Although you’ve probably heard of coaching for actors (1940’s), sports athletes (1960’s), and business executives (1990’s), the term life coaching may be ambiguous. Despite being a practiced discipline since the 1800’s, the profession remains relatively misunderstood with people even believing coaching and counseling are the same. Under those assumptions, people generally conclude they don’t need a life coach.
Not everyone needs a counselor, but everyone can benefit from a coach. Throw the term mentoring in the mix, and differentiation gets muddier. Although coaching, counseling, and mentoring all serve to help people, each has a different function, process, and relationship.
Coaching: Not Counseling or Mentoring
Professional coaching, mentoring, and counseling share a similar purpose in helping people through life seasons and transitions. How to achieve a better work-life balance? Struggling in a marriage? About to get married? Trying to figure out which career path to take? How to land the next promotion? The situational factors will determine what professional and which approach best serves the client.
In general, coaches use relational influence to develop and empower people, mentors impart their wisdom upon less experienced individuals, and counselors diagnose their clients’ problems and offer solutions. Coaching differs from mentoring and counseling on many levels, including the participant’s role.
Although coaches are change experts, they believe their clients are the experts of their lives. Coaches typically work with mindset and help clients take responsibility to act in ways that maximize outcomes. Coaches and clients are equal partners, who co-construct the coaching relationship through vulnerable and empowering conversation.
Coaches can administer assessments, sometimes suggest, and lead with challenging and powerful questions so clients can then decide on specific plans to achieve their defined goals. On the other hand, mentors and counselors are the experts in the relationship, who offer advice and make suggestions. Stoltzfus (2005) found that when people solve their own problems versus being told what to do, they learn more and are more motivated to address problems and implement their identified solutions.
Coaching also differs from counseling in that it is future-oriented as opposed to focusing on the past. Mentoring may alternate between both realms. Collins (2009) defines coaching as enabling people to move from where they stand to a position of where they want to be. Coaching and mentoring are grounded in the present with the desire to help others grow personally, develop skills, or acquire knowledge, as opposed to counseling, which typically involves exploring past hurts to achieve healing.
Coaching and mentoring differ in their approach, although over the years the practical application of mentoring has expanded, so it appears more like coaching. Mentors are typically subject-matter experts in their fields who provide information, support, correction, and accountability to develop their mentorees.
Christian Life Coaching
Those who may understand the value of life coaching may not necessarily understand the difference when the label of “Christian” is applied next to it. Christian life coaching is distinctive from secular life coaching. A Christian coach has a Christ-based worldview and encourages clients to find God’s vision and purpose for their lives and helps to guide them from where they are to where God wants them to be.
On the other hand, secular life coaching supports clients in pursuing their own human-based goals (Collin, 2009). Many Christian life coaches successfully coach secular-based clients, because one of the many ethical standards held by coaches is not to impose their own beliefs onto their clients. Coaching is not about the coach but about the clients and what they want for their lives.
Coaching sessions have an agenda, defined goals, and accountability, which is not inherently part of the counseling or mentoring. Coaching provides a supportive relationship and structure that allows the client to take responsibility and be held accountable to make life changes.
Through assessments and skilled questions, a coach unlocks the confidence and commitment in their clients to define goals and achieve results. A coach will partner with you, encourage you, help you see what motivates you, believe in you to make change, and challenge your thinking.
Coaches typically provide written action plans and follow-up with their clients between sessions. Coaching can be done over the phone, via video conferencing, and face-to-face. Coaching is for anyone who strives to be a better version of themselves in any area of life, and successful coaching is measured solely by the client achieving results.
Collins, G. R. (2009). Christian Coaching: Helping Others Turn Potential into Reality. (2nd ed.). Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.
Stoltzfus, T. (2005). Leadership Coaching: The Disciplines, Skills and Heart of a Christian Coach. Virginia Beach, VA: Booksurge Publishing.
About the Author: Sandra Dillon is a professional coach and consultant with an extensive background in business development, leadership, and ministry which provides her with the experience, relational skills, and proven processes to move individuals, couples, and leaders to higher levels of personal awareness, effectiveness, and goal achievement. She coaches in a variety of areas including life purpose/plans, business, leadership, finances, and premarital/marriage.