The Coaching-Mentoring Scale

Ever been looking for advice, and not quite received what you’re looking for? Or asked to provide advice to someone else, but not too certain how to approach it? It’s worth considering the difference between coaching and mentoring, where each are appropriate, and why it’s usually not as clear as a straight choice between “coaching” and “mentoring”.

Coaching

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In its purest sense, coaching is all about asking questions. As a coach, you need to not push your own ideas and experiences. Your role is to question and challenge, believing that the individual you are coaching knows the answers. By asking powerful and open questions, you can help to unlock answers in the coachee’s mind. Clean Language is a great example of the sort of questioning that can be used in pure coaching.

These techniques are best used when a coachee is looking for help, but not necessarily guidance based on experience. An example of this could be a career conversation, where the coachee isn’t too sure which areas they want to progress in. It likely isn’t appropriate for a coach to guide this personal decision. Instead, they should use curiosity in questioning, teasing out thoughts from the individual on the areas they would like to grow in.

One important thing to note is that someone only using coaching techniques does not need to have experience in the coachee’s role — or even any knowledge whatsoever about their day-to-day work. A coach with a background in software engineering but no experience flying planes could work with an airline pilot.

Mentoring

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On the other hand, pure mentoring is all about using past experience to guide another in their learning. A mentee wants to delve into their mentor’s wealth of experience, gaining valuable nuggets of insight. These conversations could involve working through practical work examples, feeding back on where improvements could have been made.

The mentor should still question and challenge, and it’s important that all advice given is in the best interest of the mentee’s learning — not as an opportunity for the mentor to brag about past achievements, or to enforce ways of working. However, there is an expectation that personal experience will feed into the advice given. With this considered, a mentor needs to have had practical experience in the work that the mentee is looking for advice on. An example of a mentoring relationship could be a senior engineer guiding a graduate through some of the techniques and practices they need to learn about.

The Reality

While some situations do call for pure coaching or pure mentoring, my belief is that these two approaches exist on a scale. The majority of interactions will fall somewhere in between the two, and fluctuate back-and-forth along the scale as a conversation progresses. It may start with asking open questions to get to the root of a problem, but end with more practical guidance as to how to solve the challenge.

As a coach/mentor, it is important to consider where on this scale you feel most comfortable. Personally, I have a preference towards the coaching end, and find myself naturally starting here when approached for help. Others may feel most effective when in more of a mentoring position. However, you need to be aware of what someone is really looking for when they ask you for advice — don’t be afraid of directly asking this question!

As someone looking for assistance, think carefully about whether you want coaching or mentoring. Consider your network, and who might be best equipped to help. If you are looking for coaching, you might want to consider someone away from your day-to-day work, who has experience in asking inquisitive and open questions. However, if you’re looking for practical guidance from someone more experienced, you should approach a mentor who has lived through the challenge you face.

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