When you are entering into a supportive relationship with someone, it is important for both parties to be clear about what they expect of the relationship at the beginning.  This clarity helps to get the relationship off to a good start.  And in all this there is a decision to be made about whether it is a coaching or a mentoring relationship. Many people use these terms almost interchangeably but the reality is that they are very different skills and if both parties are not clear about what it expected the relationship could easily fail.

So what is the difference between a coaching and a mentoring conversation?

With mentoring, the conversation will cover one or more of the mentee’s current issues.  It is crucial for the mentor to listen long enough to understand what the real issues are.  But after that the mentor is there to act as a role model and advisor: she is sharing her wealth of experience with the mentee.  She can chip in with “I did it this way”, and it is very acceptable to enter into a discussion about whether the same approach is relevant or how it should be handled differently in the mentee’s current situation.

Coaching is subtly but importantly different to mentoring.  The assumption in a coaching relationship is that the coachee is the expert and they are the only one truly able to decide what is best for them.  The coach is best described as a professional listener and questioner. They will ask open questions that draw out the issues and they will watch and listen carefully to the responses, directing the conversation to draw out unformed ideas and expose sensitivities, and then they will feedback what they have seen and heard to the coachee.

This requires much more discipline from the coach who must avoid the urge to try to solve the problem with their advice.  But as a result, this type of conversation has a remarkably strong effect of empowering, supporting and motivating the coachee.  Whatever course of action is decided at the end of the discussion, the coachee can only accept it as their own thinking and responsibility.  In a coaching conversation there can be no “but they told me to do it …” because nobody tells any one to do anything in a coaching conversation.

The experience of being on the receiving end of a coaching session can be very powerful.  It is not uncommon to find yourself facing up to issues that have frightened you so much that you buried them deep and didn’t even know they were there.  But if you have the courage and accept the support of the coach you will find ways of dealing with the problem, and your fears, and will grow in confidence in the process.

To learn more about coaching techniques you may be interested in one of our Coaching Skills for Managers courses.