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Coaching Is Not Training, Mentoring or Counselling

Table, chairs, blue sky

The Business Coaching series is now available to download as a free ebook Creative Management for Creative Teams.

In my previous post I answered the question What Is Business Coaching?

Now I’ll sharpen up that definition by distinguishing business coaching from some other approaches to learning and personal development.

Coaching is not Training

While training and coaching both promote learning, they do so in different ways:

  • Training is about teaching specific skills or knowledge – Coaching is about facilitating someone else’s thinking and helping them learn on the job.
  • Training usually takes place off-site or in dedicated classes – Coaching takes place in the office and (when carried out by a manager) can be integrated into day-to-day workplace conversations.
  • Training is more typically carried out in groups – Coaching is usually a one-to-one process, tailored to the individual’s needs.
  • Training is usually delivered by an external consultant or dedicated internal trainer – Coaching can be delivered by an external consultant or by a manager.

Although they are distinct activities, these two approaches can work very well when used together. One classic obstacle encountered in business education is the difficulty of transferring skills and enthusiasm from the seminar room to the workplace. Coaching is an excellent way of helping people apply what they learn from a course to their day-to-day work.

A research study found that post-course coaching had a dramatic effect on the effectiveness of one taught program – the paper is available here or via Amazon.

Coaching is not Mentoring

There are some superficial similarities between coaching and mentoring, as they are both typically one-to-one conversations aimed at facilitating professional development, but there are also significant differences:

  • A Mentor is usually a more senior person who shares experience and advises a junior person working in the same field – A Coach is not necessarily senior to the person being coached, and not typically give advice or pass on experience; instead s/he uses questions and feedback to facilitate the other person’s thinking and practical learning.
  • A Mentor is not typically the line manager of the person being mentored, but someone who is available for advice and guidance when needed – Coaching is frequently delivered by line managers with their teams.

Coaching is not Counselling

Again, there may be a superficial similarity in that both of these activites are one-to-one conversations, but their tone and purpose are very different:

  • Counselling and therapy deal with personal problems – Coaching addresses workplace performance.
  • Counselling begins with a problem – Coaching can begin with a goal or aspiration.
  • Counselling is sought by people having difficulties – Coaching is used by high achievers as much as beginners or people who are stuck.
  • Many (but not all) forms of Counselling focus on the past and the origins of problems – Coaching focuses on the future and developing a workable solution.

Next in this series – Different Types of Coaching


  1. Mark – I don’t totally agree with the distinctions you make between coaching and counselling. (I am a therapist and a coach). I’ll pick this up in a post on my own blog.

  2. Thanks Annette – I’d be interested to read your post, please let me know when it’s up.

  3. Morning Mark

    Can I add another difference between mentor and coach, please?

    Mentor ‘turns up’ when the ‘pupil’ needs him (well, mine did) where a coach is appointed to you.

  4. Thanks Karin, it would be nice to think we coaches could have some of that aura of mystery too sometimes… 🙂

  5. Oops, sorry.

    But I’m sure you know what I mean 😉

  6. I do indeed Karen… I’m off to work on my magic aura!

  7. Mark,

    I have one fundamental point of contention with your definition of a business coach. I hope I am not stepping on any toes here. You stated: “Coaching is frequently delivered by line managers with their teams.” We have found that true business or life coaching rarely occurs when the coach and client are not equal partners. A manager is the person’s superior and has lots of power over the subordinate. Hence the client (subordinate) will be very reluctant to open up completely to the manager, for fear of judgment and possible reprisals. Clients will rarely accept true open coaching from anyone they feel is their superior.

    The equal partner relationship is the key to why true coaching actually works. That is why outsiders in organizations can and do provide much more effective coaching. They can arrive and leave as equal partners and pose very little power threats to the people they coach.

  8. Bill,

    Thanks for your comment. You raise an important issue re status and also the difference between an internal (manager) coach and external (consultant) coach. In fact you’ve anticipated some of my later posts about the difference between these coaching roles – watch this space!

    Re status – since coaching is an essentially collaborative relationship, an abuse of status (and the power that goes with it) can undermine it. So for example if a manager approaches a coaching assignment by claiming to be ‘coaching’ but in fact using his/her power to push the team member into a predetermined course of action, I would agree that that undermines the coaching process. However it seems a little uncharitable (and contradicts my experience) to assume that most managers will inevitably abuse their status in this way.

    So I think you are doing a disservice to many excellent managers out there by claiming that “outsiders in organizations can and do provide much more effective coaching”. I have seen a lot of evidence to the contrary, in the many manager-coaches I have worked with, who are more than capable of recognising and avoiding the pitfalls of their status.

    As an external coach myself I am certainly sold on the benefits of this type of coaching! And I do agree that there are certain things an external coach is better placed to offer than a line manager – e.g. a completely neutral forum for discussion, and sometimes (although not always) it is easier for people to discuss sensitive issues with an outsider. However I also think the opposite is true – that line managers can offer things that we as external consultants cannot – e.g. depth of knowledge about individuals and the organisation acquired over time.

    So internal and external coaches bring different qualities to the coaching relationship, but ‘different’ does not necessarily equal ‘better’ – they can just as easily be complementary.

    I think it ultimately comes down to the individuals and their levels of trust and genuine willingness to collaborate – these are things that can’t be quantified, and are not dependent on their job descriptions of the people involved.

  9. Mark,

    You hit the key when you stated:
    “I think it ultimately comes down to the individuals and their levels of trust and genuine willingness to collaborate – these are things that can’t be quantified, and are not dependent on their job descriptions of the people involved.”

    However, you are assuming I am degrading managers, and appear to defend them, when the only position that counts is that of the person being coached. You said “So I think you are doing a disservice to many excellent managers out there by claiming that “outsiders in organizations can and do provide much more effective coaching”.” The coaching process has but one priority. That of the client. If the client feels the manager is superior (regardless of actual fact) then real coaching will be very difficult to implement, because of the mental barriers placed by the client. Managers have a more difficult time “coaching” their subordinate/clients because of the perceived power and superior position and/or barriers. Can some managers convince their subordinates that they the managers are truly equal and totally focused on the complete unrestricted welfare of their subordinate/clients, no matter what the subordinate/clients say or focus on? Yes. But will a subordinate/client truly reveal everything to their superior who is also paid by someone else? Doubtful! So the quality of the manager-subordinate/client relationships will most often be affected by the positions they have in the organization.

    Managers are paid to manage. Using coaching techniques are but one set of tools managers can use to ultimately perform as managers. Their first priority is to perform as managers. The only priority of a coach is their client. Period! How can subordinate/clients feel they are the total center of attention from their superior managers, who have multiple loyalties and are paid by someone else?

    But in the final analysis, it does come down to the quality of the relationships and the quality of the person doing the coaching.

  10. Bill, I’m glad we agree that it comes down to “the quality of the relationships and the quality of the person doing the coaching”.

    I think we’ll have to agree to disagree about your statement that “the only position that counts is that of the person being coached”. If the manager is the coach, then s/he has an obligation to find a healthy balance between the needs of the coachee, the manager him- or herself, and the wider needs of the organisation. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it’s certainly possible to achieve this.

  11. I think one valuable distinction between ‘training’ and ‘coaching’ is that coaching is often more focused on the particular needs of the inidvidual, and within context. A ‘training course’ is typically pre-programmed, but ‘coaching’ is about evaluating the needs and working to those.

  12. Hi Wendy, I agree about coaching having more scope to focus on individual needs and context. And with the proviso of ‘typically’, I’d agree re training – there is still plenty of scope for trainers to evaluate needs and respond to them, and to be flexible with a pre-programmed seminar. E.g. I’ve run seminars where I’ve binned the agenda when it has become apparent that it’s not the most relevant thing to the needs of the learners.

  13. Elaine Myint says:

    Could anyone explain any differences between counselling and mentoring

  14. Elaine — most of the differences between coaching in counselling apply to mentoring and counselling. The main difference is that mentoring is typically for work/career development from an experienced person in the same field; counselling is typically for personal issues, and the counsellor does not necessarily work in the same field as the client.

  15. Depending from the situation and you see the words may vary a little meaning, due to which there is similarity of meaning… Thanks for the article.

  16. Neelum Khan says:

    What is the similarities between mentoring and counselling?

  17. .To me coaching and training is really a difference of deliver method and that’s it -in the end you aim for the same result which is an impartment of knowledge to the client and he or she getting better at what they do.

    It is really splitting hairs to imply the two are like apples and eggs.

    I have never really stopped to decide what one I am by the definition used here I am most of them at different times and for different people. In order to make a good living out of this then I expect most others should be them also

    • That’s like saying it’s splitting hairs to say there’s much difference between a car and a train, since they can both get you to the same destination.

  18. I am a Chinese, in our language, Coach – ?? two words TEACH & TRAIN, so in Chinese, Coach includes TRAIN. A Coach, whenever required, teaches (to transfer and deliver information, experience and knowledge), and provides methodologies of training to make sure that the person under coach can make use of what the coach has taught to achieve projected results. In our case, the Coaching activities include teaching, which includes searching for information which may include experiences of others, and obtaining knowledge, to be transferred to the Coachee, who should also receive training that is repeatedly rehearse or memorize or practicing or doing something, in order to achieve a certain goal(s) or objective(s) in a future event.

  19. Hello, I am a trainer, consultant and writer, in my book Leaders not managers ( 2006-in Arabic ) I asserted the fact that a manager should also be a coach, and the a coach manager is more effective than a hired coach.
    An external coach may be necessary in case team members will not open up, but here coaching becomes counselling, as we have a problem to start with.
    Thank you.

    • Mark McGuinness says:

      If you’re talking about the medium-to-long term impact, then I agree that it’s more effective to have a manager acting as a coach than to rely on external coaches. But internal and external coaches fulfil complementary roles, one is not a replacement for the other. And there’s no reason why coaching by an external coach should become counselling.

      See my posts about the external coach and the manager as coach for more.


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