Communication for mentors

July 31st, 2012

I’ve been asked to design and deliver a short session on communication skills (2 hours) as part of a longer training for a group of mentors. It’s much harder to design a short session than it is to design one or two days, or even a whole week’s worth. Too many choices. Too many decisions. This got me thinking about specific communication skills needed for mentors, and how this might differ from other situations and/or relationships.

I’m a bit antsy about the term ‘communication skills’ – it just too big, probably means something different to every person who hears it. Communication for me ranges from the extremes of a presentation in an auditorium to sitting silently with another person. Communication is more than talking; it’s more than sharing information; it’s a lot more than giving advice.

So what do mentors specifically need to know about communication? That’s the question I’m playing with today. I’ve gone back to what I believe is the role of a mentor: to facilitate professional learning. Therefore mentor communication needs to focus on one-to-one communication. It will also incorporate elements of role modelling, and is a sustained, caring relationship over time.

It’s not about you
People being mentored want to learn from their mentors, want to benefit from their experiences and connections, want to share the wisdom. I think it’s easy for mentors to become focused on their own challenges and triumphs. This is an important principle to remember for mentors: it’s not about you.

Listening with your whole body – that’s right, being present with the other person, fully, completely. We know when we have someone’s complete attention. It’s becoming rarer. It’s a gift to be present for another person.

Probing, listening for what’s not said and being genuinely interested in different experiences and points of view. Yeah, curious.

It’s easy for all of us to remain comfortable. Sometimes someone has to provoke or cajole us into trying something new or different. Provoking without being pushy; cajoling without upsetting.

I know! I bang on about improvising all the time. That’s because it’s not possible to know in advance what might be needed. I think it’s important to incorporate the principles I’ve outlined above AND to be able to improvise according to what’s happening right in front of you (the person you’re talking to might be upset, bored, excited, too talkative, too quiet, expects too much, expects too little, is over- or under-confident). You see, so many different scenarios. Even if you know the person well, they are not going to want to communicate in the same way every time. Things change. People change. We need to be responsive.

Anything else? What have I missed specifically about the communication skills for mentors?

2 Comments so far

  1. Nancy White on August 1, 2012 8:59 am

    I wish I could remember these brilliant listening exercises that Phillip and Michaela Tarlow led a group of us through years ago. I think we really forget how much there is to listening. So I’d really pay attention to LISTENING!!

  2. Viv McWaters on August 1, 2012 2:26 pm

    Thanks Nancy. Of course – and in the design of the workshop I have included quite a bit on listening. I call it ‘whole body listening’ that incorporates being present, attentive, noticing and letting go (sort of sounds familiar, doesn’t it?)

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