Are We Consulting? or Collaborating?

Author: Karen Copeland

Are we Consulting? Or Collaborating?
Are we Consulting? Or Collaborating?

Lately I have been thinking about the differences between consultation and collaboration. We hear these words in education, health care, and other sectors – in fact, they really are buzz words when it comes to patient advocacy in the health system; and the education system in British Columbia even has it’s own guidelines for consultation here: Supporting Meaningful Consultation.

There are many ways that I have been involved in consultation over the years. When our son was in school, we might receive an “advance copy” of his Individualized Education Plan (IEP) to peruse before the meeting. I have reviewed and provided feedback on professional documents and committees, providing a parent lens and insight.

There are a few commonalities with some of these consultations. At times I felt my role in these situations to be quite small. In some cases, I wondered why I was even present at all as it did not seem like anyone was interested in hearing what I had to say. In others, I felt like as long as I said things that fit within the narrative being sought by the person or group, then I was valued; but as soon as I stepped outside that narrative I was tuned out. There was still a very clear power differential in the room. The experts were still the experts and I was but a voice being solicited as a means to ensure there had been consultation. It never seemed like there was enough time allocated to the process, the discussion felt like merely a formality.

And yet, in others, I felt valued through the entire process, like my voice mattered. Why such a difference?

I think this is where the distinction between consultation and collaboration comes into play.

Much of the work I do now is around collaboration – which for me, means working together to achieve a common goal or outcome. There is equality at the table and all voices are considered and respected in the decision making process. There is more than enough time allocated to the process and there is a mutual respect and regard for all individuals sitting at the table. Everyone takes an active role in action planning, capitalizing on each others’ knowledge and expertise. My name is recognized and listed as an integral member of the team. I become co-designer, co-author, co-creator. Yes, even on an IEP.

I started wondering, is there so much frustration because the word consultation means something different to everyone? When I am asked to consult I expect it to be like collaboration, and then when it does not I feel disappointed. It sometimes even seems as if the two words are used interchangeably which can add to the confusion.

I am curious, are we setting ourselves up for challenges because of a misunderstanding of what the process is to be? What are your thoughts?



  1. Karen, my experience is that consulting is seeking to discuss and/or seek advice from one having more knowledge or information than the other. Collaboration on the other hand is a coming together to solve a problem, with all voices being equal. With collaboration all parties are invested in the process and the solution. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case with consultation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, exactly! and just because our knowledge and information is being sought (consultation), does not mean it will end up being used to determine a course of action. I think that’s why I am such a fan of collaboration – it can be messy, it can be uncomfortable, but there can be huge payoffs at the end.


  2. Please don’t blame teachers for this misunderstanding. We are on the receiving end of so much judgmental and controlling “collaborative” planning in our schools that we, understandably, have no true understanding of the term.

    Liked by 1 person

    • No judgement here, Becca, and I apologize if it came across that way 🙂 This is something I have been reflecting on for awhile now, and is not isolated to education, I have experienced it in other systems as well. I wonder if I had walked in to some of those situations, knowing that my voice would be considered, but would not necessarily be a key component of an outcome that I might have felt less frustration. So, for me, it is about understanding the expectation versus assuming something quite different.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s