Ellie Highwood draws on her experience as a mentor and training as a coach to address some of the questions that often arise for mentors in the course of a mentoring relationship.
This resource contains some of the questions that often arise for mentors. In many cases, there is not a definite right or wrong way to do things, and it will always depend on the relationship between the mentor and mentee, but the answers here are designed to give you some options to reflect on whether they will work for you.
Whilst we might be a mentor because we have specific experience that may be useful to the mentee, it is unlikely that you will have experienced exactly the same as them. In fact, to assume that they feel the same way about an experience that is similar can sometimes be unhelpful.
Occasionally situations arise in mentoring when you wonder whether the mentee needs the help of a professional of various kinds (e.g., mental health support, counselling, career development, etc). If this does arise, ethically you need to address this in a sensitive way, perhaps saying “We seem to be discussing things that would usually fall under more of a counselling partnership - I’m wondering whether you might want to reflect on whether a professional with that kind of expertise might be more helpful to you right now?”. Ideally you will have set this up at the beginning of the mentoring partnership with an agreement about areas for working and your expertise.
For perhaps less serious situations, coaching style questions do not assume any direct experience or expertise so there are a number of options to try. Firstly, establish if the mentee wants your support in that area or whether they have just wandered off-topic! If they do want your support, use session structures such as GROW (Goal, Reality, Opportunity, Will) to establish.
Questions like “What do you want to be different about this situation?”, “What have you already tried?”, “What thoughts have you already had about this situation?”, “What options are there?” and “What else?” are all aimed to bring out the mentees thinking rather than be you providing advice.
Finally, if you know someone or somewhere to point them for other ideas, or who does have direct experience, you could offer to contact a third party for thoughts or to see if they are willing to be put in touch directly. This latter step expands your mentees network too.
This is a time for openness and transparency. Trying to guess what is going on in your mentee’s mind is probably not useful. Usually, if you as a mentor have an inkling that the mentoring relationship might have reached its natural conclusion (whether or not the mentee has achieved their goals) it is at least time to have a conversation about it.
Useful ideas would be to explicitly put a review of the mentoring partnership on the agenda for the next meeting. Questions for discussion that avoid any judgemental or accusation aspects include “What aspects of this mentoring partnership have worked well?”, “What would we like to be different?”, or “What are the next steps for us?”.
The key is this is a two-way discussion as mentoring is most effective if it works for both mentee and mentor. If the discussion has been prompted by something specific you could try the “I’ve noticed that….” or “I’m finding that I feel … after/before our sessions and I’m wondering what it’s like for you?”. It may be helpful to discuss how the sessions work (when/where/what) as well as the content.
It may be that after this conversation one or both of you feel a need to end the relationship, but it may be that the discussion is enough to change the nature or topic of the interactions sufficiently to re-energise the partnership.
This is quite a common situation to be in, especially where teams are small or there are few people with the relevant expertise. It can actually work really well, but it can also get in the way. Transparency is key here. Basically, you and your mentee are going to need to get comfortable wearing different hats and switching between them.
Things that can help include holding the mentoring meetings in a different location (if everything is online this could be having different backgrounds!) to line management meetings. Also keep any notes separate from your general management file on that person. I would also start the mentoring session by reminding both myself and the mentee which relationship we are working in at this point. Basically, you are putting in place clear markers around the sessions to signal to everyone that this is a different conversation.
The bigger responsibility for this is on you as the line manager because you need to ensure that you do not carry information from the mentoring session into your other interactions. If you line-manage but don’t mentor others, you also need to manage that situation so as not to appear to have 'favourites'. Openness and transparency as far as possible is the best way to deal with this, but you will need to check that both mentor and mentee agree on being open about arrangements with the rest of the team.
Sometimes this question comes from a difference in expectation of the mentoring relationship between mentor and mentee. If the mentee is doing what the mentor asks reasonably well, it would be worth reflecting as a mentor what else you expect them to be doing, and why you expect them to be doing any more than reasonably well! It is up to the mentee to decide at what level to engage - 'reasonably well' may be enough for them.
It is also worth remembering that with any coaching/mentoring, the majority of the work is done outside of the meetings, surrounded by the complexity of the rest of working and home life. Appearing to 'be going through the motions' from one perspective may look like 'doing what I’ve been asked to the best of my ability'. Are you clear what their level of motivation is for doing the mentoring work and are you being unconsciously judgemental?
To try to avoid this situation, an early conversation in the mentoring relationship should discuss the aim of the mentoring, and what you both expect of yourselves and each other throughout the relationship. If it does arise, and you have reflected on whether your expectations of the mentee are appropriate, a positive approach would be to initiate a review discussion – “How is the mentoring working for you?”, “What could we do differently?”, “I’ve noticed that…how is it for you”.
It is so easy to get drawn into giving more than we planned when we start mentoring! After all, you probably offered to be a mentor because you want to help someone – the trouble is that it is very difficult to predict how any particular mentoring arrangement will evolve.
Ideally, an initial mentoring meeting would have been used to establish the ground rules around time, availability, and to discuss appropriate expertise in the context of the aims of the mentee, as well as expectations of each other. However, even if this has been done once, it is easy to get off track, especially if it is a longstanding relationship.
This is why a six months 'review' is always a good idea, and you could instigate such a meeting if you see a difference in expectations developing. This works best if you have a clear sense of what you can give in terms of time and commitment and are explicit from the start. Whilst it can seem a bit formal to specify meeting frequency and structure right from the word go, I have always found that having a structure in place helps both mentor and mentee prioritise and prepare for the meetings and therefore to do the work.
The 'spoon-feeding' issue is often the hardest to solve. It can arise for all sorts of reasons – sometimes a genuine lack of interest from the mentee, but more often a miscommunication about feedback, a perfectionist tendency in mentor or mentee or a lack of time from the mentor leading to the "it’s quicker to do it myself”. Again, a conversation that starts “I’ve noticed that this is the fourth time you have brought me this issue for discussion/this section to read – what is getting in the way of you moving forwards?” can be useful.
It is always disappointing or frustrating when the outcome is not what you were working towards. Ultimately, the success or failure in a particular activity is the responsibility of the mentee rather than the mentor. However, a responsible mentor will likely want to do two things in this event.
Firstly, a debrief with the mentee – this may form one or two sessions, the first of which may include some expressing of frustration by the mentee. This is where it can take all the mentor’s experience to appropriately validate the mentees feelings (even If they think that failure was an expected outcome) before supporting the mentee to move towards a more measured evaluation of the experience and determination of the next steps.
Secondly, a responsible mentor may do some individual work reflecting on the mentoring partnership in the context of the outcome and ask themselves questions such as “Were there any indications that this was going to happen and did I raise my concerns appropriately with my mentee”.
This is particularly relevant, for example when you are mentoring a Chartered Geographer application. It may be the case that the mentee can tell you verbally about what they are doing but cannot send written information outside the organisation. If this is the case, then either a visit to them in their workplace or a phone call may solve the issue.
If they cannot even talk about their role and activities to you (even in the context of discussing the CGeog competencies) then whilst you could ask coaching style non-specific questions, it will become challenging. In this case, it may be appropriate to talk to the Society about whether a mentor internal to the organisation is more appropriate.
Many humans tend not to be great at receiving feedback, either positive or negative. Generally, the negative feedback is most likely to provoke a defensive or emotional response and this can be uncomfortable for both mentor and mentee. Avoiding 'why' questions can help reduce the feeling of judgement.
Phrasing like “I can see this is frustrating/upsetting for you. What would be most helpful for us to do now?” Try not to take it personally, if you have offered feedback in a supportive way then there is not much more you can do. If continuing with that session/meeting feels impossible then gently ask if the mentee would like some time to reflect and suggest a follow up.
It is incredibly frustrating when your mentee disappears without a trace! However, it does happen, and it is worth remembering that mentees are humans too and likely to have lots of things going on in their lives.
Whilst it is the mentees responsibility to drive the relationship, there is a limit to a mentor’s patience. I would suggest three attempts at contact via email/phone or other method and then they have had their chance. If they do reappear at a later date, then assess whether you have the capacity to take them on at that point regardless of what happened last time. You don’t need to know why they disappeared, but it would be an opportunity to put in place clear expectations.
© Ellie Highwood 2021
Highwood, E, Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) (2021) Mentoring FAQs. Available at www.rgs.org/careersresources/mentoringFAQs. Last accessed on: <date>
Image via @KobuAgency/Unsplash
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