a Humanistic counsellor and have explored some of the main differences and overlaps between counselling and coaching. It seems that there are clear overlaps in structure – a time-limited, boundaried and contractual 1:1 relationship that works when all three core conditions are in place. Beyond that, the coach and counsellor will have developed their own styles of working within specific and generic models which may include working integratively. The counsellor and the coach decide whether or not their client must be referred on and where the limitations of competence lie.

Perhaps most importantly, in whichever way the coach or the counsellor chooses to work, from an ethical perspective, holding the client at the heart of our work is paramount.


  • Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person, (New York: McGoughlin, 1951)
  • Mick Cooper, Essential Research Findings in Counselling and Psychotherapy, (London: SAGE, 2008)
  • Electronic Sources:
  • Alexander, L. on ‘Wellbeing Professionals’ Facebook page. Accessed June 10, 2015
  • Accessed June 10, 2015

Biographical Note

Su is a counselling lecturer and has her own counselling and supervision practice in Brighton and Eastbourne.  She is bilingual (Spanish/English) and when time allows, also works as a community interpreter. She is embarking on a Senior Practitioner in Coaching course and is particularly interested in how therapists can integrate coaching into their existing practices and in how this will shape counsellors’ and psychotherapists’ work in years to come.  She lives in Eastbourne with her fiancée and cat and enjoys gardening, tennis, country walks and spending time with friends.

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