Effective Coaching Blog
Kevin William Grant- Counsellor and Life Coach

The difference between coaching, mentoring, and counselling

  • Kevin William Grant

There are many empathic people ready to assist us with our challenges, and they fulfill various roles. You can sign up for either coaching, mentoring or counselling, but how will you know which one suits you?

There are many misconceptions about these three areas of expertise and this article covers the main points.

While each coach, mentor, and counselor is different; the framework for each approach is established. Rules within each framework offer insight into what is available for someone looking for a helping professional. Knowing which might serve you in your personal pursuit toward success is helpful.

  • Coaches aren’t just on a soccer pitch or in an office setting.
  • Mentors don’t just hold a person’s hand and show them their personal playbook.
  • Counselors don’t solely work with the mentally ill.

What is the Difference Between Coaching and Mentoring?

The International Coaching Federation (ICF) defines coaching as

“partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.”

Mentoring can be defined as:

  • Someone with seniority offering informal advice to someone with less experience. 

Coaching is:

  • short-term
  • formal & structured
  • specific & measurable
  • performance-driven

Coaches work with clients in a collaborative process. The agenda for each conversation is developed by both parties. Typically a coach will have expertise in the coachee’s desired area of growth. However, as a coach is not expected to have all the answers, their expertise could be diverse.

Rather than giving advice, coaches gather information in the co-created process of change. A coach’s job is to ask questions from a curious stance that will provoke thought in a growth-oriented direction. Coaches see their clients as a whole and having the answers inside of them. Together, pathways to new ways of being in the world are developed.

The field of coaching is diverse and covers many different areas of development. Many coaches see themselves as human potentialists. There are many coaching tools that have been developed to aid coaches in providing a safe space for client change.

Mentoring is:

  • long-term
  • informal
  • development-driven
  • looser parameters for growth

Mentors typically work with developing coworkers. Companies often assign mentor relationships, but they can also develop spontaneously. The role can also often be labeled as adviser. In most cases, experienced professionals who have seniority are paired with developing professionals.

Mentors give advice based on their personal and professional expertise. Meeting agendas are typically mentee generated, as well as development based questions. The mentee will benefit from the relationship by choosing to follow the mentor’s path toward development.

Coaches are expected to be trained in a certain number of mentor hours, so that an established coach can guide them in improving their coaching skills. Someone in your desired field, giving support through a mentor relationship is beneficial for any profession. It is an often-overlooked resource for building a cohesive community within organizations.

A significant difference between these two approaches is the training for each, which is outlined in further detail below.

Differences Between Coaching and Counselling

There are many misconceptions between the professions coach and counsellor.

Many areas could overlap, the most prominent being that they are both ‘helping professions.’

With a better understanding of the roles that each professional plays, a more collaborative, rather than disdainful, perspective may be forged. In fact, many therapists have made a move to practice both approaches.

The ICF is exceptionally mindful of creating a delineation between coaching and counseling. Credentialing is strictly outlined to avoid a coach performing counseling instead of coaching. No coach should ever provide unlicensed counseling, and good training will allow the coach to know the difference. While coaching can be therapeutic, it is not therapy. Every client should be made aware of this.

Proper training for a coach will also assist them in being aware when a client requires a licensed mental health professional and is encouraged to set up a process for doing so in their area of operation. A good coach will also have a positive working relationship with resources so that clients get served well and correctly referred as needed. Counselors and coaches working together is an area of growth.

In turn, ethical counselors will understand the value of coaching and develop symbiotic relationships with those coaches working in their area as well. This would also depend on the counselor’s approach; some approaches in counseling are similar to coaches in that they focus on solution-oriented change. There is room for both coaching and counseling in the service of helping others.

It has been noted that the coaching agreement can be more strict than an agreement between counselor and client. This mainly occurs because counseling follows the medical model and the agreement is inferred through insurance, etc.

Counselors inherently hold confidentiality and other parts of a coaching agreement as a part of their practice. Coaches have to include their personal values and business expectations in their coaching agreement to protect themselves and their clients.

Another essential distinction between counseling and coaching is the expectation of privacy. Though ethically coaches are expected to maintain confidentiality for their clients, under the law conversations could be compelled by a governing body. The law cannot compel a counselor’s conversations with a patient.

