What Is a Life Coach & How They Differ From a Therapist or Consultant

what is a life coach

What is a life coach? Life coaching has a number of definitions, and what two different life coaches offer can vary widely. We can define life coaching as helping people bridge the gap between where they are and where they want to be in life.

Coaches use a variety of tools to achieve that with their clients, who often confuse coaching with other professions, such as therapy or consulting. In this article, we will help shine the light on what life coaching really is, what coaches do in their everyday work, and how coaching differs from other similar services.

What Is Life Coaching?

Life coaching is the process of helping clients gain clarity about different aspects of their lives. Many life coaches help clients define clear goals for themselves and find ways to achieve those specific goals.

Some clients enter their first coaching session with a clearly defined purpose, but more often than not, they arrive with a vague challenge they’re facing. This challenge might show up as a feeling of being stuck, being unable to move on from a situation, or facing the same issues repeatedly without making progress.

The life coaching process usually starts with uncovering these challenges and what the real or underlying issue is. After that, a life coach can help their clients define a clear direction for themselves and set goals in a particular area of their lives.

In some cases, the coaching process ends with this newfound clarity itself. In other cases, it shifts its focus to how clients can achieve their goals.

The goals set in a life coaching process might change over time as the client is going through a personal transformation. This isn’t considered a setback but simply the natural byproduct of developing a stronger self-awareness at a certain stage of one’s personal growth. When we change, our beliefs, needs, and priorities change as well, helping us live more aligned with who we are.

Reflection is one of the most important catalysts for becoming more self-aware, and that’s exactly what a life coach helps their clients with. Professional coaches never impose their own views or solutions on the coachee but rather help them reflect on themselves, gain clarity about their beliefs, and consciously choose what they want.

What Is a Life Coach and What Do They Do?

So, what is the definition of a life coach? A life coach is considered a health and wellness professional who helps people improve the quality of their lives in various areas. They do this with a variety of tools that are mostly used in coaching conversations.

Life coaches are different from mental health professionals and coaching isn’t considered a mental health treatment of a medical nature.

Coaches will lead life coaching sessions with either an individual (1-on-1) or with a group. The purpose of these sessions, and the conversation that takes place during them, is defined by the client or the group. Life coaches ask coaching questions and use coaching tools to steer these conversations toward the desired direction where insights can happen.

In between the sessions, coaches might assign certain exercises to their clients that aid the coaching process and hold their life coaching clients accountable to complete them.

Besides the work that happens in the sessions, life coaches normally also manage a business and all other areas of their professional life (unless they’re employed by an organization as an in-house coach). They develop offers and services, plan and execute marketing or sales activities, take care of their accounting, and pay their taxes — just like any entrepreneur.

[ Read: How to Start a Life Coaching Business in 7 Totally Achievable Steps ]

Some life coaches you might see in the media also turn their insights into a book, course, or presentation and become speakers or authors. This is definitely not a requirement for becoming a life coach; simply another revenue source and opportunity for greater visibility.

A life coach, first and foremost, does coaching and creates transformation in the lives of many clients. They continuously improve their craft, develop their methodology, and expand their inventory of coaching tools. They might pursue further education throughout their career and complement their qualifications with other methods and healing modalities. For example, EFT (emotional freedom technique or tapping), NLP (neurolinguistic programming), breathwork, and so on.

Different Types of Life Coaches

Coaching can take many forms, depending on the coach’s approach and expertise, as well as the area they focus on. These are the most common types of coaches you’ll find in the industry.

  • Business Coaches
  • Financial Coaches
  • Executive & Leadership Coaches
  • Organizational Coaches
  • Career Coaches
  • Family Life & Relationship Coaches
  • Health & Wellness Coaches
  • Spiritual Coaches
  • Positive Psychology & Mindfulness Coaches
  • Confidence Coaches

Within these major categories, you’ll also find coaches with more niche or specialized areas, such as body-image coaches or divorce coaches. Many of them develop an interest in a particular niche because of something they have gone through in their personal or professional life themselves.

However, just because a coach hasn’t been married, it doesn’t mean that, for example, they can’t be well-versed in relationship coaching for married couples. Their qualifications and ability to ask powerful questions go way beyond personal experience, whether they’re certified and had formal training or not.

It’s a common misconception that all coaches are the same. In fact, they all tend to have a niche, and each life coach works with clients that are relevant to their specific area of expertise.

[ Read: Types Of Life Coaches: The Top 12 Niches That Clients Love ]

Why Do People Work with a Life Coach?

Most people hire a coach because of feeling stuck in their life or career, dealing with difficult emotions or mental health struggles, or going through a life transition. However, there can be many reasons why someone would seek help from a coaching professional. Here are a few examples.

  • Going through a career transition or career change
  • Lack of fulfillment in their current job or career
  • Looking for a sense of purpose
  • Being stuck with a project
  • Feeling creatively drained
  • Wanting to be a more effective leader or manager
  • Starting a business on their own
  • Difficulty making a complex life or career decision
  • Being confused about one’s true identity
  • Lacking motivation for their goals
  • Needing help with life planning
  • Wanting to increase their income or improve their financial stability
  • Facing relationship challenges
  • Going through a breakup or grieving a loved one

As you can see, human life has a wide variety of complex challenges, and we all go through difficult periods in our lives when we could use a little help.

Coaches provide much more than just an outside perspective or the comforting presence that you normally seek from a friend. From career coaching to helping you deal with more personal issues, professional coaches have proven methods and coaching tools that can bring results for their clients, no matter how tough their situation is.

[ Read: 8 Types of Life Coaching Services (And How to Find Your Perfect Coach) ]

A lot of entrepreneurs, high-level leaders, athletes, and artists work with one or more coaches on their goals and performance. These are the people who are usually dealing with high-risk decisions and emotionally or physically challenging situations in their everyday work that are hard to get through on their own.

