Many of my colleagues have studied one, two or all three areas and have the benefit of working out what is best with a particular client, because there are some distinct differences. Some coaches (we're talking about coaches who are not sports coaches) work under the premise that the client has all the answers within them, and coaching will help the client to realize what they know, and come to an understanding of their own answers to pressing questions and issues. There is no hard and fast definition of coaching, and when you do find one, it could also be applied to consulting, teaching and training in many cases.
Consulting is (according to Webster’s) to seek the opinion or advice of another; to take counsel; to deliberate together; to confer. The word comes from the Latin consultare, which means to discuss, and where we get words like consul and counsel. If you ask a consultant a question, they provide you with an answer, whereas a “coach” may guide you in finding your own answers. Consultants may also coach, but do so with the understanding that sometimes the client does NOT have the knowledge that they seek, and so they need some direct instruction is really the most efficient path. You cannot coach an airline pilot to fly a plane; you teach them. When people are considering careers, however, it makes sense that you use coaching as a way for them to explore what they’d like to do for a career.
Counselling has the same Latin root as the word consulting. To offer counselling, you generally need to have completed at least a master’s degree and sometimes also a doctorate depending on where you live. Some people think that if they see a counsellor they will spend lots of time thinking about and reviewing their past, but this is really not the case. Your counsellor will need to understand who you are, where you have come from but the focus is on what is happening now, and how to make the most of today and your future.
Here is a handy little guide to defining the 3 C’s in terms of education. It’s not written in cement, but it might help.
In order to be certified as a “counsellor” you need a master’s degree in psychology, education or, not surprisingly, counselling. Lots of counsellors also have a doctorate or are working on one. There are exceptions for some titles, for example “employment counsellors” don’t need a master’s degree in order to certify as a career development professional, but they will if they want to certify as a professional member of a counselling association. Counsellors have the ability to provide very in depth testing and analysis as well as to provide different types of counselling (i.e. cognitive-behavioural, neuro-linguistic, career and so on).
“Consultants” can come from any background and have any kind of training. They generally have a lot of expertise in at least one area, backed up either by formal education and/or a considerable amount of time invested in their field. There are no regulatory requirements for certifying as a consultant, but most of them will belong to professional associations related to their field of expertise (such as engineering, management, human resources, etc.). Those associations will ensure that a certified consultant stays current within their field.
“Coaches” are an unregulated field, although there are plenty of certifying bodies that have grown up as the field has grown in the last twenty years. They may specialize or restrict their practice to one particular niche, like career, executive, relationship or life coaching. A reputable coach has usually completed a “coaching certificate”. I’ve seen coaching programs that charge anywhere from about $1500 to $25,000 and the results that you achieve are not linked to the money you invest in training. Some inexpensive programs are great, and some expensive ones are just expensive.
If you’re thinking about hiring somebody to work with you, make sure you understand what they do in terms of coaching, consulting or counselling, and if you aren't sure, just ask.