Mentoring, Coaching and Training – What is the Difference?‎

June 24, 2020
6 minute read
I don’t completely agree with everything I have written here so after this article I have added an addendum Author’s Note that reflects my more up-to-date understanding…

Over the years working with clients, I’ve discovered that there is often confusion about what are the differences between mentoring, coaching and training.  We all know that these are ways for an expert or experienced individual to help people do something more effectively.  That’s the similarity.  But the differences…


Mentoring is generally an informal relationship between two people.  A mentor will do many of the same things as a coach or even someone who is a trainer, but there is no formal obligation on the part of either party.  A mentoring relationship often develops gradually from a friendship or a professional association, intensifies as the mentor discovers he has valuable insight and experience to share, and as the person being mentored discovers his desire to learn from the mentor.  The two people will at some point recognize the special nature of their relationship, but may not name it.  And as life circumstances change, the relationship will gradually de-intensify.  It will often turn into a friendship of peers.

Mentoring is often focused on a relationship where there is a significant difference in the level of domain expertise between two people.  Although there are skills to be a good mentor, the primary qualification for a mentor is depth and diversity of knowledge and experience that can be shared with someone who does not have that depth and diversity.  Mentors provide guidance often in the form of advice, but can also work through accompaniment – doing work with the mentee.


In working on this article, I read a number of other articles about the differences between coaching and mentoring.  All of them talk about how a coach does not provide solutions or answers.  This ability to draw out solutions from another’s own experience and knowledge depends on a large toolkit of techniques and the development of sophisticated skills on the part of the coach.  Professional coaches can theoretically help anyone who is willing to be coached.  While this is a primary aspect of coaching, it is not the only aspect.  Think of an athletic coach.  An athletic coach definitely does not simply ask the athlete questions and help them bring out their own solutions to problems.  An athletic coach helps point out problems, makes very definite suggestions, and sometimes even intervenes physically to help the athlete do the right thing.

There is also a greater level of formality in the coaching relationship.  A coach is a coach from the start of the relationship with the person being coached.  The person being coached has a specific goal to achieve.  It can be long term or short term, but it is specific.  The coach is there to help that person meet their goal.  Once the goal is met, the relationship is re-evaluated.


Classroom training is the type of training we most often think of, but it is not the only kind.  There is also on-the-job training and of course all sorts of e-learning methods of training.  Training is very formal, should have well-defined learning objectives in a specific subject area, and is often relatively brief as compared to coaching or mentoring.

Training can also include many of the types of interaction that are found in a coaching environment, but there is a very strong focus on the trainer being a subject matter expert.  The trainer has extensive experience or knowledge in the subject that is being delivered in the training.  It is expected that the participants in the training learn from the trainer – there is knowledge transfer.  How this happens can be very flexible, of course, and good training is never just a speaker standing at the front of the room and lecturing for the whole time.  Discussion, simulations, case studies, and other forms of interaction are critical for an effective training experience.  Additionally, there are numerous skills related to classroom management, presenting material, facilitation that all are brought to bear by a good trainer.

Techniques in Mentoring, Coaching and Training

The Socratic Method – ask directed questions often with a specific logical sequence and goal in mind.

Leading by Example – show people a way to solve a problem, but leave it to the individual to mimic or do something different.

Interventions – at key moments intervene to help an individual choose a specific path of action.

Guidance – provide constant (usually gentle) reminders to help an individual keep withing a specific path of action (guide rails).

Reflection – help an individual to see clearly what their actual behaviour is by either describing it back to the individual or acting it out.

Powerful Questions – ask open-ended questions designed to help an individual arrive at insights about their own condition.

Accompaniment – work side-by-side as peers with an individual to empower them to take action independently.

Lecture – sharing factual information about a subject.

Addendum: Training, Mentoring, Facilitating, Coaching and Consulting

Since writing the above article, I have learned that each of these terms is associated with a strong professional association and even certifications.  Thus I understand that each of these terms also has a fairly precise definition, and a discipline with a body of theory, practice, history and criticism associated with it.  My article above did not include any systematic understanding of these disciplines.  The table below is a better representation of the differences between these disciplines.  Hopefully it can help you understand how to choose and apply each discipline.

  Trainer Mentor Facilitator Coach Consultant
Subject Matter Expertise Y Y N N Y
Group Work Y N Y ~ ~
Sets Goals for Relationship Y ~ Y N N
Open-Ended N Y N Y ~
Establishes Process Y N Y Y ~
Personal Bonds N Y N Y N


[This article was originally published on Agile Advice on 24-Jun-2009]

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