Coaching vs Consulting vs Counselling

Contemplating these three professions led me to plot the experience of them in the above five dimensions. Coaching sits between the two.

In the first dimension, counselling is more focused on examining the client’s internal psychological world, while consulting is more focused on external behaviours and factors. A counsellor is more likely to explore deep meaning for the sake of awareness. A coach may explore the inner psyche, but primarily as a means to promote actions. A consultant is more likely to look at group dynamics and user behaviours, rather than into the inner worlds of individuals.

In the second dimension, both counselling and coaching are more focused on changing the self, while consulting is more focused on changing external behaviours and conditions. Counselling may promote changes in self-concept and acceptance with no overt external changes. Coaches are more likely to promote actionable/behavioural changes. Consultants look at changing external and systemic behaviours.

In the third dimension, counselling is focused on enabling the client’s agency, coaching can take away some of this agency as the client is reliant on the coach to hold them to account, and consulting is much more about advising the client on what to do, or doing it for them. In other words, the client can be more reliant on the coach and the consultant to achieve results. Counsellors generally want clients to be self-efficacious and self-reliant. Many coaches become the party clients rely on to hold them accountable for their progress. Consultants do things for clients. Coaches and consultants represent external loci of control for the client.

In the fourth dimension, counselling is more likely to acknowledge the client as the expert of their lives. Couches and consultants can take on more of the “I am the expert” role. The client is more likely to see a coach and a consultant as experts they have engaged to help them. Coaches can provide goals, action plans, and specific techniques. Consultants are far more ready to offer advice or take over (usually specialist) tasks.

In the fifth dimension, the client is more likely to experience an equal relationship in counselling, and more likely to experience a less equal “the expert will advise you” relationship in consulting. Coaching sits between the two. Many counsellors stress what I call the “we can call out each other’s BS” approach, and modelling how a person at the same level as the client can take on healthier behaviours. The consultant is often engaged as a specialist expert. The client can be more likely to place them on a pedestal and place more weight on their words.

Of course, the above is just my perception and opinion based on my experiences. Not all counsellors, coaches, and consultants are like this.

There is certainly an opportunity here to do a systematic analysis of client experiences of these professions, and of practitioners’ perceptions of what they do.