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5 Tips for Becoming a Great Mentor

5 Tips for Becoming a Great Mentor

Ask anyone if they want a Mentor and after a few minutes of them thinking about who their own personal “Yoda” could be, they all answer yes. Ask anyone what qualities they should look for in a mentor, for themselves, and the answer becomes a little more convoluted. Follow-up both questions with how they would go about becoming a mentor and you could be waiting for awhile to get an answer back from them.

Being a mentor to someone – whether it be through work, life, sports, etc – is not an easy task. After all, you now have someone looking to you for answers to the questions they have and seeking lifesaving guidance from you on where they should go, what decisions should they make, where should they focus, etc, etc. The questions can be endless.

To top it off, you might be a mentor and not even know it. Sure some positions such as teacher, manager, leader imply that you might be in that position as a result of your employment, but you could have been thrust into this position solely as a result of “being there” or having sat beside a colleague for years or because you took the time to have coffee with that person 3 weeks ago.

Whichever the reason, the fact that you have recognized that you now occupy this role, the problem now becomes – how do you become a great mentor and really help your mentee(s) in guiding them on their path.

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1. Experience

When seeking out a mentor, we seek to find someone who is on a similar path as we are.  Someone who has gone through the ups and downs of what we have and navigated the uncharted waters. They don’t need to have done it all, but they need to have had some experience in where you are going.

This is an asset for any person wanting to be a mentor. For instance, I could not mentor anyone in the field of drawing as I haven’t really achieved anything of significance or invested any time in this field beyond my own interests. As a software developer, I’ve invested countless hours across varieties of projects and platforms that I could very easily slip into that role providing guidance to junior members of our team.

If you are looking to become a mentor, focus on an area or field where you have experience and knowledge to fall back on. As a side benefit to your experience and knowledge, you most likely would have a network of individuals you could call upon should a problem be raised with your Mentee that they might have suggestions for.

2. Listen

We all have our views on the world and we all have a good idea of what does and doesn’t work in our fields of interest.  The Mentor/Mentee relationship is a symbiotic one where it’s not meant to be a completely one-way discussion – “here do this, keep doing this, don’t do what you were going to do”. The goal of the relationship is for the Mentee to learn and grow.

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To do this, you must train yourself to listen to their problems and challenges and suggest courses of action that don’t give them the immediate answer they so insistently desire. Your Mentee cannot learn and grow if you are telling them exactly what to do and never giving them a chance to fail. Listening to your Mentee’s struggles can be incredibly hard to do because even though they think they know what the problem is, it’s up to you to tell them what it really is.

3. Push

Building off being able to listen to your Mentee is knowing when to push them. After a period of time working together, you’ll know when they are starting to slack, starting to wane and eventually becoming happy with the comfortable spot they are in. Why rock the boat? You are there TO rock the boat, to push them into the uncomfortable, to give them a kick when everything is going fine so they can feel that sense of urgency that got them there in the first place.

I’ve worked with a few Mentees where they have outright complained about the pushes I gave them to get help them achieve a goal. But when they achieved that goal, their first response was to say thank me for giving them the push they needed. If you are ever in doubt as to whether you should provide a push, always remember why you became invested in this relationship in the first place – was it to make a new friend or help someone grow (hint: it’s the latter).

4. Support

At some point during your relationship, your Mentee is going to make a decision that you probably would have never made. Or they might do something that you warned them would fail, but they decided to do it regardless. And then, while sitting back and waiting, you receive the harried call from your Mentee that all has failed, the call they made was the wrong one, they should have listened to you, now they don’t know what to do, etc, etc.

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As any other person might be inclined to do you could offer up the never productive “I told you so”, but as a mentor, you can never do this. They are coming to you now, in their time of need, for guidance and support in what they should do next.  If you’ve been there, great help them get out a bit faster than you, but don’t take it all away. They need to learn, but, in this case, they also need your support to get through and get back in the game.

