In a recent blog I compared mediation to coaching and said I would compare it in following blogs to other processes.  I would like to turn this time to comparison between mediation and counselling.

I must do so with some trepidation as counselling is a very wide but at the same time specialist industry.  To complicate matters further, my own enquiries reveal that even within the industry definitions are up for grabs and there is a variable interchangeability between ‘counselling’ and ‘therapy’.  For instance, the National Counselling Society website includes a page entitled ‘Types of Therapy’ which sets out 15 ‘different types of counselling’ ranging from Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) to Person-centred counselling and Family Counselling with particular well known, and sometimes controversial, varieties such as Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) along the way.

So where do we start with even a definition of counselling?  I think some of the confusion arises because of two dictionary definitions.  For instance, the Oxford Dictionary defines counselling as a verb:

‘Give advice on social or personal problems, especially professionally’

…and then as process, namely of assisting and advising clients, especially on a professional basis, to resolve personal, social or psychological problems’

But actually, the confusion here can be reconciled. ‘Social or personal problems’ appears in both (the second definition adds ‘psychological’ but surely that can also be embraced within ‘social or personal’).

‘Professional’ appears in both: one would certainly want to see counselling as a profession.  And there is at least a parallel with mediation in that sense, but there are very many other professions in existence, so that is not enough on its own!

‘Advice’ also appears in both Oxford definitions, but the second definition adds ‘assistance’ as alternative. I think the point here is that the type of relationship with a counsellor, the issues explored, the methods of engagement used will vary tremendously.

However, ignoring these, a key area of distinction is as follows. Some counselling involves advice and some assistance.  Without getting too much further into dictionary definitions, advice should as a base minimum tell people what they could or should not do, even if it comes out of a very reactive or active therapeutic process. Assistance could just be a series of questions posed by a counsellor as the trusted relationship develops, a raising of self -awareness in the client to enable them to resolve the problem themselves.

If we take the latter example then there is a parallel comparison with mediation.  We need only to add the context of a necessary dispute and the two or more-party context, whereas of course counselling may involve no dispute and only one party, with exception of the ‘family counselling/therapy’ process. At its core, mediation is indeed a process of providing professional assistance through its own method to resolve a particular type of social and personal problem or some form of dispute.

Anthony Wooding

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