Coaching is Not Therapy

I needed a picture for this one, so I Googled “coaching is not therapy” and came across a TON of great infographics supporting my topic today. If you’re curious, why not give it a Google yourself and see what you learn.

So, the images I chose to include today are simply a series of 6 slides describing what I do in “Individual Design Coaching”. I’ve written a lot of blogs about this in the past, and you can check them out by clicking here.

The Therapy Problem

I choose to write about this topic today because it’s something I’ve had on the fringes of my awareness for a really long time, but it’s only recently begun to come into focus for me (during the year of COVID-19). I remember going over the distinctions between coaches and therapists in my life coaching course, and the recommendations to refer clients to appropriately qualified professionals. There were definitely clients I fired because they were using my like a therapist (or they needed a therapist more than they needed me, but chose not to go). This is also something that I’ve discussed with other coaches at seminars or in-person.

This year, however, the issue has really loomed larger than ever before. This is understandable. Many more people than usual are lonely and isolated. Folks are processing complex emotions and navigating unforeseen difficulties in their work and relationships. The politics are nuts and that’s got people going nuts. So, at the same time that I’ve seen an increased need for my services as more people are doing home workouts and confronting the unwanted physical effects of sedentary lockdown periods and work from home, I have also seen an increase in the need for psychiatric, psychological, counseling, and therapist services.

The problem is when people confuse one for the other and try to use their health & fitness coach as a therapist. I’ve certainly played into this by being a ready ear for people, and by expanding the scope of my definition of fitness into “mental fitness” and “spiritual fitness”, but I am not saying that I am the guy who will give you everything you need. My definition of fitness includes mental, physical, and spiritual fitness as a CHALLENGE, as a gauntlet thrown down to other fitness enthusiasts and practitioners. This does not mean that I am the exemplar or avatar of this hypothetical super-fit human, nor does it mean that I have all the expertise or tools to turn you into them. I can teach you to squat, but I cannot teach you astrophysics. So, while my expansive concept of fitness encourages people to consider their mental health, it does not qualify me to provide mental health services.

I notice a pattern now that tells me a fitness client is transforming the use of my service into their own form of therapy. First, they stop doing the workouts I assign them (in TrueCoach) and minimize communications in the designated channels (TrueCoach, text, email). Then, they start using our in-person (or Zoom) sessions to talk about lots of things that are not on-topic with the work we are trying to do around health and fitness. Now, they’re using their $200/month to have two long chats a month with someone who is a good listener. Not what I had in mind when I signed them up for coaching. One way or the other, that client relationship will not last much longer.

Coaching Vs. Therapy

Coaching is asking good questions, listening, and helping you come up with your own answers. Having a good base of information and experience to rely on is important. So is taking the time to understand and get to know people. It is about the future, not the past. It is about helping you become a better version of yourself (not about helping you become someone else, or figuring out who yourself is). It is about asking, not telling.

Therapy, on the other hand, is… well, I don’t really know what therapy is, it’s not my job. I have no training in it and only a very vague understanding of what it is. I know it’s not the same as what I do, and if you need it then I’m not your guy.

I know that when people start talking to me about their childhood, about past traumas, about relationship issues, about their deep insecurities and coping mechanisms, well I know that isn’t my scope of practice. I can empathize (maybe that’s sympathize?), but I’m just another broken human with many of those same problems, trying to become better. I don’t have the answers for those developmental, traumatic, relational, emotional issues, and I don’t a lot of great strategies to deal with them that I’m confident sharing with others. I deal with my stuff in my own way and I would not want to tell you that this is the only way or the right way. Go talk to an expert for that.

What’s the Solution?

The solution to this problem begins with education. Know the difference between a coach and a therapist. A coach is push-ups and sleep schedule and what to have for lunch. A therapist is feelings and the past and ways to deal with that stuff.

The next part of the solution is my own messaging and marketing. I need to put it out there (on my blog, on social media, whenever I talk to people about my business), that coaching is not the same as therapy and these are the reasons why.

From there, I need to clarify in my initial communications, conversations, and consultations with people that I am NOT a therapist and I don’t do therapy. As I explain Individual Design Coaching to people, I have to be very firm and clear in distinguishing this from therapy. This must be reiterated throughout the intake and on-ramp process.

Finally, I will need to get into the practice of making referrals. When the conversation or use of my service begins to veer into that “therapy” territory, I will need to be forthright and honest in telling people that I am no the guy for them. I will need to be quick to recommend therapy, counseling, or psychological help, and I will need to have a rolodex of those professionals to refer people to.

Whew! There, I think that’s all I have to say on the topic for now. And I think I’ve come up with some good ways to deal with it, starting with this blog post and culminating in a referral network some day soon. If you know any good counselors or therapists in the Skagit Valley area, please put me in touch as I’d be happy to talk with them.

Published by nicnakis

Nicholas |nik-uh-luhs| n. a male given name: from Greek words meaning "victory of the people" John |jon| n. a male given name: from Hebrew Yohanan, derivative of Yehohanan "God has been gracious" Nakis |nah-kis| n. a Greek family name derived from the patronymic ending -akis (from Crete) Amha |am-hah| n. an Ethiopian given name meaning "gift", from Geez Selassie |suh-la-see| n. Ethiopian name meaning "trinity", from Geez

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