Coaching versus Psychotherapy

by Ulrike Kennedy

“Is coaching just a disguise for psychotherapy for business people?” This is a question often posed as there is still a lot of confusion concerning the distinctions between coaching and psychotherapy. In this article I will try to express my views as a coach who has trained and worked in Germany for many years. There, coaching is firmly established, particularly in the corporate environment. Furthermore, I will highlight areas where I can see potential for co-operation for coaches and therapists.

Similarities and differences

To the uninformed public coaching can look like therapy. They both seek to support the individual. Both are delivered in a similar way, mainly through “face-to-face” sessions and they both try to take a person from a place they are now, to a place they want to be. They also have the same roots. Carl Rogers, Alfred Adler, Carl Jung and Abraham Maslow are undoubtedly the rocks of today’s psychotherapy – and coaching. But the similarities end here. In my understanding, therapy mainly focuses on people with psychological problems. The aim is to heal the person. However, coaching is for those who do not experience psychological problems. The aims in coaching are to gain clarity and find solutions for temporary difficult situations – mainly in the area of work. This makes the coaching process more pragmatic compared to psychotherapy (exception: behaviour therapy). Psychotherapy is entitled to dive down to the core of one’s personality in order to find deep autobiographical truths and take hold of one’s ‘I’ in a fundamental and holistic way. Coaching stays more on the surface. It looks at a client’s resources for change without him having to ‘bend’ too much. Coaching is about analysing someone’s views and actions, helping him to change them and showing him new ways of enriching his behavioural repertoire to workplace challenges. In his role as a catalyst the coach initiates a process for the client to take on new perspectives. And here the coach uses different tools and methods, e.g. based on the work of the above mentioned as well as from the areas of Solution Focused Therapy, Systemic Theory, Gestalt Therapy and Transactional Analysis. With help of potential analyses, imaginations, simulations, role plays or similar methods the coach practises ways of alternative thinking, feeling and doing with the client so that he can experience the difference compared to existing inner patterns. In short: analysing old ways and finding new ones, trying them out in a protected environment and broaden the scope of actions, mainly in a work context. Both fields – coaching and psychotherapy – have their place and should not be confused. The following case (based on an example by Dr. Regina Mahlmann) will demonstrate the different dimensions and hopefully add more clarity and understanding.

Tom’s case

Tom: Last month I was promoted to be in charge of our department. I am really proud about that but it also came very suddenly. To be quite honest, I am not sure, if I am fully prepared for all of this. When it comes down to purely technical work matters I have no problem. But I have to lead a team of 15 people. And even worse those 15 people have been my colleagues for the past three years.

Tom’s issue is a very typical reason for coaching. People either want to ‘improve or optimise’ something OR to ‘unfold their potential’. A promotion generally leads to new tasks and responsibilities. This forces people to reflect on their own role and on their own actions in the light of new demands and expectations.

Causes for coaching

In the majority of cases it is external factors like the one above that bring people to see a coach. They either have to make important decisions concerning their work life or – as in Tom’s case – see themselves confronted with new demands as a result of taking on a new role. Another very typical reason for coaching would be the whole area of conflicts at work. That ranges from general communication problems with colleagues, subordinates and superiors down to dealing with severe and long lasting conflicts between two parties. A third cause for seeking a coach are questions concerning one’s personal development. With this I refer to the various issues whereby clients want to learn a new behaviour or change a certain inner attitude out of their own initiative. This can also be triggered by external factors but the main focus here would be one’s own wish for personal development, e.g. career change, preparation for retirement, work-life balance, motivation issues.

Having looked at the typical reasons for coaching the next logical question that needs to be answered is how a coach goes about it. And here the trouble starts. The truth is there is no standardised procedure as in other professions. Like psychotherapy, coaching is not regulated in Ireland. Anybody can set himself up as a coach. This, I undoubtedly agree, gives room for dubious individuals carrying out dubious methods that can do damage to people that consult them for help. However, (also as in psychotherapy) there have been strong movements towards self-regulation in order to achieve certain standards and adhere to a code of ethics. This certainly does help to a certain extent. I do not intend to dig deeper into the ‘regulation discussion’ as we are all aware of the pros and cons that are attached to it. Instead I would like to make a strong case for more transparency in the way we work so that there are fewer prejudices and misunderstandings.

