Who Do You Call When in Conflict? Comparing Coaching, Consulting, Counseling & Mediation
Updated: Jul 16
What is the difference between counseling, conflict coaching, conflict consulting, and mediation? How do you figure out the most appropriate or the best option for you? Are they mutually exclusive or do you need more than one? Here is a look at what you can expect from each one.
Counseling A counselor or therapist can help a patient manage personal daily struggles with a focus on what event or experience in the past has influenced the present feeling, thinking, or behavior. Therapists are trained and equipped to diagnose and treat emotional wounds. A skilled therapist can help a patient figure out where the behavior or thinking originated and then how to correct it. They help guide the patient to understand themselves better, and to work on behavioral or thinking changes to have less angst in life. Therapists may ask questions like “where or when in your childhood did you experience those feelings before?” No topic is out of bounds for a therapist. There are many reasons therapy makes sense, for example, when a person needs help with a painful experience, is having reoccurring thoughts, is feeling a loss of control or sense of isolation, or a lost sense of joy just to name a few (this is not meant to be an exhaustive list). Therapy can take anywhere from a few months to a few years and in some cases may be covered by medical insurance. (Noble, 241)
A conflict consultant can provide advice about conflict in your organization, whether your organization is a large corporation, a non-profit, a board of directors, a church, or a family. Conflict Consultants interview various persons from all levels and groups in the organization to find out what is happening. The consultants analyze the information provided in the interviews and through their experience and knowledge they provide insights about the state of conflict and relational dynamics in the organization by way of a written report. The consultant will suggest remedies which can include training and/or coaching for specific individuals, training and/or coaching for teams, suggested readings with book groups for discussion, mediation between specific team members, or dialogues between team members, between teams, or between departments. Conflict consultants may ask questions like “tell me how decisions are made in your department” and “what happens when there is a disagreement?” A conflict consultant makes sense when deadlines are being missed, there is frequent episodes of drama, there are personality conflicts, or things just aren’t humming along, and you don’t know why. A conflict consulting report usually takes between 2-8 weeks depending on the size of the organization.
A conflict coach guides a client through a conflict coaching process the purpose of which is to initiate insights into and realizations about their conflict response during conflict events. The process is structured and goal-oriented and usually focusses on a specific conflict. The conflict coach will dive deep into that particular event to reveal underlying values and identities of those involved. The conflict coach may ask questions such as “what about that interaction was difficult for you?” (Nobel 62) or “what did you observe about what was happening in your body at that time?” (Nobel 67). Questions like this may help reveal information about what causes your reaction or their reaction during conflict. Coaches do not give advice like consultants, nor do they provide therapy as counselors. Coaches ask very intentional questions related to a conflict to help a client gain insight into their conflict response and to guide the client to practice and refine an option for dealing with the situation that works best for them (Noble, 240). It makes sense to hire a conflict coach when you want to improve your response to conflict, figure out what is happening in a specific conflict, prepare for a difficult conversation you need to have, or just want to understand yourself better. In many cases where a conflict coach is used, the other person may not be aware that there is a conflict. Conflict coaching usually takes about 8 sessions of 1-2 hours per session to deconstruct a specific conflict form a solution to try.
Mediation is a process in which two or more people agree to bring in a neutral party, a mediator, to help them resolve a dispute. The process is based on fairness and is focused on getting to an agreement that all parties are willing to sign. Mediation’s benefits are usually discussed in terms of how it compares to litigation. It generally takes less time, is more cost effective, is less damaging to relationships and it allows the two people involved to make the decision for the resolution which leads to everybody getting something. Whereas litigation is expensive, can take years, damages the relationship of those involved, and someone outside the dispute, the judge, gets to decide the outcome where there is usually a winner and a loser. Mediation is a good way to settle disputes where the parties maintain control of the outcome. It is voluntary and protected by confidentiality in the evidence code of many states, meaning the decision can stay private and what is said in mediation cannot be used as evidence in a trial. It makes sense to mediate when there is a conflict between two or more people who know about and agree on the what the conflict is about but cannot resolve the conflict on their own. Mediation can be very variable in time depending on the complexity of the conflict and the number of people involved. Each session can be limited to 2 hours or can be scheduled for all day.
