Coaching & Therapy:

What’s the Difference?

Most people know how therapy works? You go to a therapist because you are feeling depressed or anxious and want to feel better.

A therapist will assume that you are suffering because you have not resolved your past traumas or conflicts. Like ghosts and goblins these issues are haunting your present and standing in the way of your good feeling.

A therapist will want you to look inwards and backwards. He or she will invite you to explore your past history and to unearth incidents of traumatic abuse or parental failure.

If you ask a therapist a question he will likely throw it back at you: I wonder why you are asking me that? Most of what he or she says will aim at your inner mental state: How did you feel about that?

Often a therapist will simply give you the silent treatment. Nothing should stand in the way of your getting in touch with your deepest feelings.

Therapy imagines that once you understand how your past history has prevented you from succeeding, you will automatically set out to grab hold of a brighter future. Then your relationship problems will vanish, your balance sheet will be in the black, and you will attract a bevy of new friends and lovers.

Does it work? Not really. If you neglect your problems for months while you are delving into your unconscious motivations, those problems are not going to sit there waiting for you. They are probably going to get worse. Then you will also be less capable of dealing with them for lack of experience.

This is why more and more therapists have begun to coach. Even those who proclaim their credentials as therapists often coach people more than they do therapy.

Where therapy wants you to look back at the past and into the depths of your mind, coaching wants you to look outward and forward. Where therapy assumes that you cannot be competent until you have resolved all of your infantile issues, coaching takes you to be competent now.

Coaching helps you to analyze your world; it assumes that with proper guidance you can right whatever is going wrong. It wants you to progress, not to regress. It wants you to be more involved in your life and less involved with your emotional turmoil.

Where therapy often sees life as a story writ large, coaching sees it as a game you can learn to play. It is not an accident that the term “coach” comes from athletics.

David Brooks summed up the difference between therapy and coaching in a recent column about a sports psychologist who had worked with baseball players. Brooks said: “Once there were intellectuals who thought the mind existed above the body, but that’s been blown away by evidence. In fact, it’s easiest to change the mind by changing behavior, and that’s probably as true in the office as on the mound.

Everyone accepts that the best way to develop a career and manage work relationships is to understand them as a game. Business and professions feel like games, and no one ever thought that they were being demeaned for as much.

Problems arise when we speak about romantic relationships. Too many of us have gotten the idea that in the sacred bower of romance we can dispense with game-playing, with tactics and strategy, with rules and moves.

Thanks to therapy we have come to believe naively that once we fall in love we can be completely open and honest. True love means no more games. True love means that we can really, really be ourselves.

Of course, this is nonsense. The alternative to games is drama. Try being completely open and honest in a relationship and you will see how quickly it turns into drama.

You do not need to try this at home. The renowned Time Out New York dating columnist Julia Allison has already tried it for you. On her blog several months ago Allison exposed many intimate details of a relationship. The result: drama. Her boyfriend split and, to add insult to injury, he hooked up with her best friend.

She would have done better to learn how to play the game.