Coaching vs. Mentoring?

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“Oh, you’re a life coach.”

Cringe, sigh.

I’ve had a rough time with this labeling thing, so I decided to write down why. Before I start spewing, it’s important to set the groundwork.  Rather than rely on my biased opinions, I went out to a large network of colleagues and friends and asked them.  What is it about the term life coaching? Do we like it or no?

The reaction was quick, and even I didn’t expect the rants I received.  ‘Coaches are know-it-alls, narcissists, charlatans.’  My favorite was embedded in a particularly long rant, wherein coaches were likened to snake oil salesmen. 

As a coach turned mentor, my battered ego wanted some balance, so I soldiered on.  What do coaches and mentors do that is relevant, valuable?  That’s where the chaff and the grain separated.  Coaches, my knowledgeable cohort informed me, are strict disciplinarians, aggressively demanding that goals be set and reached in a neat and tidy 8 week coaching package. (Hmm. Even I didn’t know that, at least that’s not what I do, and maybe this is why I chafe at being called a coach sometimes.)

Looking at this objectively, if that’s even possible since I’m so close to the topic at hand, goal setting is great, but achieving a goal often isn’t the issue.  It’s an outcome. Outcomes are produced by consistent work on a subject, topic, or idea. Goal setting, on the other hand, is planning for the outcome, and, a lot like dieting, completely a waste if you are like the 90% of humans who respond to setback by feeling guilty.  (Here’s a great article on this.) Guilt is a man-made emotion designed to eat away at our otherwise good and focused intention. Guilt derails. Ipso facto, goal setting derails.

If the perception is that coaches focus on goals and goal setting, and that’s something most of us don’t like very much, why are there so many of them and why is this industry growing exponentially? Perhaps the answer can be found in the work done by the mentor.

As far as I can research, the word 'mentor' was first used as a name in Greek Mythology.  The word became synonymous with ‘someone who imparts wisdom to and shares knowledge with a less experienced colleague.’ (Thanks, Wikipedia, 2015.)

Sounds about right to me, a mentor has to know the way in order to show the way.  Notice there is no capital T or W.  One of the most enduring pieces of knowledge that has come across my path is the definition of wisdom. Not an easy definition, mind you.  Clarissa Pinkola Estes dedicated several years of research to pin down exactly what constitutes wisdom.  Same for other well-known figures like Jean Houston and Stan Grof, to name a few. Ultimately, as Dr. Estes states, “Wisdom is what works.”  

A mentor knows this. It becomes deeply embedded in who they are and how they work. A mentor knows a way to consistently work on achieving an outcome.  That way has very little to do with statistics or numbers or goals, see Dan Pink on the subject of motivation.  More likely, a mentor is like a co-pilot, one who knows how to fly, and what to do if problems arise, and how to get safely back on the ground. The mentor doesn’t evoke the sense of wonder and achievement that inspire a would-be pilot to take lessons, pass the tests, and fly solo.  That’s a given, has to be there. So too, a mentor doesn’t say, ‘here’s your destination, because this is the only place I know.’ No. Hell, no. 

A mentor says, “where do you want to go?” And from that moment on, they work together to find a way to get there.  Very reciprocal, balanced, each contributing to the outcome.

I think a lot of coaches must actually be doing mentoring work, given the rapid growth of the industry and the fact that very smart, highly educated successful people hire coaches. If it were a simple matter of goal planning or skill building, this group would employ their own sense of agency and get the job done.

No, something else is at work here, coaches employing mentoring techniques and wisdom to help serve their clients.

What I know to be true about some of the very best mentors out there - they read, read, read, and read some more. Their favorite places include bookstores and libraries and coffee shops; they’re interested in anthropology, psychology, archaeology, and neuroscience, not to mention physics, astronomy, and astrology. They're just as likely to ask you how you spell your name in Egyptian hieroglyphics as they are to ask about your emotional intelligence quotient. They’ve had successful careers, carry several degrees, and life itself seems to be the very purpose of their existence.  And, far from perfect, they’ve gotten their own bumps and bruises from walking their own road, and that just serves to season their thinking and temper their suggestions.  In a sentence, they’ve figured out what works, for them, and they're willing to show you what they know about it.

I do concede that this is a piece of self-serving propaganda, and this article should be viewed through the lens of discernment.  Propaganda or not, self-serving or not, it’s not a big leap to take.  Find someone who has more wisdom than you do.