October 25, 2012

Effective Mentoring Through Listening

Have you ever met with your mentor to discuss a problem, hoping to get help sorting it out, only to end up feeling more frustrated than when you started?  In fact, when you were done with the meeting, you felt on the defensive and even more stressed out by your problem?   Sure your mentor gave you advice.  Sure your mentor shared his or her experience with you.  So, what went wrong?  What was missing?

On the flip side, have you ever ended a conversation with a member of your team, or even a son or daughter, feeling that they left dissatisfied with the outcome and that, perhaps, you could have done a better job helping them out? Feeling that you could have been a better mentor?

What could your mentor, or you, have done differently to get a better outcome?

There are, of course, many attributes and behaviors that contribute to being a great and effective mentor.  In the last year, as the Kenway Consulting Mentoring Program lead, I have done some research on the subject, but more importantly, I have paid special attention to both my own mentoring relationships as well as those around me.   We all play many mentoring roles in life and hopefully we learn something from each one.  As a consultant, I take my role as trusted advisor very seriously and do my best to coach and mentor my customers to help them build skills and solve problems.  As a supervisor, I have been fortunate enough to mentor a number of outstanding employees, which fostered motivating and highly rewarding relationships.  As a mother, I have a unique and challenging mentoring relationship with my 13 year old daughter.  It is one of the toughest mentoring roles I’ve ever held, but also one of the most rewarding, and one from which I have learned quite a lot.  And finally, of course, as an employee and daughter, I have been a mentee, reaping varying degrees of benefit with different mentors.

So, what makes a great mentor?  Is there a magical skill or attribute that differentiates great mentors from average or poor mentors?

My personal experience leads me to believe that fundamentally, communication skills, and specifically listening skills, are at the root of what makes someone a great and effective mentor.  Based on the research I mentioned earlier and a Kenway training session I led recently, I have developed the following list of critical behaviors and key qualities that are highly desirable in someone wishing to be a good and effective mentor.  Take a look at these two lists and ask yourself:  can someone who is not an effective listener exhibit or possess these behaviors and/or qualities?  Conversely, is someone who is an effective listener likely to fail to exhibit or possess these behaviors and/or qualities?

Critical behaviors of effective mentors:

  • Serve as a confidant, counselor and advisor
  • Provide guidance, support, and encouragement
  • Recognize that learners have different motivations, skills, knowledge and needs and be able to capitalize on these
  • Be good at spotting learning opportunities and challenges which will assist the mentee’s development
  • Understand that sometimes it may be necessary to push the mentee to move out of their comfort zone
  • Encourage the mentee to think for themselves and work out solutions to problems
  • Empower the mentee to develop their own strengths, beliefs, and personal attributes
  • Provide meaningful feedback to the mentee
  • Participate in keeping the mentoring relationship active
  • Share things with the mentee between formal mentoring sessions

Key qualities of effective mentors:

  • Possess excellent communication skills
  • Able to adjust communication style to the mentee’s personality
  • Excellent listener/sounding board
  • Nonjudgmental
  • Honest and candid
  • Empathetic
  • Eager to learn
  • Knowledgeable
  • Good role model: Consistent and steadfast, “walk their talk,” etc.
  • Teacher: willing/able to devote time to developing others
  • Willing to share skills, knowledge, and expertise
  • Able to help mentees enhance their learning and thinking skills
  • Successful in their career
  • Able to network and find resources

Good communication skills are critical to the success of any human relationship, mentoring relationships being, of course, no exception.  As suggested earlier, of the various communications skills, I would venture to say that effective listening is the most critical skill to master if you want to be a great mentor.   Unless you do a good job at listening to your mentee and understanding the fundamental issues and questions for which he/she is seeking guidance, you will not connect with your mentee, and you will not become a truly great mentor.

Great listening skills do not simply involve being able to parrot back for your mentee what he/she has said as some would have you believe.  The most effective manner to establish trust and demonstrate that you sincerely care and understand is to use empathic listening.

Empathic listening involves listening to your mentee attentively, without interrupting, and responding by restating, in your own words, what you think they said and what you understand their feelings to be.  When interpreting your mentee’s feelings, be sensitive to the emotions being expressed and do your best to understand the situation from their point of view based on their own experience or worldview.   Your response should be non-judgmental: you should refrain from interjecting your own feelings or opinions (even if you disagree with what they are saying).  You should also refrain from sharing your own experiences until you have reached the fundamental and common understanding of what your mentee wishes to address or learn.  Ask open ended questions to clarify things if necessary, but refrain from asking probing questions, especially those that reflect your opinions and/or worldview.  Remember:  this is about your mentee, not about you!

Once you reach this foundational understanding of your mentee’s needs (whether it be building skills or solving a problem), a few things will happen:

  • Your mentee will trust that you really care and that you get it.
  • You will be able to confirm with the mentee that what they said is really what they wished to communicate and ensure you are addressing his/her needs effectively (not going off on a tangent that will leave your mentee very dissatisfied).
  • Your mentee will feel comfortable asking for, and taking your advice (now’s the time to share your opinions, feelings and maybe even a story or two about your own experiences).
  • From this position of trust and understanding, it will be much easier to guide your mentee to help them figure out how to address a problem or move forward, perhaps even on their own.
  • Investing in truly listening to your mentee will position you to give him/her constructive feedback and counsel to guide him/her in the most effective manner.
  • The trust and understanding you have established will also give you the credibility necessary for your mentee to accept and act on your advice with confidence.

Ultimately, people who practice this highly empathic listening style earn the greatest respect from their mentees and are best positioned to become a truly great mentor.   Once the mentor really understands the mentees needs or issues and a position of trust is established, it is easy to guide the dialog in a manner that will be most satisfying to both mentor and mentee.  At Kenway Consulting, we practice what we preach when it comes to mentoring.  We take both our formal internal mentoring relationships, as well as our more informal client mentoring relationships very seriously.  By implementing a mentoring program internally, we are building better mentors, which will benefit not only the development of our own employees, but also our relationships with clients. To learn more about mentoring best practices, or how to begin a mentoring program, contact us at

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