Coaching vs Mentoring: What’s the Difference?


Coaching vs Mentoring: What’s the Difference?


As a coach, you might sometimes wonder if you’re ‘doing it right’. I know there have been many times when I’ve wondered if the way I’m working is correct, and when I was coaching that I was ‘coaching’ in the right way.

A lot of this came down to what I was calling myself and the more aware I was of the differences in how people work who might call themselves coaches or mentors or something completely different!

Now I tend to call myself a mentor more than a coach, although I actually operate in both ways in my work with people.

So what is the difference between coaching and mentoring and does it really matter? Let’s dive in!

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Let’s start with looking at the definition of coaching:

The International Coaching Federation states that:

‘Coaching is partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximise their personal and professional potential. The process of coaching often unlocks previously untapped sources of imagination, productivity and leadership.

We all have goals we want to reach, challenges we’re striving to overcome and times when we feel stuck. Partnering with a coach can change your life, setting you on a path to greater personal and professional fulfilment’

This definition is pretty broad, so it gives a lot of scope to what kind of work could be described as coaching.

I trained as a Health Coach with the Institute for Integrative Nutrition*, so my training was very focused on a specific kind of work. The coaching skills we were taught very much focused on holding space, reflecting back the clients words, asking open ended questions and generally allowing the client to discover their own answers rather than being led by us. There was some structure there in terms of the topics we might want to guide them towards, but the whole process was very client led.


The Dictionary meaning of Mentoring is:

‘The act or process of helping and giving advice to a younger or less experienced person, especially in a job or at school’

Again, this is pretty broad and many different ways of working could be described as mentoring, but for me, mentoring is a much more structured way of working with someone – you’re more of a guide or teacher giving them support and advice based on your own experiences, skills and knowledge.

As you can see, the ‘official’ definitions of these terms are very wide in terms of the ways of working that could be described as coaching or mentoring and the differences can be more or less profound depending on the kind of work you do.

But for all your health, life and spiritual coaches out there, let’s look at the differences between these two ways of working and how they both might play a role in how you work with your clients as well as what you should call yourself!

The differences between coaching and mentoring

Coaching tends to be more client led, whereas mentoring is more led by the mentor.

Coaching tends to be more focused on allowing people to explore answers to very open ended questions and come up with their own solutions.

A coach may not advise or tell the client what to do, rather they might reflect back something the client has said, hold space for them to explore possible solutions and hold them accountable to taking certain actions.
Mentoring is much more directive where the mentor might suggest ways of working or actions to take.

If you imagine coaching and mentoring on either end of a line, there’s a continuum between being more directive at the mentoring end and being less directive at the coaching end. You can see this continuum illustrated in this article here.

It’s likely that even though you call yourself a coach, you operate along the whole continuum between directive / non-directive and coaching / mentoring.

Is coaching better than mentoring?

I don’t believe one way of working is better than the other, in fact using both skill sets in your work as a ‘coach’ is probably going to help your clients get better results.

Pure coaching can be a great way to have people take action based on the idea that when people come up with their own solutions they’re more likely to take action. Coaching can also be very helpful for those people who ‘know what I need to do but can’t seem to do it’ as it will help them explore what might be holding them back.

Coaching success is also more based on the coaching skills of the coach, than how ‘good’ the coach is in the area they’re working in. This can sometimes be useful to remember if you struggle with feeling like you have to be perfect before you can coach someone – your skills as a coach are separate to your skills / ability in any other particular area.

Mentoring is much better suited to those people who literally have no idea what they should be doing to get a result or transformation they desire. Some people simply need that direction and support to get to where they need to go.

Mentoring makes me think of the Glennon Doyle quote ‘stop asking people directions to places they haven’t been’ – Mentoring is like the reverse of that, it’s about getting the right directions from someone who has been where you want to go.

How I work

I decided to call myself a Business Mentor rather than a coach as I feel that more accurately reflects the way I work with my clients. Most of my clients don’t know the steps they need to take to get results in their business, so I could spend all day coaching them but because business and marketing etc is not an innate skill and is instead something that has to be learned, it wouldn’t be very effective.

I do drop into coaching quite a lot when clients are stuck, when they are holding themselves back or struggling to take action, that’s when asking some useful questions and allowing them to explore what’s going on is really helpful.

I can also work very intuitively and go between the two depending on who I’m working with and what’s going on for them.
It definitely doesn’t have to be either or!

Can you still call yourself a coach if you mentor too?

Yes! I would not get too bogged down in definitions. As long as your clients have an understanding of the way you work and whatever you’re doing is helping them get the result they want, then that is great.

As I said, most coaches tend to work across that whole continuum even though they call themselves a coach.

To summarise, coaching and mentoring can be seen as either end of a continuum of more directive and less directive ways of working. Neither is better or worse, but one way of working might better suit a certain kind of work or a particular client. Most coaches tend to work across that continuum and still call themselves coaches and that’s fine too!

I’d love to know if this post has been helpful, leave me a comment below and let me know if you mostly coach or mentor in your business.


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