Fundamentals of Effective Mentoring

Helping employees under you reach their potential is an important part of your job as a manager. The best way to do that is by mentoring them. In this excerpt from 9 Powerful Practices of Really Great Mentors, learn about the basics of mentoring.

When you choose to become a support-providing helper to another person—as a mentor is—you will need to develop and apply skills that are so common to effective teachers, advisors, or those who guide others professionally that these skills are almost like second nature. Whether you are a coach to a player, therapist to a client/patient, manager to a direct report, trade master to an apprentice, or in a mentoring role to a protégé, you will perform your role with more success if you demonstrate a set of “people” or “soft” skills that typify those with the capability to nurture an other-oriented, growth-focused relationship.

Many of the core attributes of an effective mentor are captured in the concepts that define one’s emotional intelligence. Whereas the best mentors tend to be smart about the more technical elements and nuances of whatever it is that they do for a living, they also must show a different kind of intelligence: They need to be smart about what motivates others in a forward-aiming direction. They must have emotional radar that senses what their protégé is feeling, and what they too are feeling during the guidance process. To be an effective mentor, your EQ (level of emotional intelligence) needs to be at least as high as—if not higher than—your IQ (more academic or conceptual understanding–based smarts).

A wide range of research and literature exists about what motivates individuals to improve, learn more, and achieve more, and how to facilitate this process as an external resource. This is the fundamental context in which mentoring takes place. Certainly, a review of all this literature is well beyond the scope of this book. Much of it, in fact, is of very little assistance to someone interested in developing skills as a mentor. But we have chosen three principles of facilitating self-learning that are fundamental to implementing the helping role effectively:

  • Self-actualization
  • Self-awareness-building
  • Becoming more naturally empathic

1. Self-Actualization

Many of you may have studied behavioral sciences during your formal education, and if you did it is almost certain that you were exposed to the work of Abraham Maslow, who introduced a “Hierarchy of Needs” theory in the mid-20th century that still resonates today. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has helped reframe approaches to the management role, steering leaders away from a financially or threats-based motivational frameworks of leadership and toward a model that assumes that people work in order to gain personal fulfillment. Maslow’s model postulated that what people really want out of life, once they are not in a varying degree of “pure survival mode,” is self-actualization; that is, incremental growth toward attainment of the individual’s highest needs—those related to the meaning in life, in particular.

The context of self-actualization in mentoring rarely takes on the overarching topic of the meaning of life; more often, mentoring addresses the real-life issues of fulfillment in one’s work life, such as, “What is the meaning of what I do professionally?” Or “What impacts does my work have, on both those around me and the environment in which I practice, and how can I make these impacts better for all concerned?” or “What outcomes would make me feel most fulfilled in my work life?” In addressing these questions, the mentor and protégé discuss issues with a profound bearing on the focus of the protégé’s future efforts, driven by an understanding of what the protégé’s real objectives are in actualizing a meaningful professional career.

RELATED: Use Mentoring to Attract and Retain the Best Employees

2. Self-Awareness-Building

A leading management coach, John Whitmore, wrote that “what I am aware of empowers me, and what I am unaware of controls me.” For mentors, this statement has profound meaning in a wide variety of ways. When the mentor-protégé relationship uncovers a more evidence-based understanding of the protégé’s strengths and weaknesses, development plans can be devised to leverage protégés’ strengths and mitigate the impact of their weaknesses—or somehow find a way to improve on the weaknesses until they are not considered weaknesses any longer. But it takes courage and emotional will to explore one’s strengths and challenges. Mentors must engender an ongoing and open exploration of the protégé’s self-awareness, within the context that Whitmore advocates: personal and professional empowerment through increased self-knowledge, and the uncovering of blind spots that can diminish professional effectiveness.

Emotional self-awareness is of particular importance. Mentors need to be aware of their protégés’ and their own emotional “temperature” during mentoring interactions and throughout the tenure of the relationship. Emotional self-awareness is, in essence, knowing what you are feeling and why, as well as what others appear to be feeling, and why. If, for example, a mentor is aware of a feeling of personal frustration about an issue or interaction with a mentee, it is important to at least understand that emotion and why the feeling is evident at that particular point in time. What you do about this understanding can vary, from sharing it with the protégé (rarely a bad idea, since it is part of the reality of the moment, and enhances mutual awareness within the relationship) to causing additional discussions of alternatives because the one being enacted is creating frustration.

Similarly, effective mentors gauge emotional reactions from protégés to certain stimuli, such as a prodding question or discussion of a prior troublesome event. Mentors need to be comfortable reflecting the feelings of their protégés and owning up to their own while mentoring is underway.

