Coaching vs. Consulting

Sculpture Made of Pile of Rocks An interesting discussion ensued on Facebook the other day.  As I pondered a blog post that has been brewing in my mind, I asked,

“Coaches: I’m working on a list of the ways coaching is different from consulting. Any ideas / thoughts?”

I was not prepared for 18 responses, some contradicting others, all of which stemmed from the individual experience of the coach, consultant or client who was answering.

“Coaching builds learning environments; consulting claims knowledge.”
“Coaching is about guiding the person, Consulting is about guiding or managing the process.”
“Coaching is from the sidelines. Consulting might be very much in the trenches…actually doing some of the work.”
“No, consultants don’t do the work – that’s a contract laborer.”
“Coaching is telling somewhat to do, helping them do it.  Consulting is working with them to find out what to do and how to do it.”
“Consulting is about the work. Coaching is about the “person doing the work.”
“Coaching creates an environment to create new information, where the client comes up with their own processes and answers. Consulting synthesizes and frames information back to the client, where the client can then choose next courses of action.”

And while this has all certainly got my brain going in many different directions, adding fuel to my own initial impressions about the difference, I am no closer to a definitive answer.

Is consulting different from coaching? If so, what is the difference?  Coaches and consultants and clients – what has been your experience?

19 thoughts on “Coaching vs. Consulting”

  1. Thanks for getting the wheels turning with this one. For me, consulting is about coaching a group to discover their own wise decisions, often informed by analysis and insights I might offer.

    I don’t consider or offer that I do coaching, since I imagine it often to involve work on staff/ HR/ OD issues that are outside my expertise and comfort. But certainly by modeling process and lines of question, and working directly with leaders in processes, I am helping them develop individual knowledge and skills.

  2. I like the response “Consulting is about the work. Coaching is about the “person doing the work.” While the line may be very thin, I have found myself being in the role of consultant as well as coach. Sometimes organizations do not necessarily want a consultant to change the work they are doing, but only want people who are doing the work to be shifted or aligned with the orgs values. I view that work as coaching. You have my wheels turning.

  3. Through this process, I have begun wondering if they are not just the same thing with different names…or if coaching is a kind of consulting…

    In the facebook discussion, Menachem really got me thinking about it. Funny, I assumed when I first moved toward being a consultant, that what I was doing fit the definition. Now, I have many more questions than answers and am eager to see where this leads. This community always has so much wisdom to share, that I am able to work through questions…which of course many times leads to other questions…and so the process continues! 🙂

    Thanks Hildy!

  4. Yes, more questions than answers, clearly. I’ve been asking this question everywhere I can for a week, and find no concrete answers.

    What I do find is lots of assumptions, many of them with various layers of judgment about or against or towards one or the other. (Consultants do real work, coaches don’t. Coaches are about learning, consultants are know-it-alls. Pick your team and dig your heels in…)

    So maybe I’ll ask this differently. What do coaches DO that is different than what consultants do? And vice versa – what do consultants DO that is different from what coaches do?

    And another question: What results do coaches create? What results do consultants create? For whom?


  5. Included below is information we generated for our coaching community at Innolect. Check us out at

    Role Distinctions
    People are often confused by the labels that get attached to various aspects of coaching and consulting. It is important that coaches are clear about “what hat they’re wearing” when working with clients.
    • Consulting – offering advice and guidance
    • Counseling – from the present moment, looking at the past
    • Coaching – from the present moment, looking at the future
    • Mentoring – generally in the same industry or organization, sharing expertise, lessons learned, etc.
    • Supervision – focused on performance improvement

    Coaching is…
    • Self-correcting
    • Developmental
    • Learning
    • About breakthroughs
    • Focused on possibilities
    • Competence

    Think about the various perspectives one can get by looking through a kaleidoscope. Similarly, coaches help their clients see their world differently.
    • Make distinctions
    • Declare possibilities
    • Draw others out
    • Teaching and advising
    • Assessment
    • Re-framing
    • Forwarding action

    Coaching Principles
    1. Be present.
    2. It’s all about the client.
    3. Meet the client where they are. Once you do, you both can go to a new “space,” which is all about possibilities for the client.
    4. Build capability, not co-dependency. Instead of staying in the realm of single loop learning (performance), go for double loop (change) and triple loop learning (transformation).
    5. Don’t take the monkey, i.e. don’t become the problem solver. You’re not there to “fix” anyone or anything; rather, you’re there to help the coachee expand the world of possibilities for how s/he can solve the problem.

    I look forward to the continuing conversation!

  6. I’ve called myself a “Specialist” for my 25+ years of working precisely because I have problems with both of the words, “coach” and “consultant.”

    If I could define them, I think I’d lean in the direction of coaching being more telling a person how to do something and consulting would be working with the person to discover what works for them. In that sense, I’m certainly closer to a consultant.

    Another reason I avoid the usual titles, though, is that I live in D.C. and “consultants” all fall under the unkind moniker of “beltway bandits” 🙂

  7. From my perspective, consulting is about defining and developing a work process and environment that helps the client achieve specific goals. Coaching is working one-to-one or in small groups to help individuals perform more effectively. More often than not, the consultant performs both roles.

  8. In sports, coaches usually get to work with teams or athletes over an extended period of time. They bring a deep knowledge of the field; a vision of success; strategies for achieving success based on the unique characteristics of the athlete or team; and a set of training tools designed to build strength, stamina, knowledge, and attitudes that will enable the athlete or team to do the work necessary to achieve the goals they set together.

    Organizations and individuals sometimes need this same kind of support. It’s what I try to provide. I call myself a consultant. I know some others who do this who call themselves coaches. Some of the people who call themselves coaches or consultants are really con-artists. Doesn’t matter what you call yourself. It’s what you do that matters.

  9. I’m laughing at your line, Nathan, that “Some of the people who call themselves coaches or consultants are really con-artists.” The same could be said for bankers and lawyers and financial managers any other profession that relies on trust.

    Clearly blurry lines are ruling the day here. Makes me feel relieved, as I am no longer sure if what I do is coaching or consulting or if there has ever been a difference.

    I’m sure there are distinctions. I wonder if the answer lies in those who vehemently proclaim they are one vs. the other.

    If you know folks on either side of that fence, please invite them to share why they stand on that side – and what they believe the other side is. I really would love to find some clarity if there is any to be found!

  10. Coaching works with the question of what? One of its primary objectives is the expand an interpretation or perception of something so that the ‘client’ can see different actions to take and then have a new set of outcomes. It is conversational in nature and takes a person where they are as a healthy human and supports them in creating a future they care about and desire – an intentional future. To further clarify, coaching is usually relational in nature. There is always a relationship at stake – with one’s self, with one’s work/performance, with colleagues, etc.

    Consulting works with the question of how? It is concerned with the accomplishing of a task or project or set of objectives (etc.). It can be tactical or strategic in nature but there is almost always a specific goal to reach that is defined by someone else. In coaching, the client creates their own desired outcome. With consulting, there is a problem or system or objective or outcome at stake.

    There is some crossover between the two. There are times coaches will be asked to consult about an idea or to brainstorm or to create a process. These are tasks that fall under the consulting hat. And sometimes, consultants will to ask questions that lead to reflections and shifts in moods, perspectives, and awareness. This falls under the coaching hat.

  11. Here are some excerpts I often use when informing and inviting people to read prior to working or training with them.

    Therapy: Coaching can be distinguished from therapy in a number of ways. First, coaching is a profession that supports personal and professional growth and development based on individual-initiated change in pursuit of specific actionable outcomes. These outcomes are linked to personal or professional success. Coaching is forward moving and future focused. Therapy, on the other hand, deals with healing pain, dysfunction and conflict within an individual or a relationship between two or more individuals. The focus is often on resolving difficulties arising from the past which hamper an individual’s emotional functioning in the present, improving overall psychological functioning, and dealing with present life and work circumstances in more emotionally healthy ways. Therapy outcomes often include improved emotional/feeling states. While positive feelings/emotions may be a natural outcome of coaching, the primary focus is on creating actionable strategies for achieving specific goals in one’s work or personal life. The emphasis in a coaching relationship is on action, accountability and follow through.

    Consulting: Consultants may be retained by individuals or organizations for the purpose of accessing specialized expertise. While consulting approaches vary widely, there is often an assumption that the consultant diagnoses problems and prescribes and sometimes implements solutions. In general, the assumption with coaching is that individuals or teams are capable of generating their own solutions, with the coach supplying supportive, discovery-based approaches and frameworks.

    Mentoring: Mentoring, which can be thought of as guiding from one’s own experience or sharing of experience in a specific area of industry or career development, is sometimes confused with coaching. Although some coaches provide mentoring as part of their coaching, such as in mentor coaching new coaches, coaches are not typically mentors to those they coach.

    Training: Training programs are based on the acquisition of certain learning objectives as set out by the trainer or instructor. Though objectives are clarified in the coaching process, they are set by the individual or team being coached with guidance provided by the coach. Training also assumes a linear learning path which coincides with an established curriculum. Coaching is less linear without a set curriculum plan.

    Athletic Development: Though sports metaphors are often used, professional coaching is different from the traditional sports coach. The athletic coach is often seen as an expert who guides and directs the behavior of individuals or teams based on his or her greater experience and knowledge. Professional coaches possess these qualities, but it is the experience and knowledge of the individual or team that determines the direction. Additionally, professional coaching, unlike athletic development, does not focus on behaviors that are being executed poorly or incorrectly. Instead, the focus is on identifying opportunity for development based on individual strengths and capabilities. 1

    Motivational Interviewing: Motivational interviewing is an effective evidence based approach to overcoming the ambivalence that keeps many people from making desired changes in their lives, even after seeking or being referred to professional treatment.2 Coaching works to discover the clients natural motivational values to achieve and move their lives forward. While a coaching client may have a level of ambivalence, it differs in motivational interviewing works best with motivational struggles or issues of change for which a person is not clearly ready and willing to undertake. Motivational interviewing is often used in cases of alcoholism, drug abuse, abuse, curtailing recidivism, etc. While both methods use collaboration, evocation and autonomy as part of their process the readiness for change by the person involved is very different. Coaching and people who exhibit coaching readiness is not geared towards “overcoming ambivalence.”2

    1. “What Is Coaching.” International Coach Federation. Web. 02 Feb. 2010.
    2. Miller, William R. Rollnick, Steven Introduction. Motivational Interviewing. 2nd ed. New York: Guilford, 2002. Print.

  12. DesertCoach:
    Thanks for the what/how thinking. That is helpful in considering the difference.

    There is so much in what you provided – I can’t thank you enough. I especially appreciate the references. Will definitely be checking those out.

    Many thanks to everyone. As we consider the question, “What factors contribute to social change?” the question of how coaches and consultants work with those who are creating that change is incredibly relevant.

    So if anyone else has ideas / thoughts / references, please keep ’em coming!!!

  13. I guess I will add my two cents here:
    When I shifted from consulting to coaching I shifted from being the “expert wtih the answers” to being a mirror & revealing the organization’s system to itself and listening for what is trying to happen. Others have said this next piece in other ways but coaching makes explicit and transparent the ways in wchih the client owns the process and and the choice and co-creates all along the way.

  14. Hi Hildy,

    I have been trying to follow your stuff among the many other things that I currently do. These concepts intrigued me: Coaching vs. Consulting. After some thought & reflection here is my take.

    Coaching is about empowering a person with direction.

    Consulting is an analysis of situation(s)/problem(s) which produces insight(s) and solution(s).

    Looking forward to the feedback:)!

  15. I just wrote a book, don’t hire a life coach, and I did it because the people who would be clients, who need coaching, are struggling with the ‘what is a life coach (and how would it profit me) and we need to educate as well as offer our services; we also need to be out there in service to the many who are out of work, facing changes and scared ‘sh#tless. Fun to discuss stuff like this, but my answer is that when I have expertise in my client’s industry I can, if needed, consult, but what I’m there for is coaching, bringing out their best, judging my success by theirs’
    Good luck, all, I’m interested in checking in here for new conversations from time to time and would love to get some response to my book “Don’t Hire a Life Coach” and will provide free e-copies to those who are working coaches (limit 5 from this offer) if you will be so kind as to comment after reading!
    Cheers, James.

  16. Hi James,
    I would be willing to read your book and commnet. I am currently a PhD candidate. Always up for new & exciting information. Thank you & have a great day :)!

  17. @CyninMN great summary and yes in my work I qualify consulting when I’ve actually analysed the presenting issues which results in providing recommendations based on experience with the stated issues/knowledge of the problems etc. Where as coaching is co-creative, being with a client/person through a process of awareness, choice and action. When we step into an agreement with clients we can honour those roles by being clear on how we are showing up and what will be in service of that client.
    Thanks for generating a conversation about this….for more info check out

  18. From a recent chapter on Rethinking Technical Assistance to Support Quality Improvement (Wesley & Buysse, 2010, in The Quest for Quality)– Note that they cite other work here too but I didn’t include all the references.

    “Consultation is a specific type of TA service that uses a systematic, face-to-face, problem-solving process to assist either individuals or groups to clarify and address their own concerns…typically follows predictable stages, including entry, assessment, goal and strategy development, implementation and evaluation… Consultation is a temporary process that typically targets a specific aspect of the change process in a particular setting.”

    “Coaching is an adult learning strategy that focuses on an individual’s competencies in a specific skill area and is often used to support implementatin of new practices…Coaching is an interactive and iterative process involving questioning and listening in combination with observation, reflection, and action… Coaches use modeling, prompting, and sharing feedback to help a learner incorporate new skills into practice.”

  19. I had to read your post twice to get the full impact of it. I enjoy reading what you have to say. It’s unfortunate that more people do not understand the benefits of coaching. Keep up the good work.


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