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What’s the difference between a therapist, coach, and consultant? 

It can be difficult to know whether you need a life coach, therapist, or consultant. Read to find out which one is best for you!
therapist coach or consultant

What do I need?  A therapist, consultant, or life coach?  It’s a question I receive frequently and it’s a great question.  I find people often go to the wrong help that wastes their time and money.  It also gives them a negative impression of a profession, so I feel the need to clear the air here.  

What is the difference between a therapist, consultant, and coach and how do you know what you need?  This post will break it down for you so you don’t have to waste your time and money.  Let’s dive in!

Counseling: 

  • Who does it? Counselor/Social Worker/Psychotherapist/Therapist.  The counselor’s role is that of behavioral mental health professionals.  This means there are strict boundaries with the counselor taking on an expert role.  Counselors cannot have relationships with you online or outside of the session because you are their patient. 
  • What does it do? Counseling focuses on minimizing symptoms of identifiable dysfunction (such as anxiety, depression, reoccurring thoughts, etc.) in the present that were most likely caused by something in the past (i.e. behavioral/cognitive patterns, relationships, etc.).  You will receive a mental health diagnosis (such as General Anxiety Disorder, Adjustment Disorder, etc.) in counseling therapy from a counselor who will also create a treatment plan.  Counseling is part of the healthcare system and is considered medical treatment, so it is typically covered under your insurance. Your information shared with the counselor is confidential under HIPAA law with the exception if you are going to harm someone else, harm yourself or someone is being harmed or in danger-then proper authorities will be contacted. Again, the focus here is medical treatment. 
  • What does it focus on? Counseling focuses on the symptoms that you bring up in the session.  A good counselor will let you know what evidence-based treatments they will use with you and monitor your symptoms each session.  Usually counseling has a more natural conversational flow than if you are going to a general doctor.  Sessions are typically 45-53 minutes of talking. 
  • Who leads it? The client is supposed to lead the session with what symptoms they are experiencing and the counselor responds to the client as an “expert.”  A crappy counselor will give advice, opinions, and make frequent and unnecessary small talk.  If your counselor does this repeatedly, get a new one!  A past counseling supervisor I’ve had calls these counselors “rent-a-friends.”  You are not there to make friends with your therapist and ethically they are not supposed to give you advice.  They can provide suggestions for your treatment, however, you decide what your treatment will look like.  If you ask your counselor what your treatment plan looks like and they cock their head sideways wondering what you are talking about, don’t go back!  Progress in therapy is usually slow.
  • Tips: 
    • If you land a shitty counselor who gives advice, just chats with you and gives advice you know how to look for a new one.  
    • Sometimes you can land a great counselor, but their personality is not a good match.  Counselors are like skinny jeans, you need to try them on.  
    • If you start to feel uncomfortable in session talking about the deep stuff, it doesn’t necessarily mean your counselor is “bad,” it probably means this is something to work through!  
    • The first 1-3 sessions are getting the know each other, and by session 6 you should be actively working on your symptoms.
    • Remember-you are leading your therapy, not your therapist.  Come to the session prepared with what you what to work on and advocate for yourself if you need to!  Don’t be afraid to give your therapist feedback if you feel uncomfortable or being pushed too fast/not enough.

Consulting:

  • Who does it? There are many consultants out there for various topic areas.  All it means is that they are an expert and you will see them for a particular problem.  For example, you would see an Accountant as an expert to do your taxes or an Attorney for consulting on legal advice.  You really wouldn’t see a consultant unless you know specifically what you need help with. Consultants are considered experts, however, their professional boundaries are laxer than counselors because they are not bound to HIPAA laws, so depending on their professional ethics and boundaries, you may be able to connect with them in professional or friendly settings (like Linked In).  
  • What does it do? Consulting is straight advice and suggestion on how to proceed with a particular problem.  Consultants are either guiding you through the problem or they are assisting with the problem directly on your behalf.  Progress in consulting is often fast-paced as it focuses directly on problem-solving. 
  • Tips:
    • Make sure your consultant has the proper education and/or credentials to help you.
    • They should also have enough experience under their belt to be considered an “expert.”
    • Trust your instinct if you do an introductory call with them, do they seem like they know what they are talking about? Are they easy to reach? 
    • All consultants provide a contract.  Contracts are important to protect your money and outline what exactly they will help you with.

Coaching:

  • Who does it? BE AWARE!… There are a trillion different “coaches” out there.  A lot of them are consultants, who just want to advise because they accomplished something without proper education, credentials, or experience.  A true coach should have the education and credentials to help you.  They should have training in the specific areas they are practicing in.  If they don’t, I will bet a fortune that they will try to sell you coaching and products at outrageous prices that they have no expertise in selling you. The boundaries of the relationship are most lax between coaches and clients compared to consultants or counselors. For example, I connect with my clients on social media and celebrate any milestones they reach in their personal and professional lives as a Life and Business Coach.  As a therapist, I would never do that…it would be unethical for a therapist to even try to google you online as an invasion of personal privacy! The coaching relationship is a collaborative, co-creative partnership with the coach holding the client accountable to reach their goals. 
  • What does it do?  Coaching is guiding you to fill the gap between where you are and where you want to be.  Coaching is results-based and client-driven.  The coach works to normalize emotions rather than assume they are part of the dysfunction  (therapist). You’ll know right away whether they are a consultant or an actual coach if they start hammering you with advice (consultant) vs. helping you recognize negative patterns, emotions, thought processes, etc. that are blocking you from reaching your goals (coach). Progress in coaching is fast-paced, driven by goals. 
  • Tips:
    • Check your coach’s education and credentials before working with them and make sure they are not someone who knows how to use Twitter and now they are advertising themselves as a “Master Twitter Coach.” If they are a Life Coach or Business Coach, they absolutely should have education, training, or credentials. There are a lot of techniques and skills that are taught to help others in coaching. 
    • Look at their testimonials online to see what other clients are saying is like to work with them.
    • Get a feel for their personality, especially if they have a blog or social media.  You do not want to work with a coach who is simply a “cheerleader.” You want a coach who is going to push you but is not an asshole.  
I hope this post clears up the confusion between a therapist, consultant, and coach for you.

If you feel a Life Coach is someone you need right now, Hi there! Insert shameless plug-I’m Amy Nolan and I am perfectly qualified to be your Life or Business coach!  Click here to make the initial appointment and let’s design the life you want!

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