5. Letting Go

At someone point in your relationship, you will reach the point where it’s now time to let your Mentee go.  Not because they asked you to or because the time of your engagement is up, but because it is time for them to move on and grow.  This is the hardest part of being a mentor when you have invested so much time in this person, and now it’s time to part ways for the only reason that for them to continue to grow, they must do so without you (or with a different mentor).

Letting a Mentee go on their own, either by leaving your team, employ, etc is not an easy task  – one need only look to all the mothers crying when as their children leave the nest to go to school far away at the beginning of a new school year – but it’s necessary. Necessary because if they do not go, do not leave, then they will never grow and all that you would have taught them would have been for naught.

The hidden quality throughout all of this is trust – trust between both the mentor and mentee. Try as you might, if you don’t have that base quality of trust between two individuals trying to grow and become better, everything else falls down – your words becoming meaningless, your actions ignored and your suggestions questions. How do you establish this trust when it is not there, to begin with? Through small, consistent, dedicated actions that prove your commitment to not only wanting to mentor this person but from wanting to learn how to become a better mentor from working with this person.

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Every relationship I have had in a Mentor/Mentee scenario has helped me with the next that came after – because I grew, I learned, I was pushed to become better for them and when the time was ready, I knew when I had to let go and push them to do something different. If you can, if you have the opportunity, being a mentor can be one of the greatest things you’ll ever do, being able to work so closely with someone and watching them grow and helping them achieve your goals – it is one of those things in life where both sides get more than what they put into it.

Featured photo credit: Ed Gregory via stokpic.com

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Greg Thomas

Software Architect

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Last Updated on October 22, 2020

8 Simple Ways to Be a Better Listener

8 Simple Ways to Be a Better Listener

How would you feel if you were sharing a personal story and noticed that the person to whom you were speaking wasn’t really listening? You probably wouldn’t be too thrilled.

Unfortunately, that is the case for many people. Most individuals are not good listeners. They are good pretenders. The thing is, true listening requires work—more work than people are willing to invest. Quality conversation is about “give and take.” Most people, however, want to just give—their words, that is. Being on the receiving end as the listener may seem boring, but it’s essential.

When you are attending to someone and paying attention to what they’re saying, it’s a sign of caring and respect. The hitch is that attending requires an act of will, which sometimes goes against what our minds naturally do—roaming around aimlessly and thinking about whatnot, instead of listening—the greatest act of thoughtfulness.

Without active listening, people often feel unheard and unacknowledged. That’s why it’s important for everyone to learn how to be a better listener.

What Makes People Poor Listeners?

Good listening skills can be learned, but first, let’s take a look at some of the things that you might be doing that makes you a poor listener.

1. You Want to Talk to Yourself

Well, who doesn’t? We all have something to say, right? But when you are looking at someone pretending to be listening while, all along, they’re mentally planning all the amazing things they’re going to say, it is a disservice to the speaker.

Yes, maybe what the other person is saying is not the most exciting thing in the world. Still, they deserve to be heard. You always have the ability to steer the conversation in another direction by asking questions.

It’s okay to want to talk. It’s normal, even. Keep in mind, however, that when your turn does come around, you’ll want someone to listen to you.

2. You Disagree With What Is Being Said

This is another thing that makes you an inadequate listener—hearing something with which you disagree with and immediately tuning out. Then, you lie in wait so you can tell the speaker how wrong they are. You’re eager to make your point and prove the speaker wrong. You think that once you speak your “truth,” others will know how mistaken the speaker is, thank you for setting them straight, and encourage you to elaborate on what you have to say. Dream on.

Disagreeing with your speaker, however frustrating that might be, is no reason to tune them out and ready yourself to spew your staggering rebuttal. By listening, you might actually glean an interesting nugget of information that you were previously unaware of.

3. You Are Doing Five Other Things While You’re “Listening”

It is impossible to listen to someone while you’re texting, reading, playing Sudoku, etc. But people do it all the time—I know I have.

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I’ve actually tried to balance my checkbook while pretending to listen to the person on the other line. It didn’t work. I had to keep asking, “what did you say?” I can only admit this now because I rarely do it anymore. With work, I’ve succeeded in becoming a better listener. It takes a great deal of concentration, but it’s certainly worth it.

