A woman recently asked me “What’s the difference between a coach and a therapist?” In answering her I realized I had to distinguish between these and a mentor. If you are ever stuck, it would be wise to think about whether you need a mentor, a coach, or a therapist.
A mentor is usually someone who has a lot of knowledge and experience with something you want to be better at. A mentor combines teaching, guiding and leading. They pass on their knowledge and know-how. If you are starting a retail business, for example, you might seek out someone with a lot of experience in starting retail operations to mentor you as you develop your business. In this example the mentor has specialized knowledge.
You could hire a mentor with more generalized knowledge to guide you through a transition, for example, from regular employment to self-employment. Some people will hire a mentor to help them through a life transition, because they know that person’s wisdom comes from consciousness and broad life experience.
A coach is a little different. A coach asks you questions and prods you to focus on what you are trying to achieve. He or she will assist you in gaining a deeper self-understanding, wherever you are going. A coach could work with you on improving your sales or public speaking skills or your golf.
You could hire a coach to help you get through some obstacle to your personal or spiritual growth. You could hire a marriage coach to help you solve a communication problem or to help you find a mate.
A coach may or may not have specialized knowledge in the task you are pursuing, and sometimes lack of specialized knowledge can be an advantage. You do not seek a coach because there is something wrong with you; you just want to be more successful at what you are doing.
A therapist (psychologist, counsellor) is someone who is specifically trained and licensed to help people with psychological or emotional problems. You would seek out a therapist if you were dealing with depression, anxiety, grieving, traumatic life events, abuse, addiction or marital conflict. You would find a therapist if you were unable to handle the emotional impact of a sudden disability or a serious disease.
In short you would look for a therapist if there’s something going on inside of you that leaves you feeling stuck or unhappy.
Choosing a mentor, coach or therapist is complicated by the fact that some professionals are able to function in a combination of the three, depending on skills and client needs. Others may be strictly a therapist or strictly a coach.
Furthermore, your needs may shift during the work. For example, a client sought me as a psychologist/therapist because she had been unable to stop her compulsive drinking. We dealt with anxiety, anger, shame, self-sabotage and limiting beliefs. Our work soon evolved into relationship coaching and then business coaching. Now we have shifted into mentoring. But when a psychological block arises, we are able to shift temporarily back into a therapist-client relationship, clear the block, and moveback into coaching or mentoring.
In conclusion, when you are considering getting help with making your life better, think carefully about whether you need a mentor, a coach or a therapist, or all three, and be aware that your needs may shift over time.
Dr. Neill Neill maintains an active general psychology practice including addictions work. He writes regular newspaper and magazine columns on psychological healing and self help. His goal is to facilitate growth in human consciousness and increase the human store of hope, happiness and generosity of spirit. Subscribe to his newsletter, Dr. Neill Neill’s Practical Psychology and check out his blogs, Living with Alcoholism and Practical Psychology.