What is key to a productive mentoring relationship?

Since I started working on Shoulder to Shoulder, our mentoring project for ex-service men and women, we’ve been lucky enough to receive applications from would-be volunteer mentors with a wealth of skills. 

Many of the volunteers have mentored or been mentored themselves, even if they don’t regard it as mentoring.  Mentoring is something the majority of us have experienced at some point in our lives, be it with a teacher, family member, or employer. Even so, many people seem to have difficulties when I ask them what a mentor is and what a mentor does. 

I think that each mentoring relationship is unique and it’s up to each person in the relationship to work out what works for them. That said, there are some things that are common to each mentoring relationship. Gerald Egan teaches something called the Skilled Helper Model, which is a three-stage process to support people to resolve a particular problem or to access a resource.  There are some key elements of it that I think are central to any productive mentoring relationship:

  1. Giving people time to find out what their problem really is.

Resist the urge to start action planning as soon as a mentee mentions an issue they’d like to work on.  Practice your active listening skills and encourage them to explore the issue further.  What can start off as a time management issue (I have too many obligations and I don’t know how to fulfil them) could instead be about control and helping a mentee regain it in their lives.

  1. Be creative in your approach to problem solving.

There are lots of different approaches that you can use including mind mapping using words and/or diagrams to describe the issue.  The mentor can then gently challenge the mentee by asking them to explain what’s on the page or by asking them to develop particular ideas.  It’s important that the mentee explores as many options as they can before they settle on a best fit.

  1. Be specific in the goal that you set.

The SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timed) method can be really useful as you can go through and make sure each criteria has been fulfilled before the mentee attempts the goal.  If the time frame is very long term it might be an idea to divide the goal into something more readily achievable. Before embarking on the goal ask the mentee how committed they are to seeing this goal through on a scale of 1-10.  If it’s less than 8 it’s probably a good idea to go back and re-evaluate the goal.  Ask the mentee if this goal is really getting to the crux of the issue.