From Where I Sit

What’s the Difference Between a Counselor and a Coach?

I am often asked this question by potential clients, and it’s an important one to consider. For years, counseling has often been viewed as something for people with “emotional problems” and this has contributed to a stigma associated with getting counseling of any kind. This idea is thankfully beginning to recede, but it continues to impact access to the mental health profession.

The proliferation of coaching schools has resulted in an emerging field which is largely unregulated and less-standardized than counselor training programs. Some coaching programs are offered almost exclusively through distance learning via the internet and telephone, with little or no classroom attendance required. However, there are also coaching programs that are geared for people who have a background in mental health, so every coaching program needs to be evaluated on its own merits.

In contrast, counselor training programs have much in common and generally require an undergraduate and graduate degree, test scores on national examinations such as the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), and letters of reference. A typical masters degree-level counselor education program involves two years of study, including internship experience and an independent research project. A PhD program in psychology can last 4-7 years and requires a dissertation.

Counselors are trained to address a very broad range of issues, often specializing in one or more, such as depression, adolescents, or career counseling. While counselors are often considered to be “process” oriented and coaches more “results” oriented, this is not necessarily the case. A good counselor will be interested in both, though a more complicated and difficult personal issue will take longer to resolve than a short-term one.

When choosing to work with a counselor or a coach, consider asking the following:

  • Does this person have the appropriate educational background and/or experience with which to assess your situation?
  • Have they developed expertise (in a classroom or with knowledgeable people, as in an internship situation) with regard to career issues?
  • Are they certified and/or licensed? What did it involve? How rigorous was their training?
  • Are they involved with their professional association? Do they regularly update their skills through continuing education training opportunities?

In the end, it’s most important that you feel comfortable and confident in your counselor or coach. Only you can know whether that person “feels” right to you, and you’ll usually know that soon enough. If it doesn’t feel like a good fit, discuss it with them and ask for a referral to someone who might work better with you. A professional will understand that they cannot be “all things to all people” and should gladly put you in touch with another professional or an organization that can help you find a better fit.

Katharine Nelson
Seattle Career Matters