Coaching, counseling, and mentorship: what’s the difference?

March 25, 2021 - 18 min read

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Coaching, counseling, and mentoring: a comparison

The benefits of coaching, counseling, and mentoring

When to use coaching, counseling, and mentoring

3 practical examples of coaching, counseling, and mentoring

Final thoughts on coaching, counseling, and mentoring

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When should you use coaching vs. mentoring vs. counseling? This article will explore the similarities, differences, and when you should use each.

While there are certainly overlaps between coaching, counseling, and mentoring, there are also very distinct differences and benefits to each. One is not necessarily better than another; they are each useful for different situations, goals, and needs. In fact, some people will participate in all three simultaneously, and find each to be advantageous in its own way.

As we explore the difference between coaching, counseling, and mentoring, let’s begin with some definitions.

Coaching: 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.”

Counseling: According to the American Psychological Association (APA), counseling involves “helping people with physical, emotional, and mental health issues improve their sense of well‐being, alleviate feelings of distress, and resolve crises.” Counseling psychologists also provide “assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of more severe psychological symptoms.”

Mentoring: World Education Services (WES) offers a helpful definition of mentorship as “a relationship between two people where the individual with more experience, knowledge, and connections is able to pass along what they have learned to a more junior individual within a certain field.”

As is evident from the definitions, coaching, counseling, and mentorship all involve interpersonal relationships, although the focus of these relationships and conversations varies. 

Each also varies along a spectrum from more directive/prescriptive telling and advice — giving on one end to more open facilitating of introspection and reflection on the other.  In addition, each relationship has a different purpose and will tend to be more appropriate and useful in some situations over others.

Coaching, counseling, and mentoring: a comparison

What’s the difference between coaching and counseling, and how do they differ from mentoring? The following table summarizes some of the key distinctions.

  Coaching Counseling Mentoring
Time-frame Several months to a year, or longer. Typically long-term, but can vary. Typically long term; may last up to several years.
Nature of relationship Formal and structured. Formal and structured. More informal and open ended.
Focus Personal and professional growth. Healing past trauma or emotional distress. Professional growth.
Temporal orientation Present and future. Typically past and present. Present and future.
Cost Paid. Paid. Usually unpaid.
Credentials Certification and credentialing is highly encouraged. Licensing is required by law. No certification or licensing requirements.
Typical topics Performance, productivity, well-being, leadership effectiveness, and goal-attainment. Emotional health and well-being, anxiety, depression, and trauma. Career growth and development.
Challenges Unregulated industry; try to establish the coach’s training and credentials upfront. Unfortunately, there is some stigma associated with mental health issues. Mentors at senior levels can be too busy to invest enough time in building the relationship.

In addition to coaching, counseling, and mentoring, some people use consulting services. While similar, the primary difference between a consultant vs. coach is that consultants share their expertise to help you reach a given goal. 

Consultants, at least in a traditional view, are often engaged explicitly to give answers based on defined expertise. Coaches guide you toward finding your own answers to overcoming your challenges and meeting your goals. With coaches, the expertise you seek is their skill and knowledge in working with people like you.

The benefits of coaching, counseling, and mentoring

Now that we’ve looked at some distinctions between coaching, counseling, and mentoring, let’s look at some benefits to each of these approaches. 

Benefits of coaching

A coach is someone in your corner. They’re helping you stay at the top of your game, but they also keep an eye on the bigger picture. A coach understands where you’re trying to go over time and helps you work out which techniques and practices might not be serving your health or aspirations. 

Some key benefits of coaching include:

  • Access to a safe, non-judgmental space to explore, pursue, and achieve what you really want in life.
  • Enhanced awareness about your values, aspirations, and obstacles.
  • A wide range of topics that can be explored, including relationships, health and well-being, parenting, career development, and finances.
  • A partnership where you are in the driver’s seat while the coach asks powerful questions, listens deeply, and challenges, champions, and celebrates you throughout the journey.
  • A way to keep yourself accountable and learn from any setbacks you encounter.

Benefits of counseling

Like coaching, counseling also offers you a safe space to open up and explore your challenges while counselors ask powerful questions. 

Some additional benefits of counseling include:

  • A safe space for you to uncover, resolve, and heal from past traumas and emotional distress.
  • The presence of a licensed professional who is equipped to support you if you are experiencing severe challenges such as anxiety, depression, or addiction issues.
  • Credibility, due to the strict licensing requirements to become a counselor.
  • Specialized support in various domains such as school counseling and family counseling.

Benefits of mentorship

Having a mentor can have many benefits in one’s personal and professional domain.  A mentor wants you to succeed. They can give guidance or open up professional contacts that are unique to their own professional experience and career trajectory.

These include:

  • Support in the workplace, or in academic settings.
  • Enhanced career outcomes, greater engagement, and job satisfaction.
  • Shared knowledge from your mentor’s professional and personal experiences.

Mentors also experience greater job satisfaction and fulfillment at work as they have the opportunity to nurture someone else’s career by sharing their knowledge and experience.

When to use coaching, counseling, and mentoring

Coaching, counseling, and mentoring are each beneficial in their own way, and each have a time and place.

