Coaches, facilitators, mentors and trainers, what is the difference?

In the leadership and professional development world coaching, mentoring, facilitation and training are key skills which are sought after in business.  These disciplines were only added to the business dictionary in the late 20th Century, but now the words are ubiquitous.  Despite the widespread impact of coaching, mentoring and business training, the terms are not always understood.  Indeed they are sometimes used interchangeably despite meaning different things.  Outside of the western business community, these words are even less well understood.  What is the difference, and how do businesses decide which they need?


A few weeks ago I attended an early morning networking event. As we were introducing ourselves, a lady asked me, “Are you a business coach?” I replied, “Close enough” and that was that. Everyone at the meeting now considered me to be a coach. I got no leads that day, as it happened there were a number of coaches already involved with this group. I am not a coach, but when I describe what I do, people look for a convenient descriptor to mentally file it under. Actually I do business research and training. I am not an accredited coach; I have done some coaching courses and workshops; I know the principles. But I would not normally describe myself as a coach. Lesson learned. It is important to understand the differences. Without properly defining what you are offering you could be wasting clients’ time, or they could be wasting yours.

The term coaching comes from the sporting world from about 1900 onwards. Fundamentally, it is a method for tapping individual potential, it is about helping people to discover their own abilities and solutions. Consequently, there is still a lot of migration from the world of sports coaches. In business, however, coaching, as a discipline, has grown considerably and can now be considered to have its own canon of techniques and philosophy, which is distinct from sports coaching. Coaching is often (but not always) delivered on a one to one basis and differs in this regard from training. Coaching is also a longer term investment. It is not common for coaching to take place in one interaction, there should be follow-ups and reviews to see how the coachee is developing. Coaching could be helping an individual through her career, or a project helping a manager through a single task. Having reviewed the situation, a coach will deploy a number of coaching techniques to find the coachee’s own solutions to the problem. The coach does not need to be a subject matter expert, or even know anything about the problem in hand, since the coach will not be providing the solution.

Training is very different. Trainers are employed to provide information or knowledge to one or many more employees. Usually, trainers would give a single seminar, or a workshop, or course. Unlike coaches, trainers do not need to unlock the inner potential of their audience to the solve their own problems. Their skill set is different and focuses on delivering high impact content with techniques that help the audience recall the information when they need it. Training and coaching, appear very different. Training is more about passing on information, whereas coaching is really much more personal. However both rely on some knowledge of psychology to be effective. But why should people get confused about these terms? One reason is that is common for trainers to use some limited coaching techniques and vice versa. So although coaches and trainers have different objectives there is some limited overlap. This overlap is particularly noticeable in facilitation.

Facilitation in the leadership and professional development world uses both coaching and training techniques. Facilitators would generally be used in similar situations to trainers, such as workshops. Facilitators are often used to run workshops where a group are trying to resolve a work related issue, run a project or to learn new skills collectively. An example is the career transition workshop run by the UK Armed Forces to equip service leavers with CV and interview skills. Rather than cover lots of power point slides, time is put aside to discuss attendees’ own experiences, so others can learn from them. Facilitating means tapping into personal experiences and problem solving in conjunction with passing on new information. That is not to say that facilitation is more interactive than training because good trainers rely just as much on interaction. But there is greater emphasis on collective problem solving than collective learning. Trainers are usually able to conduct facilitation and vice versa.  Facilitation and training are so close to each other because it happens that solutions that come from individuals are also far more likely to be remembered than information on a power point slide. You could say that facilitation is simply a training technique.

Mentoring is a concept that I have noticed people have difficulty grasping, especially abroad, where the English term is unfamiliar.  Mentoring is far closer to coaching than training. But it takes place over an even longer time frame. So much so, that a company would normally take its mentors from within its work place, rather than outsource. This is also because mentoring relies on a high degree of experience in a specific profession, unlike coaching. Many think that mentoring is a new idea. In fact the idea is over 2500 years old.

In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus’ son, Telemachus was a baby when Odysseus set off for the Trojan war. Knowing he would be gone for many years (in fact it took him 20 years to get back to his home, Ithaca), Odysseus left an old retainer to oversee Telemachus’ education and training as a warrior. That retainer was called Mentor. When training prospective mentors, I often use this story to explain what mentors do. Mentors in business organisations are more experienced than their mentees, they provide wisdom and guidance as well as acting as advocate: providing references and career information for mentees.

Despite there being considerable overlap in all of these disciplines, and the fact that all rely, to some extent, on coaching techniques coaches, mentors and trainers all have different uses. Mentors would normally be taken from within the business (although they may need to trained by a trainer). Coaches work on longer timescales and usually on a one-to-one basis. Trainers and facilitators deliver specific sessions and impart learning, be it delivered or facilitated from the group. Notwithstanding that many practitioners out there are both experienced coaches and trainers, it is always worth making sure you have the right tool for the job. Protection Status

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.