No matter who you are, we can all do with a helping hand, a shoulder to lean on, or someone to shine a light on the path ahead.
Fortunately, there are many empathic people who would love to assist us with our challenges, and they fulfill various roles.
You can sign up for coaching, mentoring, or counseling, but how will you know which one suits you?
There are many misconceptions about these three areas of expertise.
Coaches aren’t just on a soccer field or in an office setting.
Mentors don’t just hold a person’s hand and show them their personal playbook.
Counselors don’t solely work with the mentally ill.
While each coach, mentor, and counselor is different, the framework for each approach is also distinct. Rules within each framework offer insight into what is available for someone looking for a helping professional. Knowing which might serve you in your personal pursuit toward success is helpful.
Read along to know the differences and the many benefits of all three modalities.
This Article Contains:
What Is the Difference Between Coaching and Mentoring?
The International Coaching Federation (ICF) defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential” (n.d.).
Mentoring is when someone with seniority offers informal advice to someone with less experience (Kram, 1985). These definitions are not the only differences (Clutterbuck & Schneider, 1998).
- Short term
- Formal and structured
- Specific and measurable
- Performance driven
Coaches work with clients in a collaborative process. The agenda for each conversation is developed by both parties. Typically a coach will have expertise in the coachee’s desired area of growth. However, as a coach is not expected to have all the answers, their expertise could be diverse.
Rather than giving advice, coaches gather information in the co-created process of change. A coach’s job is to ask questions from a curious stance that will provoke thought in a growth-oriented direction. Coaches see their clients as whole and having the answers inside of them. Together, pathways to new ways of being in the world are developed (SkillsYouNeed.com, n.d.).
The field of coaching is diverse and covers many different areas of development. Many coaches see themselves as human potentialists. There are many coaching tools that have been developed to aid coaches in providing a safe space for client change.
Mentoring is (Clutterbuck & Schneider, 1998):
- Long term
- Development driven
- Based on looser parameters for growth
Mentors typically work with developing coworkers. Companies often assign mentor relationships, but they can also develop spontaneously. The role can also often be labeled as adviser. In most cases, experienced professionals who have seniority are paired with developing professionals.
Mentors give advice based on their personal and professional expertise. Meeting agendas are typically generated by the mentee, as well as development-based questions. The mentee will benefit from the relationship by choosing to follow the mentor’s path toward development.
Coaches are expected to be trained in a certain number of mentor hours, so that an established coach can guide them in improving their coaching skills. Someone in your desired field giving support through a mentor relationship is beneficial for any profession. It is an often-overlooked resource for building a cohesive community within organizations.
A significant difference between these two approaches is the training for each, which is outlined in further detail below.
Differences Between Coaching and Counseling
Misconceptions about coaching and counseling are abundant.
There are indeed many overlapping areas, the most prominent being that they are both ‘helping professions.’
With a better understanding of the roles that each professional plays, a collaborative perspective may be forged. In fact, many therapists have made a move to practice both approaches.
The International Coaching Federation is exceptionally mindful of creating a delineation between coaching and counseling. The organization strictly outlines credentialing to avoid a coach performing counseling instead of coaching. No coach should ever provide unlicensed counseling, and good training will allow the coach to know the difference. While coaching can be therapeutic, it is not therapy. Every client should be made aware of this.
Proper training for a coach will also assist them in being aware when a client requires a licensed mental health professional and how to set up a process for doing so in their area of operation. A good coach will also have a positive working relationship with resources so that clients get served well and correctly referred as needed.
In turn, ethical counselors will understand the value of coaching and develop symbiotic relationships with coaches working in their area as well. This would also depend on the counselor’s approach; some approaches in counseling are similar to coaches in that they focus on solution-oriented change. There is room for both coaching and counseling in the service of helping others.
The coaching agreement can be more strict than that for counseling. This mainly occurs because counseling follows the medical model, and the agreement is inferred through insurance, etc.