But life coaching isn’t just for A-list professionals. It’s for anyone who needs clarity and guidance in their lives. Luckily, more and more people realize that asking for help is okay and that investing in themselves pays off in the long run.

Whether you want to learn something specific, improve your communication skills, build self-confidence, get over something that’s blocking your path forward, reach your goals, or are just looking for some clarity, working with a life coach can support you.

What Is The Difference Between Life Coaching and Therapy?

lifecoach definition

Therapists are most commonly confused with life coaches. These two areas do have some similarities in the sense that they help people feel better and progress in their lives. Life coaching and therapy serve different purposes, though.

When we talk about therapy, we refer to the work of psychiatrists and psychologists, who are also called therapists or mental health professionals. Psychiatrists are licensed mental health professionals who can prevent, diagnose, and treat mental health conditions. They can perform medical tests on their patients and prescribe medication for them. Also, they are aware of the pros and cons of EHR systems and can record patients’ medical history on these systems.

A psychologist is a licensed professional too, but not a medical doctor. They can’t prescribe medication or diagnose their clients, but they can provide talk therapy and help with mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, mood disorders, bad habits, or addictions.

A life coach, in turn, doesn’t need to be licensed in order to provide coaching sessions to their clients. They can get certified at a training institution like ICF (International Coaching Federation) or EMCC (European Mentoring and Coaching Council), but it’s not a requirement for them to practice coaching.

what is a life coach

What’s common in all three of these service providers is that they all focus on helping people stay mentally well, but their methods largely differ. Therapy usually focuses on managing mental health issues and healing from past trauma. A therapist helps clients process the events of their lives and learn tools to cope with their emotions.

In this sense, therapy is normally more focused on issues triggered by past events, while coaching tends to be more future-facing. Of course, there can be an overlap between both methodologies but normally, it’s more beneficial for the client to start with therapy around a key issue and then progress into coaching later.

Needless to say, neither is better than the other. They simply provide different tools for change, and a client might go through multiple therapy and coaching processes in their life at specific turning points.

Example of Therapy vs. Coaching

Let’s say you’ve been losing motivation at work lately, and you need help figuring out how to be more inspired in your everyday work.

If you suspect that this might be tied to a larger issue connected to your mental health, a therapist might be a better option. For example, high-functioning depression might go unnoticed behind a facade of performing your daily routine tasks. At the same time, you may feel that the activities that used to give you joy don’t bring you the same feeling anymore. You might always feel chronically tired and lethargic, have prolonged sleep issues, and avoid social activities.

On the other hand, if you’re feeling good about other areas of your life, but you’re simply bored with the work you’ve been doing, you may benefit more from coaching. A career coach can help you gain clarity of not just your current job situation but your long-term career path as well, where you can find personal fulfillment.

What Is Coaching vs. Counseling?

Counseling is very similar to therapy; licensed psychologists or therapists perform both. However, counseling is a more short-term process with a particular problem or situation to deal with. It can take a few weeks to a few months, and it usually focuses on a predefined issue, such as addiction or the grief of a loved one.

So, the key difference between counseling and coaching is that counseling helps with mental health issues and healing trauma, while life coaching is more likely to focus on building self-awareness and moving toward personal goals.

What Is Consulting vs. Coaching?

Another profession commonly mistaken for coaching is consulting. Consulting is most commonly used in business or career situations, so it’s more likely to overlap with the work of career and business coaching.

The most important difference between coaching and consulting is that a consultant gives their clients the answers they need, while a coach helps them find answers on their own.

A consultant has to have expertise in the area where they give out advice, but a coach doesn’t necessarily need to be well-versed in their client’s field.

Consultants give instructions; coaches give guidance. If a professional or a team needs out-of-the-box thinking and new perspectives, they will turn to a coach. They will work with a consultant if they need concrete solutions from someone who’s seen the same problems before.

Example of Coaching vs Consulting

Let’s say that you’re leading a team of professionals, and you’re feeling stuck with a few problems stubbornly hindering your performance as a leader.

A consultant specializing in your area can give you a roadmap of what typically works in these situations. They may have experience advising many leaders within your field, and you can benefit from the collective knowledge and industry-specific frameworks they can offer.

On the other hand, a leadership coach can help you develop the fundamental skills required to excel in your role and advance in your personal and professional development. Even if they haven’t worked in your industry, they can help you grow and improve at communication, problem-solving, and decision-making.

Coaching, Therapy, and Consulting Are Different

So now you know the answer to the burning question: “What is a life coach?” You can now decide whether you want to find a coach, a therapist, or a consultant to work with.

To recap:

  • A life coaching session can help you with your personal or professional goals, the obstacles in their way, and how to overcome them.
  • A licensed therapist can help you manage mental health issues and heal from past trauma.
  • A consultant can help you with a specific problem and give instructions on fixing it, usually within a business.

If you’re thinking about going into the coaching industry yourself, you may first want to do some research on the type of coach you want to become. Here’s an easy guide for you on how to find your coaching niche. Good luck!

what is a life coach

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in November 2021 and has since been updated for accuracy.

By Annamaria Nagy
Annamaria Nagy is a Brand Identity Coach and Copywriter. She's been writing for over 10 years about topics like personal development, coaching, and business. She was previously the Head of SEO at the leading transformational education company, Mindvalley.
November 2, 2023

Are You Undercharging?

Find Out In This Free Report

Ever wondered exactly what other coaches are offering, and ​for how much? Find out if you’re charging too much or too ​little by benchmarking your own rates with this free report.

Subscribe to our updates for instant access: