Counseling versus Coaching


Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.

Counseling is much harder to do than coaching because the issues involved are usually personal and emotional. The problems brought to a counseling session are typically large: divorce, alcoholism, a kid in trouble, a mid-life crisis, career plateauing, fear of retirement, poor interpersonal skills, and the like.  While this kind of subject matter can make both the subordinate and the manager uncomfortable, because these issues often impair work performance, managers need to become comfortable counseling subordinates.  The issues are too difficult for managers to handle; they should recommend people enter therapy with a professional therapist.

Managers will find that once subordinates start talking about their issues the person being counseled gains a tremendous amount of relief simply because talking often transforms a very emotional issue into a set of problems that need solving. The goal of counseling is to help subordinates become better able to solve their issues as they see choices they couldn’t see before and make better decisions for themselves.

There is little that’s as satisfying as talking with someone who really listens to you. Alas—the experience is rare but it is the heart of counseling.  The skills involved in counseling are very specific and they can be learned pretty easily.  While these skills won’t transform a manager into a psychotherapist, they will make the manager much more comfortable and effective as a counselor.

The Eight Skills of Counseling[1]

  1. Establish rapport and stay calm.
  2. Listen and ask responsive questions.
  3. Hear with your eyes, ears and emotions.
  4. Stick to what is happening in the situation.
  5. Don’t solve the problem; do emphasize choices.
  6. Welcome emotional responses.
  7. Understand what the other person believes but don’t judge them.
  8. Be honest.

And, as with all skills, practice makes perfect.

1. Establish rapport and stay calm:

Creating rapport involves making someone feel comfortable and in order to do that, you must be at ease. The counselor’s comfort lies first in their willingness to take part in the conversation that’s about to happen.  Counselors must avoid any responses that will make the other person defensive.  Take your time; don’t rush into the big issues.  Smile, and welcome the person.  Face the other person and maintain eye contact.  Lean toward the other person but not intensely.  The counselor’s body language needs to say, I’m here for you and ready to listen. When rapport has been established, both people can move to the issues that matter.

2. Listen and ask responsive questions:

Counselors don’t solve the other person’s problems. Instead, the goal is for that person to gain a better understanding of what their issues are and what they could do to make things better.  The counselor helps the person gain clarity by asking questions, while at the same time; the counselor is also listening hard.

The key to effective counseling is Active Listening. This involves focusing and actively thinking about what you’re hearing.  The counselor doesn’t have to agree with what is being said in order to be supportive.  Support is demonstrated by how well you listen.

In Active Listening there are three levels of questions which differ in terms of the amount of interpretation the counselor makes.

Level 1 question:

A level 1 question repeats what the other person has said, but uses different words. For example, if the person says, “I can’t accept the promotion.  The move would just be too difficult right now,” the manager might say, “The timing is no good right now, is that it?”

The manager’s response hasn’t introduced anything new. But paraphrasing the initial statement and adding a question invites the other person to continue talking.  In that way, both people are likely to learn more.

Level 2 question:

A level 2 question interprets what the manager thinks the other person implied in what they said. While the interpretation was not said explicitly, it is usually something the other person is already aware of.  A level 2 response to the example we’re using might be, “Would your family be really upset if they moved at this time?”

While the other person hasn’t said that his or her reluctance to accept the promotion stems from the negative attitudes of his or her family, but it’s a plausible inference. As the inference is posed as a question, the manager is not asserting he or she knows the facts of the other person’s life.  Instead, as a question, the manager’s response says, “I heard what you said and I’ve given it some thought.  Is my impression right?”  The question is not a challenge. Instead, it indicates a tentative conclusion and willingness to listen further.

Level 3 question:

A level 3 question goes further in the depth of interpretation and may articulate feelings that run deeply. In this case, a level 3 question might be, “Are you reluctant to move because you don’t want to put your wishes ahead of those of your family?”  A more intrusive level 3 question might be, “Is not wanting to upset your family the real reason you don’t want the job? Or, are you really afraid you might not succeed in that next job?”

A level 3 question may be especially useful because you’re bringing up what your intuition tells you is the really crucial issue and unless it’s addressed, no real progress can be made. But a level 3 response can intrude into areas the person may not want to disclose or even want to be aware of.  While a level 3 question can cut through to the heart of the matter it is also risky because your intuition can be wrong, and the person being counseled may resent the judgment that’s implicit in your question.  Managers should be very cautious about using level 3 questions.

3. Hear with your eyes and your ears and your emotions:

In counseling you have to be aware of What-is-there and What-is-missing. Intuition, or how something makes you feel, is particularly valuable when something is being expressed but not in words.  Intuition makes you receptive to the meaning of a tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language.  Intuition can be thought of as your emotional response to someone else’s feelings.  In order to know whether or not your intuition is likely to be correct you have to pose a level 1 or level 2 questions.  You might say, “This is what I’m getting. Is that what you’re saying?”

Being sensitive to messages that are sent without words is what is meant by Hear with your eyes, ears and emotions. Pay attention to how you feel and to everything that is being expressed and everything that’s missing.  These may be signs that something is going on.  Don’t over interpret; just ask questions.

4. Stick to what is happening in the situation:

It’s always tempting to dwell on the past. Not only is it interesting, it’s safer.  The past has already happened and it can’t be changed.  It’s natural for people to bring up the past and it’s tempting to use the past as an explanation for what’s happening now.  While the past can be brought up, it should not be dwelled on.  The focus must be on what’s going on in the present and how and what the person will do in the future.

