Coaching and Therapy – What’s the Difference?

Trying to describe the difference between coaching and therapy can drive most coaches and coaching trainers nuts.

“Therapy is oriented towards the past; coaching is oriented towards the present and the future,” some might say. But is coaching more present- and future-oriented than therapy? No, not really, at least not always.

“Therapy and coaching use different tools,” some might also say. But that doesn’t really help us either as there are often a considerable overlap between coaching and therapy in this regard.

And so it goes on and on, from approach to approach, framework to framework. The overlaps and similarities are considerable in models, methods, techniques, etc. So what is a more suitable anwser?

The real difference lies not in “the what” or “the how” but in “the who”:

People in need of therapy often experience great emotional and debilitating pain in one or more areas of their lives, and for longer periods of time. Traumas from past experiences belong to this category. For this reason, in therapy, as the great Australian coaching psychologist Michael Cavanaugh once wrote, we bring peace to the disturbed.

in contrast, people in need of coaching function very well in their lives, some even at extremely high levels of performance. They may experience negative emotions like stress,  anxiety or doubt or even a lack of a sense of purpose, but never to the delibitating extent as people in need of therapy do  As a result, overall mental health and well-being are still high, and, following Michael Cavanaugh, in coaching, rather than bringing peace to the disturbed we disturb the peace. We disturb the peace by challenging our clients appropriately  in order to faciliate the necessary transformations in goals, performance, achievements, and overall well-being and satisfaction.

Using a bike as a metaphor, in therapy we repair the bike so we can use it. In coaching we figure out where to go and how to deal with the challenges lying ahead. And in imagination coaching? Well, in addition to what we might do in other types of coaching, in imagination coaching, metamorphorically speaking, we learn to fly.

The Two Principles of Liberty

At the bottom of a life lived well in liberty lie two principles.

The first is the principle of “freedom from”:

Freedom from coercion, freedom from force, freedom from threats of force.

All human beings have a free will. As a will that is free, it is not caused by any-thing else than itself.

It can be influenced, however, by coercion, force or threats of force (and that is why these are used – to affect the will in order to affect behaviour).

To be free, then, is to be free from these forces.

But then, what?

That is where the second principle enters the picture.

The second principle is the principle of “freedom to”.

Freedom to create, to live the life the way you want it, to go after you highest and deepest dreams and turn them into manifest reality.

What that might be, is of course up to you.

It can never be up to anybody else.

It could be all of those things, places, people, experiences, and so on that give you and those around you the most profound levels of fulfilment. That part is up to you.

We can say that the principle of “freedom from” takes you half way.

It clears the space so you can be in this world uncoerced and unforced.

The other half way, the one that leads onto the infinite road of creation, is the principle of “freedom to”:

Freedom to create what is most profound and meaningful to you.

Freedom from and freedom to – the two principles of a life lived good and well in liberty.

Ethics and Your Infinite Imagination

Inevitably the question arises – how can one be free and ethical, ethical and free, both at the same time?

One could argue that morality puts limits on our behaviour, beyond which we shouldn’t go, but if we are bound by these limits, are we then wholly free?

The answer is as simple as it is profound:

There are infinite ways of doing Evil and infinite ways of doing Good. The restrictions that morality puts on us do not limit our freedom in as much as we always have an infinite number of infinites available to us to do Good.

The right ethical choice, then, is to use our infinite imagination to do Good in the infinite ways that are available to us or that can be created by us.

Given this, if you had this power, and infinite possiblities, and infinite ways of doing Good, what would you like to create?

The Power of Limits

The infinite imagination knows no limits.

The world, as an extension and use of space, does.

When the Zen painter stands in front of his empty canvas, the whole universe and beyond is open to him. Anything can be painted, anything can be created, and so he does.

As he moves his brush spontaneously to the rhythm of his powerful strokes, the paint immediately excludes other uses of that space by different strokes or no strokes at all.

But without limits, nothing can be created, so he smiles, and moves on without pause or hesitation.

As he continues to paint on his canvas and on his life, limits are what draws him to completion.

To be successful, therefore, in painting and in life, you need the power of limits to work for you.

Our Imagination Opens Up Space

Often, when people are under severe stress, they feel crammed into a very small space. Pressure starts to build. Over time the pressure can become unbearable.

Imagination work opens up space.

Road blocks, mental blocks and all kinds of challenges can now be dealt with elegantly, efficiently and creatively. New paths, new vistas, new spaces before unseen now become visible and are used to great effect.

Over time the built-up pressure diminishes and the sheer delight of wondrous adventure takes its rightful place.

Gaining the ability to open up space on an ongoing basis is one of the most powerful results of working with our infinite imagination.

Individuals are Creative, not Groups

A group of people may form a task force with the goal in mind to create something new and spectacular –  a breakthrough strategy, an innovative product, an hitherto unseen piece of art, something that promises to change the world…

…but if none of the members are creative, there will be no sparks to fuel the fire, and no fuel to grow. and expand.

A group of highly creative people can work wonders only if they are creative as individuals.

Of course, individuals in groups can hinder even the most noble creative intentions with their “won’t work” attitudes  and “have tried that” criticisms and so on, but without creativity from the participating individuals, there will be nothing to criticise, nothing to support, nothing to work with, nothing to try out, nothing to learn from.

If you want to work effectively with other people’s ideas, your own minds must be capable of sparking new ideas, of seeing new connections, and moving into new horizons as these move into view and you create and move into them.

Therefore, all group creativity, like charity, begins at home.

Uniquely, Creatively You

Your creative power springs from you. It is the source that feeds the river and its flow.

We can discuss what this means, but we will always get back to the notion that the source is you as an individual.

Without the individual, without you being You, there is no creative power. To think otherwise is to imagine a river without a source.

Without it, no lake, no pond, no brook, no spring to feed your Nile.

The river and its flow, and the source is You.

Your Magic Is What Most Intrigues Me.

We all have this magical, creative power inside of us. It springs from our unique selves, and it cannot be duplicated by anyone in the history of the world.

Developing this power in my clients is what most intrigues me as a professional coach. I never tire of it, and never do the people whose power has thus been awakened and unleashed.