Another difference is that a higher level of self-disclosure is allowed in coaching. Dual relationships in counseling, such as meeting with a client for coffee, are taboo, where coaching relationships can often overlap. The protection of boundaries for a counselor is essential and is expected under licensing expectations. This is in place to protect both client and counselor in a therapeutic setting.

There is a higher burnout rate among counselors than coaches due to emotional exhaustion and heightened levels of stress. As counseling often involves intense emotions, resilience is regularly tested. The population of clients being counseled affects the level of stress as well. There are life-threatening scenarios sometimes involved in counseling, which can clearly compound the level of stress.

In the spirit of co-existence, the differences are very important to discuss and understand for both professionals and clients alike.


  • focus is prospective
  • orientation on solution & capacity for change
  • achievement-focused/ goal-oriented
  • co-created
  • short-term
  • certification and credentialing are strongly encouraged
  • not diagnostic
  • clarifying for clients
  • provides practitioners with standards for client readiness
  • can make therapist’s jobs easier
  • clients viewed as already whole when entering a coaching relationship
  • change is self-developed


  • typically retrospective
  • client has decreased level of individual functioning
  • may involve medication and collaborative care with a medical team
  • “why” oriented
  • long-term, though this varies
  • theory-driven
  • master’s degree required for license
  • licensing is required by law
  • typically generated through illness or dysfunction
  • diagnostic
  • healing for maladaptive behaviors
  • recovery from past traumas
  • relieving psychological suffering
  • sometimes covered by insurance
  • unfortunately stigmatized
  • offers guidance and advice
  • practitioner seen as an authority
  • explores cognition and psychological impact on well being

There has been some criticism of the coaching profession by some in the counseling profession, and vice versa. This is an unfortunate occurrence and is likely due to stigma that surrounds both professions. Critics who don’t fully understand the movement of the legitimacy of the profession of coaching are doing themselves a disservice. The professions can coexist and even enhance support for clients.

The Benefits of These Approaches

Coaching, counseling, and mentoring are all beneficial for clients.

Knowing the difference in the benefits may help someone choose which approach they would like to pursue.

In an ideal world, people would experience all three approaches to maximize optimal well being. That rarely happens though, so here is a review of the benefits of each approach.

Coaching Benefits

Coaching benefits clients by creating the space for them to move forward in the area of their choice. Certified coaches are skilled at co-creating the pathways toward improved capacity for well being, productivity, and goal attainment. This profession can serve people in business, parenting, relationships, health, finances, and many other areas.

Clarity is a significant benefit found by most coaching clients. Quality coaches walk with their clients on a journey toward self-awareness and collaborate on concrete action plans that move them forward. The process helps to create a new way of being in the world that allows for clients to move over obstacles that, in the past, have stalled personal and professional progress.

Accountability is another benefit of coaching. This helps measure successful movement toward desired goals. Milestones set and reached invigorate clients on their path to successful goal attainment. The inclusion of accountability forces humans to take more multi-dimensional views in their cognitive processing.

With such a vast amount of information to process in a given time, most humans are the ‘cognitive miser’ and make self-judgment that utilizes as few resources as possible. Coaching creates space for more cognitive tools to be used, giving more accurate heuristic for self-discovery. It allows people to see beyond what is right in front of them in favor of the bigger picture.

Counseling Benefits

Counseling benefits clients by creating a trusted and safe space for healing. Licensed counselors are skilled at sitting with difficult emotions and situations. They are well versed in the process of finding relief from various forms of emotional disruption. Healing through counseling also has a range of effects in other areas of a client’s life.

While human experiences vary, many counselling interventions are found to be helpful across differences like age, culture, and socio-economic status. This is a solid foundation on which to stand when in service of clients.

Another benefit of counseling is that it has a longer history. It has followed the medical model and is therefore scientifically validated. This validation brings with it presumed credibility for practitioners. Counseling offers a wide variety of therapeutic approaches, which offers clients options when seeking a mental health professional.

Read one of our previous articles that highlight even more benefits of counseling, backed by science.

