My work in designing mentoring programmes naturally covers mentor ‘training’. I’ve been at it again this morning, meeting one of my groups incoming onto the September to March Researcher Mentoring Programme.

Actually I prefer to say mentor development, because training is too directive a notion to be a good way of describing how we use workshops to get to grips with the practices of mentoring — which is itself a very non-directive activity. As with all types of learning & teaching, there’s not a ‘right way’ to do mentoring, each mentor chooses their own approach, style and practices, and applies them in different situations and contexts.

The induction workshop is not just for mentors; all new mentees attend too, because it makes for better mentoring if everyone involved knows what to expect, has participated in the reflective discussions, and is prepared to make the most of the partnership.

The underlying principles of the mentoring programmes I lead are below — and I want to focus in on the idea of what I mean by ’non-superficial conversations’ in the rest of this post:

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When we think of mentoring often we think of two people who sit down together, do some talking, and as a result of this conversation the more junior mentee gets some advice from the more senior mentor, and ‘is developed’.

Advice can be great. I often get asked by PhD students for the phone number for the Research Degree Support team. Saying “Aaaah well what do you think that phone number is? Shall we try dialling some digits and see what happens?” isn’t going to add to anyone’s development.

But thinking that mentoring = advice can lead us to a superficial view of what mentoring involves, and what mentoring is for. e.g.

  1. mentee has a problem based on a knowledge gap,
  2. mentor uses their superior knowledge to save the day and solve the problem, by giving advice,
  3. mentee’s problem is solved because they now possess that information…

Hmmm.

Firstly, I wrote here on how mentoring is not just ‘for problems’, but more effective if it’s viewed as a proactive development activity ‘for planning’.

And secondly what happens if there isn’t a ‘right answer’ to the mentee’s question? What if the mentor has no prior experience of the issue? What if the mentor’s advice comes from a different set of assumptions about how the world works? What if the mentor’s knowledge is out of date, or only applies in certain contexts? How can they fill up that knowledge gap?

And thirdly, what if it’s not a knowledge gap at all, but a confidence gap, or a motivation gap, or a permission gap or something more complex like ‘what career beyond the academy would suit me?’

And another thing! It’s not very empowering to have to have someone solve your problem for you.

Am I convincing you that a repertoire beyond advising is a must have for a good mentor?

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So what happens if you don’t always jump straight to advice, but sometimes use coaching to help your mentee reflect and articulate the issues, using questions to prompt the mentee to think out loud and self-evaluate? Developing a coaching approach means you can be helpful even if you’ve never experienced what your mentee needs to tackle, and it means you can help them learn how to problem solve for themselves. There are some clues about how to do coaching, what to do and say, in this post.

I ran focus groups with some of the more experienced mentors (senior academic colleagues) who practice within the Researcher Mentoring Programme, asking them, “In your experience what are the pros and cons of giving advice to your mentees?”

Here’s what they said.

(+) Pros of giving advice:

  • It’s quicker just to tell someone the answer, or tell them what to do.
  • You may go through all their own suggestions and they still end up taking your advice so it can feel a waste of time.
  • It shows someone you can relate to what they are experiencing.
  • It lets you as the mentor know that you have been helpful. It’s much easier to track whether you have done a good job if you had something tangible to hand over to the mentee.
  • It makes your mentee feel grateful to you, and value your time and wisdom.
  • If your mentee is stuck, it can unstick them, even if they reject it, they have to articulate why, it can get their creativity going again.
  • A mentee might expect advice and if they don’t get it they feel disappointed.*
  • Your suggestion might be insightful. It might be something outside your mentee’s awareness, or a genuine blind spot, or something totally new to them.
  • Your suggestion might stop your mentee from making a serious mistake, wasting their time or getting into a difficult situation.

* One of the reasons it’s important to include mentees in the induction workshop.

(—) Cons of giving advice:

  • We don’t know as much about our mentee as they themselves do. We may make a diagnosis about what they need or should do based on very limited information.
  • Listening to your suggestion halts their thinking process. Thinking out loud is very powerful and you interrupt that process when you suggest a solution.
  • It creates a dependency-like relationship. If you solve a problem for them they come back to you next time there’s a new problem.
  • It’s disempowering to a person if you always know more than them, or always want to ‘one up’ their ideas.
  • A mentee will prioritise your advice over trusting themselves. As a mentor, you are the senior colleague so they feel obliged to take your advice, they feel they owe it to you.
  • A mentee in a complex situation can feel relieved that you’ve made the decision, and act without evaluating whether it’s really appropriate for them or not.
  • What if the advice doesn’t work? This can lead to blame, if you suggest a way forward, you always own it, you can get the credit, or the blame.
  • A mentee can get overwhelmed with good advice and feel like they have to put it all into practice before meeting with you again. You never see them again because they never complete the list.
  • We are all just more motivated to actually follow through and carry out ideas that are our own, we’re more likely to put them into practice.

On balance, there is a right time for advice, usually when there is a right answer, but also it can be used as a prop when a mentee is stuck, or when something is way outside their awareness. Help them evaluate your suggestion though rather than just accept it. Try adding “What can you take from my suggestion that would work for you?” to the end of your advice. Be aware of the utility of reminding your mentee they aren’t obliged to take your advice too.

Next time some approaches you with a request for help — consider your approach, think about what they need, and choose your approach. I’d LOVE to hear how it goes for you. If I’ve piqued your interest in coaching, and in any of the workshops for mentors, or workshops for supervisors and PIs, please get in touch.