New Zealand Law Society - The guide on the side - coach, therapist or mentor?

The guide on the side - coach, therapist or mentor?

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“Be a guide on the side, not the sage on the stage”. This old adage was drummed into me as I learned my coaching craft. Indeed, many of those involved in providing personal development or mental health services will have heard something similar.

A strong preference (if not requirement) for guiding – rather than telling – the client is shared by the coach, mentor and psychotherapist. They share other things in common. Each typically engages in a one-to-one interaction with the client, has a key focus in and around the client’s needs and wants, and facilitates the client’s progression from one place to another. Therapy and coaching also share similar origins within the fields of psychology and therapy/counselling.

However, how are they different? When ought one use a coach versus a psychotherapist versus a mentor?

In the context of the theme of being a “guide by the side”, here are some guidelines.

Coaching v therapy v mentoring


The International Coach Federation (ICF) describes coaching as:

“Partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential ... Coaches honor (sic) the client as the expert in his or her life and work … Standing on this foundation, the coach’s responsibility is to:

  • discover, clarify, and align with what the client wants to achieve;
  • encourage client self-discovery;
  • elicit client-generated solutions and strategies;
  • hold the client responsible and accountable.

“This process helps clients dramatically improve their outlook on work and life, while improving their leadership skills and unlocking their potential.”

Coaching is an “appreciative inquiry” based process. It focuses not on fixing problems as a more front footed approach: one that involves discovering and expanding what’s already working and functional, being pro-active instead of reactive, building and developing, employing constructive feedback.

Sir John Whitmore, a European coaching pioneer, describes coaching as a two-part equation. First it’s about awareness – clarity building. Then it’s about actioning that awareness and clarity; of which assuming a responsibility and willingness to do so is vital.

Coaching may be sought because of a gap between where a person, team or organisation is and where they want to be. A plateau may be reached where there is a feeling of “stuckness”. Losing one’s way or lacking clarity may be the catalyst. Being out of balance can be the prompt or in undertaking work that fits one’s skill set but which has little meaning or purpose.

As world economies gravitate from knowledge-heavy economies to more human-based economies, the importance of working collaboratively and being relationship savvy is more essential. Coaching is employed increasingly to keep up with that trend.

Many of the benefits of coaching are apparent or implicit from the ICF’s coaching description. However, more specifically, coaching may improve perspective (say, for instance, where a leader uses a coach as a sounding board), lift productivity and performance, enhance decision making, build personal and inter-personal effectiveness, increase confidence, result in better achievement of goals and lift a person’s sense of well-being, happiness and work or life satisfaction.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. A quick survey of most coaching websites will reveal other benefits of coaching. Other features of coaching are apparent in how it differs from psychotherapy and mentoring described below.


Psychotherapy is a means of recovery for many who experience psychological issues or dysfunction; where – in a pathological sense – there is some psychological or emotional malfunction or abnormality.

While the relationship between therapist and client is generally one-to-one as in coaching or mentoring, that relationship tends towards more of the traditional expert-client (sometimes doctor-patient) relationship. Consistent with that relationship, the therapist seeks to diagnose, unlike coaching and to a lesser extent mentoring where the client is encouraged to delve and discover his or her own answers.

Dr Patrick Williams, a leading psychotherapist and coach, says: “therapy is about uncovering and recovering, while coaching is about discovering”.

(Mentoring, too, tends towards the discovery end of the spectrum.)

The therapy client will sometimes feel broken (down), unable to get back up or on with life. In contrast, the coaching client is simply stuck or has lost his or her way.

Terms which describe what therapy leans towards, contrasted with what coaching leans towards, include:


Coaching / Mentoring

Asks why

Asks what

Resolution of issues

Design, Commit, Act



Understanding self

Realising potential



Past to present

Present to future


Acting on

A growing number of therapists provide coaching services to therapy patients whose recovery is well advanced. A coach does not – certainly ought not – undertake therapy, although a competent coach will identify any therapeutic needs and may recommend referral to a psychotherapist.


Mentoring is commonly associated with coaching. Indeed there are parallels. However, mentoring is equally likened to counseling or advising; often a mentor will be described as a trusted counsellor or advisor.

A chief characteristic of the mentor is in having relevant “experience”. This is passed on to the mentee, often – but not necessarily – in an advisory way. The objectives of this transfer of knowledge, skills or information are to support and to progress the mentee’s performance or other life or work based need. Coaching places more emphasis on the coach’s coaching skills and the coaching process itself to bring about a transformation; that is, a substantive shift or change.

