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Therapy, Coaching, and Imagination Work – 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 debilitating 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 work? Well, in addition to what we might do in other types of coaching, in imagination work, metamorphorically speaking, we learn to fly.

Or put in another way:

We expand our creative power far beyond the ordinary and thus enabling us in making our highest and deepest visions and values fact in the world.

Of course, nothing in this world is guaranteed. That’s part of the great adventure called life. But still – the scope of our possibilities and action potency expand tremendously and through this our chances for success.

So we can heal & repair, clarify & act, expand & create.

These are the essential differences.

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