Mentoring When the World Is on Fire

In this time of social distancing, let's focus on connection.

Posted Mar 18, 2020

 Mike Erskine/Unsplash
Source: Mike Erskine/Unsplash

A dear friend and colleague asked me earlier what I was doing to support our faculty, staff, students, and others in their mentoring relationships right now. And, I must confess, my first response was something like, Uh, nothing? Because, quite honestly, right now it feels like the world is on fire. And it feels like maybe mentoring isn’t the most important thing to be focused on when the world is on fire. Even for someone who focuses on mentoring pretty much seven days a week.

But, upon further reflection, I am super glad that she asked and that she prompted me to think about it. Because while no, mentoring isn’t the most important thing happening right now, especially when compared to your health and the health of your friends and family, it is important. How we take care of one another, and connect with one another, in this time of social distancing, is critical to how we survive this moment in time, and to how we emerge from it, on the other side (and we will).

Mentoring is all about relationships. Deep, intentional, relationships of care. And if there is anything we all need right now, it is more connection and less (virtual) distance, to feel that we are supported by a community of care. Indeed, research consistently demonstrates the importance of social connection for long-term wellbeing, including behavioral, psychosocial, and physiological outcomes. One particularly striking quote from the beginning of this piece from the NIH: “Captors use social isolation to torture prisoners of war—to drastic effect. Social isolation of otherwise healthy, well-functioning individuals eventually results in psychological and physical disintegration, and even death.” How many of us are currently feeling like prisoners in our own homes right at this moment?

With that said, I would like to offer up some tips, to those of you currently engaged in mentoring relationships, to those of you seeking the support of mentoring relationships, and to those of you leading formal mentoring programs. And you can find additional resources and guidance via @WFUmentoring on Twitter or at our website.

For those currently in a mentoring relationship, whether it’s formal or informal:

  • This is the time to double-down and be even more intentional about those relationships. Don’t let your scheduled conversations slide, just because you can’t meet in person. Use technology—Skype, Zoom, WebEx, Google Hangouts (this week I’m having meetings over each of those platforms)—or even over the phone if needed. Remember: the two most important elements of effective mentoring relationships are consistency and continuity. More than ever, this is the time to show up for one another and maintain the relationship, and to bring it to appropriate closure when it’s time for that. Don’t just let the relationship fade away.
  • Speaking of technology, remember that even the best tool creates distance. Even for the most well-established relationships, there will now be a barrier of either a screen or a telephone line. Pay attention to those verbal and non-verbal cues. And, be prepared for the technology to break down, for internet connections to fizzle, for all sorts of things to happen. It will happen. The question is, how will you plan for it and how will you respond to it? One thing I’ve already learned this week is that when I conduct virtual meetings through my computer, the connection is far better if I use my phone for the audio. This is a small, but important detail, when it comes to forming connection online.
  • Allow the conversation to go in some new directions. You may have been talking through work goals, or academic achievements, or other topics relevant to day-to-day life, previously. These topics are still important, but so is honoring the fear and uncertainty which is caught up in this moment. It’s completely OK to take a conversation or two (or more) to talk through those fears and uncertainties and how you each are navigating through this moment. Brainstorm some strategies together. And, mentors, remember, your job is not to be a trained counselor. Mentees, remember, it’s always OK to seek out that professional help when you need it.

 For those seeking mentoring:

  • Just because you’re now practicing isolation (good for you!) doesn’t mean you need to be isolated. This is a great time to think deeply about who you are, what you want, and where you are headed. Revisit your goals or set some new ones. Take this gift of time and quiet to get hyper-focused on you. In every effective mentoring relationship, the mentee, the one being mentored, is the one who does the work. So take this moment to do that work, for yourself.
  • And once you have, it’s time to assess your network. Whom do you already know who could be helpful to you, and provide some guidance and some feedback? Send them a note, tell them what you’re working on, and ask if they would have time for a virtual chat. Chances are, they’re feeling pretty isolated now, too, and will welcome the opportunity to build a relationship! And if you find that you have some gaps in your network, this is a great time to do the research you need to do to fill those. For professional goals, spend some time on LinkedIn researching people who may work in the industry or role you’re interested in. For campus-related goals, check out our Who Are Your People website for additional guidance.
  • Network-building is relationship-building, and relationship-building takes time and work. These aren’t one-time conversations. And, this is the time to have some extra patience with people. Everyone is dealing with a new normal right now, figuring out how to live and to work in different ways. It may take people longer to get back to you, or they may not have the time, right now. That’s OK! Be gracious, be humble, and then move on to the next person on your list. The best person to have in your network is the one who wants to support and connect with you.

For those leading formal mentoring programs:

  • If you are the leader of an ongoing, formal mentoring program, this is the moment to check in with your mentoring pairs. Remind them to keep their commitments and to keep meeting. Encourage the use of technology. Refer to the advice above for those in mentoring relationships. This is not the time to flake out or to let these relationships fizzle out. This is the time for more intentional engagement, by both mentoring partners.
  • Remind them of your commitment, as well. This is the time to over-communicate, to send an encouraging note, a relevant article or TedTalk, and to offer up your support in facilitating connections and conversations. This is the time to express gratitude to your participants for all the work that they have done, and what they will be doing, moving forward, for each other and for the program. Ultimately, this is the moment to project a sense of calm, to provide a consistent, trusted space in the midst of all this chaos, where people know what is expected of them.
  • Keep to your plans, but be flexible. Finally, I would like to encourage you to keep to your program plans. If your program was scheduled to end with the end of this semester, do that, and think about how you might facilitate that, virtually. If mentoring partners were expected to meet twice a month, uphold those commitments. Structure in the midst of chaos is a good thing. And, prepare to be flexible with those plans. That in-person closure ceremony may need to be moved online, or to a later date. You may have a participant drop out for real health reasons, or work overload, or various other concerns. This is all OK. After all, nothing about a mentoring relationship should be forced upon people. These are relationships and communities of care. Now is the time for each of us to role model that behavior, as much as we possibly can.

This is, undoubtedly, a moment of crisis, a moment of chaos, a moment when the whole world seems like it is on fire. It’s scary, yes. And, it can be a gift—of time, of reflection, of resetting expectations—if we choose to look at it that way. After all, if we don’t emerge from this moment of crisis and uncertainty better than we entered it, well, what a waste it all will have been.