Apparently January is National Mentoring Month!
And I love that. I love pausing to acknowledge that I wouldn’t be at all who I am today personally or professionally without my mentors. I love that they’ve offered far more nuggets of wisdom, cups of coffee, listening ears, and respect than I deserve. And I love paying attention to what they’ve done, because then a) I can write a blog about them b) maybe I can be something of a mentor for others.
Based on my observations, here’s a few ways to be a good mentor:
1. Be available. And make it known that you’re available. The best mentors I’ve had have been folks who’ve chatted with me even very briefly, say, after a meeting and said very specifically: “I’d be interested in talking more about that if you’d like. Do you know how to reach me?” Once that connection is made, offer up a phone number or business card — and, believe it or not, you’ve just done a beautiful thing. You’ve just told me I’m not alone. Thank you.
2. Don’t be available all the time. Sure, a mentor could be available all the time — especially in case of emergency. But, mentors aren’t the same as parents, peers, or pals. Especially if you’re mentoring a young person or an emotionally volatile person, these relational distinctions can be something to work on. (I know because I’ve been that young, emotionally volatile person before.) In the long run, I’ve appreciated mentors being available on a limited, defined basis. Knowing they’re available to meet at certain times and places has forced me to practice some self-assessment and self-care (journaling, pro-con lists, meditation, prayer, whatever works) rather than seeking help excessively.
3. Share your story. Really. It might not be much like my story; in fact, it likely won’t be. But I want to know that you’ve made it from a Point A to a Point B (or even Point Z!) and that it sucked sometimes and that you nonetheless survived to tell me the tale.
4. Listen to our stories. I repeat: listen. Listen without judging, interrupting, or acting too surprised by what I say. (For more on this, try some of my past blogs on listening or on mental health first aid.)
5. Find out what we love and make sure we keep doing it. One of the best questions a mentor ever asked me was: “Have you been writing?” The answer: no. The result: change. Good, good change. I knew that my mentor was onto me and would be “checking my homework ” so to speak. So, I started writing. He almost never asked the question again. But I kept on writing, because I never knew when my mentor might throw a pop quiz my way!
6. Ask questions. I used to think mentorship boiled down to this: mentor bestowing wisdom upon the mentee. But now I think it boils down to this: mentor drawing wisdom out of the mentee. One way this can happen is by asking questions. Challenging questions. I’ve had a mentor, for instance, tell me about a challenge he was experiencing at work and then ask how I would handle the challenge. After getting over the shock of my mentor apparently asking me for advice, I offered some hypothetical solutions. Only later did I realize he wasn’t needing my advice but making me think. And all that thinking made me remember the challenge and its solution far more than if he’d lectured me about it. (Touché, mentor. That was a good one.)
7. “Keep calm and mentor on.” Something about a mentor who remains calm in the midst of my anxiety makes me inexplicably, physiologically calm. I could be explaining why my world is in the process of falling apart, but a calm mentor can say with body language alone “no, the world is not falling apart.”
To all the mentors out there: thank you. Thank you for being available (though not all the time), sharing your stories, listening to our stories, holding us accountable, asking questions, and keeping calm.