What is the difference between coaching and mentoring? Some  organizations switch these terms, one in place of the other, but they are two different things. In this article, we will explore the differences between them and define other relevant concepts including Reverse Mentoring, Consulting, Counseling, and Therapy. 

The definition of coaching:

Coaches improve the performance and safety of an individual or group by setting goals, exploring values and beliefs, and developing action plans. This is not achieved by advising or giving orders, but it is largely achieved by asking questions to facilitate awareness and self-directed learning. The coach does not require any knowledge, skills, or experience in the field of coaching. Indeed, ignorance here may be an advantage that encourages coaches to ask neutral and non-directive questions.

The Definition of Mentoring:

Mentors are seen as people who transfer their expertise, knowledge, and advice to those who have less experience in a particular field in a modern business environment. The practice of providing mentoring in a coaching style is increasing.

The term originated in ancient Greece because of Homer's classic poem "The Odyssey", where Odysseus appoints a guardian called Mentor to take care of his son in his absence, as a teacher, guide, and  friend. 

Continuity of Coaching, Mentoring, and Management:

Learning coaching skills and having a coach has become an integral part of a leader's working life today. One of the current challenges we hear from coaches and leaders alike is when to offer coaching, advice, and guidance, both at work and in a coaching relationship. An influential manager today must be able to move seamlessly between coaching, mentoring, and directive management. 

The history of coaching:

Coaching has its roots mainly in psychology, coaching, and sports. However , psychology was initially - until and during the time of Freud and Jung -largely therapeutic and remained so even when it later developed through behavioral and cognitive therapies. Therapy was about identifying what was wrong in the subject and trying to fix it.

In the 1960s, humanistic psychology developed. Key figures were Abraham Maslow, known for the “Maslow's hierarchy of personal needs,” and Fritz Perls, founder of the Gestalt therapy. Their achievement is to look at things that are going well rather than the mistakes and problems that people face by focusing on their best potential rather than their problems. Maslow's hierarchy of needs places “self-actualization” at the forefront of human evolution.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Personal Needs:

Maslow focused on the top of the pyramid. He believed that reaching ultimate achievement and satisfaction starts from the top of the pyramid, and this leads to solving the problems below during the Coaching process. 

The Founders of Coaching:

Until the 1970s, the Coaching principle was applied only by the tennis Coach Tim Gallwey. Galloway graduated from Harvard University in the 1970s and, while on vacation, he became the captain of the university's tennis team. Gallwey noted that when he left the field, his students' performance improved faster than when he supervised them.

As a fan of spirituality and psychology, he explored this paradox and developed a series of techniques to gain benefits. One of his major discoveries was the application of “directionality” which means defining the goal before starting. Gallwey wrote a series of books called “The Inner Game”, where he applied these and his other theories to performance in life and work as well as sports.

In the 1980s, the late English Baron Sir John Whitmore embraced Gallwey's work, transferring technologies to Europe and founding ski and tennis schools to develop them.

At one point, Whitmore's team was asked to provide "self-directed" tennis coaching by a large organization that wanted its managers to integrate the Inner Game approach into their leadership techniques. Whitmore called this “Performance Coaching” to set it apart from traditional coaching practiced in sports and wrote a book about it called “Coaching for Performance,” which has since been translated into 19 languages.

At this stage, it seems that the term "coaching" arose, to which the fields of psychology, business , and self-development have contributed a great deal. All types of executive, commercial, professional, personal, and other types of coaching are based on the principles described above. Coaching is a process like accounting, and the process remains the same regardless of the type of coaching provided.

There are many categories of coaching, such as coaching that relates to general life, executive, group, and professional, as well as team coaching, but the process is largely the same. The more successful the athlete, the more likely they are to work with a sports coach. Performance coaching is not necessarily about fixing problems, rather, it is about helping successful individuals and teams achieve more success.

The profession is currently self-regulating, but most coaches have undergone some form of training and authorization. Coaches from around the world have established many coaching bodies such as: The Association for Coaching, the International Coaching Federation (ICF), and the European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC). In addition, some accreditation bodies such as the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) provide coaching qualifications. 

The Principles of Coaching:

Coaching is positive, non-judgmental, solution-focused , and challenging.

Although the control of the process is the responsibility of the coach, it is always the responsibility of the client to define the content, making the coaching experience an empowering, productive, and enjoyable one. The intersection area in the middle of the graph above represents the times when coaches make suggestions or share their own ideas after asking for permission, but with a clear boundary between the client's agenda and theirs.

