Coaches are often asked what the difference is between coaching and therapy. Illustrations can illuminate ideas more readily than explanations, and examples are readily found in popular culture. The new season of Mad Men opened on New Year’s eve where we find lead character Don Draper sneaking off to cheat on his wife. His lover, who is also married, asks him what he wants in the New Year. “I want to stop doing this,” he says.

“I want to stop” and “I want to start” are clarion calls for coaches. They are our starting shot, our battle cry. From that desire, we work forward to help our client find ways to stop or to start doing something new.

Don Draper has reasons to cheat, just as many clients offer justifications for continuing behaviors that are not working. Perhaps he is numbing the pain of his past, trying to forget an abusive, alcoholic father or his lack of identity, having switched dog tags with a dead soldier in Korea to return home as a false war hero. A therapist could help him understand when, how and why he split off from himself

Coaches are more interested in the “what” than the “why.” Our orientation is toward the future, rather than in exploration of the past. While personal histories inform us, a coach can help a client cherry pick through the rubble of the past and identify triggers, self-talk and perceptions to create awareness.

When a client wants to stop or start specific behaviors, a coach can step in and ask “what would it take?” “What is one thing you can do starting today?” By challenging assumptions, asking powerful questions and listening to our clients, we help them identify strategies and provide a structure to successfully adopt new practices and stay on track.


Originally published at the International Coach Federation, Philadelphia here.