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What is the difference between coaching, counselling, and mentoring?

We often hear these terms used, sometimes interchangeably, but what do they actually mean? And can these different practices be used together, or should they remain separate?


In its purest form, life or business coaching is the practice of helping clients achieve their goals. The client will usually have an idea of what they want to work on in the session, and they will set the agenda. The coach will guide the client through the session and help them view the goal, and steps they might take, from all angles. The client will then decide what actions they will commit to over the following weeks. At no point will the coach tell the client what to do, but they may reflect back any limiting beliefs the client might have. The coach should ensure the client is fully aware of their thought processes, but it is the client’s choice whether they want to try and change them.

The coach doesn’t need any experience of how to achieve the goal the client is focusing on. If the client wants set a goal to run a marathon, , the coach isn’t required to have a background in that area. The belief is that the client has the resources within themselves to achieve the goal, pulling on all their strengths to work out the best route for their personal circumstances. This is because the client is best placed to know their own abilities, the methods that work best for them and which areas they might need professional help with. The client is not accountable to the coach, they are working towards the goal for their own benefit, not anyone else’s.

Similarly, if the client wants to set up a gardening business, the coach does not need to know anything about gardening or how to set up a business. However, this is where coaching and mentoring often overlap.

‘Put simply professional coaching is the best way to support an individual, team, organisation and society to reach its purpose and potential.’

- Definition of coaching by the Coaching Association


A mentor will usually be experienced in a particular area and will share their knowledge with a client. Small business coaching often overlaps with mentoring as the client will use the coach as an additional resource for information. For example, the client might want to set up a marketing business. The mentor will then explain what worked for them and what didn’t when they set up their own marketing business, and the client will then choose how to proceed.

A good mentor will know when the client needs advice or additional options and when they should let the client find their own route to a solution. It is a delicate balance. If a mentor dictates to the client what they should do, then they will take away the client’s agency and confidence, potentially leading them to make incorrect decisions further down the line.

‘A mentor is an expert who provides wisdom and guidance based on his or her own experience. Mentoring may include advising, counselling and coaching.’

- Definition of mentoring by the International Coaching Federation


Counselling, or therapy, is the process of helping people with a mental health condition, emotional problems or a difficult life event by talking about them. Counselling often focuses on the past to help a client in the present. Coaching focuses on the future and only occasionally touches on the past to help a client learn from earlier events.

As coaches, we should be wary of straying into tackling problems that may bridge the arena of counselling. If the client is working with a counsellor, then we should ask the client to check with them that they can be coached on a separate topic. Similarly, we should be alert to whether coaching is appropriate for the client. If we believe that the client might be suffering from a mental health condition, such as depression, we should refer them to alternative therapists, counsellors or their doctor.

‘Counselling is a talking therapy that involves a trained therapist listening to you and helping you find ways to deal with emotional issues.’

- Definition of counselling by the NHS

Can we use these different practices together or should they be kept separate?

The answer to this is whether you are qualified and have the appropriate learning to be a coach, mentor or counsellor. At The Coaching Academy we have trained many counsellors, therapists and mentors in life coaching since 1999. We have found Coaching can enhance other qualifications and as long as the client is aware of what mode will be used in each session, then these different practices often complement one another, potentially leading to better results for clients.