Suppose you have a board of directors of a non-profit whose board members are not getting along. Barb and John have had out right shouting matches where John commented on her actions being ones that “could be grounds for termination”. Barb has said she feels threatened and is considering filing a hostile work environment lawsuit. Other members agree with John in his discernment about Barb’s shortcomings but do not think he should have yelled at her and are not considering firing her. How should this situation be rectified? The president of the board or another member of the board could contact a consultant, a counselor, a conflict coach and/or a mediator.
1. A conflict consultant would interview all the board members to gain insights about the relationship dynamics of the board. The resulting conflict analysis would identify these dynamics and state recommended remedies such as training, coaching, and mediation. For example, Barb may be in a marginalized group and feels that John is trying to silence her or push her out. John perhaps did not mean to cause such a problem, but was just giving her feedback, albeit poorly. The consultant could recommend coaching for Barb to allow her to see why she felt so threatened and to look at the conflict from John’s perspective; coaching for John so he can earn how to deliver feedback more effectively; mediation for Barb and John so they reset their relationship and eliminate the need for a lawsuit; and conflict training/conflict plan for the whole board to prevent an escalation like this again.
2. A mediator would speak to Barb and John separately, decide who else needed to be part of the mediation and set up a mediation for all the participants. The goal of the mediation would be to resolve the issues between them and make the filing of a lawsuit unnecessary. A mediator may provide a written record of any agreement made during the mediation. A mediation would require an agreement to mediate be signed by all participants and the mediation discussion would be confidential.
3. A conflict coach would work one-on-one with either Barb or John. The coach would guide one of them through the stages of the conflict coaching process which will create an environment where Barb or John can gain insights into why they responded the way they did and develop options for the best way to handle the situation. A coaching client can learn a great deal about themselves and the other person from the analysis of the conflict. For example, Barb may learn that she is triggered by loud yelling and threats to her livelihood and does not react as she would like when that happens. She may practice how to recognize the feelings in her body when it is happening and how she would like to respond to that trigger. John may learn how poorly his feedback is landing and how to give feedback such that it is delivered as he intends and hopes.
4. A therapist could, through conversation and perhaps assessment tools, help either, John or Barb, understand how their experiences throughout life led them to react the way they did to the situation. The therapist could help them learn more about themselves, why they deal with others the way they do, and guide them to change their thinking and behavior through different therapy methods such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
None of these options are mutually exclusive in that you can be seeing a therapist, a coach, a consultant, and a mediator at the same time, however, the practitioners should not be the same person. That is, each provider should only be wearing the one hat at a time. For example, a mediator cannot act as a coach for one of the parties because that would compromise neutrality. If both parties want coaching from the mediator, neutrality is less compromised, but still is not ideal. Many practitioners have a roster of professionals they can recommend to their clients if another service is needed. In fact, some mediators recommend coaching to parties to help a client maximize their behavior during the mediation for the best result. A coach cannot be a consultant as that would require the dispensing of advice. A consultant can become the coach or mediator after the report is delivered. A therapists can assist on whatever topic their client needs. So, a therapist can help a client prepare for a difficult conversation or other outcomes that a coach could also do, but a coach (even if trained and licensed as a therapist) should not be providing therapy while acting as a coach, they are different roles.
Each of these types of providers have varied costs and fees based on their experience and expertise, so comparison is difficult. Do your research. Ask friends and family for their recommendations, look at their websites, take advantage of their free or reduced-price consultation to see if you feel comfortable with them and can work with them.
There are many professionals out there to help with conflict. Use them. Don’t lose sleep due to stress and anxiety over a conflict. Call one or more of these professionals to assist you in resolving the issues and regain your peace of mind.
Noble, C. (2012). Conflict management coaching: the Cinergy model. Cinergy Coaching.