coach-newI posted a little while ago about the difference between a counselor and a coach. I talked about how different things work for different people and promised that we would look more in-depth at each method to see which one might be the best for you.

Today, we’re talking to a counselor.

My friend Steven Luff is a long-time counselor that I trust; I trust him so much, in fact, that I co-wrote a book with him. Steven knows what’s up and he knows what I care about, so I asked him a few questions about this topic. Here’s what he said:

Me: If one of your clients is obviously dealing with things beyond what they want to talk about, do you as a counselor dig or pry into those areas or do you only talk about what they want to talk about?

Steven: You talk about what they want to talk about, but you make observations about a number of indicators that may demonstrate there may be something else going on. These indicators include observable facts like loss of a job, divorce, or a DUI. They also include observations within the therapy room such as non-verbal communication. Is the client sweating? Does they look away when discussing a certain topic? Is there observable emotion? In asking about these things, and giving the client space to address them, unconscious conflicts often manifest. This is the goal of therapy.

Me: As a counselor, what is the balance between listening to your client and sharing your opinions or advice?

Steven: Listening is key. And I would rarely if ever suggest advice. The goal is to empower the client to make his or her own decisions about his or her own life. That said, sometimes sharing an opinion or offering advice may be an important tool in empowering a client. For instance, if a client is afraid to advocate for his child with a learning disability, it may be prudent to encourage him to take certain measures that they may not be aware of to help the child.

Me: Is your goal with a client for them to eventually stop seeing you?

Steven: An unspoken goal of sorts, yes. I have joked that my job is to work myself out of a job. And it’s tough to part with a client who has overcome certain struggles and to watch them “fly off,” but it’s a good sign [when] they feel empowered enough to move on.

Me: Do you ever worry that if you push your client too hard, they will stop seeing you altogether? And do you have advice as a counselor that you should offer your client?

Steven: As you can imagine, there are different populations of clients. Some clients may be seeing a therapist just as support through a difficult time. Other clients may be seeing (or FORCED to see) a therapist because of addiction. I work primarily with addiction, which means I need to be one part therapist and one part treatment. The therapist side is sort of like God’s grace seen through Christ — to support and love unconditionally and understand. The treatment side is sort of like God’s judgment — yes, there are certain things that are proven to WORK in recovery, and if the client isn’t doing those things then I may need for to challenge them and hold them accountable.

And yes, there is a concern that a client may be challenged too soon and have the timing be wrong and have them stop treatment. There is a tricky balance. Also, if I am doing my job right, I am not OVERTLY pushing a client; I am instead asking questions that help a client see his or her own process of recovery and the adaptive or maladaptive choices they make. Also, also…often with addiction, it’s pretty clear when a client’s decisions aren’t working for him or her — the wife left, the car got crashed, the job was lost, etc.

Me: As a counselor do you know when you client is manipulating you and is it in your best interest to point that out or just go along with it?

Steven: If we are discussing addiction therapy then it is key to pay attention to when a client is manipulating you. I may not always know when they are, but it can become pretty apparent. And if you are a good therapist, you are aware that it’s not YOU who is being manipulated but the client manipulating themselves THROUGH you. It’s the client’s life, after all, not mine. If he or she wants to spend their time screwing around or lying to themselves then that’s their choice. That said, I would definitely explore the manipulation, be curious about it, and point out certain instances where I felt manipulation was occurring. In fact, I did it today with a young meth addict who is basically telling me what he thinks I want to hear so that he can coast through rehab and get back out onto the streets.

Me: What are qualities of a good counselor opposed to a bad counselor?

Steven: That’s a lot to cover in one short interview. In fact, it’s a lot to cover in a lifetime! It really comes down to what a client is looking for. Therapists are not all alike, just as all clients are not all alike. A therapist may be good with kids but rotten with addicts. In general, a good therapist a) organizes around the client; b) is curious and listens; c) is empathetic; and d) is very attuned to the ways in which the therapist is transferring his or her own personal issues (issues from their own past) onto the client.

Me: In your opinion, what is the difference between a counselor and a coach?

Steven: There are many different kinds of “counselors,” like a licensed therapist, psychologist, psychiatrist, and pastor.

If you are talking about a licensed therapist, then the difference between a licensed therapist and a coach is one of LICENSURE. I think there may be a license of sorts for a coach but I don’t know. A licensed therapist, for instance, is beholden to the laws of a given state in which the license is given. A licensed therapist means that you are getting someone who is ACCOUNTABLE to a certain level of care which includes confidentiality or reporting measures. And, in general, it isn’t a therapist’s job to “coach.” As a psychodynamic psychotherapist, my main goal is to help a client become aware of unconscious processes that may be inhibiting them from living a more fulfilled life. What they do with that consciousness is something to explore not advise. A coach, I believe, would give advice.

All of that said, in addiction recovery, a coach could be very valuable. A recovery coach may not give a crap about WHY their client is doing something; he or she may only care about DOING IT.


So that’s what a counselor has to say. What do you think? If you’re already going to a counselor or planning on it, make sure you’re being honest with yourself and with them, and that you aren’t trying to use them to fool yourself into thinking you’re making progress when you aren’t.

Don’t just keep going to counseling to go or so that you feel good about going. You should be improving somehow, and if that’s not happening with counseling, it may be time to turn to a coach instead.

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