Mentoring Benefits

Research has shown that mentoring enhances work effectiveness. Success in business is typically measured by financial wellness and career advancement, in which mentoring can play a significant role. Behavior modeling and advancement guidance are a few ways in which that role is nurtured.

Organizational success is another benefit of mentoring. When a bond and a sense of belonging are formed between colleagues wishing to advance their careers within a company, they take action toward that success.

More efficient work practices allow for a business to thrive and can even inspire others within an organization. Retention and revenue are likely to improve with regular mentoring relationships, especially with new hires.

The following are overlapping mentoring benefits that may be experienced in all three approaches:

  • empowerment
  • improvement in communication skills
  • improved productivity
  • support
  • feedback
  • opportunities for insight
  • improved self-awareness and locus of control
  • increased self-regulation
  • improved self-esteem and self-efficacy
  • improved motivation
  • reduction in self-defeating behavior

Mentoring versus Counselling

One of the significant differences between mentoring and counseling is the relationship that is established. A mentoring relationship is informal, meetings are in various settings, and the duration is typically long term. A counseling relationship is formal, sessions are typically in a counselor’s office, and the duration is usually not as long term as a mentoring relationship.

Another difference is the value of the advice provided. A mentor’s advice is well received on a personal and holistic level because of personal familiarity and professional admiration. A counselor’s input is respected due to training and how their expertise has helped other patients.

The cost of both approaches is another big difference between them. Counseling has various levels of cost, as this service is a vocation. Insurance can cover some of the costs, but this is not always the case. Mentoring is free.

Though the lack of cost of a mentor may be appealing, it is harder to find a good mentor than it is to find a counselor. Clients can receive a referral for counseling from their primary care doctor. Clients can also find a counselor through their insurance company. Finding a mentor that is a good personal fit can be much more challenging to attain.

Mentoring is used many times to assist new employees in becoming more readily acclimated to their new work environment. Through assigning a mentor from initial hire, adaptation to the company’s culture can more easily occur. By enhancing an immediate sense of belonging, mentoring can help reduce the stress of being “the new guy.”

Conversations during counseling are protected under the law. This is not the case in mentoring relationships. There could be a perceived level of confidentiality in mentorship, but it is not required, nor guaranteed.

The Differences with Training

This is an area where a vast difference exists between these helping approaches.

Counseling has the strictest and most robust requirements.

Coaching, through the ICF, has made a great deal of improvement in setting standards for ethics and training. Mentoring requires little to no training, but instead depends upon the senior colleague’s level within the company hierarchy, as well as personal expertise.

To become a licensed counselor, one must first obtain a Master’s or a Doctoral Degree in counseling. After reaching this educational level, one must then enter into an internship or practicum to gain real-world experience in counseling. In order to practice counseling professionally, a license must be obtained. Licensure varies between states. Becoming a counselor takes years of education and training.

A coach can become certified through a training program, which is widely available. It is desirable to have a training program accredited through the ICF, though it is not required. Becoming accredited under the ICF requires different numbers of hours of mentored training and real-world, paid experience.

ICF coaches can attain credentialing through three different paths. Though there are differences in training hours and experience, all three routes must adhere to ICF ethical standards and core competencies. The continuing development of these professional standards is bringing increasing legitimacy to the occupation, which is relatively new as a helping vocation.

  • ACC, or Associate Certified Coaches, require 60+ hours of training to apply, and 100+ hours of coaching experience.
  • PCC, or Professional Certified Coaches, require 125+ hours of training to apply, and 500+ hours of coaching experience.
  • MCC, or Master Certified Coaches, require 200+ hours of training to apply, and 2500+ hours of coaching experience.

Mentorship training is mainly developed through life and professional experience. Most senior professionals will have advanced education and training, along with real-world experience that is available to young professionals seeking to climb up the business ladder.

Mentoring can occur in any setting, however. Anyone can take another under their wing to help them with personal advancement. Many mentors do attend leadership training throughout their careers. 


All three approaches are helpful, and many comparisons have been made.

With a deeper understanding of the roles of each professional, more practitioners can adopt an open mindset in the service of others. All have great things to offer others in the pursuit of a more successful life. With advances in the approaches, more collaboration between them will inevitably develop.