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Caveat Mentor

There’s no doubt that being a mentor carries responsibilities. But so, too, does being a mentee.


Here’s part of a conversation I overheard at the gym between two women working out together –– Older Woman (in her 40s) and Younger Woman (in her 20s):

Older Woman: Just so you know: The more you wash your hair, the faster it turns gray.

Younger Woman: Really?

Older Woman: It’s a fact.

Younger Woman (sighing): Shoot!

Aside from the obvious ageism that underlies this conversation (why is it so dreadful to have gray hair?), there’s a problem with Older Woman’s sage advice: It’s not accurate. In itself, the process of hair-washing doesn’t cause gray hair. In fact, the act of regularly massaging hair follicles stimulates blood flow and helps keep them healthy. Rather, it’s the basic aging process of the death of pigment cells in the scalp, as well as the quality of the water, namely the amount of chlorine in it, that plays a role by changing the chemical composition of hair and stripping away its melanin pigmentation.

The point here is that in her attempt to mentor Younger Woman, Older Woman fell short. Which has me thinking about the process of mentoring and the mentor’s role in it. As someone who has been mentored both wisely and unwisely at various points in my life, I’ve come to some conclusions about the qualities I seek in such a person. And as someone who has been a mentor, those same conclusions have guided me as ideals to attain. Maybe they will resonate with you, too:

The mentor is, first and foremost, a guide. And by “guide” I mean someone who creates a safe intellectual and emotional space in which the mentee can explore ideas, possibilities, and opportunities to fulfill his/her own dreams.

The mentor listens deeply. A person who constantly interrupts or puts pressure on the mentee to “get to the point” isn’t listening deeply. Deep listening involves slowing down and paying attention not just to the words being said but also to body language, facial expression, tone of voice, and most especially, the hesitations and silences between words.

The mentor knows his/her limits. When someone looks to a mentor for information and advice, it behooves the mentor to know what he/she is talking about, as well as to be willing to admit a lack of knowledge and help locate or verify the information. Humility and curiosity are essential in a mentor.

The mentor defers to the mentee. Mentoring isn’t about the person giving guidance but about the one seeking it. The best mentors in my life have been those who took their cues from me and respected my choices about how and when to take my next steps. They let me make necessary mistakes and didn’t give I-told-you-so gloating responses. Great mentors aren’t judgmental; they are compassionate.

The mentor provokes. I’ve found it valuable when a mentor lets questions, not assertions, guide our interaction. When someone poses provocative questions to me rather than tells me what the answers should be, I am empowered to reach my own conclusions and to develop better critical thinking and emotional skills that will serve me in the future.

The mentor describes, not prescribes or proscribes. My skeptical antennae go up whenever the word “should” or “shouldn’t” enters a mentoring conversation. I’ve found that it’s far more effective for a mentor to offer examples from personal experience to see if they might likewise apply to my issues.

The mentor is careful about the type of information shared. On a few occasions, I’ve experienced mentors relaying gossip or warning me away from so-and-so because it could harm my projects or career. While I can understand why a caring mentor might consider such information relevant and important, I’ve also been burned by following the advice, only to find out that the mentor misunderstood or had limited knowledge of the background situation.

The mentor has no vested emotional interest in the mentee’s choices. It’s counterproductive, not to mention unethical, when a mentor’s ego is enmeshed in the process. Occasionally, I was slow to realize when a mentor tried to make our relationship a kind of power struggle, patronizing me or intimidating me with his/her “greater” understanding, expecting from me a kind of worshipful stance. I consider it major progress that as I matured I became better at terminating such relationships early in the process.

There’s no doubt that being a mentor carries responsibilities. But so, too, does being a mentee. As a person seeking guidance, I also understand that mentors are fallible beings. I always try to measure the information and advice I receive against the reality of my own experience. If I hear something that gives me pause, it’s my responsibility to check it out and share my findings. Great mentors, like great physicians, are always willing to hear second opinions.

One other thing: It’s been wonderful when on the rare occasion a mentor of mine eventually became my peer, either because I grew in understanding or because my mentor came to recognize and solicit a particular kind of wisdom I could share that would enrich his/her life. But those times have been few, and rightfully so, as I never expected those transformations to happen.

At age 65, I’m lucky to have experienced mentorship from both perspectives. And I must say that it’s especially refreshing to be mentored by younger people. The reversal of traditional roles only proves that all of us can learn –– and teach –– something at any age. All of us are potential mentors.

If and when we assume the role, it’s important to do so with purpose and integrity. I look forward to my next mentoring experience. In the meantime, please excuse me while I go wash my (gray) hair.


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