If you’re truly going to listen, then you must: listen! M. Scott Peck, M.D., in his book The Road Less Travel, says, “you cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.” If you are too busy to actually listen, let the speaker know, and arrange for another time to talk. It’s simple as that!

4. You Appoint Yourself as Judge

While you’re “listening,” you decide that the speaker doesn’t know what they’re talking about. As the “expert,” you know more. So, what’s the point of even listening?

To you, the only sound you hear once you decide they’re wrong is, “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah!” But before you bang that gavel, just know you may not have all the necessary information. To do that, you’d have to really listen, wouldn’t you? Also, make sure you don’t judge someone by their accent, the way they sound, or the structure of their sentences.

My dad is nearly 91. His English is sometimes a little broken and hard to understand. People wrongly assume that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about—they’re quite mistaken. My dad is a highly intelligent man who has English as his second language. He knows what he’s saying and understands the language perfectly.

Keep that in mind when listening to a foreigner, or someone who perhaps has a difficult time putting their thoughts into words.

Now, you know some of the things that make for an inferior listener. If none of the items above resonate with you, great! You’re a better listener than most.

How To Be a Better Listener

For conversation’s sake, though, let’s just say that maybe you need some work in the listening department, and after reading this article, you make the decision to improve. What, then, are some of the things you need to do to make that happen? How can you be a better listener?

1. Pay Attention

A good listener is attentive. They’re not looking at their watch, phone, or thinking about their dinner plans. They’re focused and paying attention to what the other person is saying. This is called active listening.

According to Skills You Need, “active listening involves listening with all senses. As well as giving full attention to the speaker, it is important that the ‘active listener’ is also ‘seen’ to be listening—otherwise, the speaker may conclude that what they are talking about is uninteresting to the listener.”[1]

As I mentioned, it’s normal for the mind to wander. We’re human, after all. But a good listener will rein those thoughts back in as soon as they notice their attention waning.

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I want to note here that you can also “listen” to bodily cues. You can assume that if someone keeps looking at their watch or over their shoulder, their focus isn’t on the conversation. The key is to just pay attention.

2. Use Positive Body Language

You can infer a lot from a person’s body language. Are they interested, bored, or anxious?

A good listener’s body language is open. They lean forward and express curiosity in what is being said. Their facial expression is either smiling, showing concern, conveying empathy, etc. They’re letting the speaker know that they’re being heard.

People say things for a reason—they want some type of feedback. For example, you tell your spouse, “I had a really rough day!” and your husband continues to check his newsfeed while nodding his head. Not a good response.

But what if your husband were to look up with questioning eyes, put his phone down, and say, “Oh, no. What happened?” How would feel, then? The answer is obvious.

According to Alan Gurney,[2]

“An active listener pays full attention to the speaker and ensures they understand the information being delivered. You can’t be distracted by an incoming call or a Facebook status update. You have to be present and in the moment.

Body language is an important tool to ensure you do this. The correct body language makes you a better active listener and therefore more ‘open’ and receptive to what the speaker is saying. At the same time, it indicates that you are listening to them.”

3. Avoid Interrupting the Speaker

I am certain you wouldn’t want to be in the middle of a sentence only to see the other person holding up a finger or their mouth open, ready to step into your unfinished verbiage. It’s rude and causes anxiety. You would, more than likely, feel a need to rush what you’re saying just to finish your sentence.

Interrupting is a sign of disrespect. It is essentially saying, “what I have to say is much more important than what you’re saying.” When you interrupt the speaker, they feel frustrated, hurried, and unimportant.

Interrupting a speaker to agree, disagree, argue, etc., causes the speaker to lose track of what they are saying. It’s extremely frustrating. Whatever you have to say can wait until the other person is done.

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Be polite and wait your turn!

