Is there a difference between mentoring and coaching?

Don’t think about mentoring and coaching as egg and chips!

I’ve been working recently with the Royal Pharmaceutical Society to develop mentors in community pharmacy. At mentor development events I’m often asked the difference between mentoring and coaching.  In their broadest sense mentoring and coaching are both processes that support and encourage learning to happen. There are numerous definitions of mentoring and coaching which has led to the confusion surrounding terminology. Parsloe & Wray say that “The terms mentoring and coaching are used to describe a wide variety of activities. However the lazy use of words allows them to mean different things to different people within the same organisation or context which is, at best, unnecessarily confusing and, at worst dangerously misleading”.

Below are two definitions, one of which is a definition of mentoring and one of which is a definition of coaching. But I have removed these words and replaced them with the word blank! Can you tell which definition is which? 

Blank is unlocking a person’s potential to maximise their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them”

“A blank supports and encourages another to manage their own development in order that they may maximise their potential, develop their skills, improve their performance and become the professional they want to be”. 

The first definition is a definition of coaching by Sir John Whitmore and the second is a definition of mentoring by Eric Parsloe. There are numerous other definitions but the key point is that these definitions of coaching and mentoring are very similar.

So do we need to define mentoring and coaching and place them in separate boxes?

A few years ago I was asked to deliver a training session on the differences between mentoring and coaching so I got two big boxes and labelled one ‘mentoring’ and the other ‘coaching’. I then stood in front of the group and tore up both boxes and I will never forget the expression of shock on people’s faces. There is so much overlap between mentoring and coaching that categorisation doesn’t matter. Focus less on the question ‘what is the difference between mentoring and coaching?’ and focus more on the question ‘am I doing what the learner needs me to do?’ and ‘am I using appropriate skills and techniques’.

Some people will be looking for advice and guidance from an ‘experienced and trusted adviser’ who has the solution at their fingertips for every problem. But some people will want another person to support them to undertake personal reflection and seek solutions for themselves. Therefore the moral of the story is, it is essential for the learner to determine what their needs are and to ensure that the coach or mentor can supply them with the type and level of service they require, whatever that service is called. “Whether we label it coaching…or mentoring, if done well its effectiveness will depend in large measure on the … [helper’s] belief about human potential” (Whitmore, 1997)

Instead of thinking of mentoring and coaching as egg and chips, think of mentoring as fried eggs and coaching as boiled eggs! The same ingredients are used in a slightly different recipe. 

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, 22/29 November 2014, Vol 293, No 7837/8;293(7837/8):DOI:10.1211/PJ.2014.20066817

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