RELATED: How to Create an Effective Mentoring Program

3. Becoming More Naturally Empathic

One of Steven Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” This advice needs to become the mentor’s mantra. The mentor role is typified by significant efforts to understand the protégé as a person and a professional far before lending any guidance or advice. Mentoring without seeking first to understand is not mentoring at all; it is facile advice-giving without context.

One mentor we know keeps Covey’s “seek first to understand, then to be understood” habit of highly successful people as a placard on his desk, so that when protégés are prone to ask, “So what do you think I should do?” he is able to point to the placard and reply, “I don’t think I know enough about what is going on yet. Let’s try to understand it all better.” Then he asks an open-ended probing question to elicit more information. This is the type of basic empathic behavior that facilitates mentoring, and yields more success in the relationship with a protégé.

Indeed, seeking first to understand before needing to be understood is a proxy for developing the skill of empathy. In 9 Powerful Practices of Really Great Bosses, a book we recently wrote to improve the people skills of managers, we defined empathy as “the capacity to understand and respond effectively to the unique experience of another.” Sounds applicable to the mentoring role, doesn’t it? But how does one become more naturally empathic, in order to build a base from which they can serve more effectively in the role of helper?

The following techniques all apply to those seeking to become useful to a protégé while serving in the role of mentor:

  • Ask open-ended questions. By applying techniques of effective listening, mentors can transform the communication with their mentee into a joint exploration of the issue at hand. Use bridging statements to elicit information, rather than questions that can be answered with a yes or no. By “bridging statements,” we mean starting an examination of an issue with a statement rather than a question; for example, start with “So, tell me more about…,” or rephrase the mentee’s words by saying, “So, what I am hearing from you is that…[re-phrase what you heard]. Tell me more about why that was important to you.” The opposite approach—asking simply, “Would you agree that ?”—establishes a framework that can minimize rather than enhance understanding. A complementary aspect of this technique is to substitute statements for closed-ended questions that begin with the word Why. Using an opening that elicits information, such as, “Tell me more about the reasons that led you to that decision,” offers far better opportunities for mutual understandings than the more direct and potentially defensiveness-engendering question, “Why did you do that?” Your interpersonal communication techniques need to be focused on adding to understanding. Questions that begin with Why tend to engender emotionally defensive reactions, which decrease rather than increase the opportunities you have to attain additional relevant information.
  • Slow down. Empathy is a skill that is best expressed at a slower pace. Remember how we defined mentoring in part as “offline help”? The offline nature of mentoring is important because it enables the mentor and protégé to slow down and explore issues at a pace not impacted by immediate professional or personal demands. If you find yourself hurried when performing in a mentoring role, you are probably reflecting a lack of willingness to understand and respond to the protégé’s unique circumstances. And he or she will feel this behavior as emotional distancing. Often, the result is the mentee feeling far less trust in and appreciation for the mentoring process.
  • Let the story unfold. Empathy, like mentoring, is by nature almost the opposite of the “quick fix.” Mentors may perceive errors in judgment or in actions by their protégé almost immediately upon hearing the circumstances under discussion. Your knee-jerk reaction may be to stop the protégé almost immediately and share your view about how the issue could have been handled more effectively, from your perspective of possessing greater experience and seasoned wisdom about such matters. But mentors need to a) be aware of this need or compulsion to provide the quick fix that solves the problem easily and expediently, and b) temper this need or compulsion to dole out advice reactively, by applying techniques that enable the protégé’s story to unfold at a deeper and more thoughtful level. When tempted to dole out a quick fix, apply empathic bridging techniques instead: “Let’s explore what happened more—I think doing that is important. Tell me some of the things that were on your mind and what you were feeling as this incident occurred.”
  • Set limits when the protégé demonstrates avoidant or “let’s change the topic” behaviors. The mentor–protégé relationship occurs in a context of personal change and growth, and as the saying goes, “no pain, no gain.” When the discussion focuses on changing the way the mentee responds to circumstances or the mentor attempts to reframe certain events in a way that is likely to cause at least some emotional discomfort in the mentee, resistant behaviors may emerge. The mentee may attempt to subtly swerve the discussion off topic, remain silent, or seek out environmental stimuli to change the discussion away from the issue (“Excuse me, I think I just received a text message that I need to respond to,” or “I really like that print you have on your wall; who is the artist?”). In these circumstances, empathic mentors understand the discomfort their protégés are feeling, and interpret the deflections or topic-changing behaviors as natural but avoidant responses to such discomfort. Reflecting the feeling is a useful limit-setting measure that mentors can apply to continue a painful discussion: “It seems as if you are trying to change the topic, which might mean you are not comfortable working through what we are discussing. Tell me more about why that is, from your perspective.”
