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Do You Know the Difference Between Motivational Speaking and Therapy?

the difference between motivational speaking and therapyWhat are your thoughts about motivational speakers without advanced education offering from the stage what sounds like therapeutic advice?

In a social media thread, someone raised a concern about a well known speaker (who I saw many years ago and was blown away by the high powered energy he exuded) who seemed to be dispensing such. He asked if this dynamo had clinical training. According to his bio he doesn’t.

This was my response: “His bio says  he is a High School grad. He is a motivational speaker who is dynamic and influential. Even as a professional myself (MSW, LSW with over 30 years clinical experience), when I speak to groups, I add the caveat that I am not doing therapy with them, but rather, providing education. If someone raises issues that are beyond what can (or should) be addressed in a public setting, I ask that we speak privately afterward and offer suggestions/referrals. It is a huge responsibility to do what we do. I don’t take it lightly.”

Within moments after posting this on Facebook, I was flooded with responses from those who defended this particular speaker’s experience and credentials and the benefits they have noted by reading his books and hearing him share his knowledge. There were others who steadfastly claimed that one need not have what I call ‘alphabet soup letters after their name,’ to speak with authority about personal growth topics or induce positive change in people.  Still more differentiated between therapeutic intervention and inspiration. The latter was the point I was endeavoring to make.

I’m all for motivation from the stage or off of it. I agree that people can inspire in both simple and grand ways. I have heard and as a career journalist, have interviewed many with a story to tell that makes a difference in people’s lives. It crosses the line when a speaker sounds like they are taking on a clinical role and speaking with authority about topics with which they don’t have direct professional experience.  And yes, I have also (sadly) witnessed clinically trained professionals offer less than stellar service. Many who take to the spotlight or welcome clients into a clinical practice are facing their own challenges that get subsumed into their professional endeavors as a way of avoiding dealing with them. 

I am in no way maligning anyone who is self taught and a student of life,  who steps on stage as long as they are clear that they are not dispensing medical/therapeutic advice. An adjunct question: where does personal responsibility for following the guidance of teachers end and the teacher’s/speaker’s responsibility begin? I am thinking of those who have done severe damage resulting in tragic consequences, by cajoling or otherwise insisting that participants do specific exercises in the guise of stretching comfort zones or surpassing perceived limitations. When I teach, I tell participants that they are to use their own discernment and that the only rules to follow in the room have to do with confidentiality and personal safety. They are free to refrain from any exercise I have planned.

Keeping in mind that many who seek the guidance of teachers and authors, are sometimes feeling adrift and uncertain about the direction their lives are going, thus the line between self-help and relying on outer authority can be miniscule. Some surrender their free will to the process or facilitator. It is at that point that a skillful teacher who is in integrity can remind the person to take their power back, or a lesser intended one can use his or her charisma to manipulate the student.

In addition, as a therapist and speaker, I am always assessing my own intention for what I do. I take my inventory daily. I can’t heal what I don’t feel. Personal responsibility for the energy  professionals bring to the sessions; whether in a one to one intervention or in a group setting is essential to maintain both the integrity of the treatment and the safety of the client.

The feedback offered (some from other speakers, therapists and trained coaches, whose reputations are stellar) included:

“There are ethics rules for speakers regarding this. “What you are on the platform is what you are off the platform.” It is actually a very serious issue with professional speakers.”

“I think it’s a useful caveat to keep in mind that even a trained therapist or clinician, when speaking to a general audience, is not acting as *your* therapist or clinician and that you should seek personalized medical or therapeutic advice.”

(This person you reference…writer’s edit, so as not to directly identify the motivational speaker) “is the world’s leading authority on human psychology. He’s spent decades reading thousands of books and getting trained in various areas, not to mention 3 decades of hands on experience. Motivational speaker is not at all what he is, that’s how society has referenced him. His work works or people wouldn’t continue to come and enroll others. He’s put in more time than most who have gotten their 4 year degree taking lots of other courses that have nothing to do with psychology. Yes, I will listen to him all day long and have for 20 years. However I have also hired a few psychologists and life coaches during that time as well. It’s truly hard for anyone to analyze if they have never been a part of his work.”

“Sometimes people get caught up in the charisma and energy of a person and don’t look or discern deeper. Education doesn’t matter in these instances. They could be professionally trained or not. Some “leaders” are misusing energy for something less than a higher purpose.”

“From my vantage point, a book is an equivalent of a PhD, if that matters. There are a number of authors; I would imagine we can think of a few; who are well received speaking because of what they speak about is powerful and the content is valuable, not because a school somewhere says it is. With that as my standing point, I view the treatment is left to the receiver, no matter the education. Deliver the same message to 100 people I would imagine some would consider it treatment, some education, some a waste of time.”

“In this “citizen journalism” society and the mixed blessings of our wild west worldwide web mentality , it is incumbent upon the consumer to vet his/her where and from whom they derive their own information. I want a doctor with a medical degree performing surgery but I have room for non-traditional expertise in other matters. It’s up to us to not believe everything we read on the internet, or take from supposed “experts.” Ethics and integrity are values we must covet. I am grateful for what I was taught about the value of education. (however, it’s quite easy to invent “certifications” these days) we must be discerning!”

“Motivational speaking is not a therapeutic or (as Carl Rogers would have put it) a helping relationship. Any more than a good Sunday sermon is. In fact, there is no relationship; any notion of same is illusory and largely in the mind of the listener. Speaking of listening, actual therapy is in large measure 180 degrees opposite to motivational speaking. In therapy, it is the client who does most of the talking, and the therapist who primarily listens. In motivational speaking, the speaker has the words (sometimes lots of them), and the audience members’ only dialog is internal to themselves. And they are an audience. There is no audience in actual therapy.”

“Credentials are proved on the playing field in the results people experience from being with the speaker/teacher. Transforming lives requires no degrees or formal education but expertise in guiding a person to their own answers. As for one’s own stuff, they must to be in a daily work and definitely kept out of the arrangement. This is imperative unless there are great experiences to share that will bring common ground and give power as an example of a point made! Even then it can be shared as a general experience not personal.”

“I have an issue along these lines – I have had multiple clients that are not having issues with some guy on a stage, but the local practitioners, who in private sessions or small gatherings, shares/sermons are somehow “advising” , and these clients may get confused, even if they knew the supposed credential. And then the integrity of the “woe is me, whoa is me”, speaker/practitioner, who uses their audience or client base as a way to draw attention to their personal unresolved issues and the response/feedback/interaction is “their” therapy and satisfies their attention seeking needs… yet , they present it as a teaching or fodder for a book, webinar, etc. In my training on several levels, we were taught, and I take seriously, always check in on Self. Always ask yourself to do self reflection, so the integrity of motivation is in place before displaying one’s self in front of others. This has been a huge area of discussion in the mental health field, given studies done of therapists who have admitted they varied their interventions with clients based on their cycle of self help needed. The one psychologist was funny when he explained he went through a “have every client hug a teddy bear during sessions” phase, when HE was personally going through an inner child hug a bear phase. *Ultimately, the mutual responsibility of supposed authority and the intended recipient is to discern, measure, discover and determine what is of integrity and truly useful for the well being of all.”

The long and short of it is this:

  • Be an informed consumer.
  • Trust your instincts.
  • If in the course of attending a presentation or workshop, emotional issues arise and additional guidance is called for, seek the services of a trained clinician.

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Do You Know the Difference Between Motivational Speaking and Therapy?

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW

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APA Reference
Weinstein, E. (2016). Do You Know the Difference Between Motivational Speaking and Therapy?. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 23, 2019, from


Last updated: 19 Jul 2016
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