Are you a Coach or a Mentor?

Do you consider yourself a Coach? . . . or a Mentor?  While the two terms are related in some ways, they are worlds apart in others. Coaching or mentorship? If you see yourself one way – and your client the other – there could be a conflict.

Mentorship refers to a relationship of one who has a great deal of life experience or knowledge with one who is less experienced or knowledgeable.  The more knowledgeable person essentially helps guide a less knowledgeable person through the vagaries of life and experience. True mentorship is more than just the occasional answering of questions or providing help. It is about an ongoing relationship – one where there is continuous learning, dialog, and challenge.

As a “mentor,” you are expected to guide your protégé (if a male), protégée (if a female), apprentice or mentee at all times. In this way, mentoring is more akin to a parent-child relationship, or guru-disciple bond. This relationship cannot be logically defined or quantified . . . similar to the word “love.”

“Coaching,” on the other hand, is much more defined. As a coach, you are guiding your client in addressing and resolving particular issues, problems, or sets of conditions. As a Life Coach, for example, you are helping a client address and resolve his or her inability to deal with a certain set of issues, such as those with relationship, work, health, or money. This approach is “cleaner” and more defined than mentorship; but not necessarily “better.” It all depends of what the two of you decide up front . . . as well as what naturally develops over time.

I once had a relationship with a young man who came to me wanting answers to his relationship problems, i.e., life coaching stuff. Very soon thereafter I realized I had not defined the parameters of our own relationship clearly enough and he started looking to me to solve all his problems and issues. He was obviously looking for a mentor, whilst I was approaching the relationship as that of a life coach. I eventually sat down and had a talk with the young man and we got the whole thing straightened out. But, had I made our “coaching relationship” clear from the beginning, we no doubt would have avoided any misunderstanding.

As it turns out, this young man won out in the end, and I did, in fact become a sort of mentor to him, seeing him through many other difficult times in his life, usually at no charge. I’ve also had the good fortune to be a mentor for others as well. While I originally approached these relationships from the stance of either a doctor or coach, the mentor aspect sort of “grew” on me over time. As it turns out, I find mentorship to be extremely rewarding personally, and highly recommend it to others!


“Mentoring” is relationship based . . . platonic love at its highest. It is defined as an informal transmission of both knowledge and heart that has existed since Ancient Greek times. Since the 1970s it has spread in the United States, mainly in the context of management training.

The roots of the practice are lost in antiquity. The word itself was inspired by the character of Mentor in Homer’s Odyssey. Though the actual Mentor in the story is a somewhat ineffective old man, the goddess Athena takes on his appearance in order to guide young Telemachus through a time of difficulty.

Historically, mentorship includes traditional Greek pederasty, the guru – disciple relationship, the discipleship systems practiced by Rabbinical Judaism, and the Christian Master-Apprentice bond in medieval guilds.

Mentoring techniques

“Techniques” are not so important in mentorship as the actual bond itself. There are, however, ways to best bring out the whole person, so techniques by nature must be based on the wisdom and knowledge of the mentor in order to be used effectively and appropriately.

A 1995 study of mentorship techniques (cite: Aubrey, Bob and Cohen, Paul [1995]. Working Wisdom: Timeless Skills and Vanguard Strategies for Learning Organizations. Jossey Bass. pp. 23, 44–47, 96–97) listed the five most commonly used techniques among mentors:

  1. Accompanying: making a commitment in a caring way to take part in the learning process side-by-side with the mentee.
  2. Sowing: Preparing the protege or mentee for change. Sowing is necessary because the understanding of the mentee is not yet at the level of the mentor. Sowing allows the mentee time to make sense and see the value of what the mentor is doing.
  3. Catalyzing: The art of allowing pressure to build up in the mentee enough to encourage him or her to leap into the unknown (at least to the mentee). Here the mentor chooses to plunge the mentee directly into the change, provoke a different way of thinking, and allow the mentee a chance to change identity or re-order his or her values.
  4. Showing: this is the mentor’s art of making something understandable to the mentee by telling stories and using examples to demonstrate a skill or activity. All great teachers use metaphors and analogies.
  5. Harvesting: Here the mentor allows the mentee to focus on the results to become aware of the shift in reality. The key questions usually asked are: “What have you learned?”, “How useful is it?” etc.

So, are you a coach?  Or a Mentor?  Again, the relationship and personalities of both you and your charge will dictate which approach is most desired by both you and your client or mentee. The distinct element in mentorship, however, is the love, commitment and intent you bring to the relationship, and inspire in your protege. If the longer commitment is not there, start with coaching and see what develops. With enough time, coaching can evolve into mentorship and even blossom into a lifelong bond that transcends all other bonds.

For more information about how you can become a true Life Coach that inspires mentorship, check out our free report download.