Can I Use Coaching Techniques And Still Be An Effective Professional Career Counselor?

By Richard L. Knowdell

When I was training to be a professional counselor (1969-1971), the vast majority of my professors (and my colleagues) stressed that the "ideal" counselor would strive to view all clients withunconditional positive regard' and conduct their counseling sessions in a ‘client centered' and ‘client directed' approach taught by Carl Rogers, the most prominent and respected counselor educator of the era.  While my natural personality is to be very extroverted, assertive, and directive, I learned and practiced the Rogerian techniques as I began to provide career counseling and train other counselors.

As I moved to new employment settings, the appropriateness and effectiveness of using only a Rogerian approach with clients can to a screeching halt.  In the mid-1970s, I obtained a contract with the US Veterans Administration to ‘counsel' veterans attending college on the GI Bill - who were receiving failing grades.  Now I was confronted with clients who were forced to come in for ‘counseling' and didn't really want to be there.  Rather than the Rogerian approach that I had learned in graduate school, I found it more effective to challenge and confront these clients and prescribe and direct the actions they should take to move from failing to succeeding in college.  This seemed to be much more like coaching than the counseling I have learned in graduate school.

Later in the 1970s, I became Chief Counselor at a national research & development laboratory where my staff and I provided counseling (career, substance abuse and personal) for 5,000+ professional and technical employees.  In this workplace setting "time was money".  Our requirement as counselors was to spend no more than four sessions per client in order to ‘solve the problem'.  Again, my Rogerian model went by the wayside and we compressed the required counseling into four 50--minute sessions that involved a very structured problem-solving model.

  • Identify the problem
  • Explore a range of potential solutions
  • Agree on a specific solution and behaviors that will lead to the solution
  • Implement the solution and have a follow-up session

Later in my work within the research and development laboratory, I was called upon to train line-managers on how to provide career counseling to their employees - in a half-day workshop.  Since it had taken me two years of graduate school to learn professional counseling skills, I chose to focus the half-day workshop on teaching the line-managers some career ‘coaching' skills and techniques.  The techniques I presented included:

  • Focus on work issues only
  • Focus on problem solving
  • Focus on short term action
  • Use of structured behavioral models
  • Act as an expert advisor and prescribe action steps

The success in training line-managers to provide career coaching proved very useful when the US Forest Service wanted to place a ‘career counselor' in each National Forest in California and Oregon to assist women and minority employees to progress within the agency.  While it was impractical to send their employees back to college for a two-year master's degree, we were able to provide a one-week workshop that taught personnel specialists ‘career coaching' skills that helped the agency meet their objectives.

By now I had moved pretty much away from the familiar Rogerian model. In the 1980s I established an executive outplacement firm where we worked with senior managers from over 50 Silicon Valley firms who had been terminated.  All of these executives were anxious to ‘get out there' and find another job.  In this setting I learned to formalize my coaching techniques.  With each outplacement candidate, I assumed five successive roles:

  • Assessor - Identify the candidate's attributes and give objective feedback
  • Information Provider - Give information on options and barriers
  • Referral Agent - Refer them out for services beyond my training
  • Guide - Help them make a decision without dictating the choice
  • Tutor - Teach them to write career action plans

 This brings me to my question at the beginning of this article - "Can I use coaching techniques and still be an effective professional career counselor?"   My answer is yes.  I have found career counseling and career coaching to have more similarities than differencesThe common foundations of both professional counseling and good coaching include:

  • The use of active listening
  • Maintaining a trusting and confidential relationship
  • Adhering to a code of ethics
  • Focus on the client's values (not imposing yours' on the client)
  • Understanding that the client has the answer (the coach has the questions)
  • The use of appropriate assessment instruments (those you are qualified to use)
  •  Use of a problem solving approach
  •  Use of phone and Internet when necessary
  •  See the client/counselor-coach relationship as collaborative
  •  Ability to recognize and refer out mental health problems

 Coaching has become very visible in recent years and is often criticized (rightly) by professional counselors because it is seldom regulated and has few prerequisites for entry.  But, as a professional career counselor I find it appropriate and invaluable to adopt and adapt coaching skills and techniques that can help my clients develop their careers and jobs successfully.


Richard L. Knowdell, MS, NCC, NCCC is Executive Director of the Career Development Network and author of Building a Career Development Program and From Downsizing to Recovery.  He has taught career assessment techniques at University of California-San Diego and employee career development at San Jose State University. In 1996 President Clinton appointed him to the Board of Examiners of the US Foreign Service.


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