Have you ever wondered what the difference between a psychologist and a life coach is? How about a consultant and psychologist? A consultant and a coach? We are pretty fortunate today, because when faced with a problem or an issue that needs to be addressed we have a wide variety of options for getting help; we can see a psychotherapist, hire a consultant or maybe find a coach to work with. But how does one figure out which of these three professionals will best handle their query? The line between all three can seem murky, a relative difference at best, when in fact these are really three very distinct specialties.


The therapist has a wider perspective, but doesn’t hold all the answers or direct you on what to do.

The therapist: With today’s managed healthcare system in place therapists most often end up working with people who are considered emotionally unwell. These are individuals whose distress is acute enough to qualify them for the label of patient; at the end of the day, most of the therapist’s clients have a diagnosable disorder. But that is not necessarily the only kind of person a therapist gets to see. Sometimes we also get to work with people who are doing fairly well, but want to gain more insight or are working through an existential shift (these would not be covered under insurance contracts). Therapist work with clients and patients to identify why they are feeling the way they are, how it affects them and what they can do to improve their emotional health and life. The therapist functions as an expert in emotions, in cognitive restructuring and a potential guide for their patients. One analogy that I am fond of using with my patients is the following: “Right now you are in a maze, you can see part of your environment, you have one perspective on what is going on and you have the ability to work yourself out of the maze if you want to. I am in a tall tower that provides me a much broader view of the whole landscape, my perspective is wider and I am free of any emotions that are associated with being trapped in the maze. I can’t get you out of the maze, but I can help you figure your way out, by understanding how you got there and working with you to find solutions and approaches to better navigate your situation. At the end of the day you are going to choose the path that works best for you, and I will help you by giving you some perspective and developing skills sets that are adapted to your problems” Although in therapy the goal is for the patient to gain independence from the therapeutic process and become strong enough, insightful enough and resourceful enough to navigate their world effectively and healthily, in the initial portions of therapy there is some dependence on the therapist to guide, contain and support them. When you come to see a therapist with a problem, they are going to be looking at what is going on, why you got there, why you are stuck and how to get you out.


The consultant comes in with a plan and directs your actions.

The consultant: A consultant is a specialist in a field who is hired to identify and resolve a problem. They may look at a system to better understand the flaws in it, but they are rarely if ever concerned about the emotional antecedents of an issue. A consultant will create a plan of action and hand that plan to their client. The client can be an individual or an organization who has identified the consultant as 1) a credible source, 2) a specialist in handling the problem they are dealing with, and 3) someone who can provide solutions. Much of my work with nutrition falls under the umbrella of consulting. People approach me because they want to make a change in their eating habits and want to know what to do and how to do it. They are expecting me, the consultant, to be an expert in the matter and to have an individualized plan of action that I can assign them to carry out. If the plan is not entirely successful, the consultation relationship continues and the plan is amended and adapted to improve success.  In the maze analogy the consultant has a partial blue print of the maze, or maybe they are in a helicopter hovering above it and they tell the client exactly where to go and what turns to make to get out of it. The consultant is concerned with the what, and the how, and doesn’t care about the why of an issue as much.


The coach is right there with you, they promote action and reflection, but you ultimately decide where to go and how you want to get there.

The coach: The coach is the only one in this grouping who is not presenting themselves as an expert in solving the client’s problems. Coaches are hired by people who, generally speaking, are doing well emotionally, functionally and intellectually. These individuals simply want to make improvement in their lives; maybe they are stuck trying to achieve a greater goal, or lack balance, or want to make a personal upgrade and aren’t sure how to get there. The coach and client function as partners, and the client is seen as the true expert since ultimately they are the most knowledgable about their lives, their desires and their motivations. The coach’s role is to help the client access this expertise by: 1) helping the client verbalize their values, desires and goals in clear and operational terms, 2) asking thought provoking questions, 3) helping the client shift perspectives if their point of view is keeping them stuck, and 4) helping the client stay accountable with goals they have set for themselves. The coach is with the client in the maze and helps the client by creating action, encouraging a problem solving mindset and empowering the client to go forward with their plans. The coach is less concerned with how the client got to where they are, they don’t profess to know where the client needs to be headed to, what they do they is partner with the client to figure out how they want to get to their ultimate destination.

Starting February 2014, I will be offering sample coaching consultations. To schedule a time to see what coaching looks like, please call (858)352-8027 or email me directly at drwall@lifeinifocussandiego.com

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Showing 2 comments
  • Anna Deeds, LPC

    Reblogged this on Therapist Private Practice and commented:
    This post offers a good understanding of the differences between a therapist, consultant and a coach. I wonder how many people who follow my blog are therapists, consultants, coaches, etc. What field do you work in? PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT.

  • directedpath

    Being that I am a Biblical Counselor, I feel that I work in all three areas based on the needs of the client. Some of my clients are truly struggling emotionally and are looking for solutions. Some are struggling in their marriages and therefore I consult on how to improve their marriages. And finally, I have had some clients that just want to improve what is already good in their lives.
    I do thank you for the clarification of each title. Excellent points throughout.

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