My understanding of coaching

In my opinion coaching is a combination of individual consulting, personal feedback and practice-orientated training concerning the ROLE (mainly in a work context) and the PERSONALITY of a client. The aim is to find solutions that satisfy the demand of the role but at the same time accommodate the client’s personality – often an area of tension. As I am trained in methods from the field of systemic theory my approach would always include the systemic context of my client. Subsequent to Tom’s first session the dialogue could proceed as follows:

Coach: What would you like to achieve? What would need to happen here to make this coaching beneficial for you?

Tom: Well, I would just like to develop further. The main thing for me is to manage my team professionally so that they accept me as their leader. I would really hope to gain more confidence as a manager. Something else I have noticed that I need to tackle is how I should behave when conflicts arise.

Coach: Have I understood you right? The issues you want us to work on are your personal development as a team leader and secondly your ability to deal with conflicts?

As Tom’s issues are huge areas with many different implications it is crucial now that coach and client identify Tom’s individual need in detail and formulate the goals in an appropriate way. A general lecture by the coach about the ‘principles of leadership’ or ‘how to behave in conflict situations’ would certainly not be effective. Three weeks later Tom arrives at his coaching session and reports:

I don’t know what’s wrong. Somehow I just can’t seem to find access to my team members. I’m trying to find out what they expect from me as their new manager – but I get no response. I think they haven’t accepted me as their boss and hold back information big time.

Tom and his coach would look at the situation, the problem and the goals from different perspectives. Here the coach could work with methods from the field of systemic therapy. He would assist Tom in becoming aware of his own part in the system and help him to find new strategies that he could try out.

Coach: When x does this, what feeling does this trigger in you? How do you react to this? How does y see you react? How do you think x feels when you behave in this way?

Another optional or additional intervention could be to look at the communication processes that take place between Tom and some of his team members. Here the ‘Communication Quarter’ by Schulz von Thun or the ‘Ego State Model’ from Transactional Analysis by Eric Berne can help to produce some quite enlightening results. A further possible intervention could be a team development workshop with Tom and his team, moderated by the coach. However, here it is important to make sure that Tom is fully aware of the fact that the workshop and the process is his responsibility as a team leader. It is highly recommended that before the event takes place Tom answers questions for himself like “What is my goal for this workshop? What exactly should be different when the workshop is over? What exactly do I want to achieve?”

Let’s suppose Tom’s first year as a team manager is over. At this stage he feels quite respected by his team and his department is doing well overall. He feels that his two initial issues are solved to his satisfaction. He is now concentrating on building up relationships between himself as boss of the department and each of his team members.

Tom: My philosophy is to delegate as much responsibility as possible. I think that is what is expected nowadays. With some people this works out quite well but with others it doesn’t work at all. Whether they can’t work in this way or just don’t want to – that is the question. I want to lead everybody the same way to make sure that there is no jealousy.

Subsequent coaching sessions would focus on Tom’s definition of leadership, his values, motives and motivation, his demands and expectations as a leader and how he wants to implement these. Now the coach leaves his path from mainly asking questions and moves towards transmitting knowledge in a customised way. The coach assumes the role of a lecturer and catalyst and puts things up for discussion. He might also sensitize Tom to think in a systemic way, so that he can see himself as part of the system and become aware of the implications of certain actions and reactions. These input enriched conversations between client and coach are often the basis for decisions that the client has to make. Another year has passed and Tom sinks into his chair.

Tom: I am at my wits end. I don’t know what is wrong with me but I feel absolutely full as if I just can’t take in one more thing. Every time someone walks into my office I stare at him but just can’t seem to take in what he’s saying. And the same thing happens at home. My wife complains constantly that I am not listening to her anymore. If this continues I will not only lose my job soon but my wife as well.

Strained? Burnt out? The challenge for the coach is here to use appropriate methods from the field of psychotherapy without actually practising psychotherapy. He could do that in the following way:

Coach: I can see you are quite worried. You feel as if everything is just slipping through your fingers at work and at home.

The coach would actively listen to what Tom has to say and verbalise his feelings. He could ask:

Coach: What could be your own part in feeling ‘full’ and ‘distracted’?

With this the coach looks at it through ‘systemic glasses’ and thus prompts Tom to see himself as part of the problem. He could also for example use Schulz von Thuns ‘Inner Team Model’ (based on elements from Gestalt Therapy) and ask:

Coach: That inner voice of yours that feels ‘full’, what exactly has it got to say? What other voices have got something to say about this? Let’s treat every voice inside you that has something to say about this as if it were a member of your inner team. What are the names of your inner team members? What needs and fears has every single one? Let them all sit down at a table and discuss the issue…..see if they can come to an agreement.

