Allison McWilliams: Knowing when to let go when mentoring becomes counseling

Allison McWilliams

Allison McWilliams

Allison McWilliams is assistant vice president, mentoring and alumni personal & career development. She writes occasional articles for Inside WFU. This is her first for the spring semester.  In each, she shares observations and suggestions with faculty and staff from her professional experiences with students.

Mentoring takes many forms, both formal and informal. Quite often, mentoring partners aren’t aware that they are in a mentoring relationship, and have not defined it as such, until months or years down the road. We know that these informal, organic relationships have great benefits, but they also lack some of the oversight and protections that can be built into more formal mentoring experiences. And in either case, what starts out as mentoring can evolve into something much more dependent and in need of additional resources. What do you do when you think that your mentee might need more of a trained counselor than a mentor?

I once engaged in a mentoring relationship with a young professional, who I will call Sue, as she navigated her first professional role and explored next steps. As we worked through her goals, a relationship built on trust formed that allowed us to have deeper conversations, the hallmark of any effective mentoring relationship. That trust also invited Sue to begin to share some things about her relationship with her family, which clearly were impacting her choices. As an experienced working professional, I felt equipped to talk through professional decisions and next steps, and that was appropriate for our mentoring relationship. But I certainly had no interest in, nor the expertise to counsel her on how her need for her father’s approval was affecting those decisions.

It’s important to recognize when the connection that we have with our mentees is becoming too dependent, or when we are being asked to fill roles that we were not meant to. While there are many overlaps in the strategies – asking questions, listening, pushing for next steps – mentoring is not counseling, coaching, or even advising. Mentoring is always learning-oriented, action-oriented, and experience-based. One of the best things that effective mentors do is to know when and how to set boundaries, to say, “I’m not the person to help you with that, but I know someone who is. Let me walk you over to them and make an introduction.”

Ask yourself:

  • Do I have the experience or the knowledge-base to have this conversation?
  • Am I comfortable having this conversation?
  • Does this conversation serve the best interests of my mentee’s growth and development?
  • Is there another resource I can connect my mentee to, which is better equipped to serve his or her needs?

(Select list of campus resources for students:  University Counseling Center, Student Health Service, Office of the Chaplain, Learning Assistance Center)