Another key attribute of the mentor’s approach is to act as a sounding board, not dissimilar to how a coach acts as a sounding board. The coach, however, then tends to reflect back, inviting the client to come up with his or her own answers. The mentor may do so too, but more often will use the sounding board as a platform for giving feedback or a steer on how to move forward.

Mentoring sometimes has a longer term development focus (eg, in succession planning), although not always. Typically, at its heart, is a relationship between mentor and mentee that is strongly trust based. It may be mutually very beneficial, and be either a formal or informal relationship. A high degree of care and respect for one another may also be present.

Mentoring tends more towards enhancement and development; in contrast to coaching which focuses more on a lift in performance or productivity or towards increasing alignment or effectiveness, often with a shorter term turnaround in mind. Both support growth, but:

  • whereas coaching is about having the coachee assume responsibility for their own learning and growth;
  • mentoring is more about acquiring know how and insight to develop.

Mentoring is very support orientated sometimes in quite a nurturing, fostering type way. The mentee “walks alongside” the mentor and, in doing so, learns and develops. A coaching response emphasises a strong belief in the capacity of the client to discover and pave his or her way forward. The coach reflects back and challenges the client to discover the path forward. Mentoring employs an “experience come advisory” approach to achieve a similar end. There is less weight given to challenging the mentee, but more in showing him or her how to develop and in encouraging that growth.

It is common for a coach or mentor to swap hats during an interaction with a client. Ideally they are transparent about this swap as it occurs. Both roles are valuable. They just have different objectives employing different approaches. Mentoring is more of a longer term, learning approach, whereas coaching emphasises a more immediate lift in performance or growth where self discovery, ownership and an action orientation are encouraged.

Other key distinctions

ICF provides further insight into the distinctions between coaching, therapy and mentoring as well other like professions. Go to and refer to “How is coaching distinct from other service professions?” under the tab “Need Coaching? > CoachingFAQs”.

A former coach and mentor of mine usefully distinguished coaching from therapy and consultancy/mentoring in these respects:

  • Therapy is very who (you are) oriented, whereas consultancy/mentoring focuses more on what (the answer or solution is). Coaching explores the “who” and challenges the client to come up with the “what”. However, critically coaching goes a step further and helps with the “how”; how to get from point A to point B including implementation of the what in alignment with the “who”.
  • Therapy has a greater focus on recovery and therapy and mentoring explore and/or draw on the past. Whereas coaching – while mindful of and allowing for the past and recovery – targets the present and discovery; how the present might be creatively employed, leveraged, challenged or reframed to give rise to a more productive and valuable future.

For an insightful take on the differences between coaching and psychotherapy, see Patrick William’s article “Coaching vs. Psychotherapy: The Great Debate”.

When asked “on the fly” how counselling or therapy differ from coaching or mentoring, I often respond with a simple answer which provides a steer. That:

  • counselling/therapy focus on a shift from the less functional to the more functional (getting to or returning to the “start line”); whereas
  • coaching/mentoring focus on growing or expanding the already functional (from the “start line” forward, often in an action and performance oriented way).

One is more about healing, recovery, integration, strengthening and treatment. The other about growth, discovery, manifestation, evolution and co-creation. One looks for and strengthens a client’s weaknesses and possibly “at odds” relationship with reality. The other targets and helps the client better use their strengths and encourages him or her to explore new paradigms.


In choosing a psychotherapist, coach or mentor it’s important to be clear on how a prospective client presents. The therapy client might tend towards “broken” (many of us – at some time in our lives – will feel broken, albeit only temporarily). The coaching client will present more as “stuck” or “lost”; the mentoring client more in need of “development” or “a helping hand”.

It’s also advisable to identify a person’s needs and wants and which of each of the above modalities – coaching, therapy or mentoring – best fits. Sometimes more than one might be helpful, alongside one another or in sequence. Other times just one approach is preferred or necessary.

Competent therapists and coaches (and sometimes a mentor with an insight into coaching or therapy), will be able to advise on what might be a better fit. Or they will question what’s best and if need be seek counsel or professional supervision. It is also useful for a client to try an approach in an exploratory way, to test out what is going to work best.

What’s key is keeping an open mind and being willing to review what’s most likely to work; then in making whatever changes are required to meet the client’s objectives.

Martin Wilson is the principal of Selfmade Coaching ( His experience includes 24 years in legal practice, partnership in a large commercial law firm, 11 years running his own commercial law practice, and a period as group manager communications and human resources for a large government agency. He has been a professional coach since 2001. He is a past director of International Coach Federation Australasia. Martin’s works with leaders, managers and professionals in both the public and private sectors.

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