Coaching can be practiced individually or in groups of a different number of trainees, as well as with teams to achieve a unified supportive force. The roots of communication in coaching are old and rooted in all people; Some of them are natural coaches because they grew up in a coaching atmosphere, others can learn skills and change their communication style. Therefore, coaching is more popular in companies and public institutions. Good leadership is closely related to good coaching.

From time to time emotional issues may arise during coaching, and the coach may refer the trainee to a counselor or therapist. However, the coaching process can sometimes solve the deep-rooted issues and trauma that hold the trainee back, simply through a solution-focused approach, without the need for deeper exploration.

In  addition, coaching has also positively impacted physical healing by occasionally integrating it with related fields such as the “Clean Language” technique that David Grove was the first to use, interactive analysis, or other principles. 

Is there a difference between coaching and mentoring?

The boundaries between the coaching and the mentoring are now fading as mentors discovered that mentoring in a coaching style is more effective than merely giving advice. It is becoming increasingly acceptable for the coaches to advise and share their experiences, even if by taking into account certain guidelines that maintain the coaching principles. 

Reverse Mentoring:

Reverse mentoring occurs when less experienced employees work as mentors for those with higher rank or more experience. In today's linear hierarchy, the younger generation who possess knowledge and are good with technology may be of great value to elders. Therefore, reverse mentoring is gaining popularity. 

Practices that overlap with coaching and mentoring:

1. Psychiatry, Psychology, and Psychotherapy:

A psychiatrist is a qualified doctor with further training in psychiatry but not necessarily in psychology. They are the only practitioners covered in this article who can prescribe medications to treat mental illness.

A psychologist receives general training, usually a degree in psychology, as well as further training in a specialized field.

A psychotherapist deals with deep-rooted emotional difficulties and receives strict training and ongoing supervision.

 All three of the above categories usually include some form of judgment, diagnosis, prescription or practitioner advice. Although these concepts are not part of the coaching philosophy, sometimes some suggestions may be made.

Recently, basic coaching skills have become part of any type of therapeutic training. 

2. Counseling:

Counselors often provide a simple service of “someone to talk to” especially in cases of sadness, trauma, or anxiety. There are different levels of training, starting with a short course leading to a certificate, and the sessions may be one-off, or spanning months or years.

There are times when people need to come to terms with calamities, for example, the death of a relative or a traumatic experience, by talking about it. These are the situations where counseling is more appropriate than any other intervention. Sometimes, however, solution-focused techniques are used in counseling even though its function is not necessarily to push the client towards success. 

3. Consulting:

"Consultant" is a broad term commonly used to describe anyone working for an organization at the executive level from time to time, but is not an employee in it. This category can therefore include external coaches as the consultant is the one who brings external expertise to the organization in any field, whether it is in setting up computer systems, providing psychological support to executives, or helping them improve their performance. 

In summary:

The simplest way to express the difference between coaching and mentoring is: “A coach has some great questions for your answers, and a mentor has some great answers for your questions”.

A comparison with driving a car will help you identify the differences between all the areas mentioned above:

  • A therapist explores what prevents you from driving your car.
  • A counselor listens to your concerns about the car.
  • A mentor advises you with their driving experience.
  • A consultant advises you on how to drive the car.
  • A coach encourages and supports you in driving the car.

Case History:

In addition to offering coaching courses, I am sometimes required to provide training in mentor skills as well, and I have recently offered programs for mentors in Russia. I have found that the workplace culture there and in Eastern Europe is somewhat directive, but people tend to move towards coaching management techniques based on paired-groups.

There was a highly sophisticated mentoring program in the Russian organization, but those who provided the mentors were falling behind and obviously did not find the process as useful as they had hoped. My guess was that mentors provided a lot of information and advice, rather than extracting the inner knowledge of those who received mentoring.

It's fun to have one's own insights rather than imitating someone else's. I felt the Russian managers needed to learn how to spark creative thinking within those who receive mentoring.

The training that I designed focused more on coaching skills and on how to get the ideas of the mentoring recipient than on presenting the mentor's ideas. So, we started with the usual basic coaching skills exercises about listening and asking questions, and used another key element in the training, namely the Permission Request protocol.

During all the coaching sessions, the participants were asked to mentor each other in real situations, then they went to work in paired-groups for six weeks, which is a regular coordination of our coaching technique. During the classroom exercises, they understood the benefits of the coaching technique which relies on “asking questions” rather than “giving instructions”, and during their six-week coaching period, they taught themselves how to do that in the way that best suits them in terms of their circumstances, personalities, and management styles.

My colleague provided the training, and when the group met him again six weeks later, we were pleased to hear that the sessions offered by Mentors had not only become more effective and meaningful, but had become more enjoyable for both Mentors and those who receive mentoring.