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The Differences Between Therapists, Coaches, and Consultants—and How to Know Which One You Need

I feel like coaching is starting to lose a lot of its stigma and the people getting results are inspiring many others to seek it out. Perhaps another reason many more are seeking coaching is that conventional mental health treatments are not widely available. Many complain about not-so-patient-friendly enrollment processes and months-long waitlists.

Is a coach a good alternative to a therapist or psychiatrist? What kind of coach should you engage? How do you qualify them as someone who will actually help and definitely not hurt you?

Consider one of these if there is any area of your life where you have not been able to get the results you want on your own, or if you just don’t want to do it alone or want to be able to do it right from the get-go.

If you suspect you suffer from a mental illness and have not been diagnosed, know that an unlicensed coach cannot diagnose you. A licensed therapist must follow regulated procedures in order to do this. If you need or want medication, you will need to see a psychiatrist. Do not offboard yourself from any medications or adjust your dosage without your doctor’s approval and guidance because there are often withdrawal side effects. Understand and abide by any potential interactions. Read all materials made available to you on your medications. Do your own research on these, as well.

Some coaches offer “tough love” and “hard truth.” I had a coach who referred to herself as the “Velvet Hammer.” She was, in fact, my first coach and the coach who helped me get started on my own coaching path. She set expectations from our first consultation on how it will look for her to show me my blind spots—with caring candor. Hers was not an authoritative way, but some can be militaristic and intolerable of excuses. In all therapy, coaching, and consulting relationships, you are expected to be an active participant and partner. You won’t get back what you don’t put in. And, some people prefer and need a very no-nonsense, straightforward, highly structured, black and white, inflexible approach. For the most part, however, our brains don’t thrive in transformation under those conditions.

Coaches traditionally focus on the practical steps to transformation. Therapists traditionally focus on how your feelings and past experiences inhibit you. Many are somewhere in between, and a lot of coaching training focuses on beliefs and behavior patterns—the connection of which are often blind spots for people.

In my personal experience, I found therapy to be enlightening and validating. I learned some coping mechanisms, yet still felt victimized versus empowered, and I felt there was no endpoint.

Coaching, on the other hand, was future-focused and finite; the goal was to help me be self-reliant in executing new skills, disrupting beliefs and patterns of behavior that didn’t serve me, and replacing them with those that did until they were habits.

Not all coaching programs focus on habits. There are various studies on habits that purport varying amounts of time necessary to form a new habit, but it really varies from individual to individual. Know yourself. How long does it take you to form a new habit? There are specific techniques that can accelerate habit adoption, such as NLP and hypnosis. Find someone trained and certified in these methods if you want faster results.

There are limitless specialties and niches in coaching. I find it helps when my coach understands my particular challenges, like being a parent to an ADHD child. I have had coaches tell me this is just my excuse, and rapport was instantly and permanently broken, rendering any further coaching ineffective and obsolete. Coaches who invalidate your experiences, feelings, and reality ultimately fail the coaching test.

If there is one focus area of your life you want to transform, it’s highly recommended that you seek out a specialist in this area, be it fitness, nutrition, parenting, relationships, career, and/or leadership.

If you are a leader or aspire to be a leader, leadership coaching usually includes focusing on your career development. Career development is a byproduct of the work you do to become a better leader and rise to the challenges thereof, which have evolved and expanded over the years, especially in the last two years. Even within career and leadership coaching, there are various niches, such as by industry or function, helping post-deployment veterans, helping the long-term unemployed or returning mothers.

My particular niche is conscious careering and conscious leadership. My clients prioritize people and the planet alongside sustainable profit and either want to better influence their organizations to do so as well, or want to contribute their talent to other companies already in alignment with these values. This could be in a completely new field or role, or the same field and role. My clients may or may not know what to pursue or where to look.

Like therapists, most professionally trained coaches ask questions and ask for permission before they share an observation or advice. Whereas a consultant gives advice, a coach guides you to come to your own conclusions about what to change and do by asking reflective questions. In doing so, they lower your resistance to change and instill confidence in your own abilities to figure things out.

However, many coaches are actually consultants and not coaches at all. They will assess the current situation, identify the root cause, prescribe changes, and leave you to implement them, perhaps with some expectations on challenges you may encounter and things you can do to overcome them.

