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To Coach or Counsel?

When you look back at the coaching experience you have provided to your clients there is a little voice whispering in your ear, “Did I coach or counsel the client? Is there a difference? The client has made progress, right?”

Explore the difference between coaching and counseling, and how to know when you are coaching effectively vs. when you need to involve a counselor for your client in this blog by inviteCHANGE Graduate - Sean Miller, PCC.

This scene may be familiar to many coaches and HR Managers.

You have been asked to work with an employee whose behavior has been called into question. You have done your due diligence and made sure that the line manager has been open and transparent with the employee – detailing the impact of their behavior and what is needed to move forward.

The stage has been set for a coaching assignment to begin. The first couple of sessions are characterized by demonstrative emotions including tears, but over time the employee makes progress, and all is well. You look back at the experience and a little voice whispers in your ear. “Did I coach or counsel the employee? Is there a difference? The employee has made progress, right?”

I don’t know about you, but I have read countless definitions of the difference between coaching and counseling. All of which have made perfect sense to me, in my head!

When I find myself in the coaching dynamic with an employee who is clearly upset, the story I tell myself is quite different. The part of myself which is circling at 100 feet observing the conversation is questioning, “Am I overstepping the mark, am I counseling the employee, or am I simply holding a safe space for the employee to process their feelings?

Where coaching and counseling start and end has been something I have questioned for many years.

This seemingly overlapping dilemma is now clearer in my mind thanks to the late Eric Berne the founder of Transactional Analysis or TA for short. Berne split the human personality into three ego states – Parent, Adult, and Child. We move around them all the time.

The Parent ego state is all the rules you have ‘swallowed whole.’

A parent ego state is heavily influenced by your actual parents but also includes all the rules of the culture you grew up in. I happen to be British, part of my programming which I share with many of my fellow Brits is our approach to adversity – ‘stiff upper lip and carry on’ comes to mind. This can frustrate my US husband who has different cultural programming when it comes to the expression of emotion.

A Child ego state, on the other hand, represents your actual experience. Whilst heavily influenced by your childhood, think of it as a tape recorder (I am showing my age) that captures every moment of your life.

For most of your life, you and I are behaving in a way that aligns with either our Parent or Child ego state. This is not a bad thing. It provides us with a sense of pattern and predictability which our brains love.

The final ego state is Adult. This is here and now processing. Whilst it may consider messages that sit within the Parent and Child ego states it operates independently. Yes, Adult ego states can feel and express emotion, but these are directly relevant to the information it is processing at the moment.

Coaching is a dynamic that appeals to the Adult ego state. The client is encouraged to be curious – questions such as "What would be meaningful for you to explore?" or "What is this insight telling you?" are all encouraging here and now processing or in short the Adult ego state. Emotions are often expressed as the client travels around their ego states and brings the information back to Adult to process.

That said, coaching, as powerful as it is, is not a dynamic that can be used in every situation.

Sometimes we lose contact with our Adult ego state and become stuck in patterns. This is where a qualified counselor can be extremely effective. They are gifted (and trained) at inviting the Child ego state into the conversation. Over time and with the counselor’s expertise and support we are able to rebuild our Adult ego state and make decisions on all available information to us at the time.

Aristotle famously said - "Anybody can become angry - that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not within everybody's power and is not easy."

Whilst ‘right’ is subjective, keeping the power in Adult will reveal new and exciting possibilities.

Happy coaching!

Sean Miller, PCC

Sean is an organizational development consultant and a PCC coach with the International Coaching Federation who has trained with inviteCHANGE. He is also passionate about Transactional Analysis and is currently studying to be a Certified Transactional Analyst within the organizational field.

Sean runs his own consulting business 'brightN' and can be contacted via his website:

He can also be reached via his LinkedIn profile: