Our page What is Mentoring? explains what mentoring is, and the roles that a mentor can take in the course of a mentoring relationship.
This page sets out the skills required of a mentor, while our page Learning from Mentoring discusses what skills are needed to learn from a mentor.
There are a number of areas which are common to both mentor and learner, such as using reflective practice. Other skills may be more important for mentors; for example coaching skills and an understanding of some theoretical models that may help the learner.
It is also helpful to understand that any mentoring relationship will change over time and that different skills are important at different stages of the relationship.
However, one thing is fundamental to being a good mentor and that is a belief in the potential of the learner.
Building a Mentoring Relationship
Managing the Process
Although mentor and learner need to agree how they’re going to work together, it is usually the mentor who takes responsibility for ensuring the process has been discussed and agreed. This will include setting out a contract and agreeing a process for review.
Mentors therefore need to have good organisational skills so that they can take responsibility for organising the practicalities and make sure that all the essentials are covered in the early days.
The Contracting Process
The contract between mentor and learner may be more or less formal, depending on how you choose to work. However, whether written down formally or not, you need to discuss:
- How long you will work together (whether a time period, or until a goal is achieved).
- Your initial goals, which may include the development of long-term goals for the relationship.
- The practical arrangements such as how often you will meet, where you will meet (in the office or elsewhere, for example), as well as whether cancelling meetings is acceptable and, if so, under what circumstances.
- The process for reviewing the relationship. This should include end-of-session reviews to discuss the process and learning from each session, and periodic reviews of progress towards goals.
Part of contracting is clarifying the objectives and goals of the mentoring in the early stage and helping the learner to identify their own learning goals. Our page Strategic Thinking may be useful in this process.
Forming a Mentoring Relationship
Perhaps inevitably, it is also the mentor who usually takes responsibility for building the relationship in its early stages.
The first contact with the learner may well be an exploratory one to see if you might be able to work together productively in a mentoring relationship.
It is helpful if you can build rapport from an early stage as this builds trust too. It may also be helpful to share the stories about how you came to be a mentor and learner, and what you both want to get out of the relationship.
At this stage, mentors really need to have good emotional intelligence to help them respond to the learner’s emotions and feelings.
Ethics of Mentoring
Good mentoring has a strong ethical component. As a mentor, you need to bear in mind:
- The responsibility of the learner for his/her own learning.
- Respect for the learner's right to make his/her own decisions and to live as he/she chooses.
- A non-judgemental approach where people are treated with respect and honesty.
- Confidentiality regarding personal issues.
The issue of confidentiality may turn out to be difficult if, for example, the learner reveals behaviour that is illegal. Make the terms of the relationship, including limits on confidentiality, clear at the start and there will be fewer problems later.
It is also good practice to pay attention to your own learning and development and make sure that you have a sounding board with whom to discuss any difficult issues in the mentoring relationship.
See our page on Ethical Living for more on ethics.
The Ongoing Mentoring Relationship
As the mentoring relationship develops, the learner will inevitably and appropriately start to take more control of both the process and the content.
As a mentor, your role is largely to support this, to ensure that the learner is able to focus on their goals. As a ‘critical friend’, you may also want to point them towards areas of development that may be important, but less attractive. However, if they choose not to pursue these areas, then you should accept that, and allow them to take responsibility for their own learning.
Your Mentoring Skills and Approach
Reflective practice is also a useful tool both within the mentoring relationship, and to reflect on your own learning from the process outside the relationship.
Most crucially, perhaps, you will need to work on communication skills, such as active listening and questioning skills to ensure that both you and the learner fully understand the situation being discussed.
Be prepared to model behaviour that you think is helpful, both within the relationship and more generally. For example, if you and the learner have been discussing the need to be more assertive, then make sure that you are modelling assertiveness to them.
A Theoretical Underpinning
You may also want to familiarise yourself with various models of behaviour and learning, including Myers-Briggs Type Indicators, the Ladder of Inference, Transactional Analysis, and Dilts' Logical Levels. You may find that they are helpful to the learner in understanding their own and others’ behaviour.
Reviewing and Ending the Mentoring Relationship
Regular review is crucial to maintaining the usefulness of the mentoring relationship. At the very least, mentor and learner should pause at the end of each session to check:
- That both are clear what needs to be done before the next session.
- How far the learner has got in achieving the objectives of mentoring.
- Whether the style of learning and/or facilitation is helping, and if not, how could it be improved.
- In what direction they are planning to move next.
A periodic review of the relationship more generally is also helpful, covering the same sort of areas but in a broader sense. During review, be generous in noticing effort and praise achievement rather than skill level. It’s the same with children: you need to notice how far they’ve come, as well as how they have to go.
In the same way, welcome feedback from the learner, even critical feedback, and even if not very tactfully expressed. You may be skilled at giving feedback, but they may not. All feedback is helpful learning and can inform your development. A review process may uncover the situation that learner and/or mentor feel that the relationship has reached the end of the road. If so, it’s best to agree to end the mentoring relationship with a solid review of learning for both, including detailed feedback, so that both can learn and move on.
As a mentor, you need to remember that you, too, are always learning and developing. There is always room to improve.
Ask the learner for feedback on your mentoring style, and change it to adapt to their requirements. But especially if you’re working with several different learners, don’t forget that everyone is different and the ideal approach for one may not work for another. Flexibility is key.