With this the coach helps Tom to become more aware of the plurality inside him and enables him to see his issue from different perspectives. He certainly gains more clarity about his feelings. For the coaching process however this would not be enough. So the next step here would be to analyse Tom’s personal work organisation as well as his attitude to it. Here Tom and his coach would look, for example, at the tasks he carries out himself, the time in which he carries them out, they would look at when and to whom he delegates, how and how often he controls etc. The discoveries they make will then allow them to look at his motives and needs that are behind his actions. They may find out that Tom carries out many things himself that he could very well delegate to somebody else. It shows that in order to be satisfied Tom needs to make absolutely sure that tasks are always carried out in time and in a perfect way. The essentials here are ‘security’, ‘reliability’ and ‘perfection’.

Based on these and other results of their analysis Tom can see that he himself contributes to his ‘feeling full’. However, before Tom decides about concrete measures he wants to take, he will be able to try these out in the protected environment of a coaching setting. This will help him to find his authentic way to deal with the issue. The coach will for example encourage him in a role play to change perspectives.

Coach: Tom, try to slip into the shoes of xy. You know him as a competent member of your team that is very capable of doing the tasks you never give him. How do you feel?

Tom: I feel that Tom does not trust me. He treats me like a child. At this stage I am quite demotivated and thus hardly show any initiative anymore.

Coach: What would you like Tom to do differently?

Tom: I wish that he would trust me. That he would believe in my competence and reliability.

Coach: What would Tom have to do that you would notice this?

Tom: Actually, that is quite simple. He would only have to give me a project, for example project xx that I could work on.

Coach: Why do you think he should do this? How can you demonstrate to him that he can trust you?

Tom: Well, we could set certain milestones. And at the end of every month we could check together whether I am still on track.

Coach: Now go back into your own identity as xy’s boss. You are now aware of what xy would like to have and what he suggests. Please imagine for a short while that you are actually doing this. Try to visualise every detail of it like a film director looking at a certain scene.

I would like to end Tom’s case at this point as it has demonstrated the steps a responsible coach would take with his client. Tom and his coach have worked on alternatives that might even help improve his communication with his wife. This can be seen as a welcome but not targeted side effect. What a responsible coach certainly would not do is give Tom ‘a few good hints’ or move into the field of his relationship problems with his wife. He also would not violently break through the boundaries that he might come to during the coaching process. In Tom’s case these would be questions concerning the issues of ‘trust’ and ‘letting go’. However, if Tom has tried out his new steps at work for a defined period of time and is still not capable of delegating things in a professional way, the coach might come to the conclusion that the problems may lie in deeper levels of Tom’s personality. It could be fundamental facets of ‘trust’, ‘self value’ or ‘identity finding’ that require examination but not by the coach. Here the coach would talk to Tom about this and recommend psychotherapy to him.


Coaching and psychotherapy can be less distinguished in their methods but rather in their areas of responsibilities and in the way they might apply their methods. A coach acts as catalyst and supporter and focuses on somebody’s professional development whereas the therapist embraces the whole person, touches the hurt soul and helps it to heal. Like in every other profession there are ‘good ones and bad ones’ and the challenge is to find the ‘good ones’. In my opinion there is a lot of room for fruitful co-operation between coaches and therapists because the biggest similarity between us is undoubtedly the wellbeing of our client. Besides, for Tom it probably does not matter which method was used or what therapy school it was, whether it was the coach or the therapist that has helped him – the main outcome of importance to him is to feel better. After all it is this that really matters.

Ulrike Kennedy, B.Comm., Dipl. Banking, Dipl. Coaching and Change Management is working as a Life- and Business Coach in Galway. Before becoming a coach she worked as a Marketing/PR Executive in Germany for many years.


Mahlmann, R. (2005) ‘Coaching versus psychotherapy, Coaching in der Wirtschaft – Ueberblick und ein Prozessbeispiel’ in Freie Psychotherapie.

Fischer-Epe, M. (2007) ‚Coaching: Miteinander Ziele erreichen’. Hamburg: Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag.

Schulz von Thun, F. (2006) ‚Miteinander reden: 3 – das innere Team und situationsgerechte Kommunikation’. Hamburg: Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag.