Isn’t coaching?... Counseling?

By Jackie Berke MS, LPC, NCC

As a licensed professional counselor aka therapist and a trained life coach, I get asked this question… a lot! I began my journey of psychotherapy and coaching together.  I obtained my master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and Addictive Behavior theory while training to be an Empowerment Life Coach.  Then I obtained my professional counseling licensure in mental health therapy and addictions in the states of Nebraska and Iowa.  Now I am working on my PhD in Counseling Education and Supervision.  Due to my background, and the fact I provide both counseling and coaching, I understand the differences and similarities. Now I have the honor of working with Nebraska and Iowa counseling clients with telehealth therapy and with coaching clients all over the world. Both counseling and coaching offer you with helpful support to your overall wellness…there are significant differences in education, training legalities, ethics, and goals.

In addition, there are many situations and events that well-meaning coaches end up causing more harm to people who in fact need counseling.  It is important to inform yourself about the differences between counseling and coaching. I am providing the following information to help you educate yourself about counseling and coaching so you can decide if you need counseling or coaching to help you on your journey of wellbeing.

Counselor Education

First and foremost a therapist must have a master’s degree in psychology, mental health counseling, or clinical social work.  The word therapist and counselor are interchangeable.  They then choose to go further in their education and obtain a terminal degree of PhD, PsyD, Edu or DSW, they may or may not have another professional license to obtain from that point of their education. Or they transition into educators for the next generation of counselors. The training counselors obtain focus on human experience and life development stages focused on cultural factors, economic factors, family systems, and other experiences.  The courses of education include sexuality, ethics, legislative regulations, counseling theories, skills, and methods.  In addition, therapists are mandated to have many hours of supervision hours and training before they are allowed to practice independently.  They also obtain clinical supervision and continuing education after full licensure to maintain non-judgmental behaviors, treatment protocols, and research guidelines to meet cultural competency expectations of legalities and ethics of professional organizations, state, and federal legal mandates. Counselors are medical behavioral providers that are taught to diagnose and treat mental health issues and social-environmental issues which may be hindering their clients’ personal growth and change. The skills and techniques they learn obtaining their education and continual licensure requirements facilitates scientific research and best practices of their professional organizations which then influences state and federal changes to health care.

Coach Training

Don’t you mean education?  No, the difference is, coaching there is no requirements of education.  The United States does not have any state or federal mandates of education of coaching. Literally anyone can call themselves a “coach” be it life, career, executive or relationship and then go into business. Now many coaches do attempt to obtain training around coaching.  It is not a requirement. The training can be from a coaching book, a seminar, an online program.  For example, I took an online coaching program which had elements of live webinars and phone calls. Before receiving my credential, I had to provide a case study of some of my coaching clients.  Others simply announce to everyone “I am a life coach/career coach…” Therefore, if you are looking for a coach, please make sure they have some basic training in coaching.  Look for a counselor who has been trained in techniques or credentialed (but makes a clear distinction the services are NOT counseling or therapy) and look for coaches who are trained/certified.  I have found in my professional career the best coaches to look for are qualified professional counselors/therapists who have obtained a professional degree in counseling and obtained a coaching credential.

By finding a professional counselor who has been trained in coaching, you get the best of education, experience of a therapist, and the training of both a counselor and a coach.

Wait! There are even more differences between a therapist and a coach!

Objective Differences

In counseling, therapist assist people in addressing and stabilizing mental health and emotional issues which are impairing their ability to function.  This can be anxiety, depression, mood disorders, trauma, personality, neurodevelopmental, addictions, and many other disorders. If these issues are not stabilized, people are unable to make significant changes in their lives. Once their health concern is taking care of with therapy, they can then live their lives well and take actions to change their situations.

In coaching, coaches help people in setting goals and maintaining motivation to take steps towards those goals. The assumption is most coaching clients are stabilized and ready for instruction on how they will achieve their goals or make changes they desire. The work of coaches is to guide the client on a journey of exploring difficulties and creating a plan to address the difficulties.

