I am very often asked to clarify the difference between coaching, mentoring and therapy. Being immersed in the coaching world I forget how these distinctions are not so obvious. But this should not come as a surprise to me; coaching is a rapidly growing field but there is still a lot of confusion, difference of opinion and misunderstanding as to what it is and how it differs from closely related practices such as therapy and mentoring.

Coaching vs Mentoring

A mentor tends to be focused closely on career development and giving people advice based on their experience. As such mentors are experts in their field and their role is to advise, guide and impart their knowledge and learning based on their experience.

In contrast a coach’s role is that of facilitator of sustainable growth and self-development. A coach conversely does not need specific information about their client’s area of expertise to coach them.

This is an interesting paradox that some people find challenging when they first hear about coaching: the more a coach already understands about a person’s situation, the less effective the coach tends to be. For example if you are coaching someone in an industry you have worked in yourself, you may have a preset notion of what the right answers are. A little bit of knowledge about a client’s area of interest can be helpful. Too much can be a hindrance. The less you know about a specific domain the client is interested in, the more you can truly listen and be present with the client.

Coaching vs Therapy

David Skibbins is a psychotherapist who became a coach. This journey led him to write a book on advising other therapists on the joys and pitfalls of the journey.

Skibbins explains that there is certainly considerable overlap in territory; coaches and therapists both have excellent listening skills, have an inherent love of people and share a strong desire for other people to succeed in the world. The key difference is that therapists work to help people while coaches work to empower their clients. Therapists will often argue that they also want to empower. However, when a therapist is not an equal but is playing an expert role with a client, it is difficult to empower.

Both coaches and therapists have tremendous curiosity. However the curiosity is focused in different directions. Coaches are curious about who the client is and what they are about in their life? What do they want? What do they need? How they are going to get it in order to move forward in their lives?

A therapist’s curiosity is more focused on what is not working in the client’s life and the uncovering of old wounds in order to heal them. But the differences become most clear by looking at the basic reasoning underlying the relationship between the coach or therapist and their client.

A therapist is hired by a client because the client has some kind of dysfunction and as such the very nature of the relationship means the therapist shows up as an expert to fix the problem.

The coach on the other hand is not there to diagnose or fix the client. A coach believes that the client is naturally creative, resourceful and whole. A coach is continually orientated towards the future and focuses on supporting clients achieve personal and professional goals by providing a structure and process for learning and self-development.