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Is coaching different from counselling?

The merits of effective coaching as part of a leader’s key skill set is undeniable. The ability to guide team members to achieve a higher-level whether that’s in their performance, productivity, knowledge or expertise takes deep understanding and lots of practice. But is the coach also expected to be a counsellor? Should a line be drawn between what constitutes coaching and counselling and if so, how can you tell if you’ve crossed it?

This isn’t a new debate, with some therapists claiming there is no difference between coaching and counselling, it’s just another label to describe the same activity. On the other hand, given the more involved nature of counselling, coaches may be hesitant to claim that they are performing the same practice. After all, counselling as a profession is more formally and heavily regulated.

To be effective in either, knowing what sets each apart is vital. Let’s unpack the similarities, differences and the importance of understanding what each practice entails.


Key similarities

Both practices are motivated from a place of care and concern. The goal is the same – improvement or development in some area of the coachee’s life.

Each practice also uses similar approaches and skills. In both forms the following activities feature heavily:

  • Personal communication (whether face-to-face or via phone)
  • Listening
  • Questioning
  • Creating a non-judgemental relationship
  • Uncovering deeper self-awareness

When it comes to workplace coaching the lines may not be as blurred. A coach may simply decide that they are only involved in matters within the context of the workplace. However,  the challenge for coaches is that no one is really capable of separating their ‘work-self’ from their ‘personal-self’.


Identified differences

Some of the common differentiators between coaching and counselling have been enumerated in the past. These include coaching’s concern with making future opportunities possible while counselling is limited to developing awareness of how past experiences impact current and future decisions.

Another key difference identified is that often, people who seek counselling do so with the aim of remedying an illness, dysfunction or pathological challenge whereas coachees are not necessarily characterised by these attributes.

There is also the distinction between coaching conversations being more structured versus the free-flowing and undefined counselling style.


When knowing the difference matters

When healing is required. In one study, the process of coaching helped participants identify the need for additional help in the form of counselling. If a coach identifies that there is a need to remedy or heal emotional challenges, it is worth considering whether counselling is required.

When a crossover is necessary. As part of effective coaching, it may be necessary for the coach to visit the coachees’ past experiences. Normally this is mainly for the purposes of helping the coachee to move forward with agreed goals. If unresolved past experiences hold a person back from progressing, the coach may need to crossover temporarily into the counsellor space – but only briefly.

When it is healthy to hold the coachee accountable. When a counsellor is required, it is often because the client is not in a state to reach goals and overcome hurdles on their own. This is when getting the difference right between coaching and counselling matters the most. In a coaching arrangement, the coachee is usually responsible for achieving the desired outcome, the coach is simply there to guide – not to provide the answers. There will inevitably be situations where a clinically-trained counsellor must take-over.

Reference: Semantics or substance?  Preliminary evidence in the debate between life coaching and counselling


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