When to use a coach

Use a coach if:

  • You want clarity about what you truly want in life and what’s getting in the way.
  • Your main goals are around building a certain kind of future rather than resolving and healing from what has happened in the past.
  • You are looking for someone to keep you accountable to your goals.
  • You feel that you are not living up to your personal or professional potential.
  • You experience the desire for a more fulfilling, purpose-driven life.

When to use a counselor

Use a counselor if:

  • You feel that events from your past are holding you back.
  • You’re experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, or another mental health challenge.
  • You’ve experienced trauma or loss that you’re unable to move past.
  • You’re experiencing ongoing emotional distress.
  • You find yourself in a pattern of being a part of dysfunctional relationships.

When to use a mentor

Use a mentor if:

  • You want to learn from a more experienced professional in your field.
  • You want advice and guidance on how to grow in your career in your organization or industry.
  • You want to enhance the network of professionals you can learn from.
  • You are looking for ways to successfully navigate the challenges unique to your organization’s culture.
  • Your goals are not time-sensitive and you have the flexibility to cultivate a mutually beneficial, open-ended relationship with your mentor.

3 practical examples of coaching, counseling, and mentoring

Now that we’ve covered the distinctions, benefits, and use-cases of these approaches, let’s consider some examples to demonstrate how they can be used together.

Example 1: A young professional uses a combination of coaching and counseling to become a better leader

Natasha is a young marketing professional at a large pharmaceutical company, who has recently been promoted to a managerial position. She is passionate, driven, ambitious, and a strong believer in the mission of her organization. 

While she is excited about the prospect of leading a team, she is also a bit nervous as this will be her first time managing people. She comes to coaching with a desire to learn how she can become a great leader

As she works with her coach, Natasha learns that she is really good at building relationships with people and recognizing them. However, Natasha also learns that she tends to avoid conflict, which can get in the way of her having difficult — but important — conversations with her team members. 

Since she is committed to enhancing her leadership effectiveness, Natasha works with her coach to understand what about conflict makes her uncomfortable and ways in which she can overcome these obstacles. With time and practice, Natasha adds new tools to her leadership toolkit and is able to have difficult conversations at work in an effective manner.

Through this process, however, Natasha also discovers that her conflict avoidance is rooted in some unresolved childhood experiences. This has led her to have a less than ideal relationship with her family, which is something she regrets and wants to resolve. 

Natasha’s coach points her in the direction of a counselor because what Natasha is seeking is a resolution of past experiences that have caused her emotional distress. While she can continue to work with her coach to enhance her leadership skills, it would be best for her to work with a counselor to heal from her past. 

As this example illustrates, coaching and counseling can be used together depending upon the individual’s needs.

Example 2: A new manager utilizes a combination of coaching and mentoring to become a better leader

John has recently moved to a new role as a software engineering manager. Before this, he had been an engineer for almost seven years. He finds himself struggling in his new role because all the things that had made him successful so far in his career did not seem that effective anymore. 

Before he became a manager, he was able to get things done at a much faster rate and he felt much more productive. In his new role, he has to get things done through others, which seems to take much longer. John often has the urge to jump in and do the work himself but knows that this isn’t sustainable. He simply can’t deliver results for all of his team members. 

John decides to work with a coach to navigate this challenge. The coaching process begins by clarifying what John really wants, which is to be able to deliver results through his team without giving up on quality or speed. 

When his coach asks John if there are leaders in his organization he admires, he thinks of a director who seems exceptional at motivating others to deliver high-quality results. John decides to approach this director with a mentoring request. He is thoughtful about the process and does a lot of homework before making the actual request.

It takes some time, but John is eventually able to establish a mentoring relationship with this director. Knowing that the director is extremely busy, John is always thoughtful and strategic about using his mentor’s time. 

To make sure he is making consistent progress on his goals, he continues meeting his coach on a weekly basis. The combined approach of working with both a coach and mentor helps John become more effective faster. 

Example 3: A mentor suggests counseling and coaching to her mentees

Neha, a senior executive at a manufacturing company, has just received another promotion at work. She works in a male-dominated industry, and is proud of making her way up the corporate ladder. At the same time, the gender imbalance deeply bothers her and she decides to mentor younger women at her organization. 

Given her time constraints, she decides to have a maximum of three mentees at a time. Once she has all her mentees, she excitedly dives into the mentorship with them, doing her best to encourage and support these women in their careers. After a few conversations with her mentees, Neha realizes that two of them could benefit from working with a coach or a counselor as well. 

For example, one of her mentees, Rachel, is struggling to cope with the sudden loss of her husband to a car accident. Neha wisely encourages Rachel to seek additional support from a grief counselor

Similarly, another of her mentees, Helen, is looking for ways to find better work-life balance as a working mother. Neha encourages Helen to work with a professional coach who can dedicate more time in making sure Helen is able to implement the changes in her life she really needs for her well-being. 

By knowing when to share her own experiences and advice, and when to refer her mentees to other professionals, Neha is able to create a positive impact on her mentees lives at various levels.

Final thoughts on coaching, counseling, and mentoring

There are certain overlaps between coaching, counseling, and mentoring. However, there are also important differences. They are each uniquely flexible, and powerful, human connections for personal and professional growth. Each of these relationships can play an important role in a person’s career and life journey, depending on the internal and external challenges an individual faces and can be even more valuable used simultaneously to amplify growth and results.

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Published March 25, 2021

Yashi Srivastava

BetterUp Coach, MAPP, CPCC

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