Strategies for effective mentoring: A little kindness goes a long way

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 fourth for the fall 2019 semester.  In each, she shares observations and suggestions with faculty and staff from her professional experiences with students.

Effective mentoring conversations use a basic coaching conversation model to help people move forward towards their goals: ask questions, practice active listening, provide encouragement, give feedback, and push for next steps. Typically, in any conversation, we might focus on asking questions and giving feedback, forgetting our role as listeners and accountability partners. But with a little practice, anyone can get better at focusing less on me and more on you. That said, one of the most overlooked strategies of effective mentoring is that of providing encouragement. Sometimes the best thing one can do for another person is to demonstrate genuine care and kindness.

And caring doesn’t mean sugar-coating things. I once heard a leader on this campus say that “effective mentoring is just telling someone that they’re awesome all the time.” Let me be clear: This is NOT effective mentoring. As Brené Brown likes to say, “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” Great mentors encourage, yes, but they also tell us when we’re not living up to expectations, when we’re not being awesome. And when done with clarity, and with the best interests of the other person in mind, there is a very real kindness to this practice.

How can you incorporate a practice of kindness into your mentoring conversations?

Set clear expectations. What do you and your mentee expect out of the relationship? How will you interact with each other? How would you like for this other person to communicate with you? Many communication issues develop out of what is not said. Remember: Clear is kind. If you don’t like students to text you, state that upfront. If you can only be available once a month, be clear about it.

Recognize great work. Feedback doesn’t always have to be critical. We need to know how and when we’re doing things well, just as much as we need to learn from our mistakes. Look for places to be a cheerleader, advocate, and encourager. Everyone can benefit from knowing there is someone in their corner.

Help to normalize experience. Sometimes the best thing that a mentor can do for another person is to help to put their experience into context. How is this other person’s experience similar to an experience you or others have had? Normalizing doesn’t mean fixing. It means letting someone else know that they aren’t alone and that someone truly cares about them.