4. Ask Questions

Asking questions is one of the best ways to show you’re interested. If someone is telling you about their ski trip to Mammoth, don’t respond with, “that’s nice.” That would show a lack of interest and disrespect. Instead, you can ask, “how long have you been skiing?” “Did you find it difficult to learn?” “What was your favorite part of the trip?” etc. The person will think highly of you and consider you a great conversationalist just by you asking a few questions.

5. Just Listen

This may seem counterintuitive. When you’re conversing with someone, it’s usually back and forth. On occasion, all that is required of you is to listen, smile, or nod your head, and your speaker will feel like they’re really being heard and understood.

I once sat with a client for 45 minutes without saying a word. She came into my office in distress. I had her sit down, and then she started crying softly. I sat with her—that’s all I did. At the end of the session, she stood, told me she felt much better, and then left.

I have to admit that 45 minutes without saying a word was tough. But she didn’t need me to say anything. She needed a safe space in which she could emote without interruption, judgment, or me trying to “fix” something.

6. Remember and Follow Up

Part of being a great listener is remembering what the speaker has said to you, then following up with them.

For example, in a recent conversation you had with your co-worker Jacob, he told you that his wife had gotten a promotion and that they were contemplating moving to New York. The next time you run into Jacob, you may want to say, “Hey, Jacob! Whatever happened with your wife’s promotion?” At this point, Jacob will know you really heard what he said and that you’re interested to see how things turned out. What a gift!

According to new research, “people who ask questions, particularly follow-up questions, may become better managers, land better jobs, and even win second dates.”[3]

It’s so simple to show you care. Just remember a few facts and follow up on them. If you do this regularly, you will make more friends.

7. Keep Confidential Information Confidential

If you really want to be a better listener, listen with care. If what you’re hearing is confidential, keep it that way, no matter how tempting it might be to tell someone else, especially if you have friends in common. Being a good listener means being trustworthy and sensitive with shared information.

Whatever is told to you in confidence is not to be revealed. Assure your speaker that their information is safe with you. They will feel relieved that they have someone with whom they can share their burden without fear of it getting out.

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Keeping someone’s confidence helps to deepen your relationship. Also, “one of the most important elements of confidentiality is that it helps to build and develop trust. It potentially allows for the free flow of information between the client and worker and acknowledges that a client’s personal life and all the issues and problems that they have belong to them.”[4]

Be like a therapist: listen and withhold judgment.

NOTE: I must add here that while therapists keep everything in a session confidential, there are exceptions:

  1. If the client may be an immediate danger to himself or others.
  2. If the client is endangering a population that cannot protect itself, such as in the case of a child or elder abuse.

8. Maintain Eye Contact

When someone is talking, they are usually saying something they consider meaningful. They don’t want their listener reading a text, looking at their fingernails, or bending down to pet a pooch on the street. A speaker wants all eyes on them. It lets them know that what they’re saying has value.

Eye contact is very powerful. It can relay many things without anything being said. Currently, it’s more important than ever with the Covid-19 Pandemic. People can’t see your whole face, but they can definitely read your eyes.

By eye contact, I don’t mean a hard, creepy stare—just a gaze in the speaker’s direction will do. Make it a point the next time you’re in a conversation to maintain eye contact with your speaker. Avoid the temptation to look anywhere but at their face. I know it’s not easy, especially if you’re not interested in what they’re talking about. But as I said, you can redirect the conversation in a different direction or just let the person know you’ve got to get going.

Final Thoughts

Listening attentively will add to your connection with anyone in your life. Now, more than ever, when people are so disconnected due to smartphones and social media, listening skills are critical.

You can build better, more honest, and deeper relationships by simply being there, paying attention, and asking questions that make the speaker feel like what they have to say matters.

And isn’t that a great goal? To make people feel as if they matter? So, go out and start honing those listening skills. You’ve got two great ears. Now use them!

More Tips on How to Be a Better Listener

Featured photo credit: Joshua Rodriguez via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Skills You Need: Active Listening
[2] Filtered: Body language for active listening
[3] Forbes: People Will Like You More If You Start Asking Follow-up Questions
[4] TAFE NSW Sydney eLearning Moodle: Confidentiality

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