Coaching v Therapy

Photo by  Kari Shea

Photo by Kari Shea


Executive coaching is very solution-focused. Some engagements can be as short as 1-3 sessions. Other clients need longer periods, from six months to a year, strategies and tools to interweave results and relationships at the individual, team, and organization level. It sounds like a simple concept, but it is not easy to pull off. A coach’s background varies, accounting for a wide spectrum of talent. A coach can hold a behavioral, social science, or psychology master’s or doctoral degree.  And, there are also coaches practicing with little professional background. Both types of coaches submit to the requirements of a coaching program. Both types of coaches can get certified through an accrediting body by taking a 3-hour open book test. Because the certification body accepts all comers, some choose not to become certified, using their academic degrees and experience as credentials. There are no state licenses for coaching.

Psychotherapy is a long-term process. A patient works with a therapist to diagnose and resolve problematic beliefs, behaviors, relationship issues, feelings and sometimes physical responses generally resulting from past trauma. The therapist holds a clinical master’s or doctoral degree and submits to state licensing requirements. In general, states license two specific types of roles—mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists. 

In choosing a practitioner with coaching or therapy, the client needs to decide what level of rigor they are looking to engage with and distinguish for themselves the difference between wise counsel versus friendly advice.

Dipping v Dwelling

Both therapy and coaching are collaborative processes based on the relationship between an individual and a practitioner. Both are grounded in dialogue, provide a supportive environment allowing clients to talk openly with someone who’s objective, neutral and nonjudgmental. Both practitioners use a client’s past as a tool for understanding present behaviors. It is here a therapist will dwell to heal and a coach will dip to frame understanding of how the past influences the present. Coaching can be therapeutic, but it is not therapy. Together with the client, both practitioners will work to identify and change the thought and behavior patterns that are keeping clients from feeling and performing their best.

While there is a shared understanding and rigor between trained therapists and coaches educated on behavioral theory, the fundamentals of coaching are what distinguish it from therapy. Therapy dwells in the past and attempts to heal an individual’s emotional pain by reversing the suppression of memories and emotions. Coaching dips into the past and attempts to help an individual frame painful experiences to increase awareness of past patterns and understanding of their impact in present situations. In this way, coaching is not therapy, but it can be therapeutic.


Coaching is focused on helping leaders work through their dilemmas so they can truly learn on the job (in front of others, under pressure) and directly translate that knowledge into results for their teams and ultimately the organization.


Coaches use diagnostics to asses individual and organizational effectiveness and performance. They do not diagnose mental illness. A coach with a background in behavioral science, psychology, or related field has an understanding of the fundamentals of human behavior from a theoretical perspective (how family systems work, human development, adult learning, our lopsided natures, and the impact of denial—to list a few things). Therapists apply a similar lens and use it to determine illnesses and pathologies so their patients can be clinically treated.

 The coach’s focus is typically present-forward compared to the retrospective lens of the therapist. The coach is not focused on healing the past, but rather taking note of how it influences the present and what strategies can help the client increase their effectiveness. Coaching never requires medication, micro-dosing, coordination or services, or adjunct therapies though the client might opt for any those experiences separately with a therapist.


This blog post is part of a series related to The Little Book of Coaching pending publication.

Mental Models: Story



How might this apply to great teams and cultures?We tell a lot of stories in organizations:

How might this apply to your business?Are you creating a story that includes your stakeholders? Stories can be explicit—simple, episodic narratives. Or a story can be implied, using words that suggest conflict, a hero or other narrative elements. The most powerful stories are well-crafted visions that give significance to mundane tasks.


What story did you tell yourself about the last person you just met or came into contact with?

See Also

Commitment & Consistency, Autonomy, Authority, Affect Heuristic, Conceptual Metaphor, Priming, Framing, Periodic Events, Task Significance


In the whirl of our day-to-day interactions, it’s all too easy to forget the nuances that distinguish great teams, great cultures, and great products/services.

Mental Model Flash Cards bring together insights from psychology into an easy reference and brainstorming tool. Each card describes one insight into human behavior and suggests ways to apply this to your teams as well as the design of your products and services.

Mental Models: An Overview

increasing the quality of our thinking

mental model is an explanation of someone’s thought process about how something works in the real world. It is a representation of the surrounding world, the relationships between its various parts and a person’s intuitive perception about his or her own acts and their consequences.

If used responsibly, mental models can inform marketing, product design, and influence technology. If left unchecked, mental models can turn into foibles or minor weaknesses or eccentricities in our character.

