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What are the differences between mentoring and coaching?

Updated: May 2, 2018

Coaching and mentoring are used in many organisations. Sometimes the terms are used interchangeably with some confusion about the meaning of the words. The two interventions are different and it is important to appreciate these differences.

What is Mentoring?

Mentoring has evolved in the UK over the last three decades and embraces a wide range of activities.

Mentoring, as a concept, originates from Greek mythology. Odysseus, when setting out for Troy, entrusted his house and the education of his son Telemachus to his friend Mentor. “Tell him all you know” or “look after him in my absence” unwittingly set some limits to mentoring.

Mentoring is useful where the agenda is shared or co- constructed. Mentoring can be useful for performance management, helping to set goals and priorities, learning skills and techniques, careers discussions and induction. There may also be psychological benefits such as improved personal confidence and positive self-regard.

What is Coaching?

Coaching interventions are different. The concept of coaching originated in sport where the focus was on instruction and skills development, usually by someone with greater experience and a track record of success. Gallwey, a Harvard educationalist and tennis expert challenged these basic assumptions suggesting that

“the opponent within one’s own head is more formidable than the one on the other side of the net” - implying that psychological obstacles and perceived personal limitations are often more daunting than the external ones.

Gallwey claimed that if the coach could help the player to remove or reduce the internal obstacles to his or her performance, an unexpected natural ability to learn and to perform would occur without the need for technical instruction from the coach. Gallwey, along with many others, recognised that coaching was, and still is, about unlocking people’s potential to maximise their own performance.

Importantly the impact of coaching is not dependent on a more experienced, successful or more skilled person telling or passing down knowledge or skills. Coaching requires expertise in coaching but not in the subject in hand. Coaching helps to unlock potential to maximise performance. The underlying intent of every coaching interaction is to build the coachee’s self -belief, focussing on future possibilities. An effective coaching conversation influences the coachee’s understanding, learning, behaviour and progress. The individual being coached gains increased clarity regarding a topic or situation which enables them to make progress in some way.

What is the big difference?

Both mentoring and coaching depend on respect for the client and require the mentor or coach to create and sustain a high degree of rapport and to act from high ethical standards. Both require self- awareness and self -management. Both require high levels of listening and questioning ability plus the capability to challenge appropriately. The big difference in coaching is the strong emphasis on authentic listening - giving the client full attention is the primary tool of a coach. In a mentoring relationship, while listening is important, it often leads to the mentor giving advice or telling the mentee how to respond or what to do in a certain situation.

Coaching aims to raise self-awareness and identify choices. Working on the client’s agenda, the coach and client have the sole aim of closing the gaps between potential and performance and setting clear personal goals. The important differentiating principle, in contrast to mentoring, is that of choice - the individual being coached is the one who chooses how to respond to challenges and how to make changes.

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