Are you in the question business or the answer business?

I was recently at a dinner party with several fascinating opinion leaders, and for some reason or another the conversation turned to the difference between coaching and consulting. Now several of the people at the table are world-renowned trainers and several are renowned consultants. It wasn’t exactly a red state, blue state intensity level, but when you combine smart people with other smart people and a cocktail or two, things get interesting.

The consensus among the coaches was that a good coach never gives advice. Always! Even if the problem seems obvious to them, they don’t tell their customers what to do or what they can do. They simply ask questions to help the client gain the clarity or insight to make an intelligent decision and challenge their thinking. Interesting and actually quite difficult for these executive coaches to do on a consistent basis. Since your clients are C-level executives from global organizations, they apparently value, appreciate, and pay a lot of money for someone who will not only interrogate them, but ask them questions that they cannot immediately answer without taking the time to reflect and think. Reflecting and thinking are things that many of us do little about.

Are you in the question business or the answer business?

The consultant camp (full disclosure, I am the founder and CEO of a boutique consulting firm) felt that their clients pay them for their expertise. Ultimately, they want answers to questions, concerns, or problems that are typically outside of their domain or sweet spot. By the way, consultants are also paid a lot for their wisdom and need to always be on top of their game regarding understanding the latest trends, thoughts, and issues in their respective spaces. The consultants also agreed that while it is their duty to provide their clients with the best possible answers, ultimately, it remains the client’s decision whether or not to accept the advice. Many times they do, many times they don’t. The reasons why they do or not are not really relevant. What is relevant is that they are making an informed decision with the knowledge of a respected expert.

What I got out of that night was that the lines are usually not that clear. We generally don’t live in a binary world where you are a coach asking questions or a consultant providing answers. Most of the time we operate in a dynamic environment. We move from one situation to another, each requiring us to think about the role we should play in serving those around us in those situations. There is a time and place for coaching and a time and place for consulting. Some situations are best handled by elaborating questions that help the other party solve a problem, and some are better handled by providing evidence or answers based on experience. Decide when to be in the question business and when to be in the answer business.

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