Counselors inherently hold confidentiality and other parts of a coaching agreement as a part of their practice. Coaches have to include their personal values and business expectations in their coaching agreement to protect themselves and their clients.
Another essential distinction between counseling and coaching is the expectation of privacy. Although, ethically, coaches are expected to maintain confidentiality for their clients, under the law, conversations could be compelled by a governing body. The law cannot compel a counselor’s conversations with a patient.
Another difference is that a higher level of self-disclosure is allowed in coaching. Dual relationships in counseling, such as meeting with a client for coffee, are taboo (Hart, Blattner, & Leipsic, 2001), but coaching relationships can often overlap. The protection of boundaries for a counselor is essential and is expected under licensing expectations. These boundaries are in place to protect both client and counselor in a therapeutic setting.
There is a higher burnout rate among counselors than coaches due to emotional exhaustion and heightened levels of stress. As counseling often involves intense emotions, resilience is regularly tested. The client population being counseled affects the level of stress as well. There are life-threatening scenarios sometimes involved in counseling, which can clearly compound the level of stress.
Here is an overview of some of the primary differences between coaching and counseling (Bluckert, 2005; Clutterbuck & Schneider, 1998):
- Focus is prospective
- Orientation on solution and capacity for change
- Achievement focused/goal oriented
- Short term
- Certification and credentialing are strongly encouraged
- Not diagnostic
- Clarifying for clients
- Provides practitioners with standards for client readiness
- Can make therapists’ jobs easier
- Clients viewed as already whole when entering a coaching relationship
- Change is self-developed
- Typically retrospective
- Client has decreased level of individual functioning
- May involve medication and collaborative care with a medical team
- “Why” oriented
- Long term, though this varies
- Theory driven
- Master’s degree required for license
- Licensing is required by law
- Typically generated through illness or dysfunction
- Healing for maladaptive behaviors
- Recovery from past traumas
- Relieving psychological suffering
- Sometimes covered by insurance
- Unfortunately stigmatized
- Offers guidance and advice
- Practitioner seen as an authority
- Explores cognition and psychological impact on wellbeing
There has been some criticism of the coaching profession by some in the counseling profession, and vice versa. This is an unfortunate occurrence and is likely due to stigma that surrounds both professions. Critics who don’t fully understand the legitimacy of coaching are doing themselves a disservice. The professions can coexist and even enhance support for clients.
3 Practical Examples
The following are a few practical examples where all three approaches are working in symbiosis.
When someone has entered into counseling, a coach could assist that counselor.
A fine example is Lucy, age 28, who enters counseling with Ron for substance abuse. After several sessions, it is uncovered that Lucy has personal goals beyond stopping her drinking. Her open-minded counselor Ron contacts Donna, a life coach, to support Lucy with these goals. The three of them work together on finding a concrete action plan for Lucy.
Donna supports Lucy with accountability in taking her self-determined action steps. Ron continues to support Lucy in uncovering past trauma and why the misuse of alcohol developed. Ron and Donna are working together to serve Lucy.
When a coach is onboarding a client and that client presents with psychological needs that only a trained counselor could provide, having a working relationship with a licensed counselor would be helpful.
David is a coach who has just contracted with Steve. After a few sessions, Steve has revealed some psychological needs that only a trained and licensed counselor can serve.
David has a friendly working relationship with several local counselors. He refers Steve to one of them. They decide together to collaborate in supporting Steve through his recent revelation and desire for future goal setting.
Mentor relationships between counselors and between coaches are very often forged.
A new coach, named Rhonda, is having trouble moving her coaching business forward. A seasoned coach, Kristina, with years of successful experience, offers to show Rhonda some ways to fully realize her incredible potential. Rhonda meets with Kristina weekly and asks specific questions to build her business.
Kristina helps to guide Rhonda along her personal path to success and help her develop broader life coaching questions, which Rhonda soaks in and immediately puts in action.
The Benefits of These Approaches
Coaching, counseling, and mentoring are all beneficial for clients.
