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Coaching skills training: coaching & counselling

Coaching Skills Training: Coaching & Counselling

A wise man once said that apart from the spelling there is no difference between counselling and coaching. There’s a shade of truth in this but for the sake of the clarity I’m trying to achieve in this piece I am going to illustrate the differences such as they are. In fairness, it’s relatively easy for me to do this as I am concentrating on coaching that takes place at work; usually delivered by a line manager. We’ll see later on when we come to look at the different types and branches of coaching activity that the lines of distinction do become far more blurred.

As with mentoring, the skills of the coach and the counsellor are the same. They each listen attentively, ask probing questions and offer non-judgemental observations in the spirit of helping their ‘clients’ find their own answers. I don’t think either a coach or a counsellor would go down the “You should…”, “You must…” route. The difference does not lie in the skill set; it has much more to do with the content of the conversation and the desired result.

Counsellors are concerned with identifying root causes. They will guide us on a journey through our history to identify critical incidents and problems that have left a mark and cause us problems still. With such issues identified, the work of the counsellor develops into one of exploring ways of dealing with those problems and making changes. We can easily see that relationship counsellors, substance abuse counsellors, bereavement counsellors, etc. focus on dealing with what’s happened.

Coaches are concerned with moving forward. Coaches help the people whom they coach to identify a desired set of circumstances, to examine how that contrasts with current circumstances and then to plan out a series of steps to get from one point to the other. The coach starts from the here and now and, although aware that situations in the past can cause problems today, is more focused on creating mobility and momentum and on getting people started. Coaches focus on dealing with what must happen next.

Picture the scene: you’re three-nil down at half time. The team counsellor would examine the mistakes of the first half, but the team coach would set out the tactics for the second. Both are useful, and as ever are often combined. As always, the needs of the people we’re helping must override any semantic debate around the differences.

However, getting the positioning right is crucial. I’ve seen many a coaching programme get off to a shaky start because staff perceived that they were going to be counselled and were obviously uneasy about how well their managers were qualified to offer this kind of help and whether it was appropriate to talk about potentially emotive personal issues in a work context. Of course there may be a time for counselling at work, and what starts out as a straightforward coaching session may move in that direction. With this in mind it is worth checking out your organization’s welfare and access to counselling policy if you have the slightest suspicion that a coaching approach may uncover a deep seated issue and thus need a professional intervention.

The statements below are an attempt to put these comparisons in simple terms

Managing “Do this.”

Instructing “Here’s how to do this.”

Training “Have a go at doing this.”

Mentoring “My advice would be to….”

Counselling “What feelings does this invoke?”

Coaching “How do you think you could…?”

I wonder if in the end these differences are purely academic and of more interest to people like me who muse on these things, than to people like you who have the harder task of getting people to be the best they can at work.

Having said that, an appreciation of the similarities and differences is useful when it comes to positioning coaching in your team and in your organization. You may well find that if your team is unclear about what coaching involves and have confused it with other things, then they may not engage as fully as you’d wish.

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