Using Mentoring Dialog Journals to Promote and Assess Mentor Growth

© 2003, Barry Sweeny


A Personal Favorite Form for Communication

During my four years as a mentor program coordinator I came to feel that, of all the forms of interaction with mentors, my favorite was the reflection and “conversation” which occurred through the mentor “dialogue journals” which some of the mentors in our program kept. While I am sure that choosing this form of interaction reveals a great deal about me, I must also state that dialogue journals became my favorite interaction because they revealed so much about the process of mentoring and the evolution that mentors must undergo as they learn the “craft” of the mentor.

What follows is a description of the dialogue journal, how it functions, and some of what the use of such journals has revealed about mentor growth. I strongly recommend this “tool” and process to you.

However, the format might better be adapted to use e-mail now days, although it could be the choice of the mentor that determines this. In the case of an e-mail format, the person responding to the mentor’s entries could use all caps inserted in the mentor’s message to ask the questions and prompt the reflection. Good luck!

Mentor – Coordinator Communications

While the purpose of the mentor program that I coordinated was to develop the new professionals which our organization employed, the primary activity (about 50% of my time) that I engaged in as coordinator was the development of the mentors. In fact, I often have described this role of mentor program coordinator as one of “a mentor to the mentors”.

Serving as a mentor of mentors, however, is a trickier task then one might realize. How does a mentor coordinator promote mentor development when most of the actual work of mentoring is quite “invisible” to those outside of the mentoring pair?

I found that to help mentors grow I needed to know their work pretty intimately and yet, much of the work a mentor does requires private conversation, a confidentiality, and a “safe setting” in which protégés and mentors alike feel safe enough to try out new skills and ideas in front of each other.

As coordinator, I found that I needed to establish the same safe, confidential relationship with mentors to foster their sharing with me the trials and joys which mentors experience that I needed to know about and address with them.

Also, I found that mentors’ conversations with me made them uncomfortable if it got “close” to the confidentiality boundaries they had with their protege. The remedy to this was to proactively tell mentors…

  • “Our conversations will not include your talking about your protege, unless your protege and you have agreed that is OK to do. Our discussions will focus of your half of the experience, your learning and growth as a mentor, your insights, and the support you need for that process.”

The necessary level of sharing can only result from frequent communications between coordinator and mentor and that, I found, had to be built into the expectations for mentoring.

Choosing a Communication Method

Once stated, the expectation of communication between the mentor and coordinator has never become as issue. This acceptance may seem surprising to some, but it makes sense because mentors understand that communication with a coach is needed for mentors to grow.

As a mentor program coordinator, however, I did find that the different learning preferences of each mentor required the use of different approaches to communication with them.

  • Some mentors prefer to interact in personal, face-to-face meetings.
  • Others like telephone conversations
  • Still other mentors will choose to keep a journal because it is a tool and a discipline which promotes increased reflection.

I found that, if you want mentors to reflect on their mentoring practices and communicate with you about that, you must fit the methods to their preferences or it just will not happen. In the mentor program which I coordinated, about one third of the mentors chose to keep a dialogue journal with me. That actually was fine with me because of the intensity of that work for me and the time I had to give to the process. More than 1/3 might not have been possible to do as well as I able when only 1/3 wanted that method.

How a Dialogue Journal Works

When I decided to try the journal idea, (1988 and no e-mail yet) I purchased a variety of the cloth covered blank books which can be found in book stores for about $5 or less. I supplied a book with the cover of their choice to those mentors who indicated an interest in a journal. Mentors were asked to date each entry as if it were a diary and they were asked to write only on one page and to leave the facing page empty.

Mentors were told that they could write as little or as much as they wished and that the focus of their writing was to be their own experiences and learning as a mentor. Further, I promised that I would keep all the contents of the journals I read confidential and that I would never criticize what was written. Rest assured, reader, that the quotations from journals which follow in this article have all had individual references removed and that the quotations are all used with permission.

Mentors were asked to submit their journals about once a quarter. When I received a journal, I tried to respond within 1-2 days so I could send it back quickly, give them my responses, and they’d be able to keep writing in it without a big gap in time.

