IN MENTORING, it’s all about the conversation. It is about what is said and how it is said, shared purposely between mentor and mentee. It is the regular conversation that gives focus and meaning to the mentoring relationship.

To many of us, this conversation comes naturally.  We don’t think about it – it just happens.

But for others, it may not be so easy. So, how is this best conducted?

I recently searched the net for examples on video that could best demonstrate the nature of these conversations. I looked firstly at public conversations; those conducted on television. There are many examples and the interviews and conversations are often excellent. One, for example, was between Orson Wells and the American TV host, Dick Cavett.  It’s amusing because Orson Wells turns the tables by interviewing the host, who is embarrassed by the gentle persistent prying. But, because it is public, conducted in front of a live audience, designed to entertain, it’s not a lot of use for our purposes – private mentoring conversations.

There are some interviews that have been created specifically for mentoring training purposes.

Several have been constructed as poor examples; funny, but way over the top.

The other dramatised mentoring conversations I found are conducted in barren meeting rooms, generally at work, with the mentor facing the mentee across a table in a very formal stance.

The conversation appears very uncomfortable and slightly hostile in its construction. The mentor acts like a councellor, asking well-rehearsed, obvious empathetic-styled questions, designed to lead the mentee to a self-realisation, turning their weaknesses tinto strengths. The mentor follows a pre-determined pattern, such as a ‘GROW’ system – that is, Goals, Reality, Options and Will. Within this conversation, the mentor is in a superior position, leading the mentee through a procedure that, based on their experience, should lead to some ‘outcome’, thus meeting the mentee goal. It’s all very formulaic.

For me, a mentor is, as one dictionary definition puts it, “a wise and trusted counselor or teacher; an influential senior sponsor or supporter”.

It’s very revealing when we go to TED talks and enter the search term, “mentor”. In TED talks we get many learned people giving presentations who mention mentors, but it is always about mentors who influenced them, inspired them and motivated them to become who they are. Mentors, who were their teachers, parents, relatives, colleagues and others. A recurring theme for them is a mentor is a wise person who inspires. As Barry Schwartz in this talk suggests, a mentor can come from any walk of life.

Where we meet to have our conversations is important: away from work, in some relaxing and calm environment. A cafe is OK, but choose one that is not too noisy. How about taking a walk, in a park, along a beach front, along a river. Wherever, both of you need to be able to hear, concentrate, and focus. This context puts both mentee and mentor on an equal footing. Silences are of no consequence, we don’t feel uncomfortable. The conversation flow is natural and shared, and the issues are open and exploratory. The mode of communication is storytelling. There is an oral exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions, and ideas. There is conversational depth rather than a linear dialogue driven relentlessly toward some final knowable endpoint.

I am reminded of a song by Paul Simon, “Quiet”:

I am heading for a time of quiet

When my restlessness is past
And I can lie down on my blanket
And release my fists at last

I am heading for a time of solitude
Of peace without illusions
When the perfect circle
Marries all beginnings and conclusions

And when they say
That you’re not good enough
Well the answer is
You’re not
But who are they
Or what is it
That eats at what you’ve got
With the hunger of ambition
For the change inside the purse
They are handcuffs on the soul, my friends
Handcuffs on the soul
And worse

I am heading for a place of quiet
Where the sage and sweetgrass grow
By a lake of sacred water
From the mountain’s melted snow

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