Artificial intelligence and predictive data will continue to advance, enabling exponential growth. In AI and machine learning programs, discrimination is caused by data. This “algorithmic bias” occurs when AI and computing systems act not in objective fairness, but according to the prejudices that exist with the people who formulated, cleaned and structured their data. This is not inherently harmful – human bias can be as simple as preferring red to blue – but warning signs have started to appear.

A research team at the University of California Berkeley distinguished pre-existing biases in training data from the technical biases that arise from the tools and algorithms that power these AI systems and from the emergent biases that result from human interactions with them.

Ultimately, the solutions we embrace (whether technically or process-oriented) are only as good as the data it is trained to analyze. How we assess problems includes pre-existing (human) biases. These impact us on an individual and societal level. This kind of bias was found in a risk assessment software known as COMPAS. Courtroom judges used it to forecast which criminals were most likely to offend. When news organization ProPublica compared COMPAS risk assessments for 10,000 people arrested in one county in Florida with data showing which ones went on to re-offend, it discovered that when the algorithm was right, its decision making was fair. But when the algorithm was wrong, people of color were almost twice as likely to be labeled a higher risk, yet they did not re-offend.

Gaining insight to our mental models are how we understand the world. Not only do they shape what we think and how we understand but they shape the connections and opportunities that we see. Mental models help make the complex simple. complexity, why we consider some things more relevant than others, and how we reason.

A mental model is just that…a model. It’s a tool that enables us to make an abstract representation of a complex issue. Models help our brains filter the details of the world so we can focus on the relevant details of an issue.

Photo by  Todd Quackenbush

A path toward better thinking

The quality of our thinking is proportional to the models we are aware of, and our ability to apply them correctly in a situation. The more models you know, the bigger your toolbox. The more models you apply, the more likely you are to see reality with greater clarity and make better decisions. When it comes to improving your ability to make decisions variety (and volume) matters.

Most of us, however, are specialists. Instead of a latticework of mental models, we have a few from our discipline–a few “rules of thumb.” Each specialist sees something different.

When you look at a forest, do you focus on:

  • the ecosystem? You might be a botanist.

  • the impact of climate change? You might be an environmentalist.

  • the state of the tree growth? You might be forestry engineer.

  • the value of the land? You might be a business person.

None of these perspectives are wrong. And, none of them see the forest in its entirety. That is the value of cross-disciplinary thinking. Understanding the basics of the other perspectives leads to a more well-rounded understanding of the forest allowing for better initial decisions about managing it. That’s latticework.

By putting these disciplines together in our head, we can gain greater proximity to the problem at hand by seeing it in a three dimensional way. If consider the problem merely from one angle, we’ve got a blind spot. And blind spots can kill you.

Photo by  Nicolas Picard

A Network of Mental Models for “good humaning”

Building your repertoire of mental models will help you make better decisions. Once you know a few, you will start to make connections between them, helping you create a networked understanding of how you operate as a human being. I’ve collected and summarized the ones I’ve found the most useful. You can use them almost like a deck of cards.

One of the reasons I refer to them as “Foibles” is because these biases are universal to us all. They are what make us human. Succumbing to them clouds our view of the world and contributes to making costly mistakes in our relationships, our businesses, and as a society.

I refer to “good humaning” because between learning and integration lies “the journey”, “the struggle”, “the gap.”  Part of our work is learning and re-learning what it means to be a good human or to do “humaning” well, by making better decisions in our relationships, business, and society at large.

Remember: Developing this level of self-awareness about how you and others operate is a lifelong project. Stick with it, and you’ll find that you will see reality more clearly, make better decisions more consistently, and help those you love and care with greater your increased presence.

Mental Models Explained

  1. The Map is not the Territory metaphorically illustrates the differences between belief and reality. The phrase was coined by Alfred Korzybski. Our perception of the world is being generated by our brain and can be considered as a ‘map’ of reality written in neural patterns. Reality exists outside our mind but we can construct models of this ‘territory’ based on what we glimpse through our senses.

  2. Higher Order Thinking moves from the easier and safer anticipation of the immediate results of our actions, to thinking farther ahead and thinking holistically. The first approach ensures we get the same results as everyone else. Second-order thinking requires us to not only consider our actions and their immediate consequences but consider the long game. Failing to think through long term effects can invite crisis and disaster.

  3. Inversion is a common method used in creative ideation sessions, also known as reverse thinking. Instead of following the ‘normal, logical’ direction of a challenge, you turn it around (or an important element in the challenge) and look for opposite ideas.

  4. Insider/Outsider Thinking

More coming!