Knowing the difference in the benefits may help someone choose which approach they would like to pursue.
In an ideal world, people would experience all three approaches to maximize optimal wellbeing. That rarely happens though, so here is a review of the benefits of each approach.
Coaching benefits clients by creating space for them to move forward in the area of their choice. Certified coaches are skilled at co-creating pathways toward improved capacity for wellbeing, productivity, and goal attainment. This profession can serve people in business, parenting, relationships, health, finances, and many other areas.
Clarity is a significant benefit found by most coaching clients. Quality coaches walk with their clients on a journey toward self-awareness and collaborate on concrete action plans that move them forward. The process helps to create a new way of being in the world that allows for clients to move over obstacles that have stalled personal and professional progress in the past.
Accountability is another benefit of coaching. This helps measure successful movement toward desired goals. Milestones set and reached invigorate clients on their path to successful goal attainment. The inclusion of accountability forces us to take more multi-dimensional views in our cognitive processing (Tetlock & Boettger, 1989).
With such a vast amount of information to process in a given time, most of us make self-judgments that utilize as few resources as possible (Corcoran & Mussweiler, 2010). Coaching creates space for more cognitive tools to be used, giving more accurate heuristics for self-discovery. It allows people to see beyond what is right in front of them in favor of the bigger picture.
Abundance and variation in coaching tools are additional benefits. As human beings differ so vastly, it helps to have a large pool of tools from which to draw. Trial and error in finding the right tool for each individual is possible because of this abundance.
Counseling benefits clients by creating a trusted and safe space for healing. Licensed counselors are skilled at sitting with difficult emotions and situations. They are well versed in the process of finding relief from various forms of emotional disruption. Healing through counseling also has a range of effects in other areas of a client’s life.
Interventions are abundant for counselors, which is a great benefit for the approach. While human experiences vary, many counseling and positive psychology interventions are found to be helpful across differences like age, culture, and socioeconomic status. This is a solid foundation on which to stand when in service of clients.
Another benefit of counseling is that it has a longer history. It has followed the medical model and is therefore scientifically validated. This validation brings with it presumed credibility for practitioners. Counseling offers a wide variety of therapeutic approaches, which offers clients options when seeking a mental health professional.
Read one of our previous articles that highlight even more benefits of counseling, backed by science.
Research has shown that mentoring enhances work effectiveness (Scandura, 1992). Success in business is typically measured by financial wellness and career advancement, areas in which mentoring can play a significant role. Behavior modeling and advancement guidance are a few ways that mentoring can support these areas of growth.
Organizational success is another benefit of mentoring. When a bond and a sense of belonging are formed between colleagues wishing to advance their careers within a company, they take action toward that success.
More efficient work practices allow for a business to thrive and can even inspire others. Retention and revenue are likely to improve with regular mentoring relationships, especially with new hires (Marie Block, Claffey, Korow, & McCaffrey, 2005).
The following are overlapping mentoring benefits that may be experienced in all three approaches:
- Improvement in communication skills
- Improved productivity
- Opportunities for insight
- Improved self-awareness and locus of control
- Increased self-regulation
- Improved self-esteem and self-efficacy
- Improved motivation
- Reduction in self-defeating behavior
Mentoring vs. Counseling
One of the significant differences between mentoring and counseling is the relationship that is established. A mentoring relationship is informal, meetings are in various settings, and the duration is typically long term. A counseling relationship is formal, sessions are typically in a counselor’s office, and the duration is usually not as long term as a mentoring relationship.
Another difference is the value of the advice provided. A mentor’s advice is well received on a personal and holistic level because of personal familiarity and professional admiration. A counselor’s input is respected due to training and how their expertise has helped other patients.
The cost of both approaches is another big difference between them. Counseling has various levels of cost, as this service is a vocation. Insurance can cover some of the costs, but this is not always the case. Mentoring is free.
