The role of the mentor is many-facetted and may vary in its focus depending on the type of mentoring programme and the individual mentor/mentee relationship.
Mentoring is situational just like situational leadership, and the mentors adjust their behaviour to the mentee’s situation, tasks, career ambitions and readiness for the learning. Generally, the mentor’s role is about supporting the mentee’s learning and development.
To support this learning process, we have developed the concept of the Mentor’s Many Roles which includes 10 situational mentor roles that mentors can apply in their mentoring conversations with the mentees.
One of the 10 mentor roles is the coach.
When training mentors with the 10 roles, mentors tend to choose the coach role more often than the other nine roles. Similarly, when we train mentees, they also choose the coach role more often. Through our evaluations and surveys of mentoring programmes, we can see that the coach role is very much appreciated, there is a lot of focus on this role and mentees expect mentors to use the coach role.
According to Kirsten M. Poulsen this strong focus on the coach role could be because “coaching is very popular and has been so for a long time. Everybody has heard about coaching, many have experienced coaching in one form or another, and many leaders have had some training in coaching. However, this does not guarantee that coaching is done well with the right quality, skills and ethics”.
However, the coach role is an important role in mentoring and provides the mentor with the methodology and skills to help mentee listen to their inner dialogue, identify new and more aspects of their context and challenges, open their eyes to their own biases and self-limiting beliefs, and dare to step out of their comfort zone.
Coach – ask questions that lead to new insights and new solutions
The fundamental tool of a coach is to ask questions, starting with open-ended questions that will help mentees to explore what they already know and create reflection that will give mentees new insight. The coach will ask questions, rather than give advice and present solutions, to open up for mentees’ ability to think for themselves and develop their own new insight, gain different perspectives, understand their challenges and problems in new ways, as well as challenge their assumptions and preconceived ideas of themselves, their talents, opportunities and people around them.
However, what are good questions, how do you ask good questions, and when do you use questions as a methodology in the mentoring conversation?
“The answers you get depend on the questions you ask”, is a quote from Thomas Kuhn, the author of “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” and the first to talk about paradigm shifts in understanding the history of science.
As a mentor, you will naturally and consciously or unconsciously form some hypotheses about what is behind the topics your mentee brings to your mentoring conversation. These hypotheses or assumptions that you form will be the basis of the questions you ask. The less aware you are of your own assumptions, the more your questions will be focused on looking for the answer, “you already know is there”. Whether you find the answer you are looking for or not, this may still limit you in such a way that you are not looking outside your own scope of understanding. This is the same pitfall we can all fall into when we are looking at surveys and statistics: we are looking for numbers that confirm what we wish and expect to see. However, this means that we are consciously or unconsciously manipulating the numbers and missing out on new learning and new insight.
“Your questions reveal your knowledge” is another way of describing this situation. As mentor, the questions you ask are based in your existing knowledge. Sometimes the less you know, the better you will be able to ask open questions and a wide variety of questions. With little knowledge about the mentee’s topic, you will simply have to be curious and inquisitive and ask questions from many directions. On the other hand, contextual knowledge and experience is what makes mentors different from professional coaches, so matching mentees with mentors that have appropriate context relevant experience becomes key to a successful mentoring relationship. Therefore, this quote also means that the more knowledge (and self-insight and self-awareness) you have, the more you will understand that there are many perspectives, many things you still do not know, and that you will need to ask many different questions to help the mentee gain new insight.
"The more you know, the more you realize you don't know."
Mentors are not expected to be expert coaches, but mentors do need to have self-insight and self-awareness to avoid these pitfalls – and mentors do need training to build a solid toolbox of questions and questioning technique to help them facilitate the mentees’ learning processes.
Here are just a few of good question that you can consider using as a mentor:
- What is the most surprising thing you have learned about yourself during the last year?
- What are the things in your life that you’re most grateful for?
- When have your emotions clouded your judgment? What did you learn from the experience?
- What self-awareness habits do you employ?
- How would your best friend describe your strengths?
- What accomplishments are you most proud of? What helped you achieve these goals?
- If you could go back and change something that you did, what would it be and why?
- If you knew the answer, what would it be?