Uncovering Differences between Coaching and Consulting

One of the main striking differences that sets apart coaching from consulting is their use of language. Whilst the former takes a non-directive approach, the latter has a quite directive slant on their utilisation of the language. It does not mean one style is better than the other, as Starr (Starr, 2008, p. 24) explains “it is important to acknowledge that a directive style has its uses and can be what is needed”. When it comes to consulting, a consultant is typically hired when there is a need for specialised skills to solve a problem where the current staff lacks the skills, knowledge and experience to accomplish the task.

Coaching can complement consulting, for example, it is often the case a company hires one or more external experts, they solve the issue and go away, only for a short while later the same issue arise back again. In case the consultants had applied coaching skills, they could effectively inflect change on the organisation to learn and sustain the new abilities used to fix the problem. Kimsey-House, et al (2011) supports coaching as a good pillar to ensure that the newly applied changes stay deep inside within the organisation. By contrast, coaching with its non-directive language approach, would not be the best technique to use when transferring basic skills (Starr, 2008). For example, explaining how a TV remote works to someone, if done with a non-directive language, and exploring the thoughts and feelings about the process as coaching does, it might not be as effective as simply explaining what each button does. Furthermore, Starr (2008) supplements that when someone has close to zero knowledge on a desired skill, a directive language can work better.

Another salient difference between coaching and consulting, as illustrated in Figure 1, is how in coaching, the coach’s focus is on asking questions, and the client is the one with the authority to come up with answers. On the other hand, in consulting, the consultant is the expert, providing the solutions. Bear in mind, Figure 1 is for illustration purposes only. By focusing on the extremes of coaching and consulting, it makes it easier to differentiate coaching from other fields (Fairley & Stout, 2003). Furthermore, as aforementioned, quite often there will be an overlap. For example, a coach switching from non-directive to directive language whenever it is deemed the right approach to apply.

Figure 1 Coaching and consulting comparison[1]

When it comes to questioning, consulting tends to rely more on fact-seeking questions such as “How many hours a week this task takes?” and “Show me why this step is wrong on the workflow?” as they need to quickly get acquainted with the issue they were hired to work on. Similarly, coaching also makes use of fact-seeking questions, but seeks more than a factual answer as the recipient of the answer, the coachee, already knows it. In order to help our coachees come up with their own answers, it is important to make the coachee’s answer come up from the coach’s question (Starr, 2008). Powerful questions can achieve such outcome. These questions have several attributes in common: they refocus from problem to solution, they are part of the coachee’s agenda, they demand honesty, and they can make a problem feel like an opportunity to name a few (Rogers, 2008) (Starr, 2008). Not to mention that with powerful questions, they instil deeper responses, bringing feelings and thoughts to the conversation. In contrast, in consulting, there aren’t reasons to dig deeper in emotions as they would possibly come out in the way of understanding the issue, distracting the consultant from what he is been assigned to execute.

Whereas consulting explicitly requires existing domain expertise and problem solving capabilities, coaching does not require any. Although, as aforesaid, it may enhance the questioning, a coach does not need to comprehend the whole situation to work effectively. In addition, the more we know about a subject, the more likely we will try to give advice or become attached to the coachee’s outcome (Rogers, 2008).

Moreover, Starr (2008, p. 336) states with clarity and brevity, the contrasting polarity between coaching and consulting, placing the coachee as an expert, highly capable, and empowered person:

Coaching is based on the principle that an individual is ultimately responsible for their lives and the results they’re getting. If we acknowledge that we are responsible for something, it follows that we have power and influence over it…What a coach will not do is instruct you to go and do something specific, or go and do it for you. If they did, the coach would be taking responsibility — and so power — away from you.

In contrast, in consulting, the approach traditionally takes the ownership away from the client, and the client’s problem becomes the consultant’s responsibility. Responsibility usually bound by contracts with severe penalties in case of delays or having the work deemed incomplete. Coachees or the organisations hiring coaches also have a concern on how to measure coaching. A coach can request immediate feedback after a session although this information will be useful only for the coach, not directly useful for the coachee or the organisation. For example, the coachee might have hated the session but made remarkable changes in what they do. On the other hand, the client might have appreciated the coaching but didn’t change anything in their behaviour (Rogers, 2008).

The way coaching works makes it difficult to measure as the person effectively changing is the coachee, not the coach. The fact that coaching is still mostly an unregulated industry, without a way to properly assess coaches, does not help. However, there are a few practices coaches can use to report their effectiveness to whoever is hiring them: ensuring goal-setting process gets enough time in every session, making coach goals measurable, link business results with the relationship and skill issues, always ask for feedback, and look for ways to integrate feedback loops from the start (Rogers, 2008, p. 227).

Share your experience!
What are your thoughts on measuring Coaching performance for an organisation?
Any other contrasting points between Coaching and Consulting?
Do you believe Coaching should be a regulated profession?