One word or four?

On the programs I was running in Shanghai last week I was asked by several participants at different points and in different contexts to explain the differences between coaching, counseling, mentoring, and consulting.

On the flight back to the US I was thinking about this and wondering what the best way to answer was. In the course of this musing I wondered if there was a cultural distinction. Did the US/UK language have four different variations of what is essentially the same thing – advising people about a course of action, either by helping the individual come to his own approach or by telling him/her what to do. And does Mandarin only have one word for these multiple advising approaches?

This took me into the world of ethnoliguistics and I read an interesting piece on the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis on the University of Minnesota's Cultural Anthropology website. No, I had never heard of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis either, but I had read Smilla's Sense of Snow, by Peter Hoeg in which I think I first read about the way Greenlanders have many names for the different types of snow. (Initially I looked at another book with snow that I'd read, Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson, but realized that probably didn't have the ethnolinguistic snippet. They're both books I enjoyed though).

Just as a by the way on this mini-research project I did come across another website that told me that "Everybody has heard that the Eskimos have over forty different words for snow; quite a few people also know that this is an urban legend. What you probably did not know, however, is that Finnish does have over 40 words for snow — at least if we stretch the definition a bit to include all forms of frozen precipitation." Then neatly listed are the forty words. Since I don't know Finnish I don't know if the writer is accurate but I won't go into that except to say that it reminded me of an article I read (also on the plane from Shanghai to DC) in Atlantic on whether to believe what you read. The article was called Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science, by David Freedman.

Finished the musing, I tackled the distinctions using a home-grown variation of Andrew Campbell's tests. (Nine tests of organization design, in Goold, Michael and Andrew Campbell " Do You Have a Well-Designed Organisation?", Harvard Business Review, pp 117-124, March 2002, and four tests of decision making instincts )

So my tests ran:

Is it a formal form of advising i.e. with set dates, objectives/goals, timescale, and payment involved?

Is it a formal form of advising for teams/groups or is it solely 1:1?

Is it a formal form of advising related to a specific performance issue or problem or generalized 'improvement'?

Is it an informal advising with no specific dates, goals/objectives but an 'as needed' discussion?

As I was running through these I thought I could try a flow chart but didn't have enough paper on the flight to experiment and start again if the flow got blocked somewhere along the line.

In any event it seemed that it could work without a flow chart as follows:

Coaching: 1:1 or team, formal with or without payment, to generally improve performance but may be specific on certain goals or outcomes to be achieved. Examples include – coaching a football team to improve overall performance but maybe with specific attention being paid to passing, coaching a senior executive to improve scenario planning and strategic thinking but may be focused on resolving a strategic issue or problem – current or potential. (But what's the difference between coaching and training?). Coaches are often certified: see the International Coaching Federation for more on this

Counselling: Most frequently 1:1 with an emotional or therapeutic element. Generally best left to skilled practioners. May well be formal with payment and goals, but may also be generally developmental. See the American Psychological Association or the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy

Consulting: Advising in an expert or collaborative (process) consultant role on an organizational issue or opportunity that will bring organization improvement. Focused more on whole organization performance (or part of it), than on individuals, teams or groups. Consultants may be certified by one of the members of the International Council of Management Consulting Institutes as a Certified Management Consultant.

Mentoring: Usually informal (though many companies have mentoring programs). I have not come across any certifications specifically in mentoring, and there seems to be an idea that anyone can be a mentor if they have the 'right' attitudes. A book I read years ago Everyone Needs a Mentor by David Clutterbuck was excellent on the topic. Looking for it just now I see it was first published in 1991 and seems to have been superseded by Techniques for Coaching and Mentoring by David Clutterbuck and David Megginson. That's now on my wish list.

The fact that coaching and mentoring are now mentioned in the same book title illustrates the fact that there are overlaps among all four advising roles: they all require curiosity and an open mind, they all need practitioners skilled in open questions and non-directive approaches, they all require attentive listening skills, and a good sense of self. Beyond that they segment by focus – individual(s) or organization, formal or informal, therapeutic or developmental, specific goals or open ended. Categorizing the type of thing issue is may ultimately be less important than choosing the person with the right skills to work with the issue(s).