Understanding the difference between counseling, mentoring and coaching

Counseling, mentoring, and coaching are seemingly interrelated disciplines, with many clients using the terminology interchangeably.


Counseling, mentoring, and coaching are seemingly related disciplines with terms that are often used interchangeably in healthcare. However, each specialty comes with its own differences and nuances which distinguish them from each other, and it’s important that healthcare professionals are aware of these differentiations. This can lead to more specific treatments and branding of care and ensures minimal confusion when dealing with patients' different needs. To help you get started, we've created this guide outlining the ins and outs of counseling, mentoring, and coaching specialties. You can better understand what responsibilities fall under each umbrella, as well as how to use the correct terminology to boost your expertise, regardless of whether you work within a group or private practice.

Understanding the concept of mentoring

Mentoring is used to help guide clients who are struggling with a particular challenge or problem in their day-to-day life. Mentoring is used to influence and provide direction within professional settings and can help individuals grow in the direction they wish to proceed. Typically, mentoring is used within organizational settings to impart skills and knowledge to other employees, and using mentoring can help with greater decision-making and confidence in one's own abilities. However, mentoring can be used across any discipline and for any client who wishes to gain specific knowledge in a particular area. Unlike a therapist or psychologist, mentoring isn’t restricted to mental health concerns, and is an informal process that can last for several years with a professional growth focus. No licensing is required!

An overview of coaching

Coaching typically involves continuous development to help a client achieve a specific goal. Coaches will provide appropriate training to guide the client to grow, and increase the efficiency and performance of their various skills, as well as provide specific tools and techniques to help clients overcome their challenges. Coaching can manifest in numerous forms such as life coaches, traditional sports coaches, as well as parental guidance coaches. Coaching may involve a practical challenge where the client has someone to help them every step of the way, and can be applied to many different types of concerns beyond counseling issues.

What is counseling in therapy or training?

Counseling is a more specific form that deals with clients' psychological and mental health issues. Counseling focuses on improving the quality of life of clients and typically involves talk therapy to discuss problems and find a viable solution to alleviate client stresses. Counseling can be used to better understand the client's state of mind, past experiences, self-perception, as well as many other individuals' experienced-based challenges. This can be for specific issues such as substance abuse and marriage counseling, to broader domains such as career development and health counseling. With the counselor, you can develop strategies and coping mechanisms to deal with life issues in a more productive manner.

When to use coaching, counseling, and mentoring: Explained with practical examples

Coaching is typically used if you want to improve upon a specific skill and would like to solidify growth in a certain direction. Additionally, coaching can be used in instances where a client wishes to expand their potential, as it provides the space for someone to hold clients accountable for their goals. This can be used in situations where clients may be experiencing stagnancy at work, and feel that their leadership skills are a barrier to promotions. Using a coach, the client can overcome this challenge and work to enhance their relational skills with colleagues, and minimize conflict avoidance tendencies. The coach might provide the client with counseling resources or group workshops to improve their leadership skills and gain valuable experiences to receive sought-after promotions in the workplace.

Mentoring is used if there is specific advice that a client is seeking and is used to gain more experience from a professional within a certain specialty. Mentoring can be used to grow networks and enhance career growth, with it usually working towards an ongoing relationship with the mentor. This may be used in a situation where a client wants to change directions of their career and is struggling to know where to start. A mentor within their specific field of interest can develop a professional relationship to help guide the client on the right path. Additionally, mentors can also be used in situations that focus on emotional health such as grief. If a client is struggling to cope with the recent passing of a loved one, a mentor who has experienced a similar problem can help assist the client get back on their two feet to be able to face life again in a positive way.

Counseling is specifically used when a client is struggling with a mental health challenge. This can impact their day-to-day and can involve specific issues with disorders such as depression and anxiety, or it can involve trauma or losses. Essentially, any emotional health dysfunction warrants the help of a counselor and can help alleviate the pain and frustration that accompanies such mental health issues. For instance, if a client is struggling with depression and finds themselves with a lack of motivation, anhedonia, fatigue, and negative thinking patterns a counselor may be able to provide them with cognitive behavioral therapy techniques to help them overcome such challenges.

