The art of mentoring
Updated: Mar 7
Think back to a time when you had a mentor, how did that enable you to progress in life?
I have the enviable position of training consultants in the NHS in mentoring skills. Each time I deliver the training the most interesting discussions come up. It is always one of the most positive, enthusiastic sessions and it made me want to write this article as mentoring is so important for us all.
Let us start by painting a picture of what mentoring means.
The term 'mentor' comes from the Greek. In the Odyssey, Mentor when he was in his old age was friends with Odysseus who then placed him in charge of his son Telemachus when he went away to the Trojan War. The war ran for 10 years so this was not a small thing for Mentor to undertake. Mentor was seen as an advisor both wise and trusted.
In the workplace a mentor will provide this role and help with the development of the mentee by giving time. Just like the Greek mythology the mentor is the guide for the journey of the mentee working on their professional development.
There are many definitions of mentoring such as that of Gerard Egan:
‘helping someone become better at helping themselves’ or
Clutterbuck & Megginson
‘a form of development where off-line help by one person is given to the other in making significant transitions in knowledge work or thinking’.
At different stages having someone who has gone through any limitations that a mentee might be experiencing will be of benefit. Mentors can help by offering support as they have an awareness and insight into the subject area.
Egan's views of 'helping' in his 'skilled helper model' can be seen as a continuum - at one one end of the continuum we have ‘leave them to their own devices', at the other is to 'direct them' and in the middle is to 'help them to make their own decisions and act on them’.
This is a helpful reminder that in mentoring it is most beneficial when we consider the guided support of helping the mentee to make their own decisions. Egan defines how both ‘helper' and ‘client’ are responsible for outcomes. He defines the collaborative nature of helping as:
‘outcomes depend on the competence and motivation of the helper, on the competence and motivation of the client , and on the quality of their interactions’.
Thinking back to the time you were mentored did it feel like a ‘two person team’? At best mentoring is about growth and development that impacts on both parties.
Were you given support to help make your own decisions?
So what is the most effective way to set up mentoring and what are the important tips to be aware of to make it the most rewarding experience?
Here are my mariposa coaching 12 top tips for the art of mentoring:
1. Build trust, rapport and mutual understanding
It is not always easy to work on our self development. Self disclosure of what we find challenging can take some bravery by the mentee. At the same time the mentor might choose to share experiences helpful to the process which leave them feeling vulnerable. Therefore the importance of building up trust, having effective rapport and developing mutual understanding is not to be undervalued.
Let's start with listening to understand as a key feature of this process. This means understanding genuinely what another person is trying to say.
We can draw on Covey from his book 'The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People'. Covey's 5th habit is to seek first to understand which he explains as ‘when I say empathic listening, I mean listening to understand. I mean seeking first to understand to really understand…empathic listening gets inside the other person’s frame of reference’.
So when we are seeking to understand and truly listening to the mentee’s point of view we are considering their strengths and weakness and tailoring our advice and suggestions to make it appropriate to the person. We are using empathic listening to develop trust, rapport and understanding.
An important skill as a mentor is to be able to tune into feelings that the mentee is experiencing and respond in a way that is sensitive and allows the mentee to feel comfortable to disclose. This can be done in a way that uses words but also we can demonstrate empathy by non verbal communication.
Did you know a high proportion of communication is non - verbal, much more than verbal. My daughter for example will ‘give me a look’ when she has had enough at a family event and I know that it is time for us to go as she is getting super bored! As we build rapport and develop understanding the skill of empathy enters the picture.
3. Challenging blind spots
The role of mentor enables a perspective that can be different to that of the mentee. A different perspective can be useful to help the mentee to understand what is going on according to that of the mentor. If the mentor is to provide a guidance role in a given situation, where they have more knowledge and experience, then they can often see areas for development that the mentee can’t see.
The Johari window is a tool that can help with the process of recognising and challenging the 'blind spots' (Joseph Luft 1916-2014 and Harrington Ingham 1916-55). The model has 4 areas, hidden, shared, unknown and blind. Each area corresponds to how much the other person is showing you and/or knows.
An example would be I might share that I am a coach but keep hidden that I am a bellydancer. So the coach section would be shared, the bellydancer would be hidden. You would not be able to give me feedback on my bellydancing as that would be known to me but hidden to you. If you were to experience my coaching and give me feedback I would be unaware potentially of this until I hear your feedback as it would probably be based on what you could see but I could not, my 'blind spot'.
The Johari window can help people better understand their relationship with others and themselves and has been used as a heuristic exercise in groups and corporate settings. Effective feedback and a clever use of an effective, socratic, respectful questioning style together with empathy can help blind spots be identified and worked on. This then creates a very powerful outcome. Let's take a look at the importance of feedback.
4. Giving and receiving feedback
Feedback that is most helpful is focused on specific behaviour and constructive in nature. It can be something that we shy away from, either when giving or receiving, based on past experiences that are not always helpful! However it is an important part of the mentee - mentor relationship.
We need to have feedback in order to learn how to move forward. It needs to be wanted, focused on specifics and constructive with an opportunity for the mentee to start the process.
I have a blog on this that you may find helpful on my website entitled 'Feedback that builds confidence' (Mariposa Coaching).
An effective mentor will find times when you have been successful and feed that back.
5. Outlining opportunities and resources
One of the skills of the mentor is to listen out and hear ‘opportunities and resources’ (Egan's Skilled Helper Model) that the mentee brings to the conversation. We often find ourselves putting emphasis on problems and we overlook the potential opportunities that are there if we only look for them.