Now these objective differences appear basic, right!?  It, in my humble opinion, it illustrates the biggest problem with coaching.  Unless the coach has a background in traditional psychotherapy, most coaches do not know enough that their clients’ inability to move past their difficulties is a clinical mental health issue. Furthermore, counselors have been taught that it is unethical for them to attempt to work in areas of mental health they do not have experience or training.  For example, I refer high needs eating disorder clients to therapists who specialize in eating disorders. Yes, I have some experience and some basic training; but that is because I had to find a counselor who specialized in eating disorders for a client first! I obtained basic training to cause no harm and then referred the client to a counselor with more specialization! In addition, I will not work with sex offenders or clients wishing to work on sex therapy topics.  I have no training! At the most, I can stabilize out of crisis situations, work on coping skills while finding a therapist who specializes in these areas of treatment! Per my professional ethics and state ethics, I should refer these clients to a therapist who can help them.  If I am unable to find a therapist who specializes, I address that issue openly with the client and obtain training. They make the overall decision as it is their treatment.

On the other hand, most coaches do not have any education of these mental health issues to identify them. Or they place their personal experience, bias, and judgement of mental health issues on the client and do more harm based off the coaches’ personal experiences. Counselors are taught and receive supervision to address their personal biases and issues with clients. In addition, coaches are not provided education on how to identify or refer to a counselor around mental health concerns even when it is right in front of them. Coaching clients can waste a substantial amount of time and money on coaching services if the coach is uneducated on mental health issues when using coaching strategies to increase motivation and action steps when the client may need professional counseling. If the coach is not aware the client needs services of counseling, how are they to directly speak to the client and make a referral to a provider?

You mentioned ethics…

Boundaries & Ethic Differences

Yes, there are major differences between ethics and boundaries of counseling and coaching. Therapists are legally and professionally obligated to maintain strict ethical guidelines regarding relationship boundaries and keeping client information confidential. They have state and federal legal regulations to abide and follow their organizational ethics which contribute to the creation and revisions to the state and federal mandates. In addition, coaches do not have just one or two ethical guidelines provided by organizations, they have MANY! Which many do not align and can become confusing. Nor do they have any state or federal regulations they must follow on client information let alone boundaries.  For example, my daughter’s friend who has been in my house could be my coaching client. I would be under no ethical or legal requirement to keep that confidential. Nor do other coaches have to keep who they are working with confidential and can share their information.

However, a coach who is also an ethical therapist would A) NEVER agree to work with someone so connected to them personally, B) NEVER meet you in a public setting where the risk of seeing someone you know or having anyone overhear the conversation or C) NEVER share what is discussed without WRITTEN consent by the client.  

So, you are anti coach but you’re a coach?

Approach Differences between Counseling and Coaching

After reading the above information, you are probably thinking and believing that I am against coaching. No. I am very proud to be a credentialed coach.  I was trained in the Empowerment method which aligns perfectly with my counseling method of Integrated theoretical counseling approach, utilize the client’s strengths, and empower them. This method of coaching provides positive outcomes to individuals for whom therapy fails or they do not want therapy. Traditional therapy has some limitations as it is very non-directive. Modern therapy has several counseling theories that are directive, but the end goal is still for the counselor to be less directive and not to provide their thoughts on action steps. They assist the client in coming up with their own action steps based off the topic of choice of the client and what theoretical method they are using with the client. Counseling research has indicated active models of therapy are as effective in producing adaptive outcomes for people. Therapists in conventional therapy do not give directives in therapy.  Coaching will provide recommendations and directives to map solutions and strategies for changing the client’s life. And it could contain the coach’s personal thoughts based off how they would handle the client’s situation or goal. Sometimes having direct feedback about your situation and issues are what you need to know so you can address them.  Coaches offer structure and action with homework assignments (So do counselors!) of various kinds to help you practice new skills and learn strategies outside of your coaching sessions.  Like therapy, coaching is supportive and always left in the client’s hands. Counselors and coaches can not make a person work towards their goals. But having a choice with a roadmap for change be it counseling, or coaching can make all the difference if you are genuinely ready to help yourself.

For any questions, please feel free to contact Jackie at

Let's work together!

Your first appointment for a 15 to 30 minute consult on coaching is free!