Key differences between mentoring, coaching, and counseling

It's important to keep in mind the key differences between mentoring, coaching, and counseling, and understanding these differences can help you elevate the quality of your practice.

Establishing purpose

One of the most important differences is that coaching, counseling, and mentoring each serve a different purpose. For instance, mentoring focuses on professional growth, especially in terms of careers. This differs vastly from counseling, which focuses on alleviating emotional health concerns, as well as mental health challenges, with coaching centering on performance, leadership effectiveness, and productivity toward achieving goals. Coaching develops the capabilities of a client and their motivations, whereas mentoring does not focus on the performance, but rather on what contributes to the performance mentally. Counseling works towards greater self-perception and self-worth and allows clients to feel confident in their day-to-day with performance increases being more of a side effect of this progress. 

Primary Focus

Each discipline also has a distinct focus. Mentoring allows professional development, whereas coaching helps clients achieve goals, and counseling helps clients work through emotional challenges. Each discipline is created with its own problem set in mind and will attract clients for different reasons.

Skills required

A mentor should have plenty of experience in their specialization in order to be able to provide high-quality guidance, which may involve having a network of connections that the client can benefit from. This differs from coaches, who typically have vast education in their field, but may have greater leadership and public speaking skills in order to connect with the right clients. Mentors and coaches do not need to have specific qualifications, whereas a counselor will need to be licensed in order to assist others with their mental health challenges. Counselors should also have excellent active listening skills in addition to empathy, communication, patience, critical thinking, and open-mindedness, in regard to their clients. This is because they deal with difficult mental health events, and so they must be equipped with the right skill set.

Credentials needed

As briefly mentioned, counselors, will need to gain a qualification from an accredited counseling program in order to meet and treat clients. Requirements may also entail a certain number of hours that must be completed. On the other hand coaches and mentors do not need to complete extensive training, or meet rigorous standards, instead, they should be very knowledgeable in their field. Mentors typically will have multiple years under their belt within their specialization, and coaches may gain certain credentials to verify their leadership skills in order to help others.

Relationships with team members

Mentors are typically informal professional relationships, where clients can freely discuss work matters in a one-on-one space. Coaches tend to be more group-oriented as their leadership skills endorse them to connect with multiple clients at one time. Counselors, on the other hand, can benefit from both group therapy sessions, as well as one-on-one; however, counselors use a more structured approach when it comes to treating and assessing clients. This is because client information is highly sensitive, and there must be professional boundaries to protect both the counselor and their client.

Activities undertaken

Counselors, mentors, and coaches each have their own approaches when it comes to meeting with their clients and the activities they carry out. Mentors may simply chat with their clients in informal situations or during coffee meetings to regularly check in on career progress. This differs from coaches who typically foster hands-on practical activities, or teamwork-oriented tasks, such as workshops and programs, in order to capitalize on their leadership skills. Both mentors and coaches are relatively informal, which differs vastly from counselors who carry out formal activities to better understand their clients. Counselors may meet more closely every week, and activities are typically more reflective with greater depth. This may entail tasks such as breathing exercises and journaling.

Short-term or long term

Each discipline also encompasses different time frames. For example, mentoring can last for many years and is typically long-term, with relationships developing closely over time in order to witness greater progress. Counseling can vary depending on the client's mental health problems at hand, and so can be anywhere from short-term to long-term. Coaching meets these disciplines perfectly in the middle, and can range from several months to a year, and sometimes longer!

Take home message

It can be very easy to conflate counseling, mentoring, and coaching terminology. However, we hope that this guide has set you on the right path to understanding the differences between them. While each discipline shares various similarities, it's important that you consolidate your knowledge, and wrap your head around the differences between each of these terms in order to use them appropriately. Alternatively, you may be reading this article realizing that you have been incorrectly using these definitions - and that's totally OK! So long as you have gained newfound knowledge, and have a greater understanding of each of these fields. Hopefully, you're now well on your way to providing clients with the right healthcare and lifestyle solutions.

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