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I Haven’t Forgotten the Cat

A few reflections in the light of yesterday’s kerfuffle, with Annette and Johnnie as worthy sparring partners. Plus a sandy cat, of course – where would we be without sandy cats?

Cat and fish

You never know what people will make of your words

One of the funny things about blogging is you never know which bits will provoke a response. You can slave away for ages at a post, only to watch it sink without trace in the digital ocean. Or you can write something off-the-cuff or with a feeling that it’s a bit dull, only to find people getting irate or excited, with links coming in from vertiginous heights in the Technorati rankings. I think I’ve said elsewhere that my original enthusiasm post was like that – something I’ve been saying for years to clients, that I thought would make a nice ‘filler’ post on the blog, which turned out to be the most popular page on Wishful Thinking.

I had a different kind of surprise yesterday, with my post about how Coaching is not Training, Mentoring or Counselling. I thought this was a bit of an obvious post, and that it would be clear that – as a trainer and therapist myself, as well as a coach – I was only highlighting some well-established differences, and that I wasn’t intending any slight on disciplines that I practise myself in other contexts.

But context is everything, as they say – having discussed it with Annette in her comments section, I can appreciate how fed up she gets if she meets people arguing that emotions have no place at work. It was a slightly surreal experience to be mistaken for one of them, but I think we’ve cleared that one up.

Maybe I should label my labels more clearly

The discussion made me wonder whether I should have made my intentions clearer re the Introduction to Business Coaching series.

Firstly, I’m not writing it because I’m a card-carrying member of the business coaching fraternity who thinks it’s the best thing since scientific management. I don’t have a GROW wallchart above my bed or spend hours defining my SMART goals for this blog. I do think its a useful model and set of tools, which I use a lot – but it’s certainly not the only ingredient in my snake oil.

In the context of this blog and my work, I’m writing the series because my research project and other conversations have shown me that – unlike other sectors I’ve worked in – many managers in the creative industries are completely unfamiliar with the concept of business coaching. (In my opinion that hasn’t stopped them being very good coaches, but that’s a story for another time.) So I’m writing the series simply to introduce the concept, so that I can refer to it in future and it’s clear what I mean by it.

It’s a bit like the improvisation concept of ‘platform’. When actors begin an improvised scene, they will often ‘mark out’ different objects on the stage with a bit of mime – a quick burst of ironing stage left establishes that there’s an ironing board stage left; someone making tea establishes where the sink is, etc. Which means the audience get the joke later on, when someone tries to exit stage left and trips over the ironing-board. So think of my intro series as the ironing board – once I’ve set it up it will be sitting there stage left of this blog, just waiting for me to trip over it…

Always read the label – then forget it

Johnnie made an excellent point when he said “Once we get into the detail, the whole semantic debate tends to go into the background” – i.e. when the conversation starts and we get down to talking about what’s actually happening and what the client wants, it doesn’t matter what label we stick on it. The only real question is “is it useful or satisfying?”.

Behold, this is the truth!

Let a man get up and say, “Behold, this is the truth,” and instantly I perceive a sandy cat filching a piece of fish in the background. Look, you have forgotten the cat, I say.
(Virginia Woolf, The Waves)

This post is a post-it to myself: “Don’t forget cat”

And a post-it for you – have a look at Annette and Johnnie’s blogs, lots of food for thought on both of them. Annette doesn’t pull her punches but she also says the nicest things.


  1. Mark, I love that Virginia Woolf quote. I also totally resonate with your experience of unexpected responses to posts – the throwaways that get devoured and the masterpieces that are ignored.

    I think you’ve done a good job of exploring the differences between coaching on the one hand and training and mentoring on the other.

    I find myself unable to resist picking up the bone again re counselling though.

    When it comes to counselling/therapy I would like to challenge you on your statement here that the differences are “well-established”. For me “well established” would suggest that there’s not much controversy or doubt about what you said and I don’t think that’s true. The anecdotal evidence here (two people who rate your blog highly taking issue with you) is different.

    The first difference you suggest is that therapy/counselling deals with personal problems and coaching deals with workplace issues. Most of the coaching I do seems very bound up with relationship difficulties of one sort or another. Yes, the context is the workplace but the content is personal. And in my experience of therapy, workplace issues come up a lot. So at a stretch there may be a difference of emphasis.

    The next three differences seem to characterise counselling/therapy as: problem-focussed, past-focussed and for “people having difficulties” whereas coaching “is used by high achievers as much as beginners and people who are stuck” and focusses on the future. I think a lot of counsellors and therapists would point out they also work with high achievers and are very concerned with helping people to better futures. And what about high achievers who feel very stuck? Can’t coaching help them too?

    (I’d probably add, as a bit of a tangent, that when I coach I try to bring attention from both past and future into the present.)

    I’m not persuaded that what you say about the context of explaining the idea to people who are new to the idea of coaching. (Er… they’re not beginners, are they?) Do they need to have stereotypes of therapy/counselling reinforced in order to understand that coaching can be a forward looking process for successful people?

    I think it’s great that you’ve stirred this up. It’s a topic that fires me up and I haven’t blogged about it before. And thanks for the generous linking.

  2. Mark, I found myself pausing over your echo of Johhnie Moore: “…when the conversation starts and we get down to talking about what’s actually happening and what the client wants, it doesn’t matter what label we stick on it.” So true.

    In my world (dispute resolution in the workplace) professionals frequently ponder the semantic and practical differences between “mediation,” “facilitaton,” “coaching,” “consulting,” and the list goes on and on. Like Johnnie, and you to some degree, I’m cautious about the word “coach” because there’s so much coaching world fluff I’m not very interested in and fear the word carries that with it into the public eye.