People usually talk about their experiences, their behaviors and their feelings. Of the three, it is easiest to talk about experiences because they’re often something that just happens to you.  We use experiences socially when we tell anecdotes and we can be funny, charming, poignant or dramatic and not disclose anything at all about ourselves.

But the point of counseling is to gain greater knowledge of a person or by a person because that’s the bridge to better personal decisions. This kind of knowledge requires disclosure in order to achieve greater self-awareness.  That’s why when we counsel, we use questions to make the counseled person go from vague to specific observations

5. Don’t solve the problem; do explore options:

The key objective of counseling is to get the counseled person more active in their life by exploring their issues, discovering their options, and making decisions. When you tell someone what to do, you diminish that person’s sense of personal power.  When you help someone to make their own choices, you set them on a path that may lead to greater confidence.  The most basic help you can give someone is to enable him or her to make their own decisions.  That is why the manager who is counseling should try not to give advice even if it’s asked for.  Instead of telling someone what you think is best ask questions so they explore the pros and cons of alternative choices.

The manager may also bring up a range of suggestions that haven’t come up in the dialogue. People dealing with personal issues tend to see a narrow band of possibilities. They’re simply too close to what’s happening to gain a wide perspective.  The manager who is counseling can identify additional alternatives and might discuss the feasibility and possible consequences of different decisions.  But it is more effective if instead of telling, the manager questions so the analysis of feasibility and effectiveness is actually done by the person being counseled.

After the analysis of the issues and an exploration of choices, it is time to start asking, “What are you going to do?” If the question is asked in a positive way, the implication is that the manager believes the employee can make a decision and succeed in acting on it.  Asked in the right way, that question is an affirmation.

6. Be open to emotions:

There are lots of times when we would really prefer that people kept their cool and that’s especially true at work where relationships are polite and comfortably superficial. We prefer to avoid being personally attacked and we don’t want the level of self-disclosure or intimacy that an emotional outburst generates and we don’t want the responsibility of becoming someone’s emotional support.

But counseling is a situation in which emotional responses are very likely. Think of emotions as data that you need.  Observe and try to understand why they occurred, but do not get caught up in those feelings. Welcome them, both yours and those of the person you’re counseling because emotions are a major key to understanding.  Any emotion that is expressed can be dealt with and finding out what triggered it can clarify key issues.

It’s also important to be aware of the absence of emotions when they should be present.  If there’s too little emotion considering the issues being discussed, there’s a good chance that something more is involved than is obvious.  Using the questioning techniques of levels 1 or 2 you might say, “I have a feeling that something is going on but I don’t know what it is.  Do you think something is going on?”

If very powerful emotions are being expressed, and that’s making you uncomfortable, you can transform those feelings into a cognitive discussion by using a level 1 question like, “I see that you feel very strongly about this. Can you tell me why that’s true?”

7. Don’t judge the other person:

People judge when they assess whether something or someone is good or bad. In fact, an important responsibility for managers is to judge whether a decision, or a procedure or a behavior is good or bad. When managers coach a subordinate they’re judging the quality of a person’s work or personal effectiveness.

In counseling you must not think in terms of good or bad. Instead, your job is to understand.  Your task is to understand what the other person perceives, what they see as their problems and how they evaluate their behaviors.  When you have learned what they believe, you can evaluate their perceptions but not in terms of good or bad.  Instead, you may ask whether their perceptions are accurate or inaccurate, whether their behaviors are effective or ineffective, whether their sense of themselves is appropriate or inappropriate.

Like empathy, respect is also an attitude. Respect means you see the other person as an individual who behaves in ways that make sense to them.  This doesn’t mean you are required to always agree with them.  It does mean you don’t assume you know better than they, what will be best for them.  Respecting someone in counseling involves not judging that person and not imposing your point of view on him or her.

8. Be honest:

The ultimate sign of respect for someone is when you regard him or her as capable of managing their life and you expect them to do that. One way you convey your belief that they are capable is by being honest with them.

Trust between people requires real communication. Communication does not mean agreement.  While sometimes you will agree and at other times disagree, at all times you must be ready to learn the other person’s point of view and state your own.  Honesty involves disclosure and feedback, responses that are both supportive and challenging.  Disagreeing is not a confrontation.  It is, instead, an exchange of information upon which you try to build some agreement.

In counseling, being empathic, respectful and supportive is necessary – but so is honesty. We rarely lie but we often evade and evasion increases mistrust. It’s only when disagreements are out on the table that we can trust someone, and it’s only when issues are made specific, that we can address and solve them.

Managers, who act as counselors, must be honest with themselves about themselves. There needs to be enough self-understanding and acceptance so they don’t get defensive or hostile when they’re challenged. It is plausible that many of the issues that plague their subordinates are the same problems they are experiencing.  In that case they may become more emotionally involved than is appropriate.  If that happens, back off and say, “I think I’m having a little trouble with this issue.  Let’s move on to something else and come back to this later.”

The psychological sum of these techniques is supportive. Active Listening is a statement that the counseled person’s well-being is important, that it’s okay that sometimes they’re emotional, and the counselor has confidence that when the issues become clear and options are available, the counseled person can succeed in making good decisions and acting on them.

When these skills are mastered, it’s likely that counseling will be one of the more rewarding parts of a manager’s job.

[1] This counseling program was originally developed by me for IBM to be used in conjunction with a management training program about structural, content and life plateauing. One version was published in Coaching for Leadership, Goldsmith, Marshall (et al, editors), Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2000, pp. 285-298.

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