As you start evaluating your options, ask yourself:

  • Do I have a fragile state of mind?
    • If so, seek more immediate help. Contact NAMI to find resources. I can tell you from personal experience that they are there to give you an immediate lifeline and refer you to the help you need. The process of finding a partner can be daunting and, I’ve found, at times damaging in and of itself. I gave up for three months after my quest failed for the fourth time to result in help.
  • What expectations do I have of the outcomes I want?

A common question asked by coaches is, what do you want coaching to do for you in X months? What do you expect will be different and better for having had coaching?

It’s possible you won’t be able to fully visualize all that is actually possible. Be aspirational. An ethical partner will tell you what is realistic to expect.

Ask these questions of your prospective partners:

  • Is this individualized or group?
    • If a group, how do you manage the psychological safety of the group?
    • Do you qualify participants, and how?
    • What rules exist and how do you enforce them?
    • What type of one on one support is offered?
    • Does the group interact and how do you manage personal conflicts? (Conflicts have occurred in nearly every group coaching program with over 10 people in which I’ve been a participant, though not involving me.)
  • What do you know about the mind/brain?
  • Are there things I am supposed to do in between sessions and how much time is required?
  • How will you hold me accountable?

Referrals are great, but make sure you ultimately choose a partner who can fulfill your specific needs. If you wind up finding someone outside of your network, check reviews and LinkedIn recommendations. Consider reaching out to the individuals who provided LinkedIn recommendations to ask questions tailored to your needs.

Is Epic Careering the right career alignment partner for you?

Our unique holistic approach integrates life coaching, neuroscience, organizational psychology, time management, habit management, personal/executive branding, a blend of career coaching and consulting, and leadership coaching. That’s a lot, and it’s because I constantly invest in identifying and training in new breakthroughs as they are proven.

Schedule a free consultation to see if we fit your needs.

Karen Huller, CEO of Epic Careering, is the co-founder of The Consciousness Conference (ConCon) and the C3: Corporate Consciousness Co-op community on LinkedIn. She is the creator of the Corporate Consciousness Ripple Blueprint and author of Laser-sharp Career Focus: Pinpoint your Purpose and Passion in 30 Days. She founded Epic Careering, a conscious career and leadership development firm specializing in executive branding, talent-values alignment, and conscious culture, in 2006. 

While the bulk of Mrs. Huller’s 20 years of professional experience has been within the recruiting and employment industry, her publications, presentations, and coaching also draw from experience in personal development, performance, broadcasting, marketing, and sales. Her solutions incorporate breakthroughs in neuroscience, human performance optimization, bioenergetics, and psychology to help leaders accelerate rapport, expand influence, and elevate engagement and productivity while also looking out for the sustainability of the business and the planet.

Mrs. Huller was one of the first LinkedIn trainers and is known widely for her ability to identify and develop new trends. She is a Certified Professional Résumé Writer, Certified Career Transition Consultant, and Certified Clinical Hypnotherapist with a Bachelor of Art in Communication Studies and Theater from Ursinus College and a minor in Creative Writing. Her blog was recognized as a top 100 career blog worldwide by Feedspot. 

Mrs. Huller was an Adjunct Professor in Cabrini University’s Communications Department and an Adjunct Professor of Career Management and Professional Development at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business. As an instructor for the Young Entrepreneurs Academy, she has helped two of her students win the 2018 National Competition to be named America’s Next Top Young Entrepreneurs, one student to win the 2019 People’s Choice Award and to land in the top 8 during the (virtual) 2020 National Competition, and yet another student to win the 2022 National Competition to be named America’s Next Top Young Entrepreneur.

She serves on the board for the Upper Merion Community Center, which she helped establish, and is an advisor to Florida International University for their Women in Leadership program. For her service as Vice President of the Gulph Elementary PTC, she received recognition as a Public Education Partner and Promoter from the Upper Merion Area Education Association. Mrs. Huller has also been the lead singer for Harpers Ferry, a rock cover band, for 20 years. She lives in King of Prussia, PA with her husband, two daughters, and many pets, furry, feathered, and scaly.

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