The differences between coaching and mentoring

23rd November 2019

Coaching and mentoring are terms often used interchangeably, particularly in the context of business. After all, they do share certain similarities: both intend to bridge the gap between where a client is currently and where they would like to be and to help the client to make significant life changes. Both coaching and mentoring can spur individuals to greatness, using similar skills such as clear communication, active listening, and the ability to offer constructive feedback.

Yet, whilst there are some clear similarities between the two, both coaching and mentoring have distinct boundaries and purposes. Having an understanding of these differences between is pivotal in understanding what will serve your needs most effectively. In any life coach training you decide to pursue, the course should help make perfectly clear what the distinction is between coaching and mentoring.

So, what are the main differences?

Length of Relationship and Structure

Primarily, the difference between coaching and mentoring lies in the relationship and the structure between the coach and client or mentor and mentee (also called protégé).

In personal, or life coaching, clients often arrive feeling generally ‘stuck’ in some way or perhaps may have more concrete, delineated goals in mind, such as overcoming a fear of public speaking or wanting to be more assertive in their interpersonal relationships. Coaching relationships are often shorter term (around three to six months) and both parties move on when the client has learned what they need to know and has realised their goals. Of course, the coaching relationship can remain open-ended, with clients returning in the future if they need support around another issue.

Relationships between a mentor and protégé, on the other hand, are usually more informal and open-ended and tend to exist over the long term, lasting six months to a year or more. They are also predicated on the assumption that the mentor has a specific set of skills, expertise or experience that he/she can impart onto the mentee.

It is worth noting that, as a transformational coaching school we believe that coaching need not be short-term or focused on specific goals – although obviously it can be if that’s how the coach likes to work – and outside of corporate environments, coaching shows up in many different ways. We believe that the role of a coach is to facilitate both change and growth in their clients, without guidance. And this is where we feel the core difference lies.

The Dynamic and Approach

While coaching and mentoring relationships are both based on mutual trust, they differ in their dynamic and approach. Life coaching operates on the premise that each of us is inherently whole and has the answers within us.  is generally also based on the idea that the coach doesn’t have to be an expert in the specific industry, company or area of interest a client may be involved in. As such, a coach offers a supportive, motivating space where a client can begin to explore areas of desired change themselves. The coach will ask questions, reflect back what the client is saying and sometimes challenge the client but the coach rarely guides the client directly or offers specific resources or contacts. The coach is at all times non-judgemental of the client, their views, lifestyle and aspirations. Together with a coach you can expect to set goals or explore key outcomes and, from there, take a journey of discovery. A good way of looking at a coach is to think of someone holding a mirror up to you and therefore allowing you to get to know yourself better.

Mentoring, in contrast, usually takes a more hands-on, directive approach to the client’s advancement. Traditionally, mentors were assigned within a company to help newer employees, or those in a new role, learn the ropes. A mentor will generally have more knowledge, skills, and experience in their particular field than the protégé, and is willing to share this wisdom with to guide and teach them, while at the same time accepting where they are in their development. For example, they may help their client develop key industry contacts, identify specific helpful resources, and explore and advise around careers. The critical thing here is that you are expecting greater experience, knowledge, guidance and advice from a mentor. There is also a clear, if sometimes informal, sense of authority in a mentoring relationship.

When exploring the difference between coaching and mentoring, it’s worth remembering that one is not inherently better than one another. Indeed, it’s possible to have a coach who serves the role of both coach and mentor, with favourable outcomes. In fact many of our coaches-in-training utilise mentoring sessions with our Animas coach mentors to pull on the knowledge that they have accumulated over years of coaching, so we know from experience that there can be a really beneficial overlap between the two.

It’s important, however, for both parties to have a clear understanding from the outset about what form the relationship will take, what the goals are, and even be clear which of the two ‘hats’ – coaching or mentoring – is being worn during individual sessions.

Why to Consider Using a Coach

So we have established that both mentoring and coaching relationships can be beneficial for an individual based on their needs, but why should you consider a coach over a mentor?

Well, firstly, the limitations around mentoring are that it is predicated on the knowledge and skills of the mentor. This means that you can’t necessarily take any problem to the same mentor, because often their knowledge and experience are much more specific. However, anyone can choose to use a coach, as the emphasis isn’t on getting knowledge and advice, but in being part of both a space and dynamic that enables the individual to find their own answers, goals and ambitions.

If you have a specific personal problem that needs an impartial eye, non-judgemental reflection and room to facilitate change, then a life coach can be the answer. Similarly, if your organisation is experiencing gaps between the talent they have and the talent they need, then a workplace coach might be useful.

Ultimately, finding the right coach or mentor for you can be invaluable for the future, so it is important to have an understanding of what both dynamics will offer you, and getting clear on what you are looking for from the relationship.

If you decide that you would like to find yourself a coach, this article around how to find a life coach should be helpful in addressing some of the key things to consider when beginning your search for a coach that is right for you.

We hope that you found this article useful!

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