  • Become an avid listener. The famous 80/20 Pareto Principle can be applied to efforts focused on seeking first to understand. To be an effective mentor, one should be listening 80 percent of the time and speaking 20 percent of the time, on average. Listening is a skill that can be developed with discipline and focus, even if you feel it does not come naturally to you. How do you know if listening is not a natural skill for you? Here is a list of ineffective listening behaviors against which you can make a self-assessment:
    • While the other person is speaking, do you spend mental time rehearsing what you are going to say once they stop, or once they give you any opportunity to interrupt?
    • Do you pick up on certain phrases or pieces of the speaker’s statements, and largely ignore the rest?
    • Do you make up your mind about the person’s circumstances without hearing the entire scope or context of what you are being told?
    • Do you tend to immediately connect everything you hear to yourself, instead of considering and focusing on the other person’s unique circumstances?
    • Do you filter what people say through the lens of personal biases and prejudices that you hold about people and behaviors, which you consider immutable truths?
    • Do you hear and only respond to the content being shared, and never to what you believe is being left unspoken, especially about the dynamics or emotions that exist between you and the speaker?
  • The discipline and focus needed to become an avid listener are best implemented through a range of techniques: Attending, acknowledging, and supporting; restating and paraphrasing content; reflecting feelings; summarizing, interpreting, and synthesizing; and probing.
    • Attending, acknowledging, and supporting: Providing verbal or nonverbal awareness of, and support to, the protégé—for example, eye contact, nodding one’s head, and smiling. Effective mentors are attentive during discussions with their protégés, and show listening behaviors that support idea-sharing and demonstrate that attention is being paid.
    • Restating and paraphrasing content: Mimicking or rephrasing the protégé’s words and asking for more information about what prompted the protégé to make the statement he or she did is an effective listening technique.
    • Reflecting feelings: Mentors need to be comfortable probing into emotional content by replying with responses that prompt their protégé to enhance his or her emotional self-awareness. A good way to perform this effective listening behavior is to reply, “It sounds like you felt during that situation,” or, “That must have been frustrating for you.” Then wait for a response to this cue to explore feelings in the circumstances being discussed.
    • Summarizing, interpreting, and synthesizing: These are techniques that offer a tentative interpretation of the protégé’s feelings, desires, or meanings, to elicit the protégé’s response to such interpretations. Avid listeners do not automatically assume these interpretations are valid just because they voiced them. But through efforts to understand how “putting A and B together might mean C,” you take the listening to a new and higher plane that enhances your shared understanding about what is occurring.
    • Probing: Asking additional questions that pertain to the issues being discussed is valuable during mentoring interactions. The more pertinent the probing question, the more impactful this listening technique is. A common probing question in a mentor–protégé relationship is, “How do you believe your decision/statement/e-mail/report was perceived by others or those who received it? How do you know about this reaction to your work?” Probing offers opportunities for important data to emerge that can inform future discussions.


A set of three core skills—supporting self-actualization, self-awareness-building, and becoming more naturally empathic—serve as the underlying basis for implementing the nine mentoring techniques we will discuss later in the book. Without integrating, developing, and applying these skills to our model, you will not be able to achieve the level of success you no doubt were hoping to realize when you decided to learn more about effective mentoring techniques. To re-emphasize the important themes we have raised in this chapter, we advocate that:

  • Mentoring is really about self-actualization, the apex of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: exploring what fulfills your protégé professionally and personally makes mentoring the most effective.
  • It’s not about you. Mentors seek first to understand, not to be understood. They practice empathy. Mentoring is an other-oriented activity; consequently, mentors need to refine their skills focused on letting the story unfold and responding to the unique circumstances of others.
  • If it’s not about you, then you’ll have to be an avid and effective listener. The art of listening to understand is critical to mentoring success. At the very least, do your best to follow the 80/20 rule of time spent listening versus time spent speaking, to establish the environment in which seeking first to understand can occur.

Stephen E. Kohn and Vincent O’Connell

Reprinted, with permission of the publisher, from 9 POWERFUL PRACTICES OF REALLY GREAT MENTORS © 2015 Stephen E. Kohn and Vincent O’Connell. Published by Career Press, Pompton Plains, NJ. 800-227-3371. All rights reserved.

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