There are times in life where we need some outside support to help us get to where we want to go. Often we turn to friends, family, and community to help us reflect and get unstuck, but sometimes we might also want a more formal set-up in the form of a therapist, coach, mentor, or advisor. As someone who has worked with all the above (and is currently a full-time executive coach) here are a few thoughts to help you on your journey.
The purpose of coaching is to facilitate learning, development, and change. One thing about coaching that surprises a lot of people is that coaches don’t provide answers. Whatever brings you to coaching, whatever is happening in your life, is unique to you. And while your coach may have gone through similar things, they are not you. You are unique in what makes you you, in how you understand the world, in how your past experiences inform your ways of interpreting what’s going on around you. Coaches work with clients to create a developmental container that provides a space for the client to become aware of limiting beliefs, connect more deeply with inner knowing, become more effective in generating desired impact and outcomes, and start to build generative capacity for continuing development and growth.
According to Julie Starr, a mentor is “someone who takes on the role of a trusted adviser, supporter, teacher and wise counsel to another person. A mentor adopts a primarily selfless role in supporting the learning, development and ultimate success of another person.”
Mentorship is often a more direct transmission of specific knowledge, skills, and experience — the mentor is focused on the development of the mentee, and that development is often a reflection of the mentor’s own path and ways of thinking and working. This can be useful for growth and development of professional skills, but often does not go as deep as coaching. For the best of both worlds, you can look for a mentor-coach — someone with deep expertise in the area you want to develop in, who is also trained as a coach.
For more on mentoring: The Mentoring Manual
When the advisor relationship is primary, people are looking for advice on what to do and how to do it. Advising relationships tend to be more formal than mentor relationships, and the advisor generally has a level of experience and expertise in a certain area that is directly applicable to the challenges/needs of the person or organization seeking advice. Advisors will tell you what to do, how to do it, when to do it, and why.
For more on advising: 7 Tactics to Get the Most Out of Your Start-up’s Advisors
Working with a coach will often bring up new insights, realizations, and connections about who we are as people, and why we behave the way we do. Sometimes this work can be uncomfortable, and the ways in which coaches and therapists engage in this discomfort can be similar. Coaches and therapists overlap in how they might integrate approaches like meditation, focusing, and polyvagal theory into their work, but trained therapists are experts when it comes to psychological issues, trauma, and acute needs related to eating disorders, suicidal ideation, addictions, PTSD, etc. Ethical coaches know when they are outside of their realm of expertise, and how to refer a client to therapy when necessary.
So, which one is right for you? Ultimately the decision is yours (they’re all useful and great), but I think what it boils down to is what you are seeking, and how you want to get there. And remember — you got this!
Coaching: Developing capacities to be more present, purposeful, and generative in the challenges we are facing and possibilities we wish to enact.
Mentoring: Following in the footsteps of someone you admire, learning from their professional path and experience.
Advising: Seeking answers and guidance from experts.
Therapy: Healing and understanding our past, responding to acute psychological needs, personal development and growth.