I recently read one of the leading books on coaching: ‘Coaching for Performance’ by Sir John Whitmore.   It made me think about some overlaps between mediating and coaching.  But they are not the same thing.  Sometimes it is helpful to understand mediation by what it is not as well as what it is.

Coaching itself of course can be susceptible to varying definitions.  Sir John quotes one given by the International Coaching Federation (ICF): ‘partnering in a thought-provoking and creative process to maximise personal and professional potential’.   A true coach is not a mentor, least of all a trainer (although in the sports world in particular there is often an overlap between these three)  – their skill is in asking questions, usually, but not always, open ones, as well as encouragement, which provide a framework for the ‘coachee’ to develop their own potential.  Sir John goes on to say very usefully:

‘A coach is not a problem solver, a counsellor, a teacher, an advisor, an instructor, or even an expert; a coach is a sounding board, a facilitator, an awareness raiser, a supporter’.

Looking at this last sentence, if you transfer these skills, leaving aside the last one ‘supporter’ for the moment, into the sphere of a dispute where both sides receive the benefit of these skills, you have a mediator too.  We can also say mediators are supporters in so far as they support both sides in their effort to explore and, if so desired, reach agreement. But it would be better not to add this one to a mediator’s lexicon because of the wider context of ‘supporter’ (football supporter etc.), even if it may be a loaded one, in the context of two sides: a mediator cannot be a supporter of both sides, least of all one side and not another, as they must be 100% neutral.  But sounding board, facilitator and awareness raising, yes they do all that.   However, it is also important to make a distinction allied to this between coaching and mediation, which is implicit in Sir John’s sentence.  Coaching is always with a view to winning something, whether it be a medal, a new business contract or something a bit more nebulous such as improved working relations within the team.  Mediators are not helping you to win anything, certainly not to get the best deal or conversely to get agreement at any price. Unless that is we can stretch winning to include helping you decide what your true interests are, what you want to do and whether you want to propose or agree something.

Another important distinction between coaching and mediating skill is confidentiality.   Coaching of course is usually for one person or a team, all on the same side. So, in that sense confidentiality is not so crucial whereas in mediation the mediator passes between both sides so confidentiality to each side is essential.  However even ignoring this existential core within mediation, it seems to me from reading Sir John’s book that even though he makes claims for confidentiality, that in reality it is not imbued in coaching or coaching models.    I say this because the results of coaching, whether they be successes or failures, are usually conveyed to others, and certainly to the boss in the standard commercial coaching session.  And that’s not just because – although it will make it even more certain! – the boss is paying for the coaching.   Or he/she may even be the coach himself/herself of course, if they have taken on a coaching style of leadership.  I don’t think all coaches have resolved this conundrum. To be fair this is probably because coaches come from different industries and disciplines which collectively don’t concern themselves so much with the overriding professional ethics of this issue. It doesn’t make coaching a more dubious activity but it is a distinction to be made with mediation.

In a forthcoming blog I will compare and contrast mediation with other people development processes, such as mentoring or counselling.

Anthony Wooding

Civil and commercial mediator, mentor, trainer, author and consultant in long established firm of solicitors.