Open communication about tough issues can deepen your relationship.
L. Rose Hollister
The learning your protege takes away from the mentoring experience hinges on your ability to be forthright in your communication. Avoiding conversations about difficult issues because it makes you uncomfortable will block progress in your mentoring relationship. At the same time, an approach that is too aggressive may make your protege defensive and closed off to helpful feedback. Following are appropriate ways to engage in authentic discussion with your protege that will allow your relationship to grow and more learning to occur.
Set the stage. Let your protege know that sometimes you will have to discuss some uncomfortable issues and that such frank conversations will only deepen the relationship. If your protege knows to expect these types of discussions, then that person is less likely to take your criticisms personally and will be more open to learning. Tell your protege that you are practicing to be more authentic and encourage the individual to do so as well.
Risk discomfort. Sometimes mentors spend more time speaking about superficial matters than addressing significant underlying issues in their relationships because they don't want to hurt their protege's feelings. Do not let concern about your protege's reactions inhibit you from being straightforward. If your communication is not honest, integrity is lost and the relationship suffers. Look beyond the momentary discomfort to see how the truth will bring deeper meaning to your mentoring relationship.
Be mindful of how your message comes across. Once you have worked up the courage to address a difficult matter with your protege, pay attention to how you deliver the message. Your body language and tone of voice say more to your protege than your actual words. While you may think you are being up front and helpful in your discussions, your protege may think you are being rude and want to discontinue what could be a productive conversation. Practice delivering constructive feedback by rehearsing what you will say with an outside party. You will get a better sense of how you sound and can assess whether your communication will come across as you intend it to. Also, be careful not to send mixed signals through your body language. For example, your protege might perceive you to be angry because you have a frown on your face during your conversation or your arms are folded in front of you. You may not be angry at all, but simply concentrating on what your protege is saying.
Focus on the impact. In any discussion, particularly one where you will be offering criticism, it is important to clarify that you are sharing your perspective rather than being judgmental. When communicating with your protege about a performance issue, let the individual know how his or her actions affect you. For example, if you want to confront your protege about always being late for your meetings, communicate how that consistent tardiness makes you feel. You might say, "I'm frustrated that our meetings are not starting on time. My reason for telling you this is because I value this relationship and our time together and I want us to maintain a positive working relationship." Your protege is likely to get the message about the importance of being on time without feeling scolded.
Set a good example. Open and honest communication can go far in helping your protege learn and grow professionally and personally. However, if you don't practice what you preach, your communication becomes less powerful. For example, expressing your concern about your protege's tardiness will have little impact on the person if you are often late to meetings yourself. Be a model of authenticity by consistently aligning your actions with your values and intentions.
Being authentic in your mentoring relationship may not come easy at first. However, with practice you will be able to develop the communication skills that are essential to building a good relationship with and motivating peak performance from your protege.
Carl Sutter is senior associate and L. Rose Hollister is a principal at Perrone-Ambrose Associates, Inc., an organizational development consulting firm that helps organizations create mentoring cultures.
Perrone-Ambrose Associates, Inc.
2 N. Riverside Plaza, Ste. 1433
Chicago, IL 60606
From Healthcare Executive, November/December 2001