Mental Models: The Map is not the Territory



How might this apply to great teams and cultures?

Our perception of the world is being generated by our brain and can be considered as a 'map' of reality written in neural patterns. Reality exists outside our mind but we can construct models of this 'territory' based on what we glimpse through our senses.

How might this apply to great products?

There are times when an old map, one that worked in a particular context, does not apply to a new context.


Even the best maps are imperfect because they are reductions of what they represent. If a map were to represent the territory with perfect fidelity, it would no longer be a reduction and thus would no longer be useful to us. Scribbling on the map does not change the territory: If you change what you believe about an object, that is a change in the pattern of neurons in your brain. The real object will not change because of this edit. A map can also be a snapshot of a point in time, representing something that no longer exists. This is important to keep in mind as we think through problems and make better decisions.


Case Study: J.C. Penny

Every day, leaders make decisions about maximizing current cash flow and profits or reinvesting and building for the long term. But if decisions were as easy as moving money around from budget A to budget B, there would be a lot more successful businesses. A substantial portion of business failures–from the costly to the catastrophic–can be attributed to not paying attention to the right balance between maximizing current performance and building future potential.

Photo:  Andrew Burton/Reuters  Ron Johnson, chief executive of J.C. Penney, says the store renovation plan is a success.

Photo: Andrew Burton/Reuters Ron Johnson, chief executive of J.C. Penney, says the store renovation plan is a success.

Apple’s Ron Johnson made the radar in 2011. Handpicked by Steve Jobs to build the Apple Stores, he is also credited with playing a major role in turning Target from a K-Mart look-alike into the trendy-but-cheap Tar-zhey by the late 1990s and early 2000s.

By 2011, Apple stores the most productive retail per-square-foot basis, leaving Tiffany’s in the dust. The gleaming glass cube on Fifth Avenue became a more popular tourist attraction than the Statue of Liberty.

Asked to apply his success from Apply and Target to J.C.Penny’s, Johnson was hired by Bill Ackman, Steven Roth, and other luminaries to turn around the tired old department store. The chain was attempting to reinvent themselves, leaving behind the core customer in an attempt to gain new ones. This was a much different proposition.

Johnson pitched his idea in with standard Apple suspense and fanfare. JC Penney’s stock price went from $26 in the summer of 2011 to $42 in early 2012 on the strength of the pitch.

The idea failed almost immediately. His new pricing model (eliminating discounting) was a flop. The coupon-hunters rebelled. Much of his new product was deemed too trendy. His new store model was wildly expensive for a middling department store chain – including operating losses purposefully endured, he’d spent several billion dollars trying to affect the physical transformation of the stores. JC Penney customers had no idea what was going on, and by 2013, Johnson was sacked. The stock price sank into the single digits, where it remains two years later.

What went wrong in the quest to build America’s Favorite Store? It turned out that Johnson was using a map of Portland Maine to navigate Portland Oregon. Apple’s products, customers, and history had far too little in common with JC Penney’s. Apple had a rabid, young, affluent fan-base before they built stores; JC Penney’s was not associated with youth or affluence. Apple had shiny products, and needed a shiny store; JC Penney was known for its affordable sweaters. Apple had never relied on discounting in the first place; JC Penney was taking away discounts given prior, triggering massive deprival super-reaction.

“All models are wrong but some are useful.”

— George Box

In other words, the old map was not very useful. Even his success at Target, which seems like a closer analog, was misleading in the context of JC Penney. Target had made small, incremental changes over many years, to which Johnson had made a meaningful contribution. JC Penney was attempting to reinvent the concept of the department store in a year or two, leaving behind the core customer in an attempt to gain new ones. This was a much different proposition.

The main issue was not that Johnson was incompetent. He wasn’t. He wouldn’t have gotten the job if he was. He was extremely competent. But it was exactly his competence and past success that got him into trouble. He was like a great swimmer that tried to tackle a grand rapid, and the model he used successfully in the past, the map that had navigated a lot of difficult terrain, was not the map he needed anymore. He had an excellent theory about retailing that applied in some circumstances, but not in others. The terrain had changed, but the old idea stuck.

Relevant Books:

The Map is not the Territory is part of the network of mental models for good humaning.




How might this apply to your business?

How are you presenting choices in your system? What are the available options? An implied story makes the most desirable choice more obvious, especially for new or difficult concepts. For example, framing donations as costing “less than a cup of coffee a day” encourages people to rationalize a monthly pledge.

See also: Conceptual Metaphor, Story, Loss Aversion