Psychology Today

Coaches and Counselors: Which One Is Right for Me (Part 2 of 2)

January 22, 2022

If you read my first post on this topic, you’re now clear on the basic distinctions between coaches and counselors. And let’s say you’ve decided that you could use some additional perspective and expertise as you work through your own challenges, uncertainties, and aspirations. Your question, though, may still be: “Which—a coach or a counselor—seems more appropriate for where I am now?”

Let’s take a closer look at some distinctions that may help you decide.

Deciding Between a Coach and a Counselor

You might choose a coach when:

  • You’re looking to identify strengths and/or opportunities for growth that will help you be more successful in your current professional life. Skilled coaches will use a combination of questioning, assessments, and other methods to help you identify areas to further hone and use to your advantage.
  • You’re looking for specific strategies and tools to navigate particular, ongoing workplace challenges critical to your success and well-being, such as conversations with a difficult boss, peer conflicts, or performance feedback to subordinates.
  • You’re looking for an independent, skilled perspective on your organizational context and how to most effectively navigate within it.
  • You’re looking for someone to help you surface, challenge, and change self-limiting beliefs or behaviors that impede progress toward specific goals at work, such as those associated with the imposter syndrome.
  • You’re looking to develop and practice particular leadership skills (e.g., public speaking, motivating others, leading change, demonstrating openness) under guidance and with accountability.
  • You’re considering switching careers due to changing interests, life stage, or goals and want help identifying and prioritizing options.
  • You want immediately practical/actionable career-related advice and direction without much exploration of your history, personality, family dynamics, the meaning of life, etc.

You might choose a counselor when:

  • You want to explore or deal with the underlying reasons why something—such as a disturbing pattern of behavior in yourself and/or others—is getting in your way.
  • You want a thorough diagnostic evaluation to help you understand and formulate a plan for addressing the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are causing distress or unwanted outcomes for yourself or others.
  • You have some indication or reason to believe that you have a mental health issue—e.g., mood issues like depression or anxiety, or compulsions or addictions—that is affecting your and others’ well-being and therefore needs to be a focal point for your engagement with a professional.
  • Your work challenges (e.g., feeling chronically dissatisfied or unappreciated) are chronic and pervasive (i.e., lasting for months or years, and cutting across different bosses or organizations) and show up in other areas of your life.
  • Your distress is sufficiently enduring and intense that it is causing significant disruption to your ability to function and/or find pleasure and meaning in life.
  • Your reactions to stressors or other workplace experiences seem outsized—for example, you are outraged where others are mildly angry, or you find yourself sobbing about something most around you find slightly upsetting.
  • You have experienced (or are continuing to experience) a specific trauma or pattern of (physical, sexual, or psychological) abuse and are having unwanted and painful thoughts, feelings, and beliefs.

Combining and Switching

Of course, people are complex enough that the distinctions above aren’t always clear-cut or independent. Consider, for example, a person whose parents made them feel inadequate and fearful. Even though they were valedictorian of their class or an elite athlete on their way to their current professional success, they are still plagued with a sense that they don’t belong or measure up. As a result, they are frustratingly timid and submissive toward those above them and defensive and overconfident toward their subordinates in ways that undermine respect and commitment. Is this a deep-seated problem that could benefit from counseling, or is it a current work problem that coaching might help? It’s probably both.

Indeed, the coaches I talked to could readily point to instances in which their clients have benefitted from working with both them and a counselor simultaneously. For example, “Shane” is a highly accomplished technical expert who recently assumed his first major leadership role. He approached a coach for help with his difficulty giving critical feedback, managing conflict, and feeling like a “real” leader. He wanted to work on concrete techniques, like displaying leadership presence with his team.

But he also realized that these challenges stem from growing up with a verbally abusive father who withheld positive feedback. In counseling, he’s connected his childhood to his conflict avoidance and need to be perfect. And he’s working in that context to deal with the pain that his father caused and the lingering feelings of worthlessness that still plague him despite his impressive accomplishments.

In another situation, “Mary” is a high-performing tech executive who enjoyed a meteoric rise through her firm and is now the youngest VP in her company’s history. Unfortunately, she has just gone through a divorce after catching her husband cheating and is also undergoing treatment for cancer.

Mary sees a counselor to help manage her understandable anxiety and depression. And, as a single mom who can no longer say "yes" to every project that comes her way (a strategy she employed to help her get where she is), she works with a coach to help her improve her time management and delegation skills. She also works with her coach on career planning for what’s next given the major changes in her life.

Most people, however, don’t have the time, energy, or financial resources to see both a counselor and a coach at the same time. And because life is ever-changing, they may find themselves in a relationship with a coach or a counselor and realize (or be told) that it’s probably more appropriate to switch to the other. For example, a person in counseling who is no longer actively grieving or processing past situations and wants to dive deeply into work-related specifics—like exploring a particular career change or working on upward influence or subordinate motivation tactics—may be better served by an expert coach. Conversely, a person in coaching may become so consumed by shame, guilt, grief, anxiety, or depression that it’s appropriate to switch to a mental health professional. Similarly, a person in coaching who makes little forward progress on work-related skill-building or action steps due to a need to revisit the past or process long-standing emotions may benefit more from switching to counseling.

"Edward," for example, is an executive who had a strong relationship with a leadership coach. When he was arrested for DUI and it came out that he’d had multiple prior incidents, his firm mandated that he receive alcohol abuse treatment or lose his job. Because he trusted his coach (and was still in denial about the severity of his disease), he asked her to provide the substance abuse counseling. She refused and helped him find an appropriate counselor. A year later, after he’d completed rehab and joined AA, he resumed his work with his leadership coach.

What if you’re still not entirely sure which is right for you? Make your best guess based on what I’ve laid out above and start a conversation with a coach or counselor to figure that out. Good coaches and counselors will be glad to start with that question and willing to make referrals if or when it’s clear a change is in order. And, in the end, don’t forget that you’re in the driver’s seat: This is your growth journey, and you can stop or switch directions any time the relationship doesn’t feel healthy or helpful.


First published in Psychology Today

Written By

Jim Detert

Jim Detert is the John L. Colley Professor of Business Administration in the Leadership and Organizational Behavior area at the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business Administration and a Professor of Public Policy at the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. Prior to joining UVA, he taught at Cornell University's Johnson School of Management and was the faculty director for the School's leadership initiative.