How do I know if I need a coach or a counsellor?

Such a simple question and yet, the answer is not as straightforward as it first appears. It is, however, an essential one to address, particularly if you feel vulnerable, anxious or overwhelmed. This article is a starting point to provide greater transparency in explaining the terms and different ways of working.  


Even a small piece of desk research identifies the following broad-brush descriptions of the differences between coaching and counselling that are currently shared on the Internet:

  • Coaching – Improving performance. Goal-driven, deals with the here and now and how to make changes to maximise potential in the future.
  • Counselling – Working at greater psychological depth to include working with a person’s past and how they have been shaped by their childhood.  Works with mental health issues as they arise.

These broad statements make it appear as if the distinction between the two ways of working can be neatly made. In practice, it is not so clear-cut and care needs to be exercised to ensure that you choose an individual with the appropriate skills, knowledge and ethics to meet your needs. Understanding what is covered by coaching and counselling at a deeper level, and understanding where the overlaps can occur, facilitates better outcomes and psychological safety for you, the client.  

There are many distinct types of coaching and these span from executive coaching (often working with senior leaders) to life coaching (working with a wide range of clients). In all coaching work, the complexity of being human is present and, frequently, an individual’s past is a relevant part of unblocking potential or addressing resistance. Gaining insight into self-limiting beliefs, often formed in childhood/adolescence may be where the biggest shift in mindset occurs. Neuroscience reminds us that most of our thoughts, feelings and behaviours come from an unconscious place. This ‘unknown’ dynamic invariably needs attention to ensure long-term, sustainable change.  

Counselling contains over 20 different models/approaches and some of these involve regular, long-term sessions where there is deep exploration and no specified goal. However, that is not the case for all types of therapy. Counselling can also be single-session and solution-focused. Additionally, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a practical, structured approach to making changes in the present. CBT features setting goals and using tools and techniques to ensure progress is made.     

With lots of skills overlaps between the two ways of working (e.g. rapport-building, empathy, listening and questioning), at first sight, they may seem like similar activities. Yet there are fundamental differences between these two approaches and the way practitioners are trained. These differences must be observed to ensure safe working with clients in this relationship-based work.

Coaching and counselling overlap 

Set out below are examples of what work typically fits into coaching or counselling*, and the important overlap between the two. 

*This is not a comprehensive list. It is a broad assessment of ‘best fit’ and is a list that will benefit and be enhanced by some debate within the coaching and counselling communities to generate greater clarity. 

Coaching examples:

  • business goal focused
  • personal development
  • tools and techniques for developing action plans
  • generate thinking within sessions to problem solve

Counselling examples:

  • mental health issues that require therapeutic care, e.g. depression, anxiety, suicide ideation
  • childhood issues that are causing issues in life, e.g. poor self-esteem
  • managing loss and grief
  • trauma/PTSD

Overlap examples:

  • navigating through change, e.g. new job, redundancy, divorce
  • dealing with overwhelm
  • conflict management/anger management
  • insomnia

Identifying risks to clients

Most clients decide to work with either a coach or a counsellor when they want to make changes. This might be to achieve a goal or to work through issues that they are experiencing. The working relationship is at the heart of effective coaching and counselling and, when it works well, can create high levels of trust which encourage deep insights to be made. The importance of choosing the right coach or counsellor to work with in this strong working alliance is critical to success and ensuring that you are properly safeguarded in this, often, deeply personal work. Set out below are some of the risks:    

The Professional Charter published in December 2021 by six coaching/supervision professional bodies to establish a benchmark for ethics and good practice stated that ‘coaching, mentoring and supervision knowledge and practice falls outside the scope of mental health services’.  The difficulty with this statement is understanding what is regarded as ‘mental health services.’

It is common for coaches to initially work with a client where the goals are neutral, perhaps business-focused. As the working relationship and trust develops, it may be that mental health difficulties are disclosed, e.g. anxiety/panic attacks/depression and the coach may think they can deal with these. There is also the practical issue of coaches feeling financial pressures to maintain their clients and not referring on to a counsellor or other mental health practitioner.       

It should be noted that the job titles of ‘coach’ and ‘counsellor’ are not regulated in the UK. It is possible for an individual to attend an online course or watch a YouTube video and call themselves a ‘coach’ or ‘counsellor’ and set themselves up in business. Of course, no reputable professional body for either coaching or counselling would allow professional membership where there was a lack of rigour and evidence of good practice. Not every client checks whether their ‘coach’ or ‘counsellor’ signs up to a code of ethics, though.   

Self-awareness of a coach or counsellor is fundamental to safe practice. Coaching and counselling work is confidential and hidden from view and this necessitates individuals with high ethical standards doing the right thing, even when it is difficult. Having excellent self-awareness as a coach/counsellor is critical. This requires deep reflective work to understand one’s own background, how this has been shaped, and the psychological defences that may be present, so that they do not disrupt the client work.

Regular supervision of a coach or counsellor provides a check and balance on work and a means of discussing sensitive issues or where there are dilemmas. Although both coaching and counselling are run as businesses, ethical responsibilities need the highest priority to safeguard clients.    

Points to consider to make the best choice of either a coach or counsellor 

As a practising coach and counsellor, I have written this article to provide some clarity and to facilitate wider discussions. There is no intent to promote one way of working above another as both have enormous value when used appropriately and ethically. There is no ‘standard’ coach or counsellor, so it is important to examine the features of which services can be offered, at an individual level.  

Coaches can be highly trained and experienced and may be able to extend their range of work in ways that ensure psychological safety. The same is true of counsellors, some of whom work as coaches due to their background, knowledge and experience.  

In both instances, it is important that the coach or counsellor follows an approved code of ethics from a recognised coaching/counselling professional body and is in regular supervision with a qualified supervisor. With these safeguards, there is scope both to reflect and review the evolving nature of work to ensure excellence and safe, ethical practice.  

Coaching and counselling professional bodies need to reflect the dynamic nature of the work and provide even greater transparency to their members on how to work safely and ethically. It would also be beneficial to see more research carried out that explores and evaluates interventions and how to manage the overlaps between coaching and counselling.  

Guidance also needs to be produced by coaching professional bodies on what constitutes ‘mental health services,’ so that there is transparency at the outset of the work and throughout the coaching process. This guidance must also be built into coach training programmes where there can be a proper exploration of what this means for coaching practice.  

Ultimately, as a client, it is essential to understand your own needs. Once the work has started and throughout the process, assess whether you believe the work is addressing areas/achieving outcomes that matter most to you. Be an active client and gain access to good quality information and greater transparency to answer the question: Do I need a coach or a counsellor?    

Six questions to ask of a coach or counsellor before engaging their services 

1. What training, knowledge and experience do you have in dealing with my needs/goals?

2. What are your fees? (Clarify what you would get for this fee.)

3. What code of ethics do you follow? (You could ask for a copy to be sent or a link included.)

4. Are you in regular supervision with a qualified supervisor? How frequent is this supervision?

5. Do you have professional indemnity insurance?

6. How is confidentiality maintained with any notes taken during or after the session?

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Life Coach Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, PE28
Written by Margaret Walsh, MNLP, Executive Coach & Coach Supervisor
Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, PE28

Margaret Walsh works as a coach/psychotherapist and coaching/counselling supervisor, both face-to-face and online. Margaret receives excellent feedback on her ability to build strong rapport and to help clients understand their issues at a deeper level so that change can be sustained. Expertise includes self-esteem, confidence and anxiety.

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