We can start off asking about the current situation but we also need to be asking what is the preferred scenario or the outcomes that the mentee is looking for?
We don't feel motivated to make changes unless we can see the opportunities and have resources in place to enable them.
6. Making it happen
As we have looked at before, making it happen is a two way process but with whom does the responsibility for any change or development lie?
The mentee's agenda should be central in order to make things happen. However the mentor can help with probing questions to find out what possible actions there maybe and what would best work for the mentee. The mentor can share their experiences if this is helpful to the mentee. Then the next step to making it happen is to craft that plan with actions to take forward.
7. The importance of evaluation
So let's imagine we have built rapport, mutual understanding and trust. We have encouraged the self management of learning, provided support via feedback, outlined resources and opportunities and helped our mentee to craft a plan. We now come to the evaluation part.
What good is making it happen if there is no reflection and review?
How do we know that we are going in the right direction? Cue a picture of a cute piglet looking lost!
Ideas are wonderful but in order to translate ideas to real life we will need to reflect back what is working.
It is helpful to have regular monitoring of how things are going in place and a discussion with the mentee of the best way to manage this.
8. Encouragement and support - You can do it!
As well as providing encouragement and ongoing support to help the learning, mentors can also help the mentee to identify any barriers to the learning process. In order to transfer learning to real life we can suggest strategies to overcome any difficulties that might arise.
As a mentor it is important to provide reassurance to increase self belief, self efficacy and confidence. Being told you can do it is an amazing way to support a mentee especially when they are feeling nervous.
9. Non judgemental
As an NQT a family member of mine was often told ‘you are a teacher you should be able to do that’ when in reality he was still at the newly qualified stage. He was not officially a qualified teacher and was being asked to write the curriculum for a course that had never been delivered at the school at that point in time. He felt judged and it made it increasingly difficult to be in that role.
We have to suspend judgement and really tune into what mentees need in order to create a non judgemental and safe space. Providing a space where a mentee can ask questions and no question is irrelevant or 'silly' is very important for the learning process and links to what Amy Edmondson calls 'psychological safety' ( I highly recommend watching her TED talk on this).
10. Genuineness and respect
This links to trust. If you are in a position of mentor it is really respectful to be 100% engaged. There is nothing more off putting for a mentee than an unfocused, unengaged mentor with a variety of unhelpful distractions going on. If possible an environment away from computer screens, other people and make sure others are aware you are engaged in a mentoring activity and do not want to be disturbed. Demonstrate that the person you are mentoring is important in this way.
11. The learning cycle and learning styles
Although we can define learning as a process for gaining new skills, knowledge and understanding it is also recognised as a continuous cycle that involves learning from experience. As a mentor or as a mentee it can be helpful to have a comprehension of this.
We tend to start off in the experiencing stage and then reflect back on it by non judging the experience, drawing conclusions to recognise what we have learnt and then finally moving to the planning stage to test out the lessons learnt from the previous stage.
Depending on the style that you prefer you will find some areas easier than others and as outlined by Honey and Mumford in their book 'Using your learning styles' you can find out your preferred learning style.
Activists prefer learning from experience, reflectors from standing back and considering experiences, theorists adapt observations into theories and prefer the conclusion section and pragmatists are keen to try out ideas to see if they work in practice so prefer the planning area.
We all move round the cycle and we don't fit neatly into each learning preference but it can be used, if helpful, as a guide to how you mentor.
12 Emotional intelligence
There is a clear link between how we learn and our emotions. Research suggests that EQ, as it is affectionately termed, is a more accurate measurement of success than IQ.
Daniel Goleman is a well known writer on the subject and as a mentor it is worth have a read of his work on the subject. I have written a blog that might prove useful on how to 'tune into your emotional intelligence' (Mariposa Coaching) .
We have been focusing on the more traditional set up of mentoring here but it is worth mentioning that it can also take the form of 'peer mentoring' which is less about a hierarchical relationship and more about one of reciprocity. Or group mentoring where there are several mentees and one mentor. Reverse mentoring is when the mentor is less experienced than the mentee and provides opportunity for both to learn.
So if you are interested in mentoring skills please get in touch. Here is a little about my coaching.
I set up Mariposa Coaching with experience of facilitating over 1600 workshops, working with 40 clients a week, an accredited facilitator of over 10 CBT based programmes and staff trainer I wanted to take my skills to a wider audience. I consolidated previous learning by completing training in coaching psychology approaches at The Centre for Coaching, London with certification in Stress Management and Performance Coaching.
Mariposa Coaching started off by providing 1:1 coaching, workshops and training to a range of clients. Some of the first of these were delivering in house training for well known engineering companies, in Bristol in stress management and worklife balance. I now have a freelance contract to deliver post graduate training for Educational Advisors who are medical consultants (surgeons, psychiatrists) in coaching and mentoring skills as part of their non clinical training for medical education for the Severn Deanery NHS Trust. I am one of Meningitis Now's coaching practitioners which has been amazing. Companies have attended work life balance, wellbeing to thrive in the workplace and stress management workshops and booked me for leadership and influencing skills coaching for staff retention and performance. I am particularly passionate about delivering talks and coaching to staff within companies to enhance effective team communication and influencing skills for leadership.
I have a practice a few miles from Bristol City centre in Flax Bourton, next to Long Ashton and a quiet tranquil room which provides a place for reflective space for the coaching work. Drop me a line at email@example.com or call me on 07811 740580 to book your free 20 mins initial consultation!
Wellbeing is essential to optimum performance and growth and helping others to have satisfying lives and to live well underlies my work.
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