Demystifying Coaching: What's the difference between coaching, mentoring, and therapy

Demystifying Coaching: What's the difference between coaching, mentoring, and therapy
“Ari?” My father’s voice was soft.    
“Ari, Ari, Ari. You’re fighting this war in the worst possible way."    
“I don’t know how to fight it, Dad.”              
“You should ask for help,” he said                
“I don’t know how to do that, either.”
– Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

In recent years, coaching, mentoring, and therapy have become common ways for people to become better versions of themselves.

While these three have several overlaps between them, they are distinct in their own way.

This article is a perfect read for anyone who has ever wondered what the difference is between coaching, therapy, and mentoring and which may be the right option for you.


What is Coaching?

The International Coaching Federation (ICF) has this to say about coaching:

“A coach partners with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximise their personal and professional potential.”

When compared to mentoring, coaching follows a more formal structured approach and typically has a highly controlled sharing of experience and knowledge.

The need for coaching

Most of us think about locker room pep talks or athletic coaches shouting instructions when we hear about coaching.

But, a silent storm is brewing in the corporate world as another type of coaching is becoming mainstream — executive coaching to help working professionals become the better version of themselves.

Here is an interesting comment I found on a LinkedIn post that summarises my thoughts on the need for coaching.

“One of the biggest challenges in 2022 will be well-being, particularly around mental health, stress, anxiety, and loneliness. Leaders and people managers need to be equipped to coach and support people through the year ahead — and build in resilience — as it’s likely to be a bumpy ride.”

Executive coaching, also known as professional, workplace, business, or leadership coaching, grooms you for one of the longest marathons you’ll run -  the course of your career!

Key factors that comprise coaching

The entire experience is formal and structured

Unlike mentoring or therapy, coaching is conducted in a more formal environment, and the whole relationship is goal-oriented.

Coaches work with clients in a collaborative process. A coach usually specialises in a particular area, and both stakeholders work closely together to develop the agenda and map out the goals throughout the coaching relationship.

Their conversation is more focused on the solution and capacity for change. Executive coaching also focuses on the “How” aspect rather than the “Why” aspect.

Rather than one-sided advice, good coaches gather information and help the individual in their growth journey.

Coaching is specific and measurable

We wrote an interesting piece on the ROI of executive coaching. Executive coaching produces tangible results and delivers many intangible benefits, unlike the other two, which are more abstract and subjective.

Certification and credentialing are essential

Executive coaches with formal associations such as ICF and Marshall Goldsmith Coaching certification are encouraged.

The relationship with coaches is usually forward-facing

The coaching relationship is forward-facing and focuses more on the future than the past.

A company usually sponsors coaching with a vested interest in the success of the individual

Executive coaching might typically be supported by an agency or a company where the coachee works.


What is mentoring?

Here’s how Eric Parisot, an expert on human emotions, defines mentoring.

'Mentoring is to support and encourage people to manage their learning so that they may maximise their potential, develop their skills, improve their performance and become the person they want to be.'

At work, the purpose of mentoring is to tap into the existing knowledge, skills, and experience of senior or high-performing employees and transfer these skills to newer or less experienced employees to advance their careers.

Why is it important?

Behind every great leader is a mentor who taught them the ropes in their initial years.

Who doesn’t recognise Alexander, widely regarded as one of history's greatest military commanders?

But behind Alexander was Aristotle, a world-renowned thinker of his time. Alexander was under the tutelage of Aristotle during his youth until age 16 and learned how to become a great leader from the very best out there.

In recent years, mentors have played at work and in life as invaluable stakeholders in the post-COVID era.

NYT wrote an excellent article on the importance of mentoring, especially for the vulnerable sections of the populace.

Some key factors differentiate mentoring:

It focuses on the long term and is more informal

Mentoring is a long-term commitment between the mentor and mentee to produce results. It is much more relaxed and less structured than the other two. The parameters for growth are more subjective since the mentor only passes on their wisdom with the mentee, and there is no objective goal-setting process.

It is development driven

Mentors give advice based on their personal and professional expertise. The mentee develops the schedule more often than not, where the focus is on asking development-based questions throughout the sessions. The mentee’s progress depends on the relationship with the mentor and their ability to stay on track.

Benefits for organisations that enable a mentoring relationship:

Source: Randstad

A Gallup poll in October 2020 showed that nearly 50% of employees in the US were disengaged from work. Fostering mentoring relationships at work helps in:

  1. Improving interpersonal relationships at work.
  2. Improving retention.
  3. Keep employee morale high.


What is therapy?

According to Brittanica, therapy, also called counselling, is any form of treatment for psychological, emotional, or behaviour disorders that improve their overall sense of well-being.

Trained therapists apply research-backed techniques to help people navigate their challenges and adopt effective habits. They also provide a supportive environment that allows you to talk openly with someone who is objective, neutral and nonjudgmental.

While most therapy focuses on individuals, they also occasionally work with couples, families, and groups.

Here are some key factors that comprise therapy

It is typically retrospective

Unlike coaching and mentoring, therapy primarily focuses on retrospective experiences that an individual has experienced before. A therapist may also ask probing questions to understand the “why” aspect of the performed behaviour.

It might include collaboration with a medical team

Unlike the other two, therapy involves close coordination with a medical team and hence has stricter standards, and licensing is typically required by law.

It is usually theory-driven and personal

Unlike mentoring or counselling, therapy involves a lot of theory on navigating past trauma/challenges in life. Compared to the other two ways of getting guidance, therapy is more personal and talks about one’s past experiences and reflects on them.

It explores the cognition and psychological impact on wellbeing

Therapy focuses and explores one’s psychological wellbeing and the quality of life with a board-licensed practitioner.

Final thoughts on coaching, counselling, and mentoring:

There are certain overlaps between coaching, counselling, and mentoring, but there are also significant differences.

All three, coaching, mentoring, and therapy, play an essential role in a person’s career and life journey, depending on the individual's internal and external challenges.

We hope you found this article helpful in identifying the similarities and differences between the three.

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