Effective Mentoring in Tough Situations

By Barry Sweeny, 2002

Since mentors are some of our best employees, they tend to be people with many valued skills, for example the ability to detect and resolve conflicts before they become big emotional issues or problems that are harder to resolve. Still, there are some scary or tricky times that even highly skilled mentors need some strategies. Here are some rules of thumb which can provide mentors with positive steps they can take to avoid turning potential problem areas into big problems.


When you don’t know WHAT to say

SAY WHAT’S IN YOUR HEART, what you are really worried about, why you’re feeling cautious, what you are afraid may happen. That’s what you should say.

When you sense that there are other UNSPOKEN deeper concerns or issues

TALK ABOUT WHAT YOU FEEL THE REAL ISSUES REALLY ARE, what you see beneath the topic of concern, what you are wondering about.

When you don’t know HOW to say it...

If you can, USE INCLUSIVE LANGUAGE. Even if it is true, do not use language which suggests that you are fine and it’s others who have a problem and they need to fix it. Do not use pronouns such as “you”, “he”, “she”, “his”, “her”, “them”, or “they”. Such language can make people defensive and less receptive.

Use pronouns such as “ours”, “we”, or “us”. That way:

  • If you are speaking of a problem, you consider that you may be a part of it.
  • If you are speaking about a solution, you are also a part of that too.

At the least, USE “I MESSAGES”. Talk about yourself and what you think and feel, what you are worried about. Use only pronouns that include you, such as “I”, “me”, “my”, or “mine”. Don’t blend use of the two as in, “I feel that you are…”

When you don’t know how to get people to consider your viewpoint...

Do not ask questions which can be answered with a simple “Yes” or “No”. You want to get people to “unpack” what they feel, value, and want.Do not ask questions for which you already know the answer. That can be seen as, “I have the right answer, do you know it?” Don’t go there.

Open-ended questions are ones which prompt people to share what they really are thinking and feeling. They get people to talk about what’s in their heart. Once their issues are on the table, you can place yours next to them and find common ground.

When what comes out of your mouth feels wrong, but you’ve already said it...

TAKE IT BACK AND “WORK AT THE DIALOGUE” . “Working at the dialogue”
means that you slow down the discussion so you can think about what you are saying and so you can practice saying things the best way. Don’t wait until later and then think about what you should have said. It’s too late then and you didn’t practice doing it well. Practice now.

As soon as you realize you said something poorly, STOP and say, “What I said suggests that I feel …., and I really don’t. What I really feel is …”. Or you could say, “I’m sorry that I said that. I know that didn’t help the situation. It would have been more helpful to say…..”