Leaders: How mentoring can help your communication skills

Lead Change is a leadership media destination with a unique editorial focus on driving change within organizations, teams, and individuals. Lead Change, a division of Weaving Influence, publishes twice monthly with SmartBrief. Today's post is by Lisa Fain.

Without good conversation, mentoring becomes, at best, a series of perfunctory check-ins on goal progress -- and at worst, a growing list of to-dos that are overwhelming and demotivating for the mentee and uninspiring for the mentor. In order to maintain enthusiasm, create meaningful action and sustain momentum, it is essential to have meaningful conversations.

Good mentoring conversations require a balance of time spent on learning and on the relationship. If you spend too much time on only learning, you will not build enough trust or mutual understanding. But without trust, mentees will not feel comfortable expressing concerns or challenging assumptions and mentors will not understand what inspires their mentee -- the relationship will not be a place where both parties share freely.

On the other hand, if you spend too much time on the relationship, you may succeed in building trust, but you will lose focus on the developmental aspect of mentoring and may not experience lasting results.

We know that the best conversations in mentoring happen when there is both significant learning and high trust.

Enhancing learning

Center for Mentoring Excellence founder Dr. Lois J. Zachary says that “learning is the purpose, process, and product of mentoring.” Here are three suggestions for mentors to create meaningful conversations around learning:

  1. Keep the focus on goals. While it can be very helpful for mentors to serve as a sounding board on day-to-day issues that mentees’ face, spending all of the time on quotidian struggles keep the focus on performance, not on development. This can be a missed opportunity. To ensure sustained momentum and enthusiasm, take the time early in the relationship to develop long-term goals that are focused on what the mentee needs to learn to develop, not just on what it will take for them to perform their job well.   
  2. Measure progress by learning, not just by accomplishments. Once you have set goals, check in on progress regularly. It will be useful to set milestones that will mark achievements along the way, but be sure that you don’t measure progress just by checking boxes. Sometimes, progress can be measured by what your mentee has learned along the way—not just what they have done.
  3. Encourage feedback. In mentoring, feedback is essential to capitalize on learning. Set an expectation early on that you and your mentee will give each other honest and constructive feedback throughout the relationship. This can take many forms. As a mentor, provide feedback to your mentee on what you see they have done well and what could be improved as they go about achieving their goals. Solicit feedback from your mentee on what you can be doing to better support them in the mentoring relationship. Suggest to your mentee that they ask for feedback from their teams, and provide a safe space for them to process that feedback in your mentoring meetings. 

Receptivity to feedback, of course is dependent upon providing a nonjudgmental, trusting relationship where you and your mentee have created a safe space for sharing. 

Building trust

Trust can only be built with intention. Here are three tips to build trust in your mentoring conversations:

  1. Take the time to connect. The temptation to dive right into goal progress is strong, especially with so many other things competing for your time. It can be helpful to save time at the beginning of each meeting to connect. Ask a power question, check in on life events, or inquire about recent projects. If you are concerned about running out of time to talk about goals, set a timer.
  2. Remember nonverbal cues. The nonverbal cues you give your mentee matter far more in building trust than the words you say. Be conscious of your space. Don’t sit behind a desk -- this creates a barrier and exacerbates any perceived power differentials. Find a table to sit at together, have a walking meeting, or go to a café. Put your phone away: Studies show that even having your phone on the table during a meeting sends the message that you are not focused on each other.
  3. Make it mutual. Aim for your conversations to be a dialogue instead of a transactional exchange of information. Dialogue is a high level of conversation that leads to transformational thinking that generates shared understanding from the mutual learning that is taking place. As a mentor, be sure to share what you have learned with your mentee. Reflect frequently on how working with your own mentee has expanded your perspective and fueled your own development. Share this with your mentee. Being open about your own willingness to learn and grow will help balance some of the power differentials that are inherent in mentoring and build trust.

Lisa Fain is the CEO of the Center for Mentoring Excellence, the author of "Bridging Differences for Better Mentoring" and an expert in the intersection of cultural competency and mentoring. Her passion for diversity and inclusion work fuels her strong conviction that leveraging differences creates a better workplace and drives better business results.

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