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Making Mentoring Work

A simple but effective approach.

Source: Tumisu/Pixabay
Source: Tumisu/Pixabay

A mentor isn’t mainly an advice-giver, nor mainly a listener. A mentor balances listening, facilitating, and advice-giving, and does it in a skillful way. Here’s how.

The effective mentor usually invites the mentee to set the agenda. Sometimes it’s on the spot, but often it’s wiser to ask the mentee to email the agenda at least slightly in advance. The act of writing it clarifies their goals and gives you a little time to think about their issue(s).

At the session, the good mentor might start by saying something like, "So, item one on your agenda is X. Is that still what you want to talk about first? Sometimes something more important comes up."

Then say something like, “I’m all ears.” That makes it clear that you really want to listen and to be helpful.

Then really listen, perhaps paraphrasing back to be sure you’ve understood and simply to make the other person feel heard. You also might ask a question or two to gain clarity or get the mentee to expand their thinking about the problem.

After the person fleshes out the issue, sure, occasionally you may want to offer advice. The following format tends to work well: “In light of what you said, I’m wondering whether X. What do you think?”

But more often, you want to see if you can get a solution to come from the mentee. That’s because the mentee knows the situation and himself or herself better than you do. Also, the person thereby feels empowered, efficacious. After all, the goal of mentorship is not to create ongoing dependency but independence.

Besides, if an idea comes from the mentee, s/he is more likely to implement it than if it came from you—the not-invented-here syndrome. So after the mentee has fleshed out the problem, you might ask something like, “Is there anything you’ve tried or think you should try?” The act of having described the problem to you often evokes a solution.

For example, let’s say your mentee says, "I’m having trouble getting along with my boss." You might respond with, “Tell me more,” and/or, “Do you know if your co-workers feel similarly?” After the problem has been fleshed out, you might say, “Any thoughts on what the Wise One within you should do?” If s/he says no, you might say something like, “Do you think it’s wiser to talk with a trusted co-worker about it, have a polite meeting with your boss about it, a confrontational meeting, or let it go?” Many people, especially if they’re not ideationally fluent, like being given choices.

Co-mentoring is often effective and mutually empowering. In the first 15 minutes of a 30-minute session, one person is the mentor, and the other is the mentee. For the other 15 minutes, they switch roles.

The takeaway

Perhaps not surprisingly, in that I’m a counselor, I believe that growth more likely results from one-on-one interaction than from classes. Perhaps more surprisingly, I believe that often layman mentoring and especially co-mentoring can be highly effective, and it’s free.

P.S. I walk that talk. I’ve been co-mentoring with fellow Psychology Today blogger Dr. Michael Edelstein for a half-hour every two weeks. We’ve been doing that for a decade and plan to continue indefinitely.

I extemporize a version of this on YouTube.

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