Mentoring and Coaching – What’s the Difference ?


The short answer is probably not that much ! The best mentors I have worked with have never forgotten to connect me with what I might know, before letting me know what they know.

When we are mentoring and we are asked a question,  it is easy to jump straight into advice mode. But a pause can be powerful.

One of the questions I have trained myself to ask on a daily basis, when someone calls me for some advice is…”If I answer this question with an opinion or some advice first, will I steal an opportunity from this person to learn something?”

Given that my brain loves to be helpful and longs to dole out advice and some words of wisdom, I buy myself and who ever I am talking to a little time by asking something like”What have been your thoughts so far ?”, before I wade on in there!

I am not saying don’t give advice. There is nothing more frustrating than asking someone who has supposedly been there and done for advice and wanting a “Yes, that’s a good idea” or a “I’d avoid that in your shoes because…” because you are genuinely unsure. And then leaving the room non the wiser (Is it only me in those scenarios that thinks the mentor might be scared of saying “I don’t know because when I did it, I was winging it all the way ?!)

But beware of feeling that mentoring means you have to have all the answers to every question you may ever be asked. I have been fortunate enough to be mentored by some of the UK’s best business brains. One who stood out and helped me so much was a board director of a FTSE 100 company who said on more than one occasion “Dulcie, I honestly don’t have a clue. We can talk about it together but it’s pretty complex and I suspect your instincts will be just as good as mine here.” Rather than a cop out, it felt like such a weight off that someone so important and experienced didn’t know either! Hurrah, it wasn’t me being too inexperienced or stupid to have sorted it out already. Sometimes there is no perfect answer or silver bullet. And when that happens, someone you trust reassuring you that you are going to have to take a risk without knowing the right answer and that will be good enough, is pretty liberating.

My advice for mentors is to learn to listen and to coach first. When I do mentoring training, I always train coaching principles first. Advice is fine. But make sure it is needed because someone is low on skill or experience, not because they think that you, (as the all seeing, all hailed Great Mentor) has all the best answers !

Don’t buy into the fact that they might be thinking that because you did it before them, you must have done it best. Use your experience to add to their thinking, not to stop their thinking in its tracks.

I spoke to a contact I have known for over 25 years about why a mentoring partnership wasn’t working. My contact could not understand why the mentee was quiet during their meetings and hadn’t asked him lots of questions in order to get his advice and use his years of experience.

My contact was about to call it quits because he thought the mentee didn’t really want mentoring and it was wasting both their time. I knew that my contact was a coach as well as a mentor to different people in the organisation he worked in. I asked him how different the mentoring conversation had been to his last coaching conversation. “Well massively, obviously” was his response. We had a chat about what might happen if he applied his coaching approach to the mentoring situation. We talked about him preparing less for a conversation where he would be asked questions and give answers based on his experience and instead preparing for a conversation where he would turn up with an open mind and enquiry led approach and ask questions of his mentee – without an expectation of what he would talk about in return. He decided he would do this for to the next mentoring conversation he had the following week, before calling it quits.

I probably don’t need to let you know that they now have a very successful mentoring partnership based on genuine trust, rapport and challenge?!

They have also found that they have fallen very easily into “reverse mentoring” at points. The younger mentee giving advice or asking challenging questions from his perspective as a newcomer to the business and someone from a different generation.

Here are a few of my favourite mentoring questions. Please feel free to get in touch so I can add your questions or experience of mentoring to our comments and we can all use them…

What have you done in a different part of your life that felt similar ? Could we think about that to give us some ideas?

I’m really happy to share some of my thoughts, but I am really curious to know what your instincts are telling you first?

We might find that subconsciously you know more about this than you think you do. Could you trust me enough to share your gut feel with me?

I’d love to know if we threw out any mentoring rule book, what you would really love to get from our spending time together ?

I hope that helps. Please do get in touch at for queries about mentoring/coaching or anything in between!