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Trust in a Mentor-Mentee Relationship

The night has indeed been my oasis time and time again… I’ve had my most intimate moments in darkness wherein I would sit still and listen to the competing voices within. You learn many things about yourself in darkness; but the one thing that is true when you sit in darkness is becoming fully aware of who you have chosen to be. For me, it is a form of meditation, a time when I yield to the darkness and accept whatever emerges in the moment.  I tend to refer to such a moment as “fall awaken” to the darkness.

Recently, I noticed myself reflecting on my impact as a mentor to individuals working toward their degrees as psychologists or credentialed coaches. I believe that “trust” is the key ingredient that solidifies a collaborative mentor-mentee relationship. I also feel that when there is trust in the relationship, my role as a mentor is effortless. And, for my mentee, the feeling is one of empowerment. In fact, as Urie Bronfenbrenner stated, “We all need someone [at least one adult] who is irrationally crazy about us [him or her]”. Indeed, a trusting relationship leaves your mentees feeling that they can accomplish their goals because you see greatness in them.

Trust is inherent to survival- right? It turns out that the biological brain is devised to always be on the alert. It is, in its rudimentary form, quite primitive as it continually searches the environment for threats before it informs the mind as to the next step one should take. The human brain is fleeting, constantly searching its surroundings. This watchfulness is deeply embedded… sort of like a humming of anxiety. The brain prefers to look outward for threats; thereby, making it harder to look inside. It generates feelings that are counterproductive to true happiness. At a conceptual level, we are constantly protecting ourselves. Our brain creates this dualism- “I” vs. “Them”. The architecture of our brain with its different levels of circuits makes us intimately tied to our bodies. When we feel criticized we can feel this to be a threat. In fact, some of us describe this threat as physically, “Like a punch in the stomach” or even, “I felt a stab to my heart”. Our brain is persistently managing the firing of different perceptions coming in, which helps us survive, but it is harder to manage when we want to achieve inner peace. We are perpetually in a dual battle: Seeking pleasure to avoid pain; approaching toward or running away from; liking or disliking; hating vs. loving enough; judging right vs. wrong… and so forth. We are wanting more, striving more, and needing more in our quest for safety, security, and a sense of belongingness.

So how does one build trust in a mentor-mentee relationship? Fundamentally, how do you work together toward a relationship that seeks satisfaction, enjoyment, fulfillment without necessarily avoiding unpleasant feelings, discomfort, and uneasiness all of which are essential to discover what we are truly made of?

I don’t purport to know the answer to this question. All I can do is share with you what I have humbly realized as a result of my personal experiences as a mentor and a mentee, as well as the work we have done (both conceptually and research-based) in training leaders to be effective mentors and mentees.

There appears to be a few actions (in no particular order of importance) that can, in fact, create the foundation from which a trusting relationship can flourish and endure. One is not more important than the other; and certainly every action can occur simultaneously.

Action 1: Face the truth of where you both are in relation to one another. Trust will not necessarily develop in one session. It will take a few sessions and a few conversations.

  • For the mentor: Listen without interrupting, passing judgment, or always making a link to your personal experiences. Just listen as this is NOT your story, but the mentee’s story. Remember you want to avoid triggering the fleeting tendency of the brain.
  • For the mentee: Take a leap of faith and share where you are and where you would like to be. Prepare your mind to learn, accept feedback, and grow.

Action 2: Mirror the sharing of experience.  The path that got you where you want to be as the mentor is not more important than the one your mentee is about to embark on.

  • For the mentor: Be true to your story by not hiding the challenges you experienced. Let your mentee know how you worked your way through the challenges. The brain is wired to avoid dealing with unpleasant thoughts and feelings; hence, counter this by speaking about it.
  • For the mentee: Pay attention to the challenges your mentor is sharing, and ask yourself how will you prepare for your challenges up ahead? Perhaps you may encounter similar challenges as your mentor. You will, undoubtedly, perceive EVEN the same challenges differently. This will lead to a different range of emotions, pathways of discovery, and outcomes.

Action 3: Stretch each other by making a request. This builds a co-partnership and reminds both of you that you can mutually learn from the exchange of ideas, personal stories, as well as viewpoints regarding a whole range of issues.

  • For the mentor: Provide your mentee with “stretched” assignments, and review the outcomes in relation to what your mentee learned about himself/herself. A stretched assignment is any act that puts your mentee face to face with her/his fears. The brain prefers pleasant experiences even though its constant watchfulness can magnify concerns.
  • For the mentee: Ask your mentor that she/he does more or less of something. Perhaps your mentor is sharing too much of her/his story, and not listening attentively to yours. Perhaps your mentor is asking that you pay attention to things in the environment that are a concern to her/him, but not to you. Remember that the brain is devised to protect itself, and hence will interpret experiences to fit with what feels good.

When you are able to face each other, mirror each other, and stretch each other, you are in a trusting relationship. And once you have achieved this state of co-being, it is important to sustain it. Hence, the final action is to constantly revisit your relationship with questions such as, “Where are we? How are you feeling about our relationship? Anything we should do differently?”

Final Words

There is no denying that a mindful self makes for a kinder self. Frankly, we have all felt a desire to want so much for our mentees. Isn’t this what we have come to embrace as love? Yet, true transformation can only take place when you pay attention to that part of you that desires more for your mentees than they desire for themselves at the present time. Being able to let go of what YOU want out of the relationship is what will bring you closer to a more compassionate self, a more trusting you.

As a mentor, I ask that you take nothing for granted. You are not the expert in your mentees’ lives. You have simply been given the privilege to walk alongside your mentees while they discover their personal journey. It is, but a moment in time, with every conversation offering your mentees an opportunity to realize their greatness…. what you saw in them the moment they sat and faced you.

To learn how we have implemented powerful mentoring programs  in organizations, leading to the development of trusting and enduring mentor-mentee relationships, click here and read about “Development Strategies Model: An Exclusive”.

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