If you are considering working with a life coach, a good first step is to understand the difference between coaching, consulting, mentoring, and therapy. Each has a distinct and important function, and each may become valuable to you at different times in your life. It is also possible that you can work with all of these individuals – or a combination of them – at once. 

Here’s my story to provide some context. When I was an executive director of a nonprofit, I needed all the help I could get. (If you’ve ever led a business or organization, I’m sure you can relate.) 

There I was, buried in the demands and expectations of the job. I felt like I needed to be 10 people at once, and each of them required more strength and stamina than I had alone. Board wrangling, fundraising, accounting, human resources – it all landed in my lap eventually. 

I needed a support team, so I set out to build one. 

A number of consultants helped me with technical aspects of the organization, including growing our fundraising and streamlining our business systems. Mentors gave me perspective and quick hits of guidance from their shared experience in the sector. A therapist guided me in sorting out some tricky aspects of my personal relationships at that time. And my coach helped me develop the kind of leadership – and Iife – I wanted for me

(Also my friends let me commiserate about stress, my trainer held me accountable for keeping up with workouts, and my family reminded me to have fun and relax.)

We were a well-oiled machine, so to speak.

Can you relate to the demands on your life? Or are you in a place where you need support but don’t yet know what kind? Let’s take a deeper look at your options. Oh, and keep in mind, this isn’t a definitive guide but a helpful primer to get you started.

What is coaching?

Life coaching is what I do. It’s a relatively new and quickly growing profession, and it is the influence I didn’t know was missing from my life for years. 

A coach works with a client to articulate and achieve their goals, but one’s goals aren’t held apart from life – we don’t address them in a vacuum. A coach will work with a client to look at the entire beautiful and complex picture, hence the descriptor “life” in front of “coach.”

Coaches support people who may be going through a career or life transition, seeking to fulfill a secret dream, desiring to spend more time and energy on what matters to them, or even determining what the purpose of their life is.

They provide support by asking provocative questions, offering challenges or brainstorming, providing the structure and focus to stay in action, and serving as an accountability partner to progress. 

What is consulting?

Consulting is a fancy word for problem solving. A consultant generally has a narrow focus, a finite perspective, and a particular technical skill set that is exceptionally developed.

Consultants support people who need subject matter experts. Maybe you need a marketing plan. You need help with technology. You need a better accounting system. Distinct from a freelancer – to whom you would assign work – the consultant helps you define the scope of the problem and come up with the solutions together.

Consultants provide support by analyzing needs and creating a strategy or plan. Sometimes you may be technically capable of doing the work, but you don’t have the time or resources. In this way, consultants can fill in organizational gaps.


What is mentoring?

Mentors are individuals who might have a career or life path that you admire or aspire to replicate in some way. Mentoring is not a profession like the rest of the relationships in this list. It’s generally voluntary, unpaid, and based on shared values, experiences, or strengths. 

A mentor supports people who have less experience than they do. They address questions of professional choices, life or career transitions, or personal aspirations.

Mentors provide support by sharing how they did it or offering advice from their perspective.  They may open doors or facilitate introductions, serve as a professional reference, or provide spiritual or emotional guidance.

In my experience, there’s a fine line between asking for help from a mentor and taking advantage of an individual’s generosity. Out of respect or sensitivity to the situation, the mentee may not always get everything they want. 


What is therapy?

I can’t say enough good things about therapy for people who are suffering (and who hasn’t been in mental anguish at some point.) Therapy often begins with defining a problem, whether it’s a maladaptive behavior, an event or trauma, relationships, or mental pain or anguish. 

A therapist or counselor is trained to diagnose what’s wrong. (In contrast, coaches don’t make diagnoses but begin with the understanding that each individual is creative, resourceful, and whole.) Within the larger framework of therapeutic professionals are trained medical professionals who are licensed to prescribe drugs.

It’s important to note that, at times, a coach will recommend to a client that they seek a therapist for help. For example, you cannot coach your way out of trauma. You cannot coach your way out of clinical depression, grief, or mental illness. That’s not the job of coaching. Clients who come to coaching are not perfect, but they are in a position to tackle exponential growth.

If therapy helps us solve problems, coaching helps realize dreams.


And . . . what they have in common

Each of these modalities has distinct objectives and scopes of work, but there are similarities because we are all people helping people. Working with a consultant can be emotional. A therapist can be forward-looking and support you in your goals. A mentor can provide structure and encouragement. All of them usher in progress and improvement. 

Perhaps that’s why it gets confusing – we live in a critical, analytical, hair-triggering world. We aren’t accustomed to defining and gaining clarity over the ways we can be supported and championed.

Finally, I want to say that you can wander the aisles of a book store and find more than enough information and expertise on any number of subjects that will usher in progress. You can watch YouTube videos or browse the business section for technical expertise. You can set goals yourself – we do it every New Year. Knowledge, resources, and tactics are available to anyone, and they are abundant.

But knowledge, resources, and tactics are not the true value. People need people for support, connection, and clarity. Relationships are the key to transformation.

About Me

I’m Stephanie. I’m a writer, coach, and facilitator. I work with individuals, teams and leaders in creative, entrepreneurial, and nonprofit fields to improve communication, find a true purpose, and deepen connection and meaning. If you enjoyed this post, share it with a friend! And I’d love it if you would subscribe to my email list, .