Life Coach vs. Therapist: Comparing Two Helping Roles

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A therapist is counseling a couple in his office.

The personal coaching market — including career and life coaching — in the United States is estimated to be worth $1 billion, according to a recent Marketdata study. Professionals in this booming industry help their clients navigate important life decisions.

The need for these professionals is clear, as 28% of Americans have sought out mental health services from a therapist in the past, and 21% of millennials are actively seeking therapy, according to Barna. Career and life coaching presents opportunities for professionals to help clients maneuver the difficult challenges that life throws their way.
An understanding of the differences and similarities in the roles of a life coach vs. therapist can help professionals determine which educational path will suit their development and help them embark on a new career.

Definitions: Life Coach vs. Therapist

Life and career coaches work with clients to help them develop a strategy to reach their goals. For example, a client might seek out a life coach to help them reach their goal of maintaining a healthier lifestyle. The coach can help them develop strategies to adopt healthier habits such as exercise and eating right.

Career coaches counsel professionals who need assistance reaching their career goals. They identify trends that may be impeding a client’s professional growth and preventing them from taking the steps toward making positive long-term career decisions. Life and career coaches help clients make long-term life changes that allow them to develop personally and professionally.

Therapists work with individuals struggling with life-challenging events or circumstances that may be affecting their mental health. They can work with individual clients, couples or families who need help addressing and understanding difficult life situations. Therapists are trained in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help clients confront addiction, mental health issues, anxiety and stress. CBT, a form of talk therapy, can help clients “become aware of inaccurate or negative thinking,” according to Mayo Clinic.

Similarities Between Life Coaches and Therapists

The most apparent similarity between life coaches and therapists is the shared focus on supporting clients on their journey toward a better and more fulfilling life.

Devotion to Helping Others

Both life coaches and therapists are interested in helping others and have a deep understanding of human development and behavior. These professionals work with clients during the most difficult periods in their lives. As such, they must remain committed to guiding clients toward a positive transformation. Through the implementation of various coaching and counseling techniques, they can help their clients achieve a desired outcome.

Shared Skills

Coaches and therapists share certain key skills, including critical thinking, empathy, communication and flexibility.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is an essential skill for professionals in each position, as their roles require that they identify a treatment plan that can help a client reach and maintain their goals. If a client does not feel like the original plan is working, the coach or therapist should be able to analyze what went wrong and develop another treatment plan that will better suit the client’s needs.


By empathizing with clients, life coaches and therapists show that they are listening to their clients’ concerns. This makes clients feel like their concerns are being taken seriously. Engaging in life coaching or therapy sessions can be incredibly stressful for some people. By displaying empathy, life coaches and therapists promote a safe environment for clients to express their concerns and hopes.


Communication is a fundamental skill that life coaches and therapists must consistently work on throughout their careers. Effective communication not only makes clients feel more comfortable but also allows for a healthy dialogue between professionals and their clients. A clear dialogue can help professionals to develop effective strategies to help clients achieve their goals. Life coaches and therapists must also be active listeners who can implement strategies based on clients’ needs.


Flexibility allows therapists and life coaches to navigate different approaches to patient care based on an individual’s background. Each client is different and may have concerns or issues informed by their cultural or religious background. For example, an individual who is part of the LGBTQIA community may need help navigating familial relationships. Other times, life coaches and therapists might have to be flexible in their approach to care due to a client’s lack of comfort with the coaching or therapy process.

Differences: Life Coach vs. Therapist

Though there are many parallels between life coaching and therapy, there are also many distinctions. The stark difference pertains to the approach to providing care to clients. Life coaches and therapists also take different approaches to developing strategies to help clients find a solution to their concerns. Moreover, the two careers entail different educational requirements.

Strategies for Helping People

Therapists often work with clients who are in the process of coping with life challenges — managing relationships, behavioral issues, stress or mental illness, for example. In fact, mental illness is a common condition that affects 46.4% of Americans at least once in their lifetimes, according to Mental Health First Aid. Therapists focus on how past experiences shape a client’s current decision-making. It is important that therapists acquire the knowledge and accreditation to treat various conditions, such as depression, anxiety, addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Alongside these conditions, therapists work with clients in managing stress related to personal issues in their lives, such as loss of a loved one or divorce. They can work with couples to develop strategies to communicate better and rebuild trust with their partner. Therapists also work closely with parents to develop a variety of strategies to break free from the negative parental patterns that they may have learned from their own childhoods. Lastly, therapists can create an action plan for clients who want to prioritize their self-care.

In contrast, life and career coaches focus on helping clients reach their life and career goals. Many life and career coaches are subject matter experts in a specific industry and tend to work with clients pursuing careers in a related field. As such, their experiences enable them to provide clients with a roadmap for achieving their goals.

These professionals have developed sound theories and strategies to guide clients confronting various vocational and career matters. They have also developed techniques to assess potential career paths for clients based on an individual’s career information, education and overall vocational goals.

Life and career coaches also are trained in facilitating the process of developing self-awareness. By emphasizing self-awareness, they can help guide their clients on the path of self-development, which will help them become more aware of their choices. This process encourages clients to develop strategies for conflict management, self-reflection and cultivating a course of action for achieving both life and career goals.

Educational Requirements

Typically, both careers require professionals to hold at least a bachelor’s degree, yet the educational requirements and necessary certifications are distinct.

Therapists typically hold a master’s degree in psychology or a related field. They are required to be licensed in their state to practice CBT. Many of these professionals may decide to pursue an advanced degree that prepares them to sit for the National Counselor Examination (NCE). Certain employers may also require or prefer professionals to have supervised internship experience in their concentration of choice. Therapists can specialize in a variety of concentrations, including addiction therapy, behavioral therapy, and marriage and family therapy.

Life and career coaches can hold a bachelor’s degree in a variety of fields. For example, a client who is looking to further their career in business may seek a coach with both professional business experience and a degree in that area of study. Some coaches may also choose to pursue a master’s degree in addition to certification from a globally recognized organization such as the International Coach Federation (ICF).

Discover How a Degree in Organizational Leadership Can Lead to a Career as a Life or Career Coach

Students and professionals who are interested in a career working with clients to help them improve their lives should consider the major differences and similarities in the roles of a life coach vs. therapist. These individuals need to hone the skills to help their clients reach their full potential. To that end, an advanced degree can help them develop the knowledge base to counsel individuals or groups.

Rider University’s online Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership (MAOL) can equip students with the foundation to work as a life or career coach in a variety of settings, including private practice, nonprofits and business organizations. MAOL students learn from experienced professors who are engaged in various industries, such as business, education and health care. Graduates of the program have attained the educational requirements to earn the Board Certified Coach credential from the Center for Credentialing & Education.

Explore how Rider University’s online Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership, which offers a concentration in Life and Career Coaching, can prepare students for rewarding careers as life or career coaches.

Recommended Readings

Conflict in Organizations: The Challenges of Remote Working

Cultural Diversity in Organizations and the Role of Leadership

Employee Engagement Best Practices for Leading Remote Teams


Barna, “Americans Feel Good About Counseling”

Business News Daily, “Should You Hire a Career Coach?”

ICF, The Gold Standard in Coaching: ICF Credential

Market Research, “The U.S. Personal Coaching Market”

Mayo Clinic, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

National Association of Social Workers, “What Is the Difference Between Career and Life Coaching?”

National Board for Certified Counselors, National Counselor Examination

PayScale, Average Life Coach Salary

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Marriage and Family Therapists

Verywell Mind, “5 Differences Between Coaching and Psychotherapy”

Zencare, “Life Coach vs. Therapist: What’s the Difference?”