Though the lack of cost of a mentor may be appealing, it is harder to find a good mentor than it is to find a counselor. Clients can receive a referral for counseling from their primary care doctor. Clients can also find a counselor through their insurance company. There are positive psychology groups readily available in many locations. Finding a mentor who is a good personal fit can be much more challenging.
Mentoring is often used to assist new employees in becoming more readily acclimated to their new work environment. Through assigning a mentor from initial hire, adaptation to the company’s culture can more easily occur. By enhancing an immediate sense of belonging, mentoring can help reduce the stress of being a new hire.
Conversations during counseling are protected under the law. This is not the case in mentoring relationships. There could be a perceived level of confidentiality in mentorship, but it is not required nor guaranteed.
The Differences With Training
This is an area where a vast difference exists between these helping approaches.
Counseling has the strictest and most robust requirements.
Coaching, through the ICF, has made a great deal of improvement in setting standards for ethics and training. Mentoring requires little to no training, but instead depends upon the senior colleague’s level within the company hierarchy, as well as personal expertise.
To become a licensed counselor, one must first obtain a master’s or doctoral degree in counseling. After reaching this educational level, you must then enter into an internship or practicum to gain real-world experience in counseling. In order to practice counseling professionally, you need to obtain a license. Licensure varies from region to region. Becoming a counselor takes years of education and training.
A coach can become certified through a training program, and many are widely available. It is desirable to have a training program accredited through the ICF, though it is not required. Different levels of accreditation under the ICF require different numbers of hours of mentored training and real-world, paid experience.
ICF coaches can attain credentialing through three different paths. Though there are differences in training hours and experience, all three routes must adhere to ICF ethical standards and core competencies. The continuing development of these professional standards is bringing increasing legitimacy to the occupation, which is relatively new as a helping vocation.
Associate Certified Coaches require 60+ hours of training to apply and 100+ hours of coaching experience.
Professional Certified Coaches require 125+ hours of training to apply and 500+ hours of coaching experience.
Master Certified Coaches require 200+ hours of training to apply and 2,500+ hours of coaching experience.
Mentorship training is mainly developed through life and professional experience. Most senior professionals will have advanced education and training, along with real-world experience that they can draw on to advise young professionals seeking to climb up the business ladder.
Mentoring can occur in any setting, however. Anyone can take another under their wing to help them with personal advancement. Many mentors attend leadership training throughout their careers.
A Take-Home Message
All three approaches are helpful, and many comparisons have been made. Disdainful assumptions are unhelpful in advancing collaboration between them.
With a deeper understanding of the roles of each professional, more practitioners can adopt an abundant mindset in the service of others.
Losing ego in favor of an abundance mindset is a great place to start when trying to understand coaching, counseling, and mentoring. All have great things to offer others in the pursuit of a more successful life. With advances in the approaches, more collaboration between them is bound to follow.
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- Clutterbuck, D., & Schneider, S. (1998, October). Executive mentoring. Croner’s Executive Companion Bulletin.
- Corcoran, K., & Mussweiler, T. (2010). The cognitive miser’s perspective: Social comparison as a heuristic in self-judgements. European Review of Social Psychology, 21(1), 78-113.
- Hart, V., Blattner, J., & Leipsic, S. (2001). Coaching versus therapy: A perspective. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 53(4), 229-237.
- International Coaching Federation. (n.d.). All things coaching. Retrieved from https://coachingfederation.org/about.
- Kram, K. E. (1985). Improving the mentoring process. Training & Development Journal, 39(4), 40-43.
- Marie Block, L., Claffey, C., Korow, M. K., & McCaffrey, R. (2005). The value of mentorship within nursing organizations. Nursing Forum, 40(4), 134-140.
- Scandura, T. A. (1992). Mentorship and career mobility: An empirical investigation. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 13(2), 169-174.
- SkillsYouNeed.com. (n.d.). What is coaching? Retrieved from https://www.skillsyouneed.com/learn/coaching.html
- Tetlock, P. E., & Boettger, R. (1989). Accountability: A social magnifier of the dilution effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57(3), 388-398.