What Are The Differences Between Coaching And Mentoring?

Coach vs Mentor:

Have you worked with a coach before? For lots of freelancers, the answer is no. I often find myself explaining the differences between coaching and mentoring.

Coaching can be tricky to explain. One of the best ways to learn what’s like is by being coached yourself. There’s nothing quite like first-hand experience.

Failing that, I do have a plan B. Talking about mentoring can help, by describing how the two roles are different. Having mentored university students for a few years, this seemed like a sensible step.

I don’t blame them (or you) if you’re feeling a little confused, because the two can seem similar at first.

If you’re looking for the short answer, here it is: Coaching and Mentoring are polar opposites. 

Both can be useful to the right person, in the right situation. But each serves a different purpose. 

Coaching is a great way to invest in and improve yourself as a person, so you learn, grow and solve your own problems.

Traditional mentoring is a great way to learn from someone else’s experiences. And it gives you the opportunity to ask them how they did (or would) solve specific challenges.

Both coaching and mentoring help you solve your problems, but in different ways. It’s helpful to look at each on a sliding scale, which we’ll do shortly. For now, let’s dig into them. 

You’d usually approach either with a question. Let’s dig into the specifics of each:

Coaching Represented By A Question Mark

Coaching: How It Helps

Hiring a coach is like holding a mirror in front of yourself and asking yourself what’s on your mind. Their job is to listen to what you say, and ask insightful questions—using yours as a starting point. Coaches are curious because the job requires it. 

This isn’t curiosity for the sake of it. The coach doesn’t need to learn the finer details… Because there’s no need to. 

They ask questions to get you thinking, not themselves. To help you look at a problem from different angles, and see what you’ve missed. And because you go from asking questions to answering them, the answers are your own. 

Your own answers tend to be more memorable, as Sir John Whitmore tells us in Coaching For Performance. He explains that when you discover your own answer, you’re 70% likely to remember it. But what about when you’re given an answer, instead?

The number drops to 30%. Given the difference in retaining that knowledge, we can see coaching is more likely to have a long-term impact on you.

I can vouch for this myself—Some of the most powerful discoveries I’ve made about myself have been through coaching. And without that help, I believe I’d be a very different person today.

Mentoring Represented By A Exclamation Mark

Mentoring: How It Helps

As mentioned earlier, hiring a mentor is a great way to learn from someone else. Often they’d be someone working in a field like yours, but they wouldn’t have to be.

As with a coach, a mentor is there to listen to your question—but that’s where the similarities end. Rather than ask a question back, a mentor will do their best to answer yours. 

To help them do that, they tend to draw from memory. They might’ve been in a similar situation and have some thoughts on the solution that helped them.

Or they might recognise the problem. And, thanks to that, know exactly what you should do to overcome it.

Of course, not all mentors have done and experienced everything before. Everyone has gaps in their knowledge. In that case, they might need use their imagination to think through a problem with you.

I was lucky enough to have a one-to-one mentor for almost three years, someone who worked in the same industry. Every time we met I’d show up with lots of questions and leave with lots of answers.

More recently I’ve been learning in a group setting, from a marketing mentor. After all, it doesn’t have to be a one-to-one relationship. One-to-many can be helpful if you’re on a tight budget.

On a side note: 

A mentor doesn’t have to know they are your mentor. Nor do they have to meet you for one-to-one meetings. You could also learn from one on something like YouTube, in books or on courses.

And that way, you can have as many as you like—without having to ask for their help first.

The Ask And Tell Scale

To Sum Up…

In all, coaches and mentors are very different. The main difference is this: A coach will ask you questions while a mentor will answer them. That said, it is possible to be a combination of both.

You could argue these are ‘hybrid’ coaches, though a traditional coach might disagree. Some believe that a coach that leans on mentoring isn’t a coach at all. Still, the world is a big place, and more coaches pop up every day that play by different rules. 

Some of those coaches do a little (or a lot of) mentoring in conversations. If it’s appropriate to the conversation, of course. I’ve yet to see a mentor switch to coaching, but there could be one out there somewhere.

I do a little mentoring myself in certain coaching conversations. The thing is, it always depends on where the conversation goes, and that client’s needs.

Every coaching conversation is completely different, after all.

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