How to be a Good Mentor

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We can all think of at least one person whose path has crossed our own and left us forever the better for it.

Maybe this person arrived at a time in our life when we were feeling negative, discouraged, uninspired, or outmatched by life”s challenges. After time spent in their company, however, we came away feeling refreshed, encouraged, renewed, and determined to overcome…with a dream of one day helping someone else in turn.

This experience, which is common to all of us, forms the foundation of the partnership known as mentoring. In the Winter 2009 edition of Eating Disorders Recovery Today we explored the basics of mentoring. We set out the basic definition of a mentor as a trusted guide who has knowledge and experience in a certain area and is willing and able to share it, and a mentee as a person who is in need of guidance and support and is willing to receive it.

Here, we will continue our exploration by focusing on how you can become a quality mentor to someone who needs the life experience, perspective, guidance, and encouragement you are uniquely equipped to provide.

How do I know I will make a good mentor to someone else?

The biggest determinant of readiness to serve as a mentor is a willingness to first be mentored. The best teachers are always good students themselves. A good mentor has taken the time to lay their own groundwork by accepting guidance and oversight from qualified others, learning how to identify when and what type of help is needed, reaching out to ask for that help, and persevering through difficulty to make breakthroughs. Only by first becoming a mentee will you cultivate the wisdom, humility, and perspective to make a positive impact as a mentor.

Can I learn how to become a mentor?

Absolutely. Most of the information you seek for learning how to become a good mentor can be found inside of your own life experiences. The better you know yourself and your own story, the more you will have to offer your mentee. Pay particular attention to how you faced and overcame significant life challenges by contemplating the following questions:

What did you do?

Where did you go for help?

How did you keep yourself strong and moving forward?

What did you say to yourself to encourage yourself?

Where did you find hope and inspiration?

What was the role of gratitude and self-effort in your journey?

What did you learn from the stories of others to keep you striving and growing towards your goals?

What are the qualities of a good mentor?

Mentors possess many great qualities, which include (but are not limited to): kindness, respect for self and others, compassion, the ability to articulate clearly and kindly, patience, good listening skills, humility, inner strength, the wisdom to seek appropriate support even while supporting others, an awareness of and respect for the limitations of the mentoring role, the strength to say “yes” and “no” when appropriate, well-roundedness, successful navigation of life challenges, perseverance, and the discernment to differentiate the temporary struggle from the enduring human being who is struggling.

Are there limitations to my role as mentor?

A mentor fulfills a specific role for a specific purpose, and that role is based on the synergy found between the mentee”s need for support in a specific area and the mentor”s life experiences. Mentoring is not a substitution for the advice and care of a medical professional, nor should a mentor venture to offer advice on matters that fall outside of the purpose and goal of the mentoring partnership. As a mentor, you should continually reinforce to your mentee that any advice or thoughts offered come only from your personal experiences, and may be of variable quality.

What makes a mentoring partnership work?

The value and efficacy of mentoring is determined largely by the mentee”s proactiveness in making good use of the mentor”s time and guidance. As a mentor, you cannot do the work for your mentee, nor can you make your mentee want to grow. You will instead respond in kind to your mentee”s efforts to keep in touch, to implement agreed-upon action plans and report back with results, to take guidance and direction, and to do the hard work necessary to reach stated goals.

How do I become a mentor?

When you start to look for them, you may just find that opportunities to mentor are all around you. A mentee may also approach you and request mentoring, because they have observed that you have life skills and qualities that they wish to gain. Or you may suddenly notice someone in your sphere of influence who is struggling, and choose to approach them to offer encouragement and support. If you have significant experience in a certain area of life you may wish to volunteer to share your story to interested audiences, and in this way you may find your path crossing with someone who is in the middle of a similar challenge and could benefit from your wisdom and experience.

Who can become a mentor?

Mentoring relationships can form whenever one individual”s need and another individual”s life experience meet. Mentoring can happen in moments, or over the course of a lifetime. Even little children, pets, and movie characters can provide valuable sources of ongoing mentoring and inspiration through the life lessons we learn while interacting with them.

Can a mentor offer group support to several mentees at once?

While the most intensive mentoring experiences will most likely be found in one-on-one mentoring partnerships, there is a great deal to be gained from facilitating group mentoring experiences as well. As you begin mentoring, you may notice that a number of people resonate with the wisdom and encouragement you have to offer. You may wish to create a group where you and your mentees can discuss common mentoring themes, obstacles, and experiences. This is also an excellent avenue for your mentees to meet and learn to support one another.

How and how often should I meet with my mentee?

As often as needed and time permits. It is very important to establish clear expectations right at the beginning. If you find that your mentee wishes to meet in person, but you live several hours away, or that your mentee wants to talk daily but you only have a few hours a week to offer, it will be important to evaluate up front whether or not you are the right mentor for that person”s needs. The method of communication (email, text, phone, or in person) is generally not as important as the fact that communication is occurring on a regular and mutually agreeable basis.

How long should a mentoring relationship last?

As long as both mentor and mentee wish to continue and find productive value in the partnership. Mentoring relationships can last for a reason, a season, or a lifetime.

What do I do if I believe my mentee is at risk and needs immediate help beyond what I can offer as a mentor?

Inherent in the responsibility of serving as someone”s mentor is the possibility that at some point, the mentee”s need may extend beyond what you as a mentor can provide. It is helpful to have handy the contact information for professional organizations who may facilitate increased levels of care in an area where your mentee is struggling. It is also helpful to have additional contact information for your mentee in the event that family members may need to be alerted. If your mentee is a minor, it is vital that you obtain parental consent before serving as a mentor. Even if your mentee is a legal adult, if you suspect that an emergency situation exists, take immediate action. Regardless of the age and status of your mentee, always state up front that confidentiality only applies for so long as the mentee does not become a danger to her/himself or others.

Where can I go to find more information about mentoring and to volunteer as a mentor?

The national non-profit organization Mentor (www.mentoring.org) has valuable information about mentoring, including structured guidelines for how to start and implement a mentoring program and a database by state of mentoring opportunities. MentorCONNECT is the first mentoring program created specifically for individuals in recovery from eating disorders (www.key-to-life.com/mentorconnect).

By Shannon Cutts
Reprinted with permission from Eating Disorders Recovery Today
FALL 2009 Volume 7, Number 4
©2009 Gürze Books

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