Am I coaching or mentoring? Know the differences, but don’t worry too much…

At our regular, free Executive Coaching BootCamps, one of the most common questions we get is the difference between coaching and mentoring.

Whilst it would be lovely to give a black and white answer to this, the reality is it’s a grey area and we will often do both at the same time.

Pure mentoring can be summarised with a single statement:  “I have the knowledge/experience and will give them the benefit of it”.  This can be of real benefit, but should be used carefully.  After all, the experience we have is never exactly the same as the situation other people find themselves in.  There may be similarities, but giving direction in these situations can lead to some some pretty predictable responses, all beginning with the dreaded “Yes, but…”

“Yes, but, that wouldn’t work because…”

“Yes, but my manager wouldn’t value that because…”

“Yes, but my team are different because…”

On the flip side, purists describe good coaching as being summarised by a similar, single statement:  “They have the knowledge/experience, but can’t always access it”.  This leads us to the unending search for the ‘killer question’.  We need to tread carefully here too. Relentlessly questioning can lead to helplessness as the coachee is made to feel they should know something that they simply don’t.

Why should they be expected to know the answer?

Is it a situation they’ve never experienced before and have no frame of reference?

Good coaching is undoubtedly about unlocking potential through insightful questioning, but it’s also about helping people solve problems.  Sometimes people get stuck, and if they don’t have the knowledge or experience, no number of clever questions will unstick them. Sometimes people simply need to be told the answer.

Whether you are a mentor or a coach, recognise that you will use a variety of approaches to help the people you work with.  Understand the differences and the differing impact of the approach you choose.
Importantly though, don’t worry about it too much.  ‘Pure’ coaching and ‘pure’ mentoring both have their strengths and weaknesses – a sensible, balanced approach is likely to achieve the best results.

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