    When it’s all said and done and a client calls, it matters little what label they choose to use…what matters is understanding what they’re seeking and whether I can of service. Labels are helpful starting place perhaps, but they’re used so differently even by professionals in a specific field that I don’t know how feasible it is to imagine that we’ll all agree on them and get the public to use them “properly.” Thanks for this post reminding us what’s really important.

  3. Hi Johnnie, thanks for stopping by, glad you like the cat.

    I’m still slightly bemused by the ongoing accusation that I’m presenting a negative stereotype of therapy/counselling – I’m more used to being the one trying to persuade others that it’s a positive, empowering process!

    Anyway, to take your points in turn:

    1. Re the “well-established” bit.

    To quote myself:

    “I THOUGHT this was a bit of an obvious post, and that it WOULD be clear that – as a trainer and therapist myself, as well as a coach – I WAS only highlighting some well-established differences”

    Note the past tense – I was writing about what I THOUGHT yesterday when I wrote the original post. The responses I’ve had since have definitely caused me to question this thought! So no, I don’t still think it’s “well-established”, or at least not universally.

    I haven’t previously encountered “much controversy or doubt” about the alleged differences, and as a therapist I’ve never taken umbrage about them – but I’m happy to accept the evidence that others have a different view.

    2. Re the whole work/personal issue

    I really don’t see how focusing on one means you have to exclude the other, and I’ve never said that it does. Most of my coaching is also focused on relationship issues, but that’s never led me to think of it as therapy. Ditto discussing work in therapy – its part of a person’s life, so it seems normal to me to do so.

    I agree with you that there is “a difference of emphasis” between the two – that was all I meant to suggest.

    So if a copywriter came to see me as a coach, because he was experiencing conflict with colleagues that he felt was holding him back professionally, then the agreed goal might be something like “to find better ways of managing my working relationships and get more creative satisfaction and recognition for my work”. Inevitably this would involve a lot of discussion of people, relationships and emotions.

    The same copywriter might come through the door marked ‘therapy’ and talk about how depressed, angry or frustrated he felt about the situation. In this case, the goal might be something like “to feel more confident and enthusiastic”. Inevitably, this would involve some discussion of his work and the business context.

    In both cases, the outcome and much of the conversation may well be similar. The different goals reflect a difference of emphasis that boils down to the client’s choice – some people like to emphasise the professional and call it ‘coaching’; others like to emphasise the personal and go for ‘therapy’. I don’t see what’s wrong with offering clients this choice.

    3. Re the ‘stereotype’ of therapy

    “problem-focussed”and “for people having difficulties” – I said that “counselling and therapy deal with personal problems” as opposed to “workplace performance”. With the proviso about a shift of emphasis rather than a binary opposition, I think this is true. Therapy is MAINLY concerned with helping people deal with problems that affect them personally.

    I also said that “counselling BEGINS with a problem” – this has been true of the overwhelming majority of the hundreds of therapy cases I have seen and supervised. But I never said that therapy was exclusively concerned with problems – it’s obviously about finding solutions.

    “past-focussed” – I thought I’d made it clear that I wasn’t talking about all forms of counselling, but I accept I could have made it clearer that therapy isn’t limited to the past. Mine certainly isn’t.

    4. High achievers/beginners/stuck people

    I didn’t say that high achievers never get stuck! Of course they do. “High achievers who are stuck” probably describes a large proportion of both my therapy and coaching clientele. They could benefit from either – their choice.

    Let me ask a question in return:

    Do you advocate companies offering ‘therapy’ to their staff as a matter of course? (rather than to help them deal with personal problems via an EAP scheme)

    PS maybe we should start a coaching/therapy/facilitation wiki – then the fur would really fly!

  4. Hi Tammy, good to see you. Do you offer dispute resolution for bloggers? 🙂

    Yes Johnnie hit the nail on the head with that quote about “talking about what’s actually happening” – that’s the only thing that really matters in all of this.

    I’d love to just “do what I do” without having any kind of label, but as the Zen guy said “you have to say something” – even though it inevitably leads to misunderstandings. You’re right that there’s probably too much semantic hair-splitting among professionals. On the other hand, it’s important to find terms that clients feel comfortable with.

    For the record, I don’t really like the word ‘coach’, but it seems like the least worst option. I toyed with ‘facilitation’ which Johnnie uses, but it’s got too many syllables for me! And as Johnnie says, whatever word you use, there will be “baggage”.

  5. Interesting how Johnnie and I both read your words in almost the same way…

  6. Sorry – that last comment escaped from me before i had finished it.

    “Do you advocate companies offering ‘therapy’ to their staff as a matter of course? (rather than to help them deal with personal problems via an EAP scheme)”

    I’d be interested to hear Johnnie’s take on this one but Mark my question to you is – for what purpose?

  7. Annette – My point is I don’t believe there is another purpose for introducing therapy into the workplace, i.e. the context I’ve been writing about in my intro series.

    It turns out that’s a controversial position, so I’m asking how else it could be used.

  8. Hi Mark, I think anyone reading the whole narrative will come away with a richer sense of what both coaching and therapy could be about and then make a choice of what they want. As I said before, and it seems like you agree, they can then call that process whatever they like…

    So if a company wanted advice on any of this, I’d always try to unpack whey mean by the various labels before recommending anything!

  9. Thanks Johnnie, that’s exactly what I would do – looks like a good place to leave it.


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