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Beyond Definition


Julie Farmer of the Mentoring Development Group makes the case for sidestepping definitions of coaching and mentoring.

"The term ‘mentoring’ is often mistakenly used as a synonym for ‘coaching’ when, although the two share much in common, they are quite distinct participative learning experiences and each is appropriate for its own particular circumstance.”

This statement by Alistair Fenton of Rewards Scotland (TrainingZONE, July 2003) assumes that there are in fact two distinct activities, called coaching and mentoring.

However, the experience of the Mentoring Development Group (MDG) has been that, while most people are confident of their own distinction between the two, there is in fact no consensus definition.

In a recent exercise, we gave workshop participants a series of definitions of coaching, mentoring and counselling, taken from books and articles.

Some of the definitions were felt acceptable and others were contested, though participants did not always agree on an alternative terminology.

However, none of the participants realised, until we told them, that all of the definitions had originally been for a different term.

In one example, a definition which was apparently of mentoring, was universally agreed to be a better definition of counselling, and was in fact originally offered as a definition of coaching!

Why does this matter?

One reason is that people assume that names mean something.

They assume that when they say, “We have a mentoring scheme, and want to set up a coaching scheme, so they don’t overlap”, they are saying something as meaningful and precise as “We already have a bed, and now we need a table and a sofa”.

When terminology is as confused as it currently is in relation to coaching, mentoring and other development schemes, the potential for sensible dialogue is seriously undermined.

The other reason for concern is that, in pursuing these contested distinctions, people may be distracted from the real task of understanding the underlying rationale for their scheme, through identifying its objectives, and what needs to be in place to achieve those objectives.

This carries with it the risk that schemes may fail to deliver any identifiable benefits, and, importantly, that the people in the “front-line” - mentors and mentees, for instance, - may find themselves struggling with problems and situations which the scheme had not anticipated and has not provided for.

Indeed, we include counselling in our range of overlapping terminologies precisely because of our repeated experience of mentors finding themselves dealing with a level of emotional distress and need that they are not equipped to tackle, and which the scheme in which they are operating does not officially even admit exists.

We believe it is fundamentally unethical to put mentors and mentees in this position.

Using Different Terminology

In an effort to get away from the assumptions of shared meaning in terms such as “coaching” and “mentoring” (since we know that even within our small group we have no agreement on these terms), we now use the terms “development programmes”, “development facilitator”, and “learner”.

We recognise that these terms are also open to dispute, and we are not trying to promote them as in some way more accurate. They simply allow us to recognise the commonalities in the issues we are trying to address.

Through our discussions, experience and reading, we have come to two major hypotheses:

Hypothesis One: Dimensions

There are a number of dimensions which are common to all “development programmes”.

These include factors such as the level of time and resource commitment; the extent to which the goals of the programme for the learner are determined by the learner him/herself or set externally; the level of emotional need in the learners; the extent to which facilitators are recruited and/or trained specifically for this role; the level of understanding and support in the organisation at large.

The issue is not that all programmes have to operate at a particular point on any of these dimensions in order to succeed, but that the inter-relationship of these dimensions – the programme profile – has to be appropriate.

Hypothesis Two: Emotional Intelligence

The key factor at the heart of any development programme is the relationship of the facilitator and the learner.

The success of this relationship depends on the level of emotional intelligence in both, and where the learner has low emotional intelligence, or is particularly stressed emotionally, the facilitator’s own level must be correspondingly high, as must be his/her ability to raise the learner’s levels.

Failure accurately to predict these issues, and/or to ensure that facilitators are adequately equipped to deal with them, puts any programme’s success at risk, and unjustifiably exposes both learner and facilitator to further stress.


In order to test out our assumptions, we have developed a set of questionnaires, intended for organisations, programme developers, facilitators and learners.

The questionnaires explore each programme along the dimensions discussed above, essentially from a subjective viewpoint, i.e. what do managers, facilitators and learners believe about the programme.

We hope to build up enough profiles of programmes to be able to compare them, and to identify generally helpful and unhelpful profiles, in relation to specific programme objectives.

We also know that the simple act of filling in and reflecting on the questionnaires proves a useful development activity for many organisations.

* Anyone interested in helping the MDG's research by completing one or more of our questionnaires, can contact them on mailto:[email protected]


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