Physician coaching vs therapy: Coaching is a visioning process and moving into the future

in Physician Coaching Insights

A recent discussion with our current cohort centered on a question that comes up for many clinicians as they go through our coach training programs: how is the coaching process different than therapy?

As a coach instructor, I always appreciate these thoughtful questions—and this topic comes up periodically in different contexts. For example, during our Information Webinar we review the difference between coaching and other modalities such as advising, mentoring, and therapy.

An important overarching assumption in coaching is that our partnership with a client is always forward looking. Furthermore, we assume the client to be whole, resourceful and capable. No matter the tool, structure, or technique, our intention is to deepen the client’s self-awareness AND also to forward their action.

Certainly both coaching and therapy have overlap in terms of the body of research that informs coaching. In particular, the research on positive psychology very much informs coaching approach and process.

Coaching is an invitation to explore personal and professional vision and move into that future with confidence and clarity.

I also share with our cohorts what the International Coaching Federation (ICF)  has to say on this topic.  An ICF White Paper from 2018, “Referring a Client to Therapy:  A Set of Guidelines” is a useful guide (and the companion one-page reference sheet). The paper was coauthored by therapy and coaching professionals from across the globe. Here is a short excerpt from the ICF White Paper:

“The main distinctions between coaching and psychotherapy are based on focus, purpose, and population. Coaching focuses on visioning, success, the present, and moving into the future. Therapy emphasizes psychopathology, emotions, and the past in order to understand the present. The purpose of coaching is frequently about performance improvement, learning, or development in some area of life while therapy often dives into deep-seated emotional issues to work on personal healing or trauma recovery. Coaching tends to work with well-functioning individuals whereas therapy work tends to be for individuals with some level of dysfunction or disorder. Therapy works more with developing skills for managing emotions or past issues than coaching.”

Another perspective I appreciate is one that describes a coaching client as someone who is “coachable.” A client is coachable–and a good candidate for coaching–if they:

  • Are ready to listen to themselves
  • Are open to seeking and listening to others
  • Can commit and take action
  • Can engage in a partnership

And finally, it was synchronicity a few weeks ago that one of the attendees at an PCI Information Webinar was a psychiatrist. She was introduced to coaching by virtue of having been a member of a group coaching process for women. Without any prompting from me, she shared how much she appreciated the coaching model vs therapy and wants to transition her practice to coaching.  In her words: “I want to work with people whose struggle does not come from mental illness.” Her comment was very much aligned with the ICF perspective.