• redmaplecoaching

What's the difference between a coach and a therapist anyways?

Melissa Pyne

Professional Coach, MSW, RSW

Audrey has been at her company for 5 years and recently earned a promotion to a management position. She has always been well liked by her peers and finds it easy to connect with others. She thought this would make leading a team a breeze. But it’s turning out to be tricker than she thought. On a daily basis, Audrey finds herself struggling to give honest performance feedback to people who were once her peers. She finds herself avoiding these conversations or burying the constructive criticism deep in a feedback sandwich. She is worried that she is turning out to be an ineffective leader and more than that, she worries that people are starting to not like her. On Sunday nights she starts to feel that all-too-familiar feeling of dread creep in and she is anxious throughout much of her work week. One day over coffee, she shares she isn’t as happy as she would like to be with a friend of hers who suggests that she see a therapist who helped her effectively manage her anxiety. 

Would Audrey be best served by a therapist or a professional coach?

Having been both a therapist and now a professional coach, this is a question I’ve thought a lot about. 


Perhaps it is helpful to back this conversation up a bit. Mental health exists along a continuum. On the one end is mental illness, such as anxiety, depression, bipolar, ADHD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This is best treated by therapists using evidence-based approaches. And on the other end of the continuum is mental health where people are striving to find joy, happiness and self-fullment. We all fluctuate somewhere along this continuum. Perhaps the best question to distinguish between a rough patch where someone might feel down or anxious vs. a diagnosis of a mental illness is how much it impacts someone functioning on a ongoing basis? In the world of mental illness, we tend to listen to how frequent, how severe and how long symptoms last for people. 

But what about the other end of that continuum? Who works best with those folks? That’s where the answer gets murky. I saw a lot of clients like Audrey present in the therapy room. No diagnosis, looking for more boldness in her life, fighting all kinds of external pressures (internalized ones as well!) Audrey, like many others, was struggling to make the leap from subject matter expert to leader. She was wrestling with applying a new skills set. It's the many examples like Audrey's that lead me to professional coaching. I started to wonder how I could better serve clients at this end of the continuum and prevent mental illness from developing.

A professional coach shares many of the same competencies as a therapist. We ask open ended questions, we listen deeply, we develop trusting relationships with our clients to allow them to take new risks and we have conversations that motivate for positive changes in their lives. One-to-one coaching is starting to become more prominent across many industries and at all levels of an organization. From rookies to veterans. It draws people who are looking for insight- not simply rules to follow- to drive behaviour change. 

The magic of coaching is the act of slowing down to make intentional decisions about your career (or your life). Too often professionals rush from one crisis or decision to the next. They become reactive to the circumstances in front of them. Coaching is an opportunity to slow down and get clear on what’s really important to you. For many, that starts with a conversation about core values and how they are operationalized. Coaching also helps professionals to recognize and leverage their strengths, while becoming aware of their blindspots. It helps them find courage to take new risks or step outside their comfort zones. And above all, it can help them strengthen their resilience in times of stress.

So therapy or coaching? Well, that depends on where you’re sitting on the continuum of mental health. At Red Maple Professional Coaching, our coaches are registered social workers who can help you make this distinction if you’re unsure. In Audrey’s case, coaching was the right option.