In my last post, I shared my thoughts on how to ruin any mentor relationship. The secret is to make the mentoring process all about you, the mentor. Now I want to share what I believe is the cure for this relational ailment. I think the cure is active listening.
“Listening,” you retort. “How is the secret ingredient (to mix metaphors) something I do all the time? Of course I listen to my mentees,” you exclaim.
Active listening (AL) isn’t the same as what we can called mere listening (ML). There are two main differences between the two. The first is obvious given the name “active listening.” As you can see from the infographic I shamelessly stole from the internet, AL requires a level of engagement with the speaker greater than the level normally reached in ML. For this reason, ML is also known as passive listening. ML is just hearing in addition to good language skills. It’s the focusing of one’s auditory faculties in the direction of the oncoming sound coupled with the ability to understand syntax and grammar. For example, when your mentee says, “I’m having a stellar morning,” you have no problem hearing the sounds she’s making, understanding the meaning associated with the individual words and understanding how those words fit together to communicate a more complex sentence. The whole process can be done without the listener ever engaging the speaker. The speaker engages you.
The second difference between AL and ML, is the content in the minds of the speaker and listener after the conversation is over. In ML, it is possible for the speaker and the listener to have two different concepts or ideas in their minds. Going back to the above example, if the speaker is extremely sarcastic like my mentee Katie, then when she says she’s having a stellar morning, she might mean she’s having a really good morning or she might mean that she is having the worst morning in her life. In ML, both meanings are legitimate. In AL however, the goal is for the speaker and listener to have the same ideas in their minds. More pointedly, in AL, the goal is for the listener to have the same thing in her mind as what is in the speaker’s mind. She wants to make sure she understands what Katie means when she says she’s having a stellar day. This is why AL is active. The goal is complete understanding. The goal is fullness.
This search for completeness is what guards the mentor for making mentoring all about herself. By actively seeking to understand what the mentee is thinking, feeling and processing, the mentor has to get out of herself and get into the mind of the mentee. This isn’t an easy practice to learn. Honestly speaking, I blew two opportunities to actively listen to my staff while writing this blog post! But if you can master it, you will probably have more successful mentoring relationships than failures.
By Leroy Lemar, Executive Director for Serenity’s Steps