Coaching and Mentoring – what’s the difference?

One of the biggest challenges we will face in our coaching conversations is knowing when we are coaching and when we are mentoring. So, what is the difference and why is it important?

Without going into the many definitions of coaching and mentoring, the difference can be explained through two simple statements:

A mentor provides great answers to our questions.

A coach uses great questions to help us find our own answers.

Of course, the mentor role is important in helping individuals develop the knowledge and skills they need to grow in their job. The danger is that, if overdone, we may create dependency and narrow the experience of our mentees. A coaching approach will help and encourage the individual to discover solutions for themselves, taking responsibility for the problem instead of relying on someone else to provide a solution.

In practice, a balanced mix of both approaches can be much more effective. Sometimes we need to use coaching behaviours and sometimes we need to use mentoring behaviours to help individuals be the best that they can be. The key skill is in knowing where you are in the conversation at any time and what is appropriate!

The focus in any coaching conversation should be on the individual being coached.

The leader should control the process, but the individual must be allowed to decide the content – what they are willing to discuss.

Structuring our coaching conversations

As we discussed at the outset of this module, we are not trying to turn you into a Coach. It is more about you developing as a leader who can use coaching tools and techniques in your day-to-day role. It may be useful, however, to be aware of the structured approaches that are used in the coaching business. Coaching conversations can be pre-planned or spontaneous depending on the situation, but both will work better when based on a structure. The following should help you to develop your own style.

The 4 Stage Approach (adapted from Sir John Whitmore’s GROW model)

Here is a four-stage structure that you can use or adapt to guide the individual, help them to clarify their thinking, and identify and commit to the actions they will take:

Stage 1 – helping them to be clear about which areas they would like to work on, what they want to achieve and why.

Stage 2 – encouraging them to explore positively what is happening now, what may stop them from achieving what they want, and what support is available to help them.

Stage 3 – helping them to think creatively, to identify, define and develop ideas, options and possible solutions.

Stage 4 – helping them to decide what actions they will take to achieve their desired outcomes, and what support they might need.


Other tools useful for coaching conversations

SWOT Analysis. Encouraging someone to complete a summary of their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, and then using it as the basis for a coaching conversation is very effective. Make sure that the emphasis of your questioning is on strengths and opportunities and how the individual can use them to address areas of weakness and threat. This can also be used in assessing possible solutions.

The Four Problem Solving Questions mentioned earlier (see the Solution Focus section), not only enables you to coach someone, but can also be used by an individual to coach themselves.

The Coaching Wheel. Simply ask the individual to draw a circle and divide it into a number of segments where each segment represents a key area of their job. With the centre of the circle representing “not effective” and the outer line of the circle representing “very effective”, ask them to rate themselves in terms of effectiveness for each key area. The result can then be used to start a coaching conversation. This can also be used when coaching a team to analyse a particular problem area.


We hope you can see that there is no real need for sophisticated coaching models in order to be an effective leader. Using the principles of coaching, your knowledge and understanding of Emotional Intelligence, and building your skills in questioning will help you to help realise the full potential of others and to increase your competence and confidence as a leader and Senior Practitioner.


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