Here’s a hint for how I managed this process to help us both:

  1. I would read their ideas, concerns, and stories and then write back to them on the facing page.
  2. I tried to use as many open-ended questions as I could to prompt their thinking about specifically how to be a better mentor.
  3. I dated my responses.
  4. I copied what they wrote and I said so I could refer to it later when I talked with or went to see them.
  5. I kept these copies from the dialogue journals in a file I kept for each mentor.

This system was great because it allowed me to:

  • Pick up previous conversations without seeming to have forgotten their personal issues
  • Demonstrate my personal investment in knowing and helping them as an individual, (what they must do as mentors)
  • Handle different fragments of communication over time as one, on-going dialogue in which patterns became clear.

It has been fascinating to read these journals and to see mentoring through all these different sets of eyes. What a privilege to share so closely in these mentors’ experiences!

The information I learned through this process better positioned me to monitor the program. It also provided me the specific statements and lessons learned (ask permission first) which gave me material for:

  • Demonstrating the value of the program to decision makers outside of the program
  • Newsletters and other program communications
  • End-of-year evaluations of the program
  • Year-end program reports to the Board
  • Mentor recognition events.

The whole experience was terrific and of greater value than even I had expected.


By Barry Sweeny, who was the Mentor Program Coordinator from 1988-92.

The following example comes from a mentor who originally approached this author after the initial mentor training to express a concern. She essentially stated, “The training has helped me realize the great need in mentoring for close personal relationship, but I think that I have have only built good professional, not personal, relationships in my work. Now, I’m not so sure that I can be as effective a mentor as I want to be!”

Barry’s response was, “Would you LIKE to develop a more close personal relationship with one colleague? If so, I will help and support you in that goal so that you can grow to become the mentor you’d like to be. What do you say?”

The mentor’s response was very reluctant but positive.

Placed in that context, the same mentor’s dialogue journal entries across the first year become all the more powerful, for they were evidence that she was gradually shifting to a deeper, more personal AND professional relationship with her protege. In other words, the journal documented her journey toward attaining her growth goal as a mentor. Great!

A year after the original conversation, Barry used entries from the journal to create the following chart and then sent it back to the mentor. This was done to allow the mentor to see the evolving pattern of her growth over time, a pattern that should be celebrated!

“Gail,- I marvel at the great shifts and super growth you and your protege have both experienced in this first year! I thought if I put it in this form you could see yourselves from a new perspective. Read & celebrate what you have accomplished! You have reached your goal! I quote from your journal…”
10/23/89 – I need to… I need
I should… I should
My hardest task will be… My hardest task will be
My approach needs to… My approach needs to
Why do I always… I always do
10/24 Neither of us opens up easily… us opens up easily
one of us has to… us has to
11/14 I hope she and I can… I-she hope we can
1/3/90 Alright now. I really want to… I want to
We have to… We have to
2/??/90 I think there’s allot more value… I think
Her customers really need … Her really need
I’d really like to… -I like to
I can observe… I can observe
3/2 I think I found there’s something I can… I found-can
At least I can… I can I can
3/16 I told her that… I told
I think… I think
4/2 Now she needs… She needs
I suggested that she… I-she suggested
So now I need to be patient… I need to be patient
4/5 I’m talking with… I talking with
I found out that… I found out
I still want to help by listening… I help by listening
All I can do is be available… I’m available
I can be of some value… I’m valuable
4/20 At last! She’s starting to confide… She’s starting to confide
We’ve discussed… we have discussed
5/25 She and I discussed… she & I discussed
We’re doing more special things… We are doing special things…
I invited… I invited
She will join us… She will join
I hope we can… I – we hope – can
5/29 She and I touched base… She and I touched base
6/1 We’ve been together… We have been together
6/7 I gave her what she asked for… I-her gave her
Preparing & working as a team… team Preparing & working
We also won the team trophy at the… we won
I like our accomplishments to be visible… I-our like
6/8 I’m so pleased that… I am so pleased
From now on I will remember… I will remember