For years, I have searched for the right mentor. I yearned to find someone successful and experienced professionally, who shared similar values and had also underwent similar experiences personally.
The term mentorship is overused. Be it in youth groups, academic societies, Greek Life, or workplaces, mentorship programs are widespread. Society both celebrates and encourages collecting the quantity of mentor titles rather than exploring the depth of understanding or intentionality that is required to facilitate a meaningful mentorship experience. Typically, mentors are trained with organization-specific knowledge and basic soft skills that are required for facilitating icebreakers and initial conversation. At its core, however, the mentor-mentee relationship is fragile and dynamic. It requires intentionality and maintenance, along with radical honesty, respect, and gratitude.
Both on paper and in reality, I have had many mentors. It is only recently that I have started having the self-confidence and belief in my own abilities to label myself as a mentor. I have spent significant time trying to articulate my role as a mentor; I want to replicate the successes and eschew the pitfalls of those who hold or have held the title of mentor for me. Thus, based on my experience, I present the following set of mentorship best practices to consider:
Active listening. As we get older and more experienced, we intuitively believe we know the outcome of a story because we have seen it many times before. We often do, but not always. While classic identity struggles – profession, religion, body image, sexuality, relationships – are an inherent part of the human experience, the context in which your mentee may experience these struggles and any subsequent impact on the mentee’s identity are unique, unpredictable variables that merit active listening. Do not superimpose your experience or narrative. Anticipate and be open for unexpected forks in the road.
Use their words. Fight the desire to remember someone’s story or needs in shorthand or using your own paraphrasing. When we change the way in which we tell their story, we essentially change the story itself by taking away the other person’s agency and authenticity. Even slight turns of phrase can implicitly minimize the importance or urgency of an issue, reducing our mentee’s trust in us and the potential impact we can have in their lives. Employ empathy by using their verbiage and tracking your tone so that you meet them where they are at.
Be proactive. There is a reason why you are a mentor: you not only care about your mentees but also have more relevant experience and knowledge about a shared subject. Proactively share knowledge and opportunities. Suggest programs and positions. Consider what you wished you knew when you were at their stage, and don’t let them miss any opportunities.
Ask questions. None of us can change another person’s values or belief system. While occasionally flawed, our values and beliefs emerge through an iterative and dynamic process of internalizing social constructs and life experiences. These values and beliefs play a role in both our sense of self and success today. You may not agree with all of your mentee’s values and beliefs. You may, in fact, be motivated to help them make changes. Ask questions! Let them think about the concepts from different perspectives. They may reach the same conclusions as you, they may maintain their value or belief, or they may reach a different conclusion altogether. This is okay! Remember that your values and beliefs are also dynamic. Ask questions to empower decision-making with as much information as possible. Ask questions to encourage deep thinking so that the outcomes are most authentically “them.”
Accept poor choices. No matter how perfectly you frame a conversation, accurately you employ their verbiage, proactively you suggest opportunities, or empathetically ask questions, your mentee will inevitably make a poor choice at some point. This is not a reflection of your mentorship, nor a failure on your part. We all make poor choices. There is a reason why you are the mentor; you can help them learn from this experience. Do not take out your frustration and disappointment on them. Do not exploit the sensitive information they have shared through passive-aggressive jabs. Do not play hard to get. Do not abandon them. The mentor-mentee relationship is not transactional. It is about investing in another person in whom you see unrealized potential.
Challenge your intentions. As a mentor, we don’t have all the answers. We don’t always know what’s best. We can’t always do everything with unconditional support. I am currently struggling with accepting and respecting the uneven power dynamic in a mentor-mentee relationship. Is there a way to balance it? Is it wrong if a mentor benefits from a mentee’s hard work? At what point does mentorship become manipulation? I have experienced mentors who have crossed the line too many times. I vowed that I would never become them. But now that I am looking at the situation from their vantage point, has the line moved? Is it harder to see? Am I having issues with depth perception? Even if it is hard to parse, you have a responsibility to continuously reflect on this power dynamic and remain aware of your intentions.
Regardless of whether we have had the honor to serve as a mentor, we are all mentees. We act in our mentor-mentee relationships with the drive to grow and learn. There is strong reciprocal fellowship in mentorship; similarly, the advice presented here is valid for mentees as much as mentors. As the mentee, you too can engage in active listening, use their words, be proactive, ask questions, accept poor choices and challenge your intentions. As the mentee, you have the agency and opportunity to shape your experience and, perhaps, even mentor your mentor. These relationships can be simultaneous and synergistic. Lead with prudent vulnerability and practice radical honesty, respect and gratitude.
The mentor-mentee relationship is sacred. It is about more than merely imparting subject matter knowledge to a less experienced individual. It is about more than serving as an older friend or counselor. Mentorship sits at the nexus of professional and personal development. It demands focus, intentionality and time. I urge us to use this term prudently. This is what my experience has taught me